The Malta Independent 18 November 2017, Saturday

Joseph Calleia - Malta’s Hollywood actor (1897–1975)

Malta Independent Tuesday, 21 May 2013, 14:02 Last update: about 4 years ago

One of the lesser-known actors in Malta is none other than the Maltese actor Joseph Calleia.  Different reasons may be attributed to this.  For instance, during the 1930s, it took very long for a Hollywood film to arrive in Malta and this especially so when the Second World War broke out. 

Yet another more important reason was that the Catholic Church regarded Hollywood as the sin capital city of the world and detached itself and would not encourage popularity and fame, more so if a Maltese was enjoying such fame, albeit there never was any rumour of any sinful story surrounding the life of this actor.

Joseph Calleia retired in his beloved Malta after having starred in 59 films.

 

Early life

Born at Saqqajja Square, Rabat, Malta, to Pasquale and Eleonore Calleja, he was educated at St Julian's and St Aloysius colleges in Malta. He organised a harmonica band of boys which earned him enough money to leave Malta in 1914, at age 17, to begin his career touring and singing in the capitals of war-ravaged Europe with a harmonica band, appearing in the cafés and music halls of many war-torn and weary capital cities. He later went to New York as a singer and then turned to drama.

In the early stages of his career, Joseph Calleja was initially asked by his father to take on his mother’s maiden surname, ‘Spurin’, but later changed it from ‘Calleja’ to ‘Calleia’ to keep his Maltese surname and also to ease its pronunciation in the English-speaking world.

Joseph Calleia initiated his career on Broadway 1926 in the Stage Play, ‘Broadway’, written by Phillip Dunning and George Abbott (Broadhurst Theatre).  His first movie was in ‘My Sin’ and in the same year he took part in the movie ‘His Woman’, both made in 1931.Calleia also wrote the Screenplay of the film ‘Robin Hood of El Dorado’ (1936).

Some of Calleia’s films were also never shown in Malta as they were completely banned locally, which was yet another reason for the lack of popularity in Malta. This was due, amongst other reasons, for his taking the role of a Catholic priest in the film, ‘Full Confession’, and also for acting alongside the sexiest and most glamorous women film stars of the 1930s.  The influence of the Catholic Church on censorship was at its peak at the time and the fact that a Maltese was a star in Hollywood was alone considered a sin. Hollywood was dubbed as the sin capital of the world by the Catholic Church.  In one film, Calleia appears kissing May West, considered as the sex bomb of the time.

The house where Calleia spent his last retirement years between 1963 and 1975 still stands in Mrabat Street, Sliema.  The house is styled as Joel. ‘Jo’ for Joseph and ‘El’ for Eleonore, his wife  (nee’ Vassallo 1929-1968). Interestingly his residence was the first in Malta to have an intercom, air conditioning and an elevator.

 

Joseph Calleia’s Attributes

Calleia’s main attribute as a highly sought after actor was his versatility.  In a single year he acted in three films.  He was also a guest on two television series - ‘Have Guns Will Travel’ and ‘Zorro’.  He was in great demand as a character actor, having a tough guy image.  He could act as a priest as well as a family father figure.  He acted as the father of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin and also acted alongside famous Italian tenor Mario Lanza as his music teacher.  His tanned complexion made him suitable for Mexican-style movies, such as the ‘Alamo’, in which Calleia starred alongside John Wayne, who was responsible for hand-picking all the other actors.

Other trivia on Joseph Calleia reveal that In the film, ‘Tough Guy’, Calleia was the first person to sing in Maltese on the big screen in 1938 where he sang a couple of bars of a popular Maltese folkloristic song and way back at the height of the Malta Blitz during the Second World War, Joseph Calleia visited Malta as a member of the United States Organizations USO to entertain the troops. On his uniform next to US ensign there was the noticeable Maltese 8-pointed cross.  He was indeed proud to be Maltese. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created synergy among different agencies by forming the USO in 1941 with the objective of providing the emotional support the troops needed. Several organizations were mobilized to support the growing US military: the Salvation Army, Young Men’s Christian Association, Young Women’s Christian Association, National Catholic Community Services, National Travelers Aid Association and the National Jewish Welfare Board.

Calleia was posthumously honoured by the Malta postal authority with a set of two commemorative stamps issued in his memory in 1997. In October 2005, a monument consisting of a bust of Calleia was erected in front of the house where he was born. The bust was made gratis by sculptor Anton Agius on the initiative of then 15-year-old, Eman Bonnici.

A very interesting comment by Christopher Farrugia on the Facebook page, Maltese Hollywood Actor Joseph Calleia is, “What really is very interesting is that the best Maltese product today in the performing arts has the same name .... Albeit in opera!” Mr Farrugia here is referring to Joseph Calleja who was born on 22 January, 1978, three years after the passing away of Joseph Calleia another star was born and this was the Maltese opera singer, Joseph Calleja who is doing Malta proud in the operatic world.

 

Why the new interest in Joseph Calleia?

The interest being generated on the life and stardom of Joseph Calleia is reaching quite a climax locally in that a group of people have come together to research more deeply the life and times of  Joseph Calleia as a singer, composer, screenwriter and actor. 

