Portly, jowly, invariably cast as a member of the aristocracy and / or the establishment in one of its many guises, Robert Morley was an actor who seemed to appear fully-formed at the start of his screen career, in 1938, and then for the next fifty years seemed to stay the same. His characters displayed a multitude of vices – snobbery, pomposity, cowardice, greed, deviousness, disdain for something or other – but they usually fell into the ‘loveable rogue’ category and only rarely were they completely unlikeable. Morley, in effect, spent his career essaying posher, more refined versions of William Shakespeare’s Falstaff.
Born in Wiltshire in 1908, the son of a British army major, the young Morley had a miserable school life at Wellington College, a boarding school in Berkshire that then specialised in educating the offspring of army officers. “Show me the man who has enjoyed his schooldays,” he said famously, “and I will show you a bully and a bore.” After Morley had become a star, headmaster after headmaster at Wellington tried, unsuccessfully, to get in touch with him to, presumably, exploit his connection with the school. Morley declared that “the only reason for me visiting Wellington would be to burn it down.” Morley would no doubt be pleased to know that today on the school’s website it mentions “Peter Snow, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, Rory Bremner, Will Young, Sebastian Faulkes, James Hunt and the Right Reverend Richard Harries” as famous old-boys but makes a point of not mentioning him.
After a stint as a beer salesman, Morley enlisted in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and made his stage debut in 1928 in Doctor Syn. I assume this was a theatrical version of Russell Thorndyke’s story of 18th-century smugglers, Doctor Syn: A Tale of Romney Marsh, which, later, was filmed both by Disney (with Patrick McGoohan) and by Hammer Films (with Peter Cushing). Morley’s second role involved more 18th-century swashbuckling, for in 1929 he played a pirate in a production of Treasure Island. Over the next decade he worked his way up through the theatre world and even, in 1935, co-managed a repertory company on the Cornish coast with another actor, Peter Bull, with whom he would later appear in a few films.
Morley’s big break came in 1938 when he played the title role of Oscar Wilde at Fulton Theatre in New York. His performance was acclaimed and won him an invitation to Hollywood, where he played Louis XIV in a lavish MGM production, Marie Antoinette – a performance that was good enough to earn him an Oscar nomination. The rest was history. With his plentiful bulk, his unruly eyebrows and his plummy voice, Morley was an unmistakeable and much-loved presence in British and international cinema for the next half-century – though as he modestly claimed, “I don’t work. I merely inflict myself on the public.”
I won’t go through the landmarks of Morley’s film career here – Major Barbara (1941), The African Queen (1951), Beat the Devil (1953), Beau Brummell (1954) and, recreating the character he’d played onstage twenty years earlier, Oscar Wilde (1960). Nor will I go into his extensive theatrical career, which continued up to 1980 with a performance in Alan Bennett’s The Old Country. Rather, I’ll simply discuss a half-dozen films I saw as a kid, in which Morley made a hefty, roly-poly-shaped impression on my consciousness.
(c) ABPC / Warner Pathe
The Young Ones (1961). Before British rock-and-roll music grew some balls, the clean-cut Cliff Richard ruled the nation’s airwaves and, inevitably, played the lead in a series of innocuous teen-orientated musicals that included this, Summer Holiday (1963) and Wonderful Life (1964). The Young Ones sees Cliff and his squeaky-clean gang battling to save their beloved youth club from an unscrupulous property developer, who also happens to be Cliff’s dad and is played by Morley. Needless to say, Morley gets all the best lines. “I don’t approve of youth clubs, you know,” he says at one point. “They’re just places where they can go and plot some more mischief.” And later he tells a delegation of kids, “Have you got a contract? An agreement? A lease? You certainly have no claim except on the kindness of the owner. Unfortunately, I am a brute!”
Considering what a sanctimonious, self-righteous pain-in-the-neck Cliff has become in the decades since I saw The Young Ones, I suspect if I watched the film again today, I’d find myself wholeheartedly backing Morley and his plan to bulldozer Cliff’s youth club into the dirt. But I’m sure the sequence where The Shadows play The Savage is still good.
