John Qualen’s portrayal of Muley Graves is one of the iconic features in “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940). He had the ability to play types and folksy caricatures without making them seem caricatures. He aimed at the soul of the character, and that shot through the comedic Scandinavian accent bit parts and the grime and utter hopelessness of Muley Graves.
Qualen played Berger in “Casablanca” (1943), the fellow who introduces himself to Paul Henried while pretending to sell him a ring. He is one of the many European refugees in the Rick’s Café Americain, and a member of the underground resistance.
He also played Axel Swanson in “The Long Voyage Home” (1941), and though he distinguished himself as a prolific character actor with various roles in a career of well over 100 movies, most were like his walk-on as the subway night watchman in “The Mad Miss Manton” (1938). He appears from nowhere, leaves an impression, and moves on, presumably to the next movie.
Qualen was brought to Hollywood in “Street Scene” (1931), taken from the Broadway cast to reprise his role as the Swedish janitor.
Most of his films did not afford him much screen time, but he is recognizable and memorable. John Ford used him repeatedly in his stable of actors, and it is in Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” where Qualen gets to dig a little deeper and touch us with something so simple as crouching to the wind-whipped soil of a repossessed farm, grasp the dry dirt in his fist and let it slip through his fingers as he fights tears, telling us, “That’s what makes in ourn, being born on it, and working on it, and dying…dying on it. And not no piece of paper with writing on it …” as he breaks down. In his own way, he is as important as Tom Joad in telling us, in his desperate, somewhat crazed mood of a man on the very edge of losing his mind just as he has lost everything else, the plight of the Okies and the horrors of rural America during the Great Depression. Tom is an observer, but Muley has lived it. Muley’s voice is authentic, and John Qualen makes it so.