Birth Name: Robert Adolph Wilton Morley
Birthdate: May 26, 1908
Date of Death: June 23, 1992
Number of Films Robert Morley Made with Humphrey Bogart: 2
Someone unfamiliar with Morley’s work could be easily misled by reading his many encapsulated bios online. The word pompous shows up so often that one might think critics and biographers were contractually obligated to use it.
Yes, Morley was unabashedly British in some of the most stereotypical ways. From the way he seemed to revel in dancing his tongue around inside of his mouth with the most airy of English diction – to the way that he would slightly cock his head backwards and to the side, nose slightly raised, in many of his performances (and even publicity shots) as if to present himself as better than – Morley was keenly gifted at playing the entitled Englishman who was well aware of how lucky you were to be in his presence.
The great misdeed in only using the word pompous when it comes to describing Morley’s roles occurs when writers fail to include the words incredibly likable along with it. Morley’s deftness at incorporating mischievousness into his pomposity made him the classic king, preacher, ringleader, sidekick, and cameo actor that audiences loved to be driven crazy by.
Only appearing in two films with Bogart, Robert Morley makes an enormous contribution in both. Playing polar opposite roles, it’s hard to imagine that his characters from The African Queen and Beat the Devil wouldn’t actually have quite an interesting and lively conversation together – stirring one another up with their shared spark for personal obsessions that might teeter precariously close to mania.
Check out all the great roles Morley played here on IMDB, but if you want my opinion, start with the two films listed below.
The African Queen – 1951
Morley plays Katherine Hepburn’s missionary brother, Rev. Samuel Sayer, the recipient of Bogart’s rare and much-welcomed riverboat deliveries deep in the heart of Africa. Have you ever wondered how so many people in this world can put up with, and even be swayed by, over-the-top and stuffy conservative evangelicals? Morley’s work here is a testament to his likability despite his exasperating pretentiousness, and doggone it, I’d go listen to that guy preach. While he doesn’t get as much time to shine here as he does in Beat the Devil, his short appearance, and subsequent death, add just enough weight to ground the storyline in a deep foundation of believable emotion and motivation for the two lead characters. It’s easy to imagine Morley and Hepburn as real life siblings, and watching them chatter about and take care of one another at the beginning is a major highlight of the film. You can read my original write up on The African Queen here.
Beat the Devil – 1953
The only complaint that you’ll read about Morley’s performance in this film is that it’s hard not to imagine Sydney Greenstreet in the same role. Morley spends 90 minutes cavorting and scheming alongside of Peter Lorre as Mr. Peterson, in a very Greenstreet-ish role. Morley joins Lorre, Bogart, Ivor Barnard, and Marco Tulli as one of Hollywood’s best cast group of criminal ne’er-do-wells who are desperately trying to make it to Africa so that they can pull off a uranium swindle. It’s a complete about-face from his role as the missionary preacher in The African Queen, and I think that Morley is able to add a much greater sense of deviousness to the character than Greenstreet might have been able to pull off. Mr. Peterson is a character that needs someone a little less likable than Greenstreet – someone who could edge a bit closer to “annoying” and “pompous” than Greenstreet might have been capable of at this point in his career due to the sheer joy he could inspire in audiences with every appearance alongside of Lorre. There’s an especially fun scene in Beat the Devil where Jennifer Jones tells Morley that she and her husband are headed to East Africa on a spiritual journey in an attempt to exorcise their lifetime of sins. Whether it was in the original story, or thrown in as a nod to Morley’s character from The African Queen, it plays out very funny as we watch his face go aghast at the thought that Jones is using religion to con him. You can read my original write-up on the film here