The Old Dark House (1963). A remake of 1932’s grotesque, atmospheric horror / black-comedy movie directed by James Whale and based on J.B. Priestley’s novel Benighted, The Old Dark House was the first and only collaboration between Britain’s celebrated horror-movie studio Hammer Films and the American producer, director and showman William Castle – Castle’s films were distinguished by their outrageous marketing gimmicks, such as the promise of a $1000 insurance payment for the family of any customer who died of fright during Macabre (1958), puppet skeletons flying around inside cinemas during The House on Haunted Hill (1959), cinema seats wired up to cause vibrations during The Tingler (1959) and the distribution of ‘ghost viewer’ glasses during 13 Ghosts (1960). However, The Old Dark House is remarkably anodyne by the standards of both Hammer and Castle. Not only does it bear little resemblance to the 1932 film, but it’s a generic horror-comedy in which a group of eccentrics in a rambling old mansion are killed off one-by-one, Agatha Christie-style. British cinema produced a few of these films during the period – see also What a Carve-Up! (1961) and The Horror of It All (1963).
If nothing else, The Old Dark House has a decent cast. To play the hero, William Castle brought in the serviceable American actor Tom Poston, who according to his Wikipedia entry had, by the time of his death in 2007, appeared in more US TV sitcoms than any other performer. Meanwhile, the British cast consists of some marvellously oddball character actors. Morley plays Roderick Femm, head of the family, and also on board are Joyce Grenfell, Mervyn Johns, Morley’s old repertory partner Peter Bull and the splendidly vampish and husky-voiced Fenella Fielding. Morley survives until near the end, when he’s blasted away by a booby trap rigged in his collection of antique rifles. Watching this film as a boy, I was delighted when Poston’s apparent love-interest during the film, the demure and blonde Janette Scott, turns out to be the evil psychotic killer and is subsequently blown to pieces; so that Poston ends up with Fenella Fielding instead. Hurrah!
The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (1965). Narrated by Morley and directed by the incomparable Chuck Jones, The Dot and the Line is a short MGM cartoon that inhabits a universe similar to the one in Edwin Abbot’s 1888 geometrical fantasy novel Flatland. The Dot and the Line tells the story of “a sensible straight line who was hopelessly in love with a dot.” Alas, the dot has no time for the staid-seeming line and prefers to hang out with an irresponsible, beatnik-like squiggle, and the line has to figure out a way of winning her heart. Ingenious, delightful and helped immeasurably by Morley’s fruity tones, The Dot and the Line was good enough to win an Academy Award for Animated Short Film. The final punchline is worth waiting for too. (View it here on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmSbdvzbOzY.)
(c) Preben-Philipsen / Rialto Films
The Trygon Factor (1966). Based on a story by Edgar Wallace, an author who in his heyday could boast that a quarter of all books being read in England at the time had been written by him, but who is almost completely forgotten today – Stephen King, take note – The Trygon Factor is a bizarre crime / black-comedy movie. It has Morley involved with a criminal gang operating at a stately house that is also home to a convent. Yes, as Stewart Granger, playing an investigating officer from Scotland Yard, finds out, both the aristos and the nuns are secretly ruthless criminals and they’re planning a major heist at a London bank.
If this all sounds very camp, it is. But what took me aback when I saw The Trygon Factor as a kid was how vicious it is too. The detective who precedes Granger in the investigation gets drowned in a baptismal font. During the heist the gang casually murder all the bank staff and customers who are witnesses to the crime, and then the gang start to turn on each other. A bunch of them are gassed to death whilst riding in the back of a van, which feels like something that could have happened at a Nazi death camp. (The film was a British-German co-production but the German backers apparently didn’t find this sequence troubling.) Back at the mansion, German actor and comedian Eddi Arent is stuck in a coffin and dumped in an underground river, while Morley ends up being strangled. Mind you, he gets off lightly compared to what happens to villainess Susan Hampshire, whose head gets a crucible of molten gold poured over it.
