Oklahoma native Ray Cooke (1905-1963) was 22 when he began working as a bit player in Hollywood pictures. He frequently played bellhops, sailors, messenger boys, cab drivers, chauffeurs, and the like. His earliest films include Sugar Daddies (1927) with Laurel and Hardy, The Cameraman (1928) and Spite Marriage (1929) with Buster Keaton, Show People (1928), The Hollywood Revue of 1929, Mammy (1930) and the remake of The Unholy Three (1930).
Cooke’s peak came between 1930 and 1933, when he starred and co-starred in numerous comedy shorts for Educational, Christie, and C.C. Burr. He is best known for starring as the title character in a series of adaptations of Sewell Ford’s “Torchy” stories (a totally different Torchy series from the later one starring Glenda Farrell, which was based on a comic strip). Cooke was the second guy to play Torchy — the original, in the silent days, had been Johnny HInes.
Unfortunately, these shorts didn’t lead to bigger and better things for Cooke. In features, he rarely rose above the ranks of walk-ons. As such, look for him in Blonde Crazy (1931) with James Cagney and Joan Blondell (1931), Mae West’s I’m No Angel (1933), Flying Down to Rio (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), Six Day Bike Rider (1934) with Joe E. Brown, Gold Diggers of 1935, Our Relations (1936) with Laurel and Hardy, and Pick a Star (1937).
After early 1942 he laid off from pictures for a period of eight years. This was almost certainly to join in the war effort. Since the absence extends a few years after the war as well, (and he was around 36 when World War II began), my educated guess is that he entertained troops with the U.S.O., though this remains to be ascertained or confirmed. In 1950 he returned to the screen for small parts in three more comedy pictures: the Leon Errol short Spooky Wooky (1950), Red Skelton’s Watch the Birdie (1950) and Bob Hope’s The Lemon Drop Kid (1951). All told, he was in over 100 films.
To learn more about the history of variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.
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