Film School: Paul Kelly

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Film School: Paul Kelly

Welcome to Film School! This is a column focused on movie history and all the stars, filmmakers, events, laws and, yes, movies that helped write it. Film School is a place to learn—no homework required.

Before he was sent to prison for beating a man to death, Paul Kelly had a successful career as a child star. He appeared on both stage and screen from a young age, most famously as the son of the troublesome Jarr family across 18 silent comedy shorts released in 1915. He made the transition to adult actor smoothly, as romantic lead in the 1919 version of Anne of Green Gables. Things were going pretty well for him—steadily, if not spectacularly. 

Then, a love triangle sent him to San Quentin.

Kelly and Dorothy Mackaye met and fell in love while appearing on stage together, though she was already married and had a daughter with Ray Raymond, a vaudeville actor. With rumors a-swirling about their relationship, Raymond came to confront Kelly on April 16, 1927. Both men were drunk, but Kelly had several inches and 30 pounds on Raymond, and was a decade younger. He knocked him unconscious. Two days later, Raymond died of a brain hemorrhage.

Mackaye tried to hide Kelly’s part in Raymond’s fatal hemorrhage from the authorities, but the two were rumbled, and Kelly sentenced to one to 10 years for manslaughter; she for one to three for her attempt to cover it up. They were both out within 25 months, and married in 1931. Kelly remained with Mackaye until a car accident claimed her life in 1940, when she was only 40 years old.  

Perhaps Paul Kelly would have been able to recover his career if such a scandal had happened today, but it would have taken many years, and endless thinkpieces. Back at the dawn of the talkies though, and for several decades after, the studio publicity machines were indomitable, impenetrable things, able to sweep almost anything under the rug. 

Not everyone wanted that, however. Mackaye used her experiences in jail to write a play, which was adapted for the screen as Ladies They Talk About, a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle. Maybe because she was a stage actress rather than a movie star, the PR machine did not shy away from the way Mackaye’s life had informed the script. In the Warner Brothers Pressbook, readers are told, “Miss Mackaye is actually one of the authors of the picture! Everyone remembers her story—one of the most heart-compelling real-life romances that ever broke in print. Mention her in ads and publicity”. Paul Kelly is conspicuously absent in the whole pamphlet; Raymond’s death is described as “tragic” and “mysterious”, but his killer never named.

Upon his release, Kelly had declared, “I’m headed straight for the comeback trail… and I’m going to hit it hard!”  And he did. He returned to movie work in 1932 and took up pretty much where he left off—perhaps in an even better position, considering that his stage background allowed him to slip into the new world of the talkies far more easily than many of his silent movie contemporaries. It was like the whole sordid affair had never happened. 

A great irony of Kelly’s unusual career was how much of it he spent playing law enforcement roles, and other figures of authority. Of all the actors we’ve discussed this month, Kelly was by far the chilliest. There was little warmth to him, no softness, and that rigidity lent itself to cops, agents and DAs. Ill-used, it could result in some dull performances, like his cardboard army detective in Allotment Wives, who’s almost comically outshone by Kay Francis, the woman he’s meant to be investigating. More textured was his turn in The Accusing Finger, as a DA whose wrongful imprisonment for murder forces him to rethink his hardline stance on capital punishment. And in Side Street, his low-key detective builds a nice, convincing rapport with Chuck McGraw’s gravelly deputy. 

Still, as is all so often the case for actors, Kelly’s most interesting roles were his villainous and morally gray ones. Though he’s only in a handful of scenes in The Roaring Twenties, his nasty bootlegging gang leader sure makes an impact—no mean feat when acting against both James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. On the less prestigious end of the scale, his appearance in Dead Man’s Eyes, as the untrustworthy best friend of newly-blinded painter Lon Chaney Jr, is atypically, but enjoyably, goofy.

The best role of his whole career was in 1947’s Crossfire. He plays “The Man”—a mysterious figure who might provide a vital alibi for a soldier, Mitch (George Cooper), falsely accused of murder following a drunken night he can’t remember. While he’s on screen for less than three minutes, The Man’s bizarre refusal to divulge his true identity, and his strange relationship with the woman who may or may not be his wife (Gloria Grahame) leaves a long shadow over the rest of the movie. Kelly’s turn is alternately unnerving, intriguing, desperate and mesmerizing. He almost feels like a character let loose from a David Lynch film, who’s wandered his way back into the past.

Two decades of depicting law enforcement led to a professional brush with his personal history near the end of his career, when Paul Kelly starred as the titular warden in 1954’s Duffy of San Quentin, based on the memoir of real-life warden Clinton T. Duffy. Duffy was a remarkable character and a hero of the prison reform movement; Kelly plays him with sincerity, but all the color is added by Louis Hayward as the wrongfully convicted inmate, Romeo. The film was originally planned as a TV series, which is conceivably why it has such a disjointed, episodic quality, yet watching Kelly portray the warden of the prison where he was once jailed is strangely fascinating.  

Kelly’s life was an eventful one, and it ended prematurely: he died in 1956, at the age of 57, after a heart attack. Few remember his face now, and even fewer his unusual biography. He serves as a reminder of the stories lurking in the names beneath the titles of classic movies, stories worthy of movies themselves. 

Next week: we saddle up for a month-long exploration of classic Westerns and their modern remakes, exploring just what it is that makes the genre so resilient. 

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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