John Qualen: Of Fjords and Ford Films

An appreciation today for character actor John Qualen (Johan Mandt Kvalen, 1899-1987). Qualen is best known for playing Scandinavians in films, although he played a wide variety of character types. Unlike El Brendel, who occupied a similar niche, Qualen was a skilled actor and comedian, and an actual Scandinavian.

Qualen was of Norwegian descendent, the son of a Lutheran minister, and born and raised in Canada. He acted for years in stock companies, including ones he managed himself, and he also worked on the Chautauqua Circuit. His big break came when he played the character of Carl Olsen in both the Broadway and Hollywood versions of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene (1929 and 1931, respectively), and then the Broadway and Hollywood versions of Rice’s Counsellor-at-Law (1931 and 1933).

In 1931 Qualen had a small role in John Ford’s film of Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, eventually becoming a member of his fabled stock company, with memorable parts in The Long Voyage Home (1940), The Grapes of Wrath (1940, as “Muley”), The Fugitive (1947), The Searchers (1956), Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Donovan’s Reef (1963), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). Many of these Ford films led to other things. The Long Voyage Home was a lot like Street Scene, in being about a multi-ethnic ensemble full of vaudevillesque stereotypes, which I touched on in these pieces on director Ford and writer Eugene O’Neill. Casablanca (1942) had another such international ensemble; Qualen played a Norwegian freedom fighter in that one. Working with John Wayne in The Long Voyage Home also led to other work in westerns beyond the Ford ones already mentioned, in such things as Henry Hathaway’s The Shepherd of the Hills (1941), Johnny Concho (1956), The Big Land (1957), North to Alaska (1960). The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966) and Firecreek (1968). Qualen’s turn in The Grapes of Wrath may have been instrumental in his getting cast in John Steinbeck’s similar Tortilla Flat with Spencer Tracy, John Garfield, and Heddy Lamarr in 1942. His role in Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith seems relevant to his appearance in Elmer Gantry in 1960.

We are from exhausting Qualen’s significant roles. He played Earl Williams, the falsely accused condemned man in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940). He played the title character’s father in Knute Rockne, All American (1940). You can also see him in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Hans Christian Anderson (1952), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and of course Bob Hope’s I’ll Take Sweden (1965). He’s in scores of other movies, often with character names like Olsen, Olaf, Ole, Lars, Sven, Hansen, Lindquist, and Jorgensen.

Qualen increasingly worked in television during his last decades, on such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Gale Storm Show, Bonanza, The Danny Thomas Show, Mr, Ed, The Odd Couple, The F.B.I., and The Streets of San Francisco. His last screen credit was a 1974 episode of Movin’ On.

To learn more about vaudeville please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,