A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.
Enter George Raft groom cum chauffeur – He lurked hand and collar and hands in his pockets – Heavy with menace he takes the job of looking after someone who was sure to reach the film – Sticky end abroad – George Raft went home talking – Smoothest of all the tough guys tiring from films altogether – a little fleshier around the jaw suite but available for civilian jobs. (1)
Nearly forty years after his death, this star with admittedly limited acting ability still exerts a fascination on the minds of classical Hollywood movie fans as well as many internet sites, at least two of which devoted to his memory. He also appears in two passages in William Burroughs who earlier recognized the actor as the “Mr. Cool” of his generation – to say nothing of the Interzone! Raft was always well-dressed, both on and off screen, his well-attired appearance perhaps being the only connection he had with Burroughs. But the actor held the public imagination both during and after his lifetime, despite falling from critical grace. Containing a foreword by notable film historian Alan K. Rode, Stone Wallace’s 251 page biography George Raft: The Man Who Would be Bogart (BearManor Media, 2015) is a welcome addition to material on this actor’s life and cinematic status, since the last two studies appeared in the 70s during his lifetime. This book continues the story up to his final years, where he suffered from poor health while living in reduced circumstances until his death in 1980.
Born on September 26, 1895, George Raft is mostly known today both his roles in Warner Bros. movies of the 30s where he usually (but not always) played the role of a gangster derived both from his early life in New York and associates like Leeds-born Owney Madden (1891-1965) and Bugsy Siegel (1906-1947), whom he continued to befriend even to the detriment of his career. He turned down various roles, such as Dead End (1937), George Leach in the Michael Curtiz Sea Wolf (1941), High Sierra (1941) The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Double Indemnity (1944), several of which paved the way towards the eventual stardom of Humphrey Bogart (1899-1956). In one sense, the subtitle of this book is incorrect, since Raft never wanted to be Bogart, as the styles of the two actors differ immensely. Yet, in another sense, it is correct. Rather than wanting to extend his acting talents in the same way that Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973) and Bogart did, Raft preferred to work within his limitations, play a similar type of role, and give what he had to give to audiences. This had its benefits and limitations. Seeing a George Raft film meant viewing a familiar character, one with a particular star persona whom audiences could recognize and enjoy. However, when fashions changed, the star became a parody of himself and, unable to adjust to the demands of new eras, sunk into insignificant and cameo roles before his eventual death in Hollywood. Naturally, he would have desired the same star stature that Bogart obtained, but he would never have wanted to be an imitation of his more successful peer. Raft was his own person and delivered his best, whatever the situation. While Bogart and Robinson emerged from different backgrounds that contrasted with the roles they usually played on screen, Raft always represented the genuine article. Thus the secondary logo is rather misleading, since it draws too many comparisons between both actors that are actually unhelpful. Emphasis should be upon the unique qualities both had, rather than engaging in redundant comparisons.
However, Wallace mentions in his concluding chapter, “Perhaps more than any other star of his era, George strongly identified with his film roles. It was important to him that he be liked as much on camera as off…. Despite his bizarre mistakes over the career choices he made, “for better or worse, like many of the characters he created on film, he played the game his own way” (223).
Yet he did not fall into total obscurity either before or after his death. I remember him on UK TV in the 60s performing a restrained version of one of his dance routines in the mid-60s, as well as his appearance on the first year of Dee Time on BBC TV in 1967, the same year he was banned from England. The program was hosted by Simon Dee (1935-2009) whose fall and descent into obscurity was much more drastic than the former Hollywood star. It featured Raft appearing with his signature spin of the coin from Scarface (1932), infuriating fellow talk-show guest flamboyant Tory M.P. Gerald Nabarro (1913-1973) by comparing Al Capone to Robin Hood. Permanently exiled from England due to possible Mob associations following his successful hosting of a Mayfair gambling establishment The Colony Club and successful appearances on British TV such as The Eamonn Andrews Show (1965), Raft drifted into a succession of minor roles in American film and television until his eventual demise.
With a fond afterword by Dolores Fuller, filmography, selected radiography/teleography, footnotes, and index, the book contains a good survey of Raft’s life and career, from its beginning to the end. Noting his roles in Scarface, Each Dawn I Die (1939), and Rogue Cop (1954), Wallace notices Raft’s borrowings from underworld associates, such as Dutch Schultz (1901-1935), Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll (1908-1932), and Siegel. “Whether projecting pure onscreen evil or essaying a character imbued with sympathetic qualities, George Raft captured perfectly the essence of the slick urban criminal” (17).
Wallace notes several reasons for Raft’s current neglect among many film historians – his limited acting range in comparison to Cagney, Bogart, and Robinson; performance insecurities; temperamental behavior with producers and fellow-actors on set; as well as his associations with gangsters that tarnished his career. Yet when he performed in roles he felt comfortable with, he fell into that category of that James Bond song, “Nobody does it better.” He could fulfill both functions perfectly, whether on screen or giving pleasure off-screen to his many conquests. He was always a gentleman, never pressurizing his potential wives, had he been allowed a divorce from his first unfortunate attachment or those he engaged with in various liaisons.
He came to notice playing Guino Rinaldo in Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932), a role with the appropriate combination of coolness and menacing professionalism, appropriately underplayed to Paul’s Muni’s more exuberant Tony Camonte. If opposites attract, so did this combination, which led to Raft’s ascending status in Hollywood, due to his unique mode of performance. When I see Guino with murder on his face following the trigger-happy drunk in the nightclub being escorted outside, I often wonder whether reality is influencing performance, knowing of the actor’s early non-film activities.
He, of course, displayed his dancing abilities in many films, especially Bolero (1934) opposite Carole Lombard and in a later film Broadway (1942), in which he played himself in a 1929 remake of a Universal film whose fictional premises “had surprising parallels to George’s own New York experiences in the 1920s” (140) more than the later misconceived The George Raft Story (1961).
Like Ricardo Cortez during his early screen roles, Raft’s appearance was often compared to his late friend, Rudolph Valentino, but Raft shrugged off the resemblance and made clear that he was going to be his own person in films (67). One of his successful rejections involved the role of Popeye from William Faulkner’s Sanctuary in the film adaption The Story of Temple Drake (1933). That went to Jack LaRue and though the film was much tamer than the Faulkner original, and the character re-named as “Trigger” LaRue’s chance of stardom abruptly ended when the newly instituted 1934 Production Code and adverse publicity led to Joe Breen refusing the film’s re-release. However, Raft’s next role as Steve Brodie in The Bowery (1933) was much better, although it co-starred him opposite the hostile Wallace Berry, leading to tensions on the set, but also to his winning the affection of younger co-star Jackie Cooper, who sensed Raft’s genuine warmth towards children. His performance as Ed Beaumont in the 1935 film version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key earned him mostly positive reviews. In that film, Raft captures the author’s original conception of the perverse gambling aspect of the novel’s Ned Beaumont more than Alan Ladd does in the 1942 remake.
Though acquitting himself well in Warner Bros. films with competitors such as Cagney in Each Dawn I Die (1939) and Dietrich and Robinson in Manpower (1941), by the time of Casablanca Raft was regarded as a liability to the studio and was never considered for the role of Rick, despite claims to the contrary. The post-war era was not kind to an actor who remained in the same mold and, apart from a good performance in Rogue Cop, the days of stardom were now over. Further bad publicity and problems over taxes followed, leading to the former star now relegated to minor roles and appearing on TV shows as guest, as on the April 4, 1971 telecast of The Tonight Show, where Johnny Carson was surprised to see him turn away when a clip from Bolero was shown. Raft expressed his reluctance to look at his old films, an action he displayed on a 60s British TV show when he deliberately shielded his eyes from a movie extract explaining that he never looked at any of his old films, due to his critical opinion of his past performances.
Unfortunately, the one screen bio-pic devoted to his life and career, The George Raft Story (Spin of a Coin, the UK title) failed to do justice to the actor’s life and career with many changes made probably due to legal concerns. However, the very different looking Ray Danton attempted to capture some of Raft’s charisma, even including a dance sequence in Cuba during the 1950s in homage to Bolero.
Some errors appear that need correcting. Shad 0’Rory does not murder the senator’s son in The Glass Key (1935). On p. 135, para. 7, “insfobordinate” needs changing.
Overall, this is a good overview of an actor’s career who, despite his limitations, always exuded that rare form of cinematic charisma, which endeared him not just to his own generation, but others, as FB sites devoted to him succinctly reveal. He made favorable impressions on most of his female co-stars, such as Sylvia Sidney who, though aware of George’s limitations as an actor, spoke very highly of him as a person (72, 106). Maybe his career revealed many instances of bad choices and misguided decisions, but one reason that he still remains so popular today among general audiences was his non-condescending, genuine, and sincere persona that made one feel his screen image matched his real life personality. Very few actors can exude such qualities. Robert Powell once said of Dennis Waterman that “what you see you get” on meeting him. I can verify similar feelings meeting the late Clint Walker. However, disappointing his career may have been, George Raft will always retain this unique quality among both fans and devotees of classical Hollywood cinema.
- William Burroughs, The Ticket that Exploded. New York: Grove Press, Inc. 1967, p. 147, see also p. 150. Did “Sweet William” also envisage the Therns of John Carter (2011) in the same book? See pp. 54-55.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film international.