I would love to be friends with Arthur Bach. Sure I’d be wined and dined, living a lifestyle where money is no object, toy trains are at my disposal, and drinks on a serving platter are brought to me constantly. Arthur has got it all. Well, not all of it. He’s never been in love. He hates his cold hearted father and he only has one friend, his dependable butler, Hobson.
Dudley Moore’s greatest role is “Arthur” from 1981. The best protagonists in comedy are the ones who go against the order. Arthur is a spoiled kid in an adult’s body. He lives to smile and laugh and drink and play. It’s easy when you are sitting on three quarters of a billion dollar fortune. Imagine though if you could lose all of that money. The only way to hold on to wealth is to marry a woman named Susan (Jill Eikenberry) you are not in love with, simply to merge two wealthy families together for even more industrial power. Arthur is made to be a pawn by his own unloving father, as well as Susan’s ruthless father (Stephen Elliott) who is proud to share how he killed a man when he was eleven years old. No matter. Arthur will just marry Susan and cheat on her, as his elderly grandmother Martha (Geraldine Fitzgerald) suggests.
All seems easy until Arthur becomes over the moon in love with a woman named Linda (Liza Minnelli) who is caught shoplifting a tie in Bergdorf’s in New York City. Arthur can’t stop thinking about Linda but the family would never approve. Linda is a waitress dreaming to become an actress, but lives a poor life with her unemployed father (Barney Martin).
Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli have one of the best on screen chemistries ever in film. They look like they belong together and their timing is perfectly solid. When they share moments together their on screen laughter shows up naturally and intermittently. I imagine no matter how many times they rehearsed their scenes together it was never the same way twice.
As an individual performance, Moore works like a great stand up comic having the best show of his life. His drunkenness is hilarious with his slurs and infectious non stop giggles and outrageously loud laughter. He gives The Joker a run for his money in the laughter department.
Early on, he escorts a prostitute to dinner at The Plaza Hotel and his interactions with family members and those of the wealthy social circle are a great contrast in comedy. Throughout the film, Dudley Moore will use every prop he can get his hand on to make his inebriated state all the more funny from simply a telephone to a moose’s head.
The most special relationship though is Arthur’s connection to Hobson (beautifully played with blue blood dryness by Sir John Gielgud). A man like Hobson is not one you’d expect to associate with a man as immature and childish as Arthur but you find a nurturing dimension to Hobson’s character. He’s Arthur’s surrogate father. He teaches Arthur to be practical about his good fortune. At the same time, he doesn’t dismiss Arthur’s happiness. Gielgud is at times surprising and positively touching. He also has some of the best lines in the film. After agreeing to run Arthur’s bath, he retorts with “Perhaps you’d like me to come in there and wash your dick for you, you little shit!” His impression of Linda: “Normally one would have to go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your stature.”
As Hobson becomes ill, so must Arthur finally learn to grow up. The moment I lost my mother six years ago, the very first thing that occurred to me was that I am no longer a child. I actually got my first grey hairs immediately after mom unexpectedly passed. No longer was there the protective guidance to make decisions and therefore as Hobson continues to deteriorate, Arthur becomes aware of tough decisions he must make regarding sobriety, wealth and most importantly love. With Hobson by his side, Arthur Bach is a beautiful character arc of comedy and sadness. As a kid growing up in the ‘80s, Arthur Bach was one of the first to demonstrate the change in a character’s arc for me. I really started to recognize depth and dimension; different angles and perspectives that a well written character faces.
The film is nearly 40 years old, but still has its magic to make you laugh and cry. “Arthur” is just a great and enormously touching comedy.