The Sting of Charles Ray

Though he was one of the top Hollywood movie stars of the late teens and most of the 1920s, multiple factors have served to obscure the memory of Charles Ray (1891-1943).

Nowadays, there’s his name, which he shares with a popular contemporary sculptor, and is of course the name of Ray Charles in reverse. This means that without auxiliary search terms like “actor” or “silent movies”, finding him on the internet is trickier than it might be; he’s somewhat buried. Of course, if his films were familiar, people would learn about him that way. But various factors contributed to his body of work becoming obscure over time. One is that his popular vehicles were formulaic. They were action comedies in which he normally played an “aw shucks” country boy who was drawn into heroic adventures, normally foiling the designs of dastardly urban con men and crooks. This in and of itself wouldn’t necessarily consign him to oblivion: after all, the films of Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, and Mary Pickford, among many others, followed formulaic templates, and they lived on in popular memory. But subsequent to that, a series of missteps, mishaps, and misfires, accumulated to douse his stardom by the end of the silent era, and he left no major classics behind for generations to remember.

Ray had attended the Wallace Dramatic School in Los Angeles and had toured with stock companies and in vaudeville throughout California and Arizona before finding work as an extra with Thomas Ince around 1912. Bit parts gave way to larger supporting roles, until in 1915 he appeared opposite Frank Keenan in The Coward and this elevated him to stardom. The titles of many of his films illuminate the character of the formula we mentioned: The Clodhopper (1917), String Beans (1919), Hay Foot Straw Foot (1919), Homer Comes Home (1920). There were scores of these movies, and by the ’20s, Ray had become a wealthy man, living in ostentatious luxury in a mansion.

In 1920, Ray parted ways with Paramount, where he had been since 1917 and formed his own production company. Initially, the venture was quite successful. In 1920 he starred in the screen version of George M. Cohan’s 45 Minutes from Broadway, a sensible choice, given that it was a well-known property with proven box office appeal. The gimmick of The Old Swimmin’ Hole (1921) was the it contained NO intertitles, a gambit for which it was critically acclaimed. (Then, as now, many critics believe that from the standpoint of pure cinema, intertitles are something of a cheat). So things were going okay. But then Icarus flew too high. In 1923, he sank his personal fortune into an expensive adaptation of Longfellow’s The Courtship of Miles Standish, complete with life-sized Mayflower replica. It bankrupted both himself and his company. Meanwhile, his major supporter within the industry, Thomas Ince had died in 1924. Still, Ray starred in another dozen films through the end of the silent era, including Bright LIghts (1925) with Pauline Starke and Lilyan Tashman, Paris (1926) with Joan Crawford, The American (1927) with Bessie Love, Getting Gertie’s Garter (1927) with Sally Rand, and The Count of Ten (1928) with James Gleason and Jobyn Ralston. Ray is often spoken about as though he were finished after the first half of the decade, but it wasn’t at all true.

Still, the transition to sound was a difficult time for many actors. Ray opted to return to the stage between 1929 and 1931, returning to the screen in 1932 for a couple of gimmicky comedy shorts. He then played supporting roles in a half dozen features at the major studios over the next few years: School for Girls (1934) with Sidney Fox and Paul Kelly; Ladies Should Listen (1934) with Cary Grant and Frances Drake; By Your Leave (1934) with Frank Morgan; Ticket to a Crime (1934) with Ralph Graves; Welcome Home (1935) with James Dunn; and Hollywood Boulevard (1936). In 1935 he also starred in the low-budget independent Just My Luck.

But this was not enough to put Ray back on top. In 1934 he filed for bankruptcy again. The following year, his wife, to whom he had been married since 1915, divorced him. At this juncture he tried his hand at writing, publishing a collection of short fiction called Hollywood Stories, and then launching a magazine called Charles Ray’s Hollywood Digest, which had many celebrity contributors, but only lasted two issues.

In 1940, he returned to movies yet again, now in non-speaking, usually uncredited bit roles. Many of these are well known pictures, although Ray is quite anonymous in them: A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941), Rio Rita (1942), Mrs. Miniver (1942), and Tennessee Johnson (1942) among them. In 1943 he died of an infection from a bad tooth. His second wife, French actress Yvonne Guerin had died the previous year. Ray’s last credit, out of a total of 175, was in An American Romance (1944) with Brian Donlevy, released posthumously.

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For more on vaudeville, where Ray sometimes performed, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous; and for more on silent film and classic comedy, read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.