In preparation of a forthcoming review I wanted to include a short paragraph about one of its featured players, Paul Cavanagh. If only it were that easy.
The usual starting points, IMDb and Wikipedia, were unrewarding in their brevity, and none of the sparse information that was offered raised my eyebrows in the least. But as you might imagine, beyond Cavanagh's inclusion in the casts of the many movies and television shows he appeared in over thirty-plus years beginning in 1928, there isn't a ton of dedicated information out there. So I scrolled a bit further through Google's results and discovered Case No. 9840 from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, naming Paul Cavanagh as respondent in a case versus the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
If you're not quite sure if you've seen Paul Cavanagh before, you very likely have. He has a supporting part as an admirer of Vincent Price's skills in House of Wax (1953) and he appeared in three of the Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce: The Scarlet Claw (1944), The House of Fear and The Woman in Green (both 1945). While I have a hard time remembering anyone beyond Joan Crawford, John Garfield and Oscar Levant in Humoresque (1946), it was Cavanagh who played Joan's husband. He was the hunter accompanying Neil Hamilton in Tarzan and His Mate (1934), the second entry in that long-running movie series starring Johnny Weissmuller, and he was Mae West's leading man in 1935's Goin' To Town. To me he sort of looks like a cross between John Boles and John Miljan and can crop up portraying characters found between those two extremes ranging from kindness to sliminess.
Paul Cavanagh is best described as a sturdy actor, especially in support.
Here's his bland Wikipedia biography:
But here's the cover page of Case No. 9840:
It's that bit found inside the parenthesis that sent me down the rabbit hole.
First thought: Neither Paul Cavanagh or William G. Atkinson can be a very uncommon name. Is this the same man?
Paul Cavanagh had been active on the London stage between 1926 and May 1929 and his first few film credits, Two Little Drummer Boys, A Woman in the Night (both 1928) and The Runaway Princess (1929) were each British productions released there between May 1928 and March 1929. Cavanagh came overseas to make his only Broadway appearance in Scotland Yard, which played at the Sam H. Harris Theatre from September 27, 1929 through some time that same October. This timing coincides with his trip back to England later in 1929 and subsequent return to the United States later that same year. It's noted that this time he settled in California (rather than New York) and shortly after comes his first Hollywood film credit for MGM's adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's Strictly Unconventional, a May 1930 release.
There is no other Paul Cavanagh or Paul Cavanaugh found actively working during this period, so I've little doubt at this point that we have a match. Further evidence comes around the midpoint of the 82-page transcript of Cavanagh's case with Internal Revenue with inclusion of a copy of Cavanagh's 1935 tax return. I found this document fascinating, especially this part:
You can click the above to enlarge and what you'll find is a summary of Paul Cavanagh's wages earned in 1935 as a movie actor. Three items compose his earnings: $13,175.00 paid by Paramount Productions, Inc., $11,625.00 paid by Twentieth Century Fox and $14,291.67 paid by United Artists, Samuel Goldwyn noted in parenthesis.
So what films did Paul Cavanagh work on in 1935? The IMDb lists these:
- Goin' to Town for Emanuel Cohen Productions through Paramount
- Escapade for MGM
- Without Regret for Paramount
- Thunder in the Night for Fox Film Corporation distributed through Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
- Splendor for the Samuel Goldwyn Company and released through United Artists.
So close, but what about that MGM production sticking out like a sore thumb? According to the IMDb it was produced in April and May of 1935 and Film Daily noted April 8 as the start date. But if you look at IMDb's Escapade page, Cavanagh's billing is a little iffy:
He's listed last among the primary cast members, which is fine, but he is the only member of the cast whose character does not have a name. That's a bit strange. Compounding matters, Escapade's status is somewhere between deep underground and lost. You're probably not going to see it, at least not right now. TCM's page for Escapade does not include Cavanagh at all. Nor is he mentioned as being associated with the film in any of the trade magazines of the period.
The IMDb credit is a mistake. Cavanagh's tax return matches Cavanagh's 1935 year in film.
And with that, Case No. 9840 corrects and fills in the early portion of Paul Cavanagh's biography.
I did discover that despite swearing to the contrary Cavanagh did shave a few years off of his age:
Birth date aside, the interesting part here is the revelation of a wife and a son. The only marriage linked to Cavanagh in his traditional biography did not take place until 1946, when he was 57 years old. This first wife is identified elsewhere in the document when Cavanagh references an E. Jean Atkinson repeatedly in reference to a 1929 document. He eventually states:
We can find them together in Canada's census from 1921:
Yes, another document you can click to enlarge. It is interesting in revealing Cavanagh's profession as barrister, which actually jibes with Wikipedia's note that he studied law at Cambridge. That piece of biography also garners brief mention in Case No. 9840, towards the end of this snippet summarizing the events of 1935:
A preview of 1916 Canada census information otherwise hidden behind a paywall (I can't afford to subscribe to all of these sites!) reveals E. Jean Atkinson's first name to be Ellen:
Returning to the 1921 Canada census, it shows that the young family is doing well enough to have a maid on the premises. Also of interest to the Paul Cavanagh obsessive is the fact that he speaks both English and French, or at least claims to do so, and the family's religion is Church of England. 1912 refers to the date of immigration to Canada.
