Hollywood films in the early 1930s were wild in ways that might surprise theatergoers today. Films featuring gangsters, violence and illegal substances packed the movie houses, even as the nation was suffering through a brutal crime wave.
The belief that certain actors were ne'er-do-wells off camera as well only heightened their popularity. One such rumor, for example, was that George Raft was an actual mobster.
So it was no surprise then when actor Paul Kelly emerged from San Quentin State Prison after serving time for homicide, he was able to stage a successful Hollywood comeback.
Kelly was a tough-guy supporting actor with a stern, set jaw and a mean-looking glint. Raised in Brooklyn, Kelly began as a child actor on stage and in some of the earliest silent films then being shot in crude, open-air studios in Manhattan. One of his closest acting buddies on Broadway was another teenager on the rise, Dorothy "Dot" Mackaye, who specialized in musical comedy.
By 1926, Kelly was a Broadway success feeling the pull of Hollywood. Mackaye made the move earlier that year with her husband, song-and-dance man Ray Raymond. Described by The Times as a "red-headed charmer," Mackaye moved west to pursue stage acting, as the Raymonds professed little interest in the movies.
While Ray Raymond toured the country on the vaudeville circuit, Mackaye kept house at their home at 2261 Cheremoya Ave., not far from Kelly's place on North Gower Street. As it turned out, she was having a passionate love affair with Kelly. Raymond suspected it, Kelly more or less admitted it and Mackaye, absurdly, denied it.
On Saturday, April 16, 1927, Mackaye and Kelly were together at his place, getting drunk on bootleg gin. A soused Kelly decided to force the issue and telephoned Raymond. "I heard you've been talking about me," he said, insisting that Raymond "cut it out." Raymond told Kelly to come over. He did.
According to the Raymonds' maid, the two sat down on a davenport. Ray demanded, "Where is Mrs. Raymond?" Kelly shot back: "I don't know." "Yes, you do!" Then Kelly, all 6 feet and muscle, grabbed him in a headlock and pummeled the smaller man with six hard knocks to the head, dropping him on the floor. Although it seemed that Raymond was left with nothing worse than a black eye, within days, he died. Kelly was arrested and charged with murder.
At Kelly's trial, Mackaye testified that their friendship was "clean and beautiful." But the maid testified that Kelly slept there often. The Times described Kelly's face and neck turning "a crimson red" when prosecutor Robert Kemp shouted to the jury, "Four of the Ten Commandments have been broken in this case. Can he violate the law of God and the law of man and get away with it?"
When the judge pronounced sentence, one to 10 years in San Quentin for manslaughter, Kelly sagged.
Screenwriter Jim Tully visited San Quentin and later recounted a conversation with Kelly, who insisted that he didn't kill Raymond. Tully remembered his fellow Irishman before the crime as "generous, a square dealer, with the pride and the laughter of the Gael. And now the crows of trouble were walking around his eyes."
After serving just two years, he walked out free on Aug. 2, 1929. In an odd choice of words he declared, "I'm headed straight for the comeback trail … and I'm going to hit it hard."
And hit it he did. Kelly signed with Universal and appeared in countless gangster films, many of them low-budget B pictures. Over the years, the quality of his films varied. He appeared in "The Roaring Twenties" with James Cagney and >Humphrey Bogart and in the musical melodrama "Broadway Thru a Keyhole." He also appeared in such Poverty Row fare as "Tarzan's New York Adventure" and, later, in two film noir classics, "Fear In the Night" and "The File on Thelma Jordan."
The tabloids buzzed again when Kelly and Dorothy Mackaye-Raymond were married in 1931. She did not enjoy their new life long, however; she died in a freak car accident in the Valley in 1940. Kelly thrived professionally, as he had vowed.
His successful comeback ended when he had a fatal heart attack at age 57. One of his last roles was portraying real-life warden Clinton Duffy in "Duffy of San Quentin."