John Qualen is not readily identifiable by many classic movie fans even though this prolific character actor was part of John Ford’s famed stock company and appeared in more than 130 feature films and dozens of television programs.
Born on December 8th 1899 in Vancouver British Columbia Canada to Norwegian parents Qualen grew up in Elgin Illinois. Shortly after his twenty ninth birthday he got his first break playing a Swedish janitor in Elmer Rice’s New York play Street Scene which won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama. He and several of his peers including Beulah Bondi ventured to Hollywood for their first film – the screen adaptation of the play – which was purchased by Samuel Goldwyn for $150000. Adapted by Rice and directed by King Vidor Street Scene (1931) was "a naturalistic slice of New York tenement life one of the first American plays in which proletarians were depicted as heroes. The entire play was set outside a brownstone in New York City." However because of Vidor’s direction in which no camera setup was repeated twice (scenes were shot up down across from high or low from a boom or a perambulator moving back to include not only the sidewalk but the street as well) the performances including that from newcomer Sylvia Sidney and the addition of a relatively new concept at the time – a score "music here and there to support love scenes or silent sequences" by an uncredited Alfred Newman utilizing George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – the drama still entertains today … and Qualen’s movie career was launched!
Qualen’s second film role was as an immigrant Swedish farmer in another Goldwyn production Arrowsmith (1931) which was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture. It marked the first of nine times that Qualen would work for director John Ford. Two years later the actor would appear in his third film as Johan Breitstein opposite John Barrymore’s titled Counsellor at Law (1933) a role Qualen had been playing opposite Paul Muni on the stage. From this point on Qualen could be seen in several movie roles per year through 1973 changing his appearance but specializing in Scandinavian parts which allowed him to utilize his ability to speak in a variety of accents oftentimes for comic relief. The names of the characters he would play were indicative of these ethnic (primarily working class) roles – Svente Bjorkman Schultz Sol Tinker Von Blitzen Olaf Otto Swede Lars Clem Coot Horatio Curley Anton Dubechek Uncle Norbert Svend Olsen Peter Oberwalder Sr. Svenson Lars Hansen Corky McGee Jonas P. Travis Prof. Willie Klauber Papasha Gaspar Melo Sven Johnson Jonah Snell Old Ben Ole Knudsen Swenson and many more. Though Qualen soon surpassed his predecessor El Brendel in playing parts of this type Walter Brennan was cast as Swan Bostrom opposite Edward Arnold and Frances Farmer in producer Goldwyn’s Come and Get It (1936) a role which earned the actor his first of three Supporting Actor Oscars in the first year that the Academy bestowed the award. Like a lot of character actors Qualen never received an Oscar nomination.
John Qualen appeared in more than two dozen notable movies which air frequently on TCM; two in which his character receives ample screen-time are director Michael Curtiz’s coal miner saga Black Fury (1935) which earned Paul Muni his third of seven Best Actor Academy Award nominations and director Anatole Litvak’s underrated drama Out of the Fog (1941). In the former Qualen plays soft spoken union representative Mike Shemanski who allows Muni’s "bohunk" Joe Radek to board with him and his wife Sophie (Sara Haden). All is well until a paid antagonist (played by another ethnic role specialist – J. Carrol Naish) drives a wedge between the friends and Shemanski evicts Radek from his home. But later in the story inspired by Mike’s death per a scuffle with scab laborers Radek works to preserve the strike his friend had started because of poor working conditions by preventing the scabs from entering the mine. In the latter film Qualen plays cook Olaf Johnson in a restaurant on the wharf run by chubby old maid Miss Pomponette (Odette Myrtil) who desires a romantic relationship with her hired hand such that she pursues him relentlessly. The real story is about racketeer Harold Goff (John Garfield) who sets fire to a boat moored at the docks to begin his extortion of other owners for protection money. Since Olaf and his tailor friend Jonah Goodwin (Thomas Mitchell) own a small fishing boat Goff begins with them threatening that unless they pay him $5 per week a similar fate could befall their sea craft. The situation is complicated when Jonah’s daughter Stella (Ida Lupino) spurns her boring boyfriend (Eddie Albert) to begin dating the more worldly Goff. When faced with losing their only enjoyment in life and all of their money to boot Olaf and Jonah consider taking drastic action against the much physically stronger and violent extortionist.
Other noteworthy films featuring Qualen include Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) The Long Voyage Home (1940) The Fugitive (1947) The Searchers (1956) & The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and another with John Wayne – William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954) as the title character’s father in director Lloyd Bacon’s Knute Rockne All American (1940) as a Norwegian Underground contact in Curtiz’s Oscar winner Casablanca (1942) as the deputy sheriff first on the scene in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and another with James Stewart – Firecreek (1968) as a welcome basket toter at the Stockholm hotel in The Prize (1963) and (almost unrecognizable) as blind Elizabeth Hartman’s neighbor in A Patch of Blue (1965). The actor married Pearle Larson in 1924; they had three daughters. He died of heart failure in September 1987.
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog