GEORGE RAFT…ACTOR OR GANGSTER?

by Joanna Paxinou

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George Raft was a big movie star in the 1930s and ‘40s. He played gangsters and was believable. Some people felt his believability was because he was close to many gangsters and considered them friends. This was well known in Hollywood and these associations even helped him get roles in Warner Bros. gangster films produced in the 1930s and ‘40s. (The studio was known as Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. from 1923 until 1967.)

Some people wondered if Raft was a mobster. But there was one time when his mob connections were valuable. In his 1976 autobiography Cagney By Cagney, James Cagney explained that when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1942, the mob wanted to infiltrate the film industry. Cagney objected so the mob ordered his murder. When Raft found out, he used his mob connections to stop the killing. Maybe that’s why Cagney called Raft “…the toughest man he ever met. “ *

But in the 1950s, studio executives were getting nervous about Raft’s gangster connections. Plus his movies weren’t doing well and his success at the box office was damaged. So his career at Warner Bros. ended in 1942 when Raft bought his contract.

After that he toured England, Africa and the US entertaining the troops in ‘44. And later that year he starred in a Universal musical Follow the Boys that did pretty well at the box office. But at this time, things started going downhill for George Raft.

I think the major reason for his declining film career was his unfortunate decisions regarding the film roles he turned down. Some of these roles were in movies that became classics and made stars of actors who grabbed the parts Raft rejected.

The beginning of the end…

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Raft made 105 movies playing tough guy roles—gangsters or convicts. But he never saw himself on the screen. “I’m afraid to look,” he said, “because I’m probably awful.” **

He had his own way of playing a part. He explained: “You see, I found it tough work. What I would do would be to think over the scene in my mind and try to become whoever I was playing. I would try to feel like the person in that particular scene. Sometimes my words would be different from the script.” **

He played himself in 10 films, and in 1961, Ray Danton portrayed him in the biographical film The George Raft Story.

Raft appeared in several big Warner Bros. hits: Bolero 1934, The Glass Key 1935, Each Dawn I Die 1939, and They Drive by Night in 1940.

But his association with Warner Bros. wasn’t all smooth sailing. The studio was getting fed up with Raft’s refusal to star in certain movies. According to producer Hal Wallis in his 1980 Starmaker: The Autobiography of Hal Wallis that he wrote with Charles S. Higham, Wallis said: “Our association with Raft was a constant battle from start to finish. Hypersensitive to public accusations of underworld connections, he flatly refused to play the heavy in any film. This was ridiculous, because his greatest role had been the slow-smiling, coin-tossing hoodlum in Scarface. Time and time again we offered him gangster parts, and time and time again he turned them down.”

Raft didn’t want to play a heel or an irredeemable killer. He refused two major roles that launched Humphrey Bogart’s career—making him a superstar. The part of Roy “Mad Dog” Earle in the 1941 High Sierra was a tremendous turning point in Bogart’s career making him a star, according to director Raoul Walsh.

Next, Raft turned down what would become an iconic role—Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon—a 1941 hit and huge success—again grabbed by Bogart. Then came the role that solidified Bogart’s superstar status—Rick Blaine in Casablanca. Bogart was now a legend…and he remains a legend almost 70 years after his death. (It is said that Raft wanted the Rick Blaine part, but by then, his many refusals had taken him out of any consideration.)

Raft even turned down the lead role in what is considered a film noir classic—Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity.

Around 1953, Raft said, “Nobody has been breaking their necks trying to hire me. As far as films are concerned, I’m dead.” +

He finally realized his mistake—too late. He told Darryl Zanuck, “I want to play heavies again. I think I made a mistake.” ++

His poor decisions finally ended his career as a major star.

The beginning…

The beginning of George Raft’s life was tough. He was born in 1895. He grew up in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan when the neighborhood was one of the roughest in New York City. His family was poor. He left school when he was 13 and always felt self-conscious about his lack of an education.

At 14, he left home. He tried everything to make money. Raft said: “I was just trying to find something that I liked that would make me a living. I saw guys fighting, so I fought. I saw guys playing ball, so I played ball. Then I saw guys dancing…and getting paid for it.” +++

So he turned to dancing…and he was terrific. The sensuous, sexy tango was his specialty, but he also danced a mean Charleston. In fact, according to his 1959 autobiography Steps in Time, Fred Astaire said: “I saw what I consider the neatest, fastest Charleston dancer ever—George Raft. He practically floored me with his footwork.”

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In the biography George Raft by Lewis Yablonsky, Raft explained, “I never felt I was a great dancer. I was more of a stylist, unique. I was never a Fred Astaire or a Gene Kelly, but I was sensuous.”

Before moving to Hollywood, Raft began his dancing career performing at amusement parks. Then he won a Charleston competition that launched him as a successful professional dancer. But he made his mark as a sensuous tango dancer. He performed in exhibition dances and nightclubs in New York City. He went on tour to Paris, Vienna, Rome, London and New York popularizing the tango. He also appeared on Broadway and danced in NYC nightclubs where he was a big hit.