(c) J. Arthur Rank
When Eight Bells Toll (1971). Adventure writer Alastair Maclean was perhaps the Edgar Wallace of a later generation. His novels seemed to be everywhere in the 1960s and 1970s, but you barely hear a whisper about them or their author today. During the 1970s, a succession of Maclean novels were made into movies, generally pretty ropy ones. When Eight Bell Toll, though hardly spectacular, is the one I like best. Maclean wrote the script and managed to retain some of the witty dialogue from his original 1965 novel; and the film, which is about the hijacking and robbing of ships in the Irish Sea, benefits greatly from being shot around the Scottish Highlands and Islands. (The locations included Tobermory, Duart Castle, Grass Point, Staffa and Dervaig.)
I also like the film’s cast. Anthony Hopkins plays the agent who’s sent to investigate the mysterious nautical goings-on – he’s a dark and moody character, perhaps reflecting Hopkins’ unease at playing an out-and-out action hero, but I like that because it makes the film feel slightly less conventional. And Morley is great as Sir Arthur Arnford-Jones, Hopkins’ boss, a pompous and cowardly character who’s less than pleased when, later in the film, he has to join Hopkins on his dangerous investigations. “Boats would be wonderful,” he laments at one point, green-faced. “If only one didn’t have to go to sea in them.”
(c) United Artists
Theatre of Blood (1972). Regarded by many as the greatest horror-comedy movie ever made in Britain, Theatre of Blood features Vincent Price as a mad, and pretty bad, Shakespearean actor who decides to murder the leading theatre critics in London who in the past had ridiculed his performances. For inspiration for his murder methods, he draws on various gory killings found in Shakespeare’s plays. Morley plays Meredith Merridew, the campest of the critics, an owner of a pair of annoying poodles and also an enthusiastic gourmet. “They’re not going to start killing critics for giving bad notices, are they?” he exclaims when it becomes clear what Price is up to.
Price eventually infiltrates Merridew’s home disguised as a master chef and force-feeds the hapless critic to death with a giant pie – one that he’s cooked using the two poodles as ingredients. The murder is based on a scene in Titus Andronicus where Tamora, Queen of the Goths, is fed a pie that unbeknownst to her contains the ground-up remains of her sons Chiron and Demetrius. It is, however, from Romeo and Juliet that Price quotes while doing the nefarious deed: “Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death / Gorged with the dearest morsel of the earth / Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open / And, in despite, I’ll cram thee with more food!”
(c) MGM / United Artists
The Human Factor (1979). Directed by Otto Preminger, scripted by Tom Stoppard and based on the book of the same name by Graham Greene – in fact, it’s possibly Greene’s last great novel – The Human Factor is a surprisingly stodgy and disappointing film. However, it does feature a good supporting performance by Morley as Doctor Percival, who’s tasked with identifying, and eliminating, a mole in the British Secret Service’s Africa office who’s been leaking information to the Soviets. Convinced that the culprit is the unconventional and disrespectful Davis (Derek Jacobi) and not the quiet, sober family man Castle (Nicol Williamson), Percival takes action against Davis using a toxin developed from some decaying groundnuts. But the mole is, in fact, Castle, and when Davis dies suddenly and mysteriously he realises his own life is in danger. Ruthless, devious, over-sure of himself and – as we see during a visit to a strip-club – horribly lecherous, Percival is perhaps the most chilling of all the establishment figures that Morley played.
Morley gave his final performance in 1989 and died three years later at the age of 84 – a respectable innings, especially for someone who during his life had carried as much weight as he had. Seen now, some of his films might appear dated, and even back in their day a number of them weren’t particularly high-quality anyway. No matter how dodgy the material, though, Morley’s films always become gloriously entertaining for as a long as he’s onscreen. And in my book, the ability to elevate the mediocre to the sublime is a sign of a truly great actor.
(c) J. Arthur Rank