Friday, November 06, 2009


The flat-out funniest thing I managed to see, on screen or in 3-D life, during this past week, one which was largely bereft of even the most forgiving smile? Robert Morley as Undershaft, the armament magnate and alienated patriarch of a household of idealistic children, among them Wendy Hiller’s ambivalent Salvation Army major, in Gabriel Pascal’s 1941 adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, is berating his son for having no idea what to do with his life and ambitions. After suggesting the arts, philosophy, the army, the navy, the church and the bar, and concluding, after the young man’s every rationalized rejection, that there's not much left but the stage, the son replies, "I do know the difference between right and wrong." Morley's eyes widen, he wheels his girth toward the boy and lets fly with a gloriously sarcastic and hilarious tirade straight out of Shaw:

“You don't say so! What? No capacity for business? No knowledge of law? No sympathy with art? No pretension to philosophy. Only a simple knowledge of the secret that has baffled all the lawyers, muddled all the men of business and ruined most of the artists-- the secret of right and wrong. Why, man, you're a genius! A master of masters! A god. And at 28 too.”

Shaw or no Shaw, Robert Morley is one of those actors I put in a very special category, the one occupied by the actors and actresses I will watch in absolutely anything, who crystallize the glories of whatever production we happen upon them in and raise the level of even the most tedious mediocrity for the time they’re on screen. An accomplished stage actor and playwright as well as one of Britain’s most recognizable and unique screen acting talents, Morley was in his share of stinkers, to be sure-- Around the World in 80 Days, anyone? Major Barbara was only his fourth film appearance, and lucky for us he still had the likes of Partners In Crime (1942), The Small Back Room (1949), The African Queen (1951), Beat the Devil (1953), The Good Die Young (1954), The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), Oscar Wilde (1960), Those Magnificent Young Men and Their Flying Machines (1965), The Loved One (1965), Theater of Blood (1973), Great Expectations (1974), Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978) and Little Dorrit (1988) all waiting along his lifeline before he died in 1992. The haughty demeanor of some of his most memorable characters, his precise delivery of the most chewy lines, and the degree to which such a large man could internalize and project such delicacy across such a wide range of roles both silly and sublime—all of these would serve as the template, in my mind at least, for anyone who came after and tried to create the same kind of vivid character work in his prodigious shadow. Some succeeded, some didn’t, but none would be as memorable as Robert Morley.

Your favorite Robert Morley performance? Your favorite British character actor?



Flickhead said...

"Your favorite British character actor?"

Kenneth Williams, what?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Veddy good! Dennis Price has been stirring in the old brain-pan of late as well.

le0pard13 said...

Meredith Merridew, Theatre of Blood.

Denholm Elliott.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Oh, where have his little doggies gone? What did you do with his doggies?!

Thom said...

I can't choose a favorite British character actor but I'll watch anything with Sydney Greenstreet.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I enjoyed Morley in The Young Ones although he hardly looks like he could have been Cliff Richards' father.

I am thinking I should be seeing more films starring the person who can almost always make me laugh just thinking about him, Terry-Thomas.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Peter, it's funny you should mention Terry-Thomas, because I was thinking about him in the same terms as Morley earlier in the week. I'd just seen him in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and then again in that awful '60s spoof The Perils of Pauline with Pat Boone. I would agree with you that seeing Terry-Thomas in anything is a welcome sight, though The Perils of Pauline was a real test of just how well that theory could hold water!

Flickhead said...
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Flickhead said...
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Flickhead said...

Terry-Thomas could play straight parts rather well, i.e., the go-between nervously placating both union and management in I'm All Right, Jack (1959).

Just recently I revisited Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968), Terry-Thomas and Jerry Lewis competing for the straight-man part. It didn't work. There's only one thing worse than bad goofy Jerry or bad maudlin Jerry, and that's bad boring Jerry.

Another favorite of mine is Leslie Phillips, terrific in door-slamming comedy, and excellent as Peter O'Toole's friend in Venus (2006). (O'Toole called him "one of the great brass-boweled actors," whatever that means.) He was also nicely balanced with Paul Douglas in The Gamma People (1956).

Tony Dayoub said...

His performance as Rose's brother in The African Queen is my favorite. I was used to seeing the man playing confident (and sometimes overconfident) fellows in many films. But the mentally devastated individual he plays in Queen truly disturbed me.

Favorite British character actor? Michael Gambon, who has easily engaged as the lead in Jon Amiel and Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (1986).

Alonzo Mosley (FBI) said...

Favorite British actor? I can't choose just one. Impossible.

As for Morley, the only thing I've seen him in is African Queen, but that's one of my favorites and he's great in it.

Coincidentally (for anyone who is interested), Amazon just sent me a notice this week that they are finally, FINALLY releasing African Queen on DVD. Rejoice!

Zayne said...

Favorite British character actor?

Can I pick Robert Shaw or is he just a little too close to being an actual movie star? If that's the case, I'll have to go with Ian Holm.

I just recently watched Beat the Devil for the first time and was delighted by Robert Morley's great comic performance. He really sparked off Lorre and Bogart in a way that brought out these wonderful, wholly unexpected colors from both of those great actors.

blaaagh said...

"Where are my babies, anyway?"

Um...Claude Rains?

greg6363 said...

Believe it or not, the first thing that comes to my mind for Robert Morley would be those British Airways commercials he did in the 80's.

Neil Fulwood said...

Not the best Morley performance, but perhaps the bizarrest - his turn as a pompous old-school-tie spymaster in Alistair Maclean adaptation 'When Eight Bells Toll', popping up in the second half to partner Anthony Hopkins' ruthless anti-hero and turning a hitherto humourless lone-wolf thriller into a mismatched buddy movie.

Best British character actor? I'm with Tony on Michael Gambon.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I'm afraid my favorite Morley role is in Beat the Devil - not really fair, since he is clearly doing Sidney Greenstreet as Casper Gutman.

Brian Thomas said...

I've always loved Morley's turn as Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, head of the "British Community in Hollywood," especially he's reading Robert Morse's doggerel funeral speech. His pomposity clashing with his growing horror that's reading something entirely inappropriate is comedy pinnacle.

Incidentally, he was great combining evil and comedy in The Human Factor as the murderous doctor who poisons Derek Jacobi. I remember a scene of RM peering at a urine sample and declaring, "I once had a Michel Equeym 1963 that was exactly this color. Fortunately for you, the resemblance ends there."

Weigard said...

The Robert Morley performance that comes to mind is in "The Battle of the Sexes" -- but it's been so long now, I don't really remember why! I'll have to watch that again.

British character actors -- hmm, I suppose Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness don't count. Maybe Trevor Howard.

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