Robert Morley: A Greatness More Than Girth

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Today is the birthday of Robert Morley (1926-1992). I find every single Robert Morley performance absolutely delicious. I think some critics miss the full satirical significance of his persona. Generally his characters are not just pompous and fat, but also stupid and superficial, the personification of John Bull in all his grossness, embodying imperialism, colonialism, the worst aspects of the class system and aristocracy. The kind of man who does the wrong things for the wrong reasons, suffers no consequences, and manifestly doesn’t care either way because he doesn’t need to. Thus he represents the arrogance not only of privilege, but the galling arrogance of privilege unearned.

Morley possessed a pair of beady, blank eyes, set far too close together, the pate and beak of an eagle, the brows of a bear, and the girth of a swine. If you were to film the complete works of Dickens, there would be a part for him in every book, although he only got to play Dickens’ roles a few times on television (Micawber, Mr. Bumble, and Uncle Pumblechook). He’d have been a perfect person to play Samuel Johnson (although he never did); he was also the ideal man to play George III (as he did in 1954’s Beau Brummel). He got to play Oscar Wilde twice, on Broadway in 1938, and in a film in 1960. Other memorable film roles included Louis XVI in Marie Antoinette (1938), Undershaft in Shaw’s Major Barbara (1941), the missionary brother in The African Queen (1951), Gilbert in Gilbert and Sullivan (1953), Peterson in John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953). Memorable late roles included parts in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965), The Loved One (1965), Theatre of Blood (1973), and Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe (1978).

Morley was also a successful stage actor, playwright and author, the very opposite of his thick-headed characters (at least in terms of intelligence).

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