WEIRDLAND: George Raft: Film Gangster

Thursday, October 04, 2012

George Raft: Film Gangster

Double Feature DVD: Two noir films: "Whistle Stop" and "Detour", plus "Aesop's sound Fables The Cat's Canary" (Cartoon): In this bizarre musical tale, a cat (resembling Felix) catches a canary, which he promptly eats for dinner. But it is the trip down the digestive tract that gives this cartoon distinction: the singing bird just won't stop singing!

Promotional still of George Raft and Ava Gardner in "Whistle Stop" (1946) directed by Léonide Moguy

"Whistle Stop": A story of love and intrigue in a small railroad town. Kenny manages to clean up his act and win Mary back, only to be framed for murder by her jealous suitor. Mark Hellinger spotted a possible actress for his next feature in the independently produced, low budget noir, Whistle Stop (1946). The next Hellinger feature, an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's story, The Killers (1946), would go on to make MGM contract player Ava Gardner a big star.

"Detour": Suspense as startling as a strangled scream! This is it, the defining motion picture in all of "film noir," written by Academy Award-nominee Martin Goldsmith (The Narrow Margin) and directed by legendary B-movie maker Edgar G. Ulmer (Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, The Black Cat). Tom Neal (The Brute Man, The Pride of the Yankees), handsome 1940's leading man, brings to thrilling life a down-on-his-luck nightclub performer who takes one wrong turn and picks up the meanest femme fatale in all of "noir," played to perfection by the incomparable Ann Savage (The Dark Horse, The Spider) in one of the most powerful and riveting performances ever recorded on celluloid.

"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." -George Raft (1901-1980)

George Raft (The man who would be Bogart) by Stone Wallace and Alan K. Rode (2008): George Raft achieved the reputation as one of the screen's toughest and most convincing movie mobsters. His roles in Scarface, Each Dawn I Die, Invisible Stripes, Rogue Cop and Some Like it Hot were so convincing that audiences frequently thought they were watching the genuine article. Yet to classify Raft merely as a cinema gangster is to do him a disservice.

He delivered equally strong performances in such classics as Night After Night, Bolero, Souls at Sea, Spawn of the North, They Drive by Night and Manpower, his success in these roles quickly establishing him as one of the top box office draws during the 1930s and 40s. But Raft just missed the brass ring of superstardom - due to his notorious friendships with men such as "Bugsy" Siegel and, more significantly, his famous rejections of films that his rival Humphrey Bogart turned into major triumphs: Dead End, High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. Written with the generous cooperation of many of Raft's friends and co-workers, George Raft: The Man Who Would Be Bogart details the fascinating life and career highs and lows of a man who created an unforgettable image.

Having had to defend himself while living on the New York streets, George tried to capitalize on his ability as a streetfighter, and when he was sixteen he became a professional boxer. He had his first fight at the new Polo Athletic Club on 129th Street and Park Avenue. “I always used to pal around with fellows who were older than I was. One night we crashed the gate at this A.C. The guy I was with knew a fighter and we were in the dressing room. Some kid didn’t show up. The guy I was with had a lot of moxie and he bullied his way up to the promoter and told him, ‘This kid here’—meaning me—’is a hundred-and sixteen pound killer.’ I became the substitute fighter and climbed through the ropes half scared to death. Although he had about seventeen fights at the Polo A.C. for a few dollars each, his undistinguished record included being knocked out seven times.

After midnight, Lindy’s was the place to be. Show business people like Al Jolson or Ben Bernie would be in booths adjacent to those of gangsters like Arnold Rothstein and Waxey Gordon. Writers and columnists like Mark Hellinger, Walter Winchell, and Damon Runyon found their basic material by observing this mixed swirl of exciting personalities. For George, the experience of being at Lindy’s was comparable to working in his uncle’s barber shop. He was an outsider, a hanger-on dazzled by people and conversations around him. Now established as a polished dancer, George began to work in what were then called “tea rooms” —dark, well-appointed cafés which women frequented in the afternoons. Idle housewives, highclass prostitutes, and wealthy dowagers were the main clientele. Long before women’s liberation, these establishments reversed the notion of which sex is the aggressor. Attractive men like George and Rudolph Valentino, who also worked in these places, were the sought-after companions.

