by Joanna Paxinou
George Raft was a big movie star in the 1930s and ‘40s. Frankly, I wasn’t a fan of his and only watched his films when James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart was in the movie with him.
Then I found out recently that Raft had grown up in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City…my old neighborhood. That interested me. I felt a connection with him in a funny way because of our Hell’s Kitchen kinship. I started researching him and discovered he had lived a hard but interesting life.
George Raft’s life was tough. He was born in 1895 and grew up in Hell’s Kitchen when the neighborhood was one of the roughest in New York City. It was a congested, poor neighborhood full of beatings, killings, vicious gangs and hardened mobsters. In spite of the public scrutiny, George Raft developed lifelong friendships with some mobsters.
His family was poor. He left school when he was 13 and always regretted his lack of an education. And 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.”
Raft tries Hollywood…
In 1927, Raft decided to go to Hollywood and take his chances on the movies.
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.” **
Raft becomes a big star…
During the 1930s and ‘40s Raft played gangsters and was very 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 Brothers gangster films.
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 when 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.
The beginning of the end…
Raft made 105 movies playing tough guy roles—gangsters and convicts. But he never saw himself on the screen. “I’m afraid to look,” he said, “because I’m probably awful.” **
Raft appeared in several big Warner Bros. hits: Bolero 1934, The Glass Key 1935, Each Dawn I Die 1939, and They Drive by Night 1940.
His association with the studio, however, wasn’t all smooth sailing. The studio was getting fed up with Raft’s refusal to star in certain movies.
He didn’t want to play a heel or an irredeemable killer. He rejected roles in more than 20 films. But there were two major roles he rejected that played a big part in finishing him as a major film star and 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. Then came the role that solidified Bogart’s superstar status—Rick Blaine in Casablanca. Bogart was now a legend…and he’s still 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 consideration.)
Raft finally realized his mistake rejecting what turned out to be terrific roles, but it was too late. He told Darryl Zanuck: “I want to play heavies again. I think I made a mistake.” +
And in 1953, Raft admitted: “Nobody has been breaking their necks trying to hire me. As far as films are concerned, I’m dead.” ***
After the halcyon Hollywood times…
After Raft rejected all the great roles Warner Bros. wanted him to play, he was reduced to playing small parts here and there for less powerful studios.
That’s when he turned to television, 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.
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.
He was hit with some hard times in the 1960s: He was involved in tax evasion, he was questioned about mob financial transactions and about his friend Benjamin Siegel’s murder.
Raft and Bugsy…
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 when the mob had sent Bugsy to California in 1945 to build an exclusive hotel/casino in Las Vegas.
After many delays, Bugsy finally built the Flamingo. The hotel kept losing money—it took five months before the Flamingo showed a profit. As far as the mob was concerned, it was too late.
Then there was the building budget—the mob had approved $1.5 million. When the final cost reached $5.6 million, the mob wasn’t happy. They ordered that Bugsy be killed—and he was in 1947.
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.
The memory of George Raft is still strong. Many of his films are available on YouTube, and are featured on Turner Classic Movies. He was even mentioned in the hit TV series The Sopranos when they called George Raft handsome.
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.
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.” **
I’m sure some bad characters must have grown up in Hell’s Kitchen. But I know many good ones came out of my old neighborhood. Considering all aspects of his life, I think George Raft was one of the good guys from Hell’s Kitchen.
For more information on George Raft’s film career, please visit my blog At the Movies with Joanna.
* Thackrey, T. O. (25 November 1980). “George Raft, tough guy in films and life, dead at 85”. Los Angeles Times.
*** In article posted on July 2, 2015 by ronbase entitled Black Snake: The Forgotten Life of George Raft by Ron Base.