Paul Kelly

This is the original “uncut” version of my article that was originally published in a 2009 issue of the movie magazine CLASSIC IMAGES. This great character actor was the center of a scandalous and sensational manslaughter trial, at that time called the celebrity trial of the (new) century, and managed to rebuild his life & career afterwards.

“Convicted film actor says he will ‘start from scratch again.” So went a New York Times news story on July 2, 1927, quoting 27 year-old Paul Kelly on the eve of his imprisonment. “I won’t let it get the best of me and spoil my life… I will get it over with … and fight to make good.”


From success as a child actor, Paul had worked through scores of silent films to grow into an accomplished film and stage talent, but his once bright future in Hollywood seemed to disintegrate when he became the center of a sensational trial splashed across the nation’s front pages.  Tragedy still awaited Paul after his release from prison, but he kept his promise to make good, impressively rebuilt his career to great acclaim and worked steadily until his death. Paul’s talent and professionalism was held in high esteem, and his appearance in a picture, however brief, was often a highlight.

in SIDE STREETS 1934, with Dorothy Tree
Paul Kelly was born August 9, 1899 in Brooklyn, NY, the ninth of ten children in an Irish immigrant family whose home and business, Kelly’s Café, were located near Vitagraph’s Flatbush studios. In the story most often repeated about little Paul’s start in film, he was taken on by Vitagraph in a deal to pay for the props and furniture film crews constantly borrowed from Mrs. Kelly.  Paul’s version was that he landed his first stage role in “A Grand Army Man,” at the age of 8, and then kept visiting Vitagraph and asking for work until he became a $5-a-day player. With Vitagraph churning out new films weekly, Paul was well on his way to amassing over 300 silent credits, including some four dozen shorts just in Harry Davenport’s Jarr family comedy series.  His constant presence in those early one-reelers earned Paul the title “Vitagraph Boy”. Since his father had died when Paul was young, this boy was now the family breadwinner.
Well into his teens Paul toured extensively with stock companies (often accompanied by sisters Doris and Rebecca). He gained valuable experience performing Shakespeare, and continued appearing in scores of films.  In 1917, Paul met actress Dorothy Mackaye, who would figure prominently in his life.  Dorothy was born in Scotland in 1899, grew up in Denver in a mining family and toured as a child in “Peg o’ My Heart”. She was a spunky redhead, a live wire gaining renown on the New York stage as a wry, vivacious musical comedienne.  The two had much in common: youth, ambition, hard work, loads of talent and rosy futures ahead.
Paul grew into adult leads in the 1918 Booth Tarkington plays “Seventeen” with Ruth Gordon and “Penrod” with Helen Hayes.  Now six feet tall and solidly built, he was a forceful and dynamic actor. In 1918 he was seen by many in Fit to Fight, a War Dept. social hygiene short about the dangers of VD. The film was screened for months to capacity crowds before becoming a staple of phys. ed. lectures as Fit To Win. His first adult feature lead was opposite Mary Miles Minter in the hugely successful Anne of Green Gables (1919). This was less than three years before the scandal surrounding the murder of Anne director William Desmond Taylor would effectively end Minter’s career.  Paul continued in film with Uncle Sam of Freedom Ridge (1920), and The Old Oaken Bucket (1921), and returned to the stage, earning great notices for his leads in long running plays “Up the Ladder”(1922), “Whispering Wires” (1922) “Chains” (1923, with Helen Gahagan).
Paul’s friend Dorothy Mackaye was also having much success on stage. In 1921, she eloped with vaudeville veteran, song and dance man Ray Raymond.  After nearly two years in “Rose Marie”, Dorothy made news in 1925 for her deft handling of a near-calamity during a performance of “Song of the Flame”.  The theatre roof collapsed, injuring many, but Dorothy went on stage, kept singing to calm the audience, and was hailed as a heroine for preventing a complete panic.