In 1927, he decided to go to Hollywood and take his chances on the movies. His screen debut was in Queen of the Night Clubs starring Texas Guinan, owner and hostess of nightclubs, who insisted that Raft have a small role.

Raft’s big break in Hollywood…

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His big break came four years later when director Howard Hawks gave Raft a role in Scarface playing against Paul Muni in 1931. This film also introduced Raft’s trademark—flipping a coin. The film was a hit and made Raft a star. Playing against Muni’s flamboyant performance, Raft’s quiet presence made a deep impression on audiences. As Raft said: “That was the big one. People remembered me.” **

After the halcyon Hollywood times…

After Raft rejected all the great roles Warner Bros. wanted him to play, his film career was over. He played in a couple of small parts here and there, but he realized he had to look elsewhere for work. That’s when he turned to TV, but nothing solid developed there. He appeared in 27 episodes of a police drama that only lasted one season in 1953 called I’m the Law. He performed a tango dance on The Ed Sullivan Show and appeared in a ‘67 episode of Batman.

After his appearance in Around the World in 80 Days in 1956, Raft said, “The telephone just seemed to stop ringing.” He decided to seek other work. +++

He performed odd jobs: In 1955, he was part owner and entertainment director at the Flamingo in Las Vegas. He acted as a celebrity greeter at the mafia-owned Hotel Capri Casino in Havana until 1959 when Fidel Castro took over Cuba and closed all the casinos.

In 1966, he was heading to England to do some television work, but he was banned as undesirable because of his mob connections. In the early 1970s, Raft returned to Las Vegas as goodwill ambassador at the Riviera.

He played small roles in a couple of movies, including a bit in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot in 1959. His last film was ironically titled The Man with Bogart’s Face released in 1980, the year George Raft died.

The 1960s presented some difficult times for Raft: He was involved in tax evasion, and was questioned about his friend Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s murder, and even had to testify about mob financial transactions.

Raft and Bugsy…

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During his teenage years in Hell’s Kitchen, he met Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel who had moved to the neighborhood. Even though he became a very dangerous gangster, he would have a lifelong friendship with Raft. In fact, Bugsy stayed at Raft’s home in Los Angeles when Raft was a big movie star and Bugsy was a big mobster.

The mob had sent Bugsy to California in 1945 to build an exclusive hotel/casino in Las Vegas. He took on the project, but there were difficulties. After many delays, the Flamingo was finally built, but not completely. This didn’t stop Bugsy from holding what was supposed to be an extravagant opening night on December 26, 1946. He invited top Hollywood celebrities, and for entertainment he hired Jimmy Durante and Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat. But opening night was a flop.

Many stars didn’t come because of bad weather. The Flamingo lost $300,000 during its first week in operation. It kept losing money for five months until it finally started being profitable in May 1947. But as far as the mob was concerned, it was too late.

The mob had set the projected cost of the Flamingo at $1.2 million. But Bugsy wasn’t a shrewd enough businessman and building costs soared. When they reached $5.6 million, the mob made a decision. In 1947, while sitting in his LA home reading the newspaper, Bugsy was killed when four bullets tore through his body.

Raft’s reputation…

George Raft was known as a gentleman, a snappy dresser, fantastic tango dancer, a tough guy, and quite a hit with the ladies.

He married once but lived apart from his wife, though he took care of her until her death 50 years later. That didn’t stop him from having affairs with several leading ladies, including Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Tallulah Bankhead, Norma Shearer, May West, Betty Grable and many others.

Everyone agreed he was a gentleman. He respected women and when filming Manpower in 1941 he had to hit Marlene Dietrich, but couldn’t. Filming was delayed a couple of days until Dietrich told Raft he had to hit her. He finally did, but always regretted it.

The memory of George Raft is still strong. Many of his films are available on YouTube and are shown often on Turner Classic Movies. He was even mentioned on the hit TV series The Sopranos when he was called handsome.

His honors…

It was 1940 when George Raft placed his handprints in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. And he was doubly honored when he was awarded two stars on the Walk of Fame: one for motion pictures and one for television.

His ending…

George Raft had been a successful movie star for a few years. In fact, in his heyday he was one of the highest paid stars. But toward the end of his life, he had very little money. He was a good friend who had helped several people financially, never asking for repayment. But he was philosophical about his money: “I must have gone through $10 million during my career. Part of the loot went for gambling, part for horses, and part for women. The rest I spent foolishly.” **

 

 

 

 

 

* In article posted on July 2, 2015 by ronbase entitled Black Snake: The Forgotten Life of George Raft by Ron Base.

** IMDb

+   ”George Raft to Give Pictures Away.” Goulburn Evening Post New South Wales, Australia. May 14, 1953. Page 1 via National Library of Australia.

++ “George Raft Dances Again.” The World’s News. No. 2707. New South Wales, Australia. November 7, 1953. p. 27. Retrieved July 27, 2017 – via National Library of Australia.

+++ Thackrey, T. O. (25 November 1980). “George Raft, tough guy in films and life, dead at 85.” Los Angeles Times.