"I never thought I was handsome. I felt I was the black sheep and the ugliest kid in my family. But I realized then that women really could go for me." George had flirted with a number of professions. Eager for acclaim and wealth he had tried his hand at pool, boxing, and baseball. An agent saw him dance in a ballroom contest and signed him up to dance, for the first time, in a legitimate theater, the Union Square Theater on 14th Street. "I could’ve been the first X-rated dancer. I was very erotic. I used to caress myself as I danced. 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. Later when I made pictures like 'Bolero' (1934), I used the same sexy movements.

Carole Lombard and George Raft in "Bolero" (1934) directed by Wesley Ruggles

Eva (George's mother) felt her son’s success was incomplete unless it was shared with the right woman. Getting married at that time was the farthest thing from George’s mind. He had all the women he cared to have; moreover, he was concerned with his rising career. Yet one girl, Grayce Mulrooney, did appeal to him. Grayce had been one of the girls who had been his ballroom partners and he had dated her a number of times. “We had breakfast, went down to the City Hall in Wilkes-Barre. And by four that afternoon I was a married man. Finally I figure, this is it, my wedding night. I took a bath. I was always a perfume nut—so I put some perfume on. Then I put on soft silk pajamas and my robe. Grayce goes into the bathroom and I’m waiting with great anticipation. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, this isn’t too bad. Maybe fate had stepped in.’ I began to think it might be nice to have a family. I liked kids. I was tired of one-night stands and the kind of girls I had been running around with, and Grayce looked good. Finally I put my arms around her and she stiffened. She said, ‘I’m too upset to make love tonight.’ "I felt very rejected and depressed. We were both wiped out from the emotion of that day. We each got into our own bed." A few days later, when he was in Dayton, he received a letter from his mother telling him that his wife was seen by a friend in a place called The Long Beach Club drinking with two men. Raft clearly ended his relationship with Grayce. She accepted the separation and went her own way; but —whether out of vindictiveness, obstinacy or, as she claimed, her devout Catholicism —she refused from 1923 until her death in 1970 to grant George a divorce. Years later, when George became a success in Hollywood, Grayce, as his wife, demanded a share of his income. George signed over to Grayce ten percent of his earnings. Over forty-seven years Grayce’s ten percent amounted to well over a million dollars.

Fred Astaire remembers Raft’s performances there. “I went there several times to see George dance."I believe it was George Gershwin who first took us. He was a sensation in those days and we went especially to see George. The El Fey Club was the ‘in’ place to go. It was handsomely decorated in a gaudy red and gold but in many ways it was a dive. George was the main attraction, and Ruby Keeler and others who later became stars danced there also. They served terrible champagne and booze in coffee cups, but it was mainly the entertainment that packed the place, and George did the fastest, and most exciting Charleston I ever saw."

Just before Valentino died in August 1926, he had talked with Raft for a long time at the El Fey Club and invited him to a Long Island Mansion he was renting. “We drove out in his limousine. He looked pretty bad, and I remember as we pulled up to this fabulous home he told me, ‘Look how far I’ve gone since the days we worked together. It’s all been great, but I am a lonely man.’ A few weeks later he was dead from the results of an operation for appendicitis and peritonitis; and he was only thirty-one.”

Ann Dvorak and George Raft in "Scarface" (1932) directed by Howard Hawks

Hawks used what he had seen at his party. After flirting with George in every scene they meet, Ann finally gets to George in a night club. When they did the scene Hawks told them to do exactly what they did at the party. She comes up to his table and dares him to dance. At first, he turned her down, then he gives in when she does a sensuous dance that initiates their fatal relationship. Hawks believed “the scene played like a million dollars because it was something that really happened between George and Ann.” During the making of Scarface, in which Raft played the bodyguard, Gino Rinaldi, a close relationship developed between the two principal actors; and Muni’s preparation, acting, and advice were of inestimable value to Raft. During the production of Scarface, Howard Hughes visited the set several times; and, though Raft respected Hughes, even liked the young producer, he almost lost his part because of an unintentional interference in the former aviator’s personal life.

In the late twenties Raft had met Billie Dove, who was then Jimmy Walker’s companion. The three of them saw each other often at “Legs” Diamond’s Hotsy Totsy Club. When Billie Dove, a friend of Marion Davies, came to Hollywood, she renewed her acquaintance with Raft —on a more intimate basis. “I took her out. One thing led to another and we wound up in a gorgeous suite at the Ambassador Hotel. I was in a wonderful position with the girl when the phone rings. It’s a pal calling from the lobby. Nervously, he tips me off that Billie Dove was Hughes’s girlfriend and that Hughes was in the lobby at that moment looking for her. Believe me, I didn’t even know that she knew Hughes. If I had, I wouldn’t have gone near her."

