People who know I watch a lot of movies sometimes ask me if I have a favorite character actor, and more often than not, I'd try to wriggle out of answers. I mean, what even is a "character" actor? Stuff like that. But in the last couple of years, there's been one face, one voice, one character actor that seems to follow me everywhere. At Cinecon 47, he popped up in the Jack Haley vehicle She Had to Eat (1937) as a laconic gangster named Sleepy who, you guessed it, was always sleepy. Earlier this year at the TCM Classic Film Festival, I was quite enjoying Carole Lombard in the raucous screwball comedy Nothing Sacred from the same year, and lo and behold, in an uncredited cameo as a small town fireman, it was him. It was THAT GUY. Hey, it's THAT GUY from Casablanca--and His Girl Friday--and The Searchers!
For me, John Qualen is the ultimate Classical Hollywood 'THAT GUY.'
He has a funny voice. He has a funny face. He can be a decent all-American Joe, a continental European, the Scandinavian immigrant with a heart-o'-gold. John Qualen always looked a little frail, a little crooked, like a man who could be easily toppled. Qualen is the ultimate downtrodden. It helps that Qualen was a gawky, awkward looking little fellow with hollow eyes and a nervous hitch in his voice. This came in handy during The Depression; it wasn't hard to imagine Qualen as the hardworking type kicked in the shins by back luck and economic crisis; it wasn't hard to imagine him, either, as the hardworking type who had finally given up being decent and succumbed to the allure of organized crime.
Qualen could play a "good guy" and a "bad guy," but he was never an unlikable guy. He was too pitiful-looking. In many a role, Qualen had the hungry, nervous look of a drowned rat.
|Qualen as Muley Graves in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)|
Qualen's unique appeal may have reached its ultimate expression in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath as a humble Oakie forced off his land by...who? The land owners, the bank, the government? Giving voice to the frustrations of millions--then, as now, Qualen's Muley Graves looks in vain for someone to blame. Exasperated, he asks, "Then, who do we shoot?"
Qualen was given his best parts by John Ford, for whom he worked nine times. Along with John Wayne, Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald, et al, Qualen was part of Ford's regular stock company, providing local color for the director's many male ensemble pictures.
In The Long Voyage Home (1940), for example, Ford pairs Qualen with the Duke (improbably playing a Swede). Qualen, master of Scandinavian comic relief, lends some credibility to Wayne's Ole Olsen (!); but it's obviously Ford's delight at pairing the two actors--big Swede, little Swede--that comes across strongly in the film's many two-shots. As Axel, Qualen sticks to Wayne like a barnacle to a blue whale; his exaggerated accent and frequent exclamations of "By Jiminy!" (pronounced "Yiminiy") distract us from Wayne's barely-registered Swedish "accent."
But Qualen isn't just the little fool--he does his share of dramatic work. In many ways, Qualen's Axel is the heart of The Long Voyage Home.
|Qualen as Axel in The Long Voyage Home (1940)|
He says what the audience is thinking. We're all rooting for Duke to give up the sea-farin' life and go back home to Sweden, to ma and pa, to settle down and raise a family. Qualen is Wayne's "lil' buddy," that semi-comic, semi-tragic guy who knows it's too late for him to escape his fate--which is exactly why he works so hard to get Wayne back home.
Again working with Ford and Wayne, Qualen had a big part in The Searchers, again playing Wayne's opposite. Only this time, Qualen is the sturdy, secure family man--the man with hope and happiness--and Wayne is the titular searcher.
The Searchers perhaps marks Qualen's most quintessential "immigrant success story" role. As Lars Jorgensen, Qualen represents the hard-working European who came to America with nothing and by sheer gumption, managed to carve out a small but prosperous living in God's Country. It's one of John Ford's favorite themes --the little Scandinavian frequently acting as B-story comic relief to the often Irish immigrant/autobiographical protagonist.
As is typical in his roles for Ford, Qualen balances pathos with plentiful ethnic humor. Ford never hesitates to give Qualen his signature exclamation--
Qualen's malleable European identity came in handy in Casabalnca--perhaps Hollywood's greatest Continental ensemble of ambiguous accents. Qualen is unforgettable as Berger, the jewelry salesman/freedom fighter whose rendezvous with Paul Henreid's Laszlo is one of the essential plot points of the film.
As a member of the Resistance, Berger's worshipful treatment of Henreid is critical to the audience's understanding of his importance, and his truly impressive status as a "Good Guy." Heretofore, we've obviouly been rooting for Bogie because Rick is the hero of the film...or is he? Laszlo is an undeniable baller, a concentration camp survivor and world-class hater of Nazis (what's not to love?). Qualen's small role communicates the large underground following that is willing to sacrifice everything for Laszlo's freedom. That kind of loyalty is critical to sympathizing with Isla's affection for Henreid--especially in contrast to Bogie, whose loyalties are shifty at best.
If I were to try to list all of John Qualen's memorable supporting roles, this blogathon could go on forever. Another one of my faves--and a prime example of the actor's unique combination of criminal & pitiable--is as the murderer sentenced to hang in His Girl Friday. Who can forget those scenes of timid, little Qualen hiding in a desk as Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant whirl around the newspaper office in perfect screwball mania?
It seems like wherever you go in Classic Hollywood, from '30s screwball comedies to '50s gangster pictures, as the Depression-era downtrodden to the thriving immigrant on the American frontier, John Qualen is bound to show up. You may not know his name, but you'll always remember his performances.