Optimistic about his future in film, Paul moved to Hollywood after finishing The New Klondike (1926) with silent star, soon to be friend and mentor Thomas Meighan. The Raymonds also moved west a few months later with their 4 year-old daughter Valerie.  Despite his high expectations, Paul had little work, appearing only in Slide Kelly Slide (1927) with William Haines, and playing a detective in Special Delivery (1927), a film written by Eddie Cantor and directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (under his mother’s name of Goodrich). Paul and Dorothy’s behavior now indicated they were something more than friends; they visited frequently when Ray was away on tour, and exchanged passionate letters and telegrams when apart.  The situation caused several confrontations between Paul and Ray.  In March 1927, Paul was thrilled to earn a headline for signing with Warner’s and landing the lead in May McAvoy’s Irish Hearts. A month later the “rising young star” made the front page for very different reasons.
On Saturday April 16, Dorothy and some friends were at Paul’s, consuming “considerable quantities” of gin fizz.  Back at the Raymond home, Ray, who had recently returned from a tour, was also drinking. Paul and Ray began arguing over the phone about Dorothy, and Paul responded to Ray’s threats and insults by rushing over to the Raymond home, where things quickly degenerated into a fistfight. Overmatched by Paul in height and strength, Ray took a beating, but claimed to be fine after Paul left. More than two days later, Ray died, aged 39.  Pneumonia was given as the cause, and Ray was bound for a quick cremation until an anonymous phone call pleaded with journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns to look into the “murder” (a story Adela tells in her book The Honeycomb).  On this tip the coroner intervened, and an autopsy found Raymond had indeed died as a result of injuries consistent with a fight.  Once the Raymonds’ maid confirmed such a fight had indeed happened, Paul was arrested.
For the next few months, press and public pored over every unfolding event and legal proceeding, eating up the most personal details of Paul, Dorothy and Ray’s lives.  First Paul was arraigned, then Dorothy got her own trial based on her payment of $500 to a Dr. Sullivan who attended to Ray for his last days, and signed the death certificate citing “natural causes” for his death.  Nationwide notoriety did nothing for Paul’s box office; before the trial got underway, Special Delivery was released with his part cut out. The LA Times called Paul’s trial the most heavily attended in California history, the jury was under guard, many celebrities attended and supported the couple; Thomas Meighan arranged for the defense, and contributed $10,000.  Paul’s effusive love letters to Dorothy, found under her mattress, were read in court, his pig latin terms of endearment fully translated, leading reporters to mock him as “the Sheik”.  Witnesses confirmed the couple’s clandestine trysts, while allegations were made about Ray’s infidelities, alcoholism and cruel treatment of Dorothy. Then there was the possibility that Ray never divorced previous wife Florence Bain before marrying Dorothy, and in fact no marriage certificate for Dorothy and Ray could be found; Dorothy said it was lost in a fire, and the place where they said they were married didn’t seem to exist.  Any sympathy Dorothy won from such revelations she managed to alienate with a nervous and changeable demeanor that ranged from devastated and hysterical to cool and defiant.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, she maintained that she and Paul had a strictly “platonic friendship”.  In contrast, Paul was highly emotional and expressive, freely and consistently admitted his devotion and love for Dorothy, his intentions to marry her, and insisted that he was in a “fair duel” with Ray and innocent of cold blooded murder. Paul was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to one to ten years at San Quentin. Dorothy was found guilty of concealing facts, and sentenced to one to three years, also at San Quentin. Stunned, she spent the next few months in court having her numerous appeals rejected, and started her term in March 1928.

