Friday, January 15, 2010

A Frank Puglia Double Bill

Frank Puglia
March 9, 1892 - October 25, 1975

Frank Puglia was born in Sicily and began his theatrical career at 15 years of age when he joined an opera company. Emigrating to the United States in 1907 he appeared in Italian language theatrical productions and learned his English from newspapers.

D.W. Griffith brought Puglia to the screen in 1921 recreating a role he had played in the stage production of Orphans of the Storm. Playing small, but memorable roles of all ethnic backgrounds, Puglia was a busy actor from that time on. You have seen him in Maytime, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Mark of Zorro, Casablanca as a most ambitious vendor, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Brute Force, Road to Rio, Joan of Arc, The Caddy, etc.

If like me, you grew up watching television in the 1960s or caught these programs in syndication you can spot Puglia in Rawhide, Hazel, I Dream of Jeannie, Bonanza, The Fugitive, High Chaparral, To Rome With Love, and Ironside.

For many years I would recognize Frank Puglia as the mysterious and loyal "Talo" in 1944s Tall in the Saddle. Speaking of mysterious, he is uncredited in an important role. Perhaps that is why it took me a while to learn his name.

I had a Frank Puglia double bill the other day. First up was TCM's airing of Always in My Heart from 1942.

Not since 1934's Wagon Wheels has the viewing public been hit over the head with a theme song with such fervor. Fortunately, it is a lovely tune by Cuba's Ernesto Lecuona, who gave us "Siboney" and "Malaguena". The English lyrics are from Kim Gannon, writer of I'll Be Home for Christmas, Five O'clock Whistle, and Dreamer's Holiday. It is sung repeatedly by a lovely young soprano named Gloria Warren who disappeared from the movies after a half dozen titles. She plays the daughter of Kay Francis and Walter Huston. She and her brother Frankie Thomas (Tom Corbett, Space Cadet) believe their father to be dead, yet he has recently been pardoned from prison. Is it right to keep his identity from the children? Should Kay marry her rich beau, Sidney Blackmer?

We know Kay should stay away from the monied Blacker. Why? Because he doesn't like Frank Puglia, that's why. Puglia plays Joe Borelli, the youngster's mentor in life and music. One of those happy fellows with a fishing boat, a large family, and a large heart. Maybe he can bring the fractured family together again. This is the sort of movie that made me cry watching it on the late show. Borah Minevitch and his Rascals, the famous harmonica troupe are an added feature that can make the weepy easy to handle on a rainy day. However, be prepared to have that title song ringing in your head for a few hours or maybe even days.

Puglia as Achmed Halide peeks around the corner of this poster.

Next, I enjoyed a DVD from my treasured Charlie Chan collection. Charlie Chan in Panama was directed by Norman Foster in 1940 and it's a dandy. Puglia is an Arab tobacconist with information for sale. Is he a notorious saboteur/murderer? It could be any one of a number of suspects including the Viennese chemist, the British author, the American schoolteacher, the American engineer, the pretty European refugee, or the dashing nightclub owner.

Charlie Chan is undercover in the canal zone to ferret out the spy who has eluded capture. Of course, that cover is neatly blown when number two son, Jimmy, arrives unexpectedly. This Sidney Toler and Sen Yung outing has a great cast with Puglia, Jack LaRue, Kane Richmond, Jean Rogers, Mary Nash, Lionel Atwill, Addison Richards, Don Douglas, and Chris Pin-Martin. Danger, humour, and tension combine perfectly in the timely WW2 era story. Definitely one for the must-see and must-see-again list.

Keep your eyes peeled on your next classic movie viewings. Especially watch for Frank's star turn as a frightened witness testifying against the Mafia in 1950s Black Hand. Maybe you'll have your own Frank Puglia double bill.

Bonus picture:

Frank Puglia in Bulldog Drummond's Revenge. Honest!


  1. Thank you so much for shining a light on Frank Puglia, an actor who always seems so real in whatever role he was given, he was too often overlooked.

    I am particularly fond of Frank P. in "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" (1944), which has been issued on DVD only recently for the first time. I haven't seen it in years, but I always remember Puglia's Prince Cassim in that one.

    I recently watched "For Whom the Bell Tolls" again and Puglia, along with a raft of sterling (and slightly, enjoyably hammy) character actors made that film a much richer experience so that I barely noticed that Cooper guy or that Bergman broad. I hope that you will keep writing about character actors in the future since you clearly know your stuff and are not afraid to have fun with this topic.

    I love your descriptions of discovering Puglia over and over without really knowing his name. Who did you have to know to get a credit in the movies in the old days? There are so many hardworking actors who went uncredited during the studio era it isn't funny.
    All the best,

  2. Thank you, Moira.

    Character people are a hobby for me the way hockey players are for my husband. While he complains that while I "know the third cowboy at the bar in some Hoppy movie, but not my bank balance", I graciously decline to point out that he has yet to win a hockey pool.

    You reached into my memory banks for "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves". Prince Cassim is surely a signature role for Frank Puglia, right alongside Talo.

  3. Frank Puglia was a close friend of my late Aunt; Puglia's daughter and Aunt Paula were best friends in Beverly Hills High School. She always spoke of him with the greatest respect.

    1. Thanks for sharing that information. We sometimes forget about the everyday lives of our favourites beyond the screen.



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