Joseph Calleia: From Malta to Motion Pictures

Here’s a gent you surely know without knowing: Joseph Calleia (Joseph Alexander Caesar Herstall Vincent Calleja, 1897-1975). Calleia was never a top star, but he played some key roles in some very well known movies. For example, he was Jeff a.ka. “The Masked Bandit”, Mae West’s love interest in My Little Chickadee (1942), much to the consternation of those who root for W.C. Fields. And he’s almost unrecognizable as Menzies, Orson Welles‘ sad sack sidekick and later informant in Touch of Evil (1958). There are lots more, but these are the two performances that I have the most times and hence know the best.

Calleia was mostly cast in line with his Spanish surname and Latin looks. But it is interesting to learn that he was neither from the Iberian penninsula nor the Americas, but the island of Malta, that fascinating crossroads between Europe and Africa, which at various times throughout history has been the football of Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans/Italians, Arabs, the Spanish and the French. At the time Calleia was born it had been an British colony for over 80 years, Calleia was of good family; his father was an architect and tried to get him to study engineering. Instead, when quite young he organized a harmonica band. Sent to school in London, he sang in music halls dessed as a Scotsman. He served in the British Merchant Navy in WWI. Two years in, his ship was torpedoed. After a long convalescence he was discharged and moved to the U.S., where he tried to break into American vaudeville, and performed for U.S. soldiers, and served briefly himself in the army.

When vaudeville didn’t pan out, Calleia tried regional stock theatre. By 1920 had worked his way to Broadway in the play Pietro starring Otis Skinner. Calleia was in nearly a dozen Broadway productions through the mid-30s, the most notable of which were the original production of The Front Page (1928-29) and Grand Hotel (1930-31).

Calleia’s swarthy good looks made him quite castable in Hollywood during the Pre-Code years. His first screen role was that of “Juan” in My Sin, written and directed by George Abbott, with whom he had first worked on Broadway a decade earlier. His five dozen screen credits include supporting roles in Riffraff (1936), After the Thin Man (1936), Algiers (1938), Marie Antoinette (1938), Juarez (1939), The Gorilla (1939), Five Came Back (1939), Golden Boy (1939), Wyoming (1940), The Monster and The Girl (1941), The Jungle Book (1942), The Glass Key (1942), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Gilda (1946), Vendetta (1950), Valentino (1951), Martin and Lewis’s The Caddy (1953), and John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960).

In 1963, Calleia returned to Malta to retire. Legend has it that he was one of the people Francis Ford Coppola reached out to portray Don Corleone in The Godfather. Don’t scoff — he’s one of the few actors who were considered who might have been better than Brando in some ways.

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.