Other Paul Cavanagh biographical bits gleaned from Case No. 9840 include mention of World War I:
And his marital status at the time of testimony in September 1939:
Case No. 9840 sketches Paul Cavanagh's biography from the time of his arrival in Canada in 1912 through the end of the 1930s. It also points the way to other documents that help in tracing his English origins.
On a 1937 ship's manifest Cavanagh identifies himself as "William Atkinson known as Paul Cavanagh" and provides his place of birth as Falling on Tyne, England. I guess that must be what the locals call it, because I had a hard time finding many references to Falling on Tyne online, but those I did placed it in the city of Durham in Northeast England. That further helped connect the dots between Paul Cavanagh and a specific William G. Atkinson, he of Darlington, Durham, England:
Clicking his father's name from that same source reveals Cavanagh's siblings (and paternal grandmother):
Very nice to have found someone had already compiled that bit of work, but for more definite documentation you'll find most of those same names listed together on the 1901 census of England, Wales and Scotland:
That's another you can click to enlarge. William G. is the second name from the bottom on this record that can be viewed here with a Find My Past (paid) subscription.
Herbert must have been out that day, or perhaps there is no Herbert. Charles would not be born for another couple of years, assuming there is a Charles. Generally the folks who compile these genealogy charts are quite obsessive about their research as very often they are researching their own families, so I err on the side of their existence, but my own digging begins and ends with William G. Atkinson aka Paul Cavanagh.
One item that confused me, though it may just be a bit of publicity gone awry, was this January 18, 1936 clipping from the Palm Beach Daily News that identifies Cavanagh's sister as "Lady Paget."
All I could find to follow up on that were one or two references to Lady Paget being in Hollywood during that time, one of a few titled hostesses from overseas who was usually mentioned in the same sentence as the Countess Dorothy di Frasso. Perhaps older sister Lily married well, or maybe there's nothing to this.
By the way, the only other near reference I could find to Cavanagh's early days was a tantalizing snippet from Google Books that will likely have me chasing down back numbers of the Durham County Local History Society's bulletin so I can read it in full:
I believe we can now sketch Paul Cavanagh's early biography in brief as follows:
Paul Cavanagh was born William G. Atkinson in Darlington, Durham, England on December 8, 1888. He studied law at Cambridge and moved to Canada in 1912. In 1914 he married Ellen Jean Atkinson in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Cavanagh was then employed by the Provincial Government in the Agricultural Department. He left Alberta in 1915 and returned to England to take part in the First World War. A son was born in 1917, presumably during a period of military leave, and Cavanagh returned on a full-time basis after completion of the War in 1919. Upon his return he became a barrister in Edmonton, but he and his wife grew estranged and separated in 1922 when Ellen Jean moved to Toronto. Within a few years Cavanagh returned to England where he took up a career on the London stage using the name of Paul Cavanagh for the first time. He appeared in several London theatrical productions between 1926 and 1929 and also appeared in his first few films while in Great Britain. In 1929 he traveled to America where he made his Broadway debut in Scotland Yard late that year. He briefly returned to England after Scotland Yard closed, but arrived back in America just before the 1930 New Year. Shortly thereafter he settled in Hollywood where he became a movie fixture throughout the 1930s and beyond.
The rest of Cavanagh's story is generally known. He married a second time, to model Catherine Layfield Luhn, in 1946. They had one daughter together and moved to her native Baltimore after Cavanagh retired from show business in 1960. Cavanagh, 33 years his wife's senior, left her a widow when he died in London, March 15, 1964, at age 75. Mrs. Cavanagh passed away in 2012 at age 90.
Wonderful detective work.
Cliff Aliperti says
Thank you! Most of it just landed in my lap though by opening Case No. 9840, an absolute trove of information and extremely fascinating–I’d get a kick out of seeing anybody’s tax return from 1935, but a movie actor’s? Can’t top that!
You got lucky sound like Discovery ID channel missing person case
I love ID Channel
Cliff Aliperti says
It kind of was like discovering another whole person, Kelly.
Except a large portion of it is incorrect, especially regarding names, dates, relatives, birth place, etc. As the daughter of Paul and Catherine Cavanagh, I am in a position to know this. Sometimes it’s best just to let a person’s work speak for itself, don’t you think?Joan Cavanagh
Cliff Aliperti says
The starting point for everything related above came from his own testimony. I’ve backed it up with additional documents as shown above and those pieces fit into the 1930s Tyneside local article that was later uncovered. With apologies if you are who you say, but I’d need more than general claims in an anonymous blog comment to reconsider any of it. I can always be reached at [email protected] if you would like to provide additional details.
I just sent you the following email:
I appreciate your interest in my father’s work and I understand that you are respectful of it. I listened to your interview etc. about him.
You did a good job of piecing together some information–as an historian myself, I am impressed. There are mistakes. I’m not interested in supplying the corrections or, as you put it, “further details.” I would hope that my father’s privacy would be respected.
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks so much for taking the time to reply, Miss Cavanagh. I’ve just sent my own reply, which I’ll post here only by your request. I will say here that I do retract my previous comment casting doubts as to your identity. Thank you again!
Fascinating. Well done! Always loved his speaking voice.
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks, Vienna! He does have a great voice, I agree.
Jordan Allen says
I’m a journalist with the BBC in the UK, and am currently looking at Paul/William/Billy Cavanagh/Atkinson myself, after stumbling across some old press clippings… if you’re able to help with some mutual sharing of information, please send me an email to [email protected]
Cliff Aliperti says
Just sent an email over to you.