Saturday, November 14, 2015

What a character: John Qualen

Ah yes, I signed up to do a blogathon back in September. And now the time has come to actually put up the post. Aurora's Gin Joint, among other blogs, has organized the What a Character! Blogathon, in which the point is to pick a favorite character actor and do a post on that actor. I've selected one of my favorites, John Qualen.

Qualen is one of the many Hollywood actors who was actually born in Canada, having been born in 1899 in British Columbia to Norwegian immigrant parents. He was actually born with the surname "Kvalen" but anglicized it and eventually used the English-language "kw" sound for the Q rather than the original "kv" sound. It was in college that he began his acting career, which eventually took him to Broadway, where he played the part of the janitor in the stage version of Street Scene. When the movie version was made in 1931, Qualen was selected to reprise his role, and thus began a long career in the movies, and later on TV.

Qualen's distinctive voice and his ability to do the Scandinavian accent got him a lot of roles as ethnic types. One of my favorites is in Our Daily Bread, which has him playing a Swedish-immigrant farmer who shows up on the land owned by Tom Neal who is trying to make a go of farming during the Depression; Qualen helps turn the land into a sort of commune. It's a really interesting low-budget movie. Qualen played Finnish (technically not Scandinavian, although Finland does have a Swedish-speaking minority) in Ski Patrol, a 1940 movie about the Winter War; Danish in Danny Kaye's Hans Christian Andersen; and Norwegian as Knute Rockne's father in Knute Rockne, All-American. Qualen has another Norwegian role in a more famous movie, that being Casablanca:

Here, Qualen plays the man from the Norwegian resistance who presents a signet ring to Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried). If memory serves he's only in that one scene, but he's as professional as ever.

Qualen's career continued with a long series of smaller roles in big movies. He appeared in John Ford's Arrowsmith back in 1931, which began a long association with both the director and, later, the director's favorite actor John Wayne. I don't quite remember Qualen's roles in The Grapes of Wrath, The Searchers, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, but there he is. And with John Wayne he was also one of the passengers in The High and the Mighty.

I was looking for a good photo of him in one of his later works A Patch of Blue, in which he plays Faber, the man who gives Elizabeth Hartmann's character the beads that she strings together to make necklaces. It's another small role with only two or three scenes, but again he does a very good job.

If I had to pick one movie in which Qualen's role is most essential to the plot, I think it would have to be His Girl Friday. Here, Qualen plays Earl Williams, the man who is scheduled to be executed for a murder, and where the mayor is trying to make certain that execution is carried out as scheduled for political reasons. The main, story, however, involves editor Cary Grant's attempt to get his star reporter (Rosalind Russell) to get the story of Earl Williams, especially once he escapes. The movie is most definitely a comedy, but there are also very dark undertones, and Qualen plays Williams as a befuddled man who seems not to quite understand why he's scheduled to be executed.

Qualen retired in the early 1970s and died in 1987, survived by his wife of 63 years.


Anonymous said...

Ah yes, John Qualen, another good actor and when I see his name in the credits, I know he'll deliver a fine performance.

Caftan Woman said...

In "The Grapes of Wrath" Qualen is haunting as the displaced Muley who goes mad when he looses his farm.

tolly devlin said...

In The Searchers John Qualen plays the father of the Harry Carey,Jr. character ( I believe the mother is played by Carey's actual mom).

Ted S. (Just a Cineast) said...

I have to admit when it comes to character actors in The Grapes of Wrath, I always think of John Carradine, who also has a very distinctive look.

And I've always found The Searchers to be overrated.

Silver Screenings said...

He may not have had the big roles, but he made all his roles memorable. Thanks for sharing your research on his life and career. I didn't realize he was born in Canada!

maxofdimitios said...

My admiration and appreciation of John Qualen is deep. I have a signed photo he gave me of him with John Wayne from a scene in THE SEARCHERS and also a personal letter that I treasure. Just maybe his best role was as Olaf in the 1940's Warner Bros. drama, OUT OF THE FOG. Though Ida Lupino and John Garfield were the stars it was John Q and equally fine character partner, Thomas Mitchell, who dominate the screen and steal the show. He and Mitchell also leave you remembering them in John Ford's memorable sea going saga,THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, based on a collection of Eugene O'Neill short stories. A resume of his participating roles in classic films is way beyond impressive.