Paul, assigned to the prison jute mill, further demonstrated the work ethic that would serve him well throughout his life.  San Quentin warden Thomas Holohan found him to be “a model prisoner… a hard and willing worker”.  Dorothy started a prison drama group, putting on plays with fellow inmates. Meanwhile Dorothy’s friends, entrusted with the care of her possessions, were arrested for pawning many of her valuables. Dorothy was released in Jan 1929, after serving ten months.  Paul was paroled for excellent behavior the following August, after serving two years and a month. The couple seemed changed, no longer the wild Jazz age set; Dorothy publicly swore off alcohol, and promised she would wholeheartedly devote herself to career and child. Paul rarely, if ever, spoke of his imprisonment, but he had much to prove and overcome as he started over.  In prison, the two apparently had no contact, but once free, Paul and Dorothy reunited and left for New York.  One reporter said of their future; “the pair, previously screen and stage favorites, face a hard climb back up the ladder”.  The conditions of Paul’s parole strictly limited his salary and occupation (no acting) and forbade marriage for 18 months.  However, after some months Paul was allowed to act and he quickly returned to the stage.  As soon as 18 months passed –on Feb 10, 1931–Paul and Dorothy were married, and Paul adopted Valerie Raymond, who was raised as Mimi Kelly.


Paul & Dorothy
After a number of plays, including “Bad Girl” with Sylvia Sidney, Paul was under a 4-month movie contract that produced no work. He was first choice to play Sgt. O’Hara in Rain (1932) but UA’s Joseph Schenck thought Rain was controversial enough without the added taint of Paul’s recent past, so the role went to William Gargan.  Despite a statement from the Hays office that they were not opposed to Paul’s return to the screen, film work and Hollywood acceptance was not forthcoming, so Paul’s only 1932 film was The Girl from Calgary.  That summer Dorothy Mackaye wrote a play based on her experience, Women in Prison. In a matter of weeks, Warner’s bought the film rights and cast Barbara Stanwyck in what became Ladies they Talk About (1933) with Dorothy serving as technical advisor.  Paul was touring with a play when Darryl Zanuck’s new studio Twentieth Century cast him as soft-on-the-inside gentleman gangster in Broadway Through a Keyhole (1933) (link to my article about the making of this movie). He practically stole the film with his intense but sympathetic performance, and many reviewers singled Paul out for praise. He had been given a chance to show his talent, and so began a long period of non-stop work.
Paul made forty more films through the rest of the Thirties, skillfully demonstrating his value as both a versatile supporting player and a romantic or heroic B lead.  He was not conventionally handsome but he was undeniably captivating. With thin lips, prominent jaw, and lopsided smile by turns bashful or sneering, he could handily deliver whatever combination of virile, seething, proud, tender, wounded, sincere and/or debonair was required to serve the part.  Paul’s appeal was such that his characters either won the girl, or in losing her, won the audience’s sympathy. With his brusque, no-nonsense manner and lightning-fast Brooklyn-ese, he was equally believable as a gruff editor, fast-talking reporter, or surly bad guy.  Paul also excelled at villainy, for he could be a cold, intimidating and formidable foe, but it was the determined lawman–whether cop, federal agent or prosecutor– that turned out to be his most frequent role and a type he perfected.
from MYSTERY SHIP, with Larry Parks and Lola Lane
In 1934, Paul’s first big comeback year, he played, among other things, doctor (Love Captive, where Gloria Stuart is a hypnotist’s prey), and sailor in a marriage of convenience with Aline MacMahon (Side Streets).  In Blind Date he was a garage mechanic so hardworking he loses, or rather sacrifices Ann Sothern to a flashier suitor, much to the disappointment of her family. In William Wellman’s The President Vanishes (1935), he was an earnest, fast-thinking and heroic secret service agent. That year he was a playboy who falls for reform school girl in School for Girls, a race car driver in Speed Devils, a casino owner losing his girl to Lew Ayres in Silk Hat Kid, a G-Man in Public Hero #1 (with Chester Morris and Jean Arthur), and hobo turned hero in It’s a Great Life!.  An important role in 1935 was the hotheaded, serious, brawling ranch foreman (and once again the underdog suitor rejected) in George O’Brien’s When a Man’s a Man, considered not only one of O’Brien’s best but also one of the finest and most underrated minor westerns ever made.
