Monday, August 10, 2009

For Your Consideration: Joseph Calleia

A bust of Malta's favourite son in front of his birthplace.
Project intiated in 2005 by 17 year old fan Eman Bonnici.

Joseph Calleia
August 4, 1897 - October 31, 1975

Caftan Woman's dilemma: in my series "For Your Consideration" I want to spotlight one special performance of the wonderful character actors of Hollywood's Golden age which was overlooked at award season. However, I cannot settle on the "one" for Joseph Calleia. I will put my three before you - you decide.

Guiseppe Maria Spurrin-Calleja was born and died in beautiful Malta. Wouldn't you like to see a movie whose main character left home as a teenager, a singer and composer who sang in the Cafes and Music Halls of Europe? What an exciting time!

As it comes to all with greasepaint in their veins, Calleia went to Broadway in 1926. For the next ten years, he found great success on the Great White Way. His first play was Broadway by Philip Dunning and George Abbot, also featuring Millard Mitchell and Lee Tracy. Next, he played reporter Kruger in Hecht & MacArthur's The Front Page. Osgoode Perkins was Walter Burns and Lee Tracy played Hildy Johnson. His next play was the prison hit The Last Mile which brought Spencer Tracy to prominence. In the 1930 adaption of Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel Calleia played the chauffeur and was the general stage manager. You might like to know that Sam Jaffe played Krigelein, Sig Ruman was Preizig and Albert Dekker played the Baron. Next up was the comedy Honeymoon directed by Thomas Mitchell, followed by Ten Minute Alibi and another George Abbot play, Small Miracle. During this time Calleia had featured roles in a couple of New York-produced pictures and those itchy feet sent him to Hollywood.

Sinister types were the order of the day in After the Thin Man, Juarez, Algiers (Critic's Award), Marie Antoinette, My Little Chickadee, and The Glass Key. Excellent roles followed in For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Cross of Lorraine, and Gilda. And guess who played Papa Anthony in The Caddy, and could probably give Dean Martin a run for his money with That's Amore? In 1936 Calleia co-wrote with director William Wellman, The Robin Hood of El Dorado starring Warner Baxter as Joaquin Murrietta.

C. Aubrey Smith, Joseph Calleia
A plane trip to Hell in Five Came Back

The first of the roles that failed to receive an Academy nod, and confounds my decision, is that of Vasquez, the revolutionary, in Five Came Back directed by John Farrow. Of course, 1939 being the stellar year that it was we can forgive any nominating committees. This exciting movie which still packs a punch is a tale of survival in a South American jungle after a plane crash. It has a wonderful ensemble cast with Chester Morris, Lucille Ball, Wendy Barrie, C. Aubrey Smith, Elisabeth Risdon, Kent Smith, Allen Jenkins, and John Carradine. Vasquez is a man on his way to prison and execution. He finds unexpected freedom and purpose in the circumstances. He is the heartbreaking hero who touches every viewer of this movie.

Frank Puglia, Joseph Calleia, John Qualen
Buldeo, the Storyteller
Korda's Jungle Book, 1942

The 1942 version of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book starring Sabu as Mowgli is a Technicolor delight. One of its greatest assets is the old man who tells the fantastic story of the boy raised by wolves and the lost city of gold. When that old man is revealed to have been a main player in the story, the sneaking and duplicitous Buldeo, it is also revealed that the audience has been treated to a tour de force by Joseph Calleia.

Pete Menzies
Touch of Evil, 1958

Orson Welles wanted to work with Joseph Calleia and when they did, it proved a real winner. Touch of Evil is a remarkably audacious film noir treat. In the midst of the lies, the emotions and the wild ride of a story is Calleia's Pete Menzies - a good cop, a loyal friend, and an honourable man. His performance is the rock that makes all others possible and plausible. For shame on the Academy for not recognizing Calleia.

Joseph Calleia made more fine movies including Disney's A Light in the Forest, John Wayne's The Alamo, and the gangster favourite Johnny Cool before retiring to Malta in 1964. I have read that Mr. Calleia claimed ailing health when declining Francis Ford Coppola's request to play Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, but I like to think he was enjoying his retirement too much to return to Hollywood.

Malta issued two stamps featuring Joseph Calleia in 1997. 


  1. It's OK, Brando needed the work.

    Love the story behind the statue, that's cool.

  2. Poor Marlon. He did know he wasn't the first choice, didn't he?

    Glad you stopped by, MTN.

  3. I just watched 'After the Thin Man', he was terrific playing opposite William Powell.
    I didn't realize it was Joseph Calleia in 'Five Came Back' and 'The Jungle Book'. I must improve on reading the credit roll.
    Vasquez in 'Five Came Back' a most worthy performance!

  4. Novabreeze, thanks for registering your vote for "Five Came Back". I think I'll have to watch "After the Thin Man" again. Dancer is a most intriguing character.

  5. Even when I don't comment, know that I'm here, learning from you and remembering with you. The days that have gone by are so sweet. I'm happy to know that a lovely woman is out there in the world, keeping the memories alive.



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