This team of collaborators are Eman Bonnici and Joe Borda, both historians, Tony Parnis, television producer and director and Joyce Grech.  These people are very enthusiastic about their project which has the primary aim of informing people and creating awareness about this ‘forgotten’ Maltese actor because many, indeed have not even heard about him, let alone having any knowledge of his great achievements both on Broadway and in film.

Calleia played opposite some Hollywood greats, including John Wayne, William Holden, Errol Flynn, Rita Hayworth, Mae West, Bette Davis, Orson Welles, Jane Russell, Alan Ladd, William Powell, Mario Lanza, Charlton Heston, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Tyrone Power, and Anthony Quinn. 

The research team mentioned above are planning to hold a Seminar on Joseph Calleia’s films in October/November of this year and also to publish a book with the photos of all the posters of his films.  A Facebook page has also been created for anyone interested in the subject and also willing to help out in whatever way (Facebook Page: Maltese Hollywood Star Joseph Calleia).

When I asked Joe Borda (who is one of the team’s researchers and the person who compiled the list of Calleia’s films) how he would grade Calleia if he was acting today, he remarked that given that Calleia was asked (during his retirement time in Malta) by Francis Ford Coppola to play the part of Don Vito Corleone in ‘The Godfather’ (1972) but refused for health reasons (role later  taken by Marlon Brandon), he would put him in the class of the best actors of today, in the mould of Robert De Niro.  Mr Borda has a large collection of photos of Joseph Calleia including one where he appears at St Aloysius College before he left Malta at age 17 for England.

 

(For further information on the subject, kindly contact jos.borda@gmail.com or visit the Facebook page - Maltese Actor Joseph Calleia)

 

BOX

Joe Borda has compiled not only the list of films and television series that Joseph Calleia has acted in as well as a list of Broadway theatrical and stage roles. The following list compiled by Mr Borda includes all the movies and television in which Joseph Calleia performed together with the year and the character role (shown in italics):

 

1963

Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre (TV series)

A Killing at Sundial

 

1963

Johnny Cool

Tourist

 

1960

The Alamo

Juan Seguin

 

1959

Cry Tough

Sr Estrada

 

1959

Zorro (TV series)

Padre Simeon

– The Sergeant Sees Red (1959) … Padre Simeon

 

1959

The Phil Silvers Show (TV series)

Alfredo - Restaurant Proprietor

– Bilko's Credit Card (1959) … Alfredo - Restaurant Proprietor

 

1958

Have Gun - Will Travel (TV series)

Sheriff Sam Truett

– The Manhunter (1958) … Sheriff Sam Truett

 

1958

The Light in the Forest

Chief Cuyloga

 

1958

Touch of Evil

Police Sergeant Pete Menzies

 

1957

Wild Is the Wind

Alberto

 

1956

Hot Blood

Papa Theodore

 

1956

Serenade

Maestro Marcatello

 

1955

The Littlest Outlaw

Padre

 

1955

The Treasure of Pancho Villa

Pablo Morales

 

1955

Underwater!

Rico Herrera

 

1953

The Caddy

Papa Anthony

 

1952

The Iron Mistress

Juan Moreno

 

1952

Yankee Buccaneer

Count Domingo Del Prado

 

1952

When in Rome

AggiuntoBodulli

 

1952

The Light Touch

Lt. Massiro

 

1951

Pulitzer Prize Playhouse (TV series)

– Night Over Taos (1951)

 

1951

Valentino

Luigi Verducci

 

1950

Vendetta

Mayor Guido Barracini

 

 

 

1950

Branded

Rubriz

 

1950

The Palomino

Miguel Gonzales

 

1950

Captain Carey, USA

Dr Lunati

 

1948

Noose

Sugiani

 

1948

Four Faces West

Monte Marquez

 

1948

The Noose Hangs High

Nick Craig

 

1947

Lured

Dr. Nicholas Moryani

 

1947

The Beginning or the End

Dr. Enrico Fermi

 

1946

Deadline at Dawn

Val Bartelli

 

1946

Gilda

Det. Maurice Obregon

 

1944

The Conspirators

Police Captain Pereira

 

1943

The Cross of Lorraine

Rodriguez

 

1943

For Whom the Bell Tolls

El Sordo

 

1942

The Glass Key

Nick Varna

 

1942

Jungle Book

Buldeo

 

1941

Sundown

Pallini

 

1941

The Monster and the Girl

Deacon

 

1940

Wyoming

John Buckley

 

1940

My Little Chickadee

Jeff Badger

 

1939

Full Confession

Father Loma

 

1939

Golden Boy

Eddie Fuseli

 

1939

Five Came Back

Vasquez

 

1939

The Gorilla

Stranger

 

1939

Juarez

Alejandro Uradi

 

1938

Algiers

Slimane

 

1938

Marie Antoinette

Drouet

 

1937

The Bad Man of Brimstone

Ben

 

1937

Man of the People

Jack Moreno

 

1936

After the Thin Man

'Dancer'

 

1936

Sinner Take All

Penny

 

1936

Sworn Enemy

Joe Emerald

 

1936

His Brother's Wife

'Fish-Eye'

 

1936

Tough Guy

Joseph 'Joe' Calerno

 

1936

Exclusive Story

Ace Acello

 

1936

Riffraff

Nick

 

1935

Public Hero #1

Sonny

 

1932

The Divorce Racket

Stephen Arnaud

 

1931

His Woman

The Agent

 

1931

My Sin

Juan

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