For the next few years his roles were just as numerous and varied, including ship engineer in the nautical romance Here Comes Trouble, titular performer in the backstage musical Song And Dance Man, and Mountie after fur smuggler Alan Hale in The Country Beyond (all 1936).  He played more lawmen in Join the Marines, Parole Racket, The Frame-Up (all 1937). In 1938 the news was that Paul would play Lt. Steve McBride, opposite Lola Lane in Torchy Blane in Panama, and possibly continue in the series, but ended up only doing this one installment. Some other notable roles included a clever reporter debunking a haunting in The Missing Guest, a gang member turned Priest in Devil’s Party, a lawyer helping street kids in Juvenile Court (with Rita Hayworth), a brother looking for revenge in the Foreign Legion in Adventure In Sahara (all 1938), a border agent undercover to clear his name in Forged Passport, a prison doctor in 6,000 Enemies (with Walter Pidgeon), and a bootlegger in The Roaring Twenties (all 1939).
In little more than a decade, Paul had indeed seemed to overcome turmoil and notoriety with hard work and talent, and he relished the rewards of his success. In fact, he often expressed disbelief in interviews about the long way he had come from poverty in Brooklyn. He took up polo, and owned several ponies. He and Dorothy made their home in the San Fernando Valley at a ranch they named the Kellymac Farm, and true to its name it was replete with dogs, horses, chickens and cows.  For Paul, career, farm and marriage meant security. He loved his life with Dorothy, greatly valued and publicly praised her humor and talent, crediting much of his success to her acting advice.  William Witney, serial director, became the Kellys’ friend and closest neighbor in the late Thirties, and in his autobiography recalled Dorothy’s effervescent and mischievous personality, and how she named the Witney home “Stoney Broke Farm”. On the night of Jan 2, 1940, Dorothy was driving back home from the Witney farm on a foggy rain slicked road, and swerved to avoid another driver. Her car rolled over, but she emerged from the wreckage, insisted to witnesses that she was fine, and went home.  She was under a doctor’s care, but after two days complained of pain, and died in hospital of internal injuries, aged 40.  Paul was devastated; he and daughter Mimi left California for a time, and there was even gossip of Paul’s retirement from the screen, but after some months he returned to work in The Howards of Virginia (1940), appeared as General Custer in the first Wallace Beery/Marjorie Main team-up, Wyoming (1940), and played a schoolteacher who helps Rochelle Hudson in Girls Under 21 (1940).
While filming Flight Command (1940), where he played Navy Hell Cat Lt. Commander “Dusty” Rhodes, Paul met MGM contract player Claire Owen, an elegant blonde who had spent the past 5 years in bit parts in a dozen films, including Marie Antoinette (1938).  In Flight Command she was “Mrs. Frost”, and can be spotted playing cards at Walter Pidgeon’s party. Owen, whose real name was Zona Mardelle Zwicker, was born in Eureka, Kansas in 1910, and moved to Sacramento in her teens. On January 24, 1941, Paul and Mardelle eloped to Yuma, Arizona.  On the marriage license, Paul listed his occupation as “farmer”, inviting no connection with Hollywood.  The couple relocated to a new ranch in Oakland, and remained married for the rest of Paul’s life.  Mardelle only appeared in one more film.
Next Paul was in the hit Ziegfeld Girl (1941), as the dapper and somewhat frazzled Follies director who fires Lana Turner, is wowed by Judy Garland and speechifies about the duties and futures of Follies girls.  He continued in many more military roles with Parachute Battalion (1941), which, like Flight Command, was notable for being released before Pearl Harbor.  In Flying Tigers (1942), he had a memorable and poignant role as squadron leader John Wayne’s loyal right hand man “Hap”.  Paul is convincingly heartbroken at being grounded due to poor eyesight, and in order to cover for another flyer and protect Wayne, Paul valiantly takes what turns out to be his last flight.  He fought the Nazis in the exciting 1942 serial The Secret Code, where he played cop turned code-breaking spy-smasher, the “Black Commando”.  After all this fictional war heroism, Paul spent almost a year in real life military service, putting his WWI pilot training to use as civilian flying instructor at Rankin Aeronautical Academy, where thousands of Air Force pilots were trained.  Released by the Army in 1943, Paul went right back to work as villain in Roy Rogers’ The Man from Music Mountain (1943). In The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944) with Gary Cooper, Paul’s ornery, pessimistic exterior crumbles to reveal a soft heart that comforts a little boy whose mother is killed.
Considerably less endearing were Paul’s roles as neglectful parent in Faces in the Fog, and a murderer in the Inner Sanctum entry Dead Man’s Eyes (both 1944), but in 1945 he again played a military tough with a heart of gold, as a flying tiger who adopts a Chinese boy in the underrated B, China’s Little Devils. Paul ended the year by menacing Errol Flynn in the western San Antonio.  Through the Forties Paul also added many more lawmen to his resume, in films like I’ll Wait For You and Not a Ladies Man (both 1941), Mr. & Mrs. North (1942), the fun murder mystery Grissly’s Millions (1945, with Virginia Grey), Allotment Wives (1945, with Kay Francis), Glass Alibi, Deadline For Murder, and The Cat Creeps (all 1946).
In Fear in the Night (1947) Paul played DeForest Kelley’s skeptical detective brother-in-law, looking into the mystery of the mirrored room.  Next Paul gave a brief but riveting performance in the all-star noir Crossfire (1947), as Gloria Grahame’s lying, confusing and ultimately pathetic husband.  His performance is nothing less than brilliant, disturbing and disorienting as he shifts suddenly from confrontation to denial and back.  Crossfire was a huge success, earning five Oscar nominations (but no wins), and topping many “best of the year” lists.  The resulting attention helped Paul land his best role, on Broadway in “Command Decision”, as the crusty but caring General K.C. “Casey” Dennis, a stage portrayal considered one of the finest ever.  Paul brought his now-signature blend of sympathetic and authoritative to the role, which he considered his most deeply satisfying and meaningful triumph.  Audiences and critics agreed, for he won rave reviews, numerous awards, and shared a 3-way Tony tie in 1948 with Henry Fonda and Basil Rathbone. Yet even in this success there was disappointment; when “Command Decision” was made into a film, Paul’s role went to Clark Gable, who, according to critics, paled in comparison, as “a less forceful figure” (Time) and not as “crisp and dynamic” as Paul (NY Times). Around this time daughter Mimi Kelly was also appearing on Broadway in “South Pacific” and was briefly married in 1949 to actor Richard Boone (“Paladin” on TV’s Have Gun Will Travel).
Now Paul, who had stopped dying his prematurely white hair for “Command Decision”, looked every inch the wise and weathered father figure. In Side Street (1949), which he also narrated, he was the understanding police Captain trying to find postman and misguided thief Farley Granger before worse criminals get their hands on him.  In The File on Thelma Jordon (1950) as chief investigator for the prosecutor’s office, he is suspicious of Barbara Stanwyck, and eventually figures out D.A. Wendell Corey’s affair with her, and cover-up for her crimes.  Paul took on a grizzled, flinty look for his next stage triumph, 1950’s “The Country Girl”.  Paul originated, and was Tony-nominated for, the role of alcoholic, “cunning and cantankerous” (NY Times) Frank Elgin, but again lost his role in the film version, this time to Bing Crosby.  Paul’s next films were the mystery Secret Fury (1950, with Claudette Colbert), Frenchie (1951), and the Lassie film Painted Hills (1951).  In early 1952, almost twenty-seven years after entering San Quentin, Paul was cast as its most famous Warden, kindly prison reformer Clinton Duffy, in a new TV series.  Shooting began with Paul heading stories about inmates’ hardships, escape attempts and emotional crises. However, the project never made it to TV, and the footage was shelved for two years before being assembled and released in 1954 as films– Duffy of San Quentin and its sequel The Steel Cage.  In the intervening years, audiences saw Paul on TV’s Pulitzer Prize Playhouse, Celanese Theatre, and Schlitz Playhouse of Stars; he was to make over a dozen such TV appearances in the next few years.  He was a confederate spy in the Gary Cooper western Springfield Rifle (1952), then a targeted rancher who reforms hired gun Audie Murphy by entrusting him with a ranch (then a daughter) in Gunsmoke (1953).  Paul capped off an impressive string of noirs with Split Second (1953), directed by Dick Powell, in which he played a wounded prison escapee who needs a doctor, but has a change of heart about the fate of hostages taken by his fellow convict Stephen McNally.
After filming these projects Paul suffered a heart attack, but within a few months was back on TV, and in the movie Johnny Dark (1954) as a car engineer who supports upstart designer Tony Curtis.  Paul played an atomic scientist in the all-star airplane hit The High and the Mighty (1954), was a detective in The Square Jungle (1955, with Tony Curtis), and a judge who stands by librarian Bette Davis as she fights censorship in Storm Center (1956).  On November 6, 1956, after returning home from voting for president, Paul suffered another heart attack, this time fatal. He was 57. Two of his movies, Curfew Breakers and Bailout at 43,000, were released posthumously, making a total of nearly 90 Paul Kelly films in the sound era, hundreds of silents, and over 70 plays.  As a young man facing the apparent end of his career, Paul made a promise to come back and “make good”.  He did so with hard work and talent, with unusually diverse, and always layered, authentic and well crafted performances.



6 thoughts on “Paul Kelly

  1. Mardelle married after Paul Kelly’s death a man name Carl Harwood who out lived her. She had a daughter from a previous marriage. Mimi Kelly went on to have a modicumly successful career in theater being on TV, stage, a casting director, and an agent. She died in 1999.

    1. Thanks I appreciate that info, I always meant to look more into it all, it’s interesting how curious and involved you get after research, you always wonder what became of everyone…


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