William Holden, George Raft and Humphrey Bogart in "Invisible Stripes" (1939) directed by Lloyd Bacon

George Raft was just such a social hero. He was an ordinary guy, of humble origin, who dressed with class, had pluck, nerve, and guts, and was basically antisocial. He lived by strict moral code, but an extremely personal one. It allowed one to kill, but not to slap women; to rob banks, but not to speak ill of your mother; to be at once ruthless in achieving success and patriotic toward one’s country. Such an odd social code is still familiar. To be simultaneously innocent and corrupt is part of America’s mythology. It was Nathanael West who wrote the classic Hollywood novel of the era, Day of the Locust, depicting the lives not of the stars but of the “others,” those desperate Hollywood hangers-on in the crowds, crazed by envy and frustration.

Later West provided the screenplay for a George Raft-Claire Trevor movie, "I Stole a Million" (1939) directed by Frank Tuttle.

George was very much in love with Carole Lombard, but he felt, “What was the sense in it? I had nothing to offer her. By then I had signed over ten percent of my earnings to Grayce, and she refused to divorce me. I was trapped. Regardless of my personal feelings, I was happy for her when she married Clark Gable."

George and Carole Lombard (one of many actresses he was intimate with; Lombard reportedly told close friends that Raft was, in the bedroom sense, the best lover she ever had) made two dance films together: “Bolero” (a big hit for Paramount in early 1934, including a scene where Carole dances in lingerie and stockings!) and the less successful “Rumba” a year later. Source:

Seating at the premiere of 'Gone With the Wind.' Jock Whitney, Margaret Mitchell, John Marsh, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard (December 15, 1939)

In New York Raft had become friendly with the well-known millionaire playboy, Jock Whitney. They met again in the mid-thirties at a Hollywood racetrack and reminisced about the good old Broadway days, the El Fey Club, and old friends. With Whitney was a woman who listened attentively to these curious exploits. Virginia Pine was, among other things, an aspiring actress who had played several bit parts, and though she concealed her pleasure she was thrilled at meeting Raft. She was a slender woman whose fair skin, light hair, and blue eyes gave her a gossamer beauty. Her appearance and well-bred manner made Raft feel like an overdressed peasant. Confronted with her aloofness, Raft was entranced by the challenge of aspiring to such an obviously unattainable ideal.

Lucille Ball, George Raft, Virginia Pine (and her daughter Joanie) and Mack Gray (April 25, 1935)

He was especially thoughtful in his care and affection for both her and her daughter, Joanie. All three of them would fly to Catalina for weekends, attend sporting events and shop together in Beverly Hills. In time they established a relationship that was probably the closest Raft ever enjoyed as an adult.

Later on, as their relationship deepened, he built a quarter-of-a-million-dollar house for Virginia and her daughter in Beverly Hills. But George did not live there. “I would never disgrace anybody. A woman like Virginia was to be treated with respect. If I’d lived with her, Louella Parsons would’ve headlined it in her column. That would’ve degraded Virginia. No—it wasn’t then like it is today, when living together means nothing. When I built the home for her in Coldwater Canyon, I lived with Mack at the El Royale on Rossmore.” Some years later, Virginia Pine married the noted journalist, Quentin Reynolds. The liaison with Virginia Pine, coupled with his greater maturity, forced him to recognize that he preferred a long-term relationship to the stream of one-night stands that he used to assuage his loneliness.

Despite their differences at the time, Robinson was one of Raft’s fans and boosters, and in their later years both men valued their long association and friendship. In an interview with Robinson some months before his death in April 1973, he spoke with insight of Raft. "George always wore this fantastic, arresting mask when he acted, yet you sensed that underneath his cool façade he was seething—boiling—writhing."

Manpower was important for Raft because it gave him a chance to fulfill his dream of working with Marlene Dietrich. "I’ve worked with many great actors both in Hollywood and on the stage. And in my opinion no one matched George for this quality of personal power and manhood. His range was limited — he always played George Raft. But that character —there was no other like it— always evoked a sympathetic response and identification from a mass audience."

“Actors like George and me probably lasted as long as we did because we were people before we were stars. You must be real to last. Have the integrity of being human, flawed, understandable. And you have to work. I still work as hard today, at each role I get, as I did at the beginning of my career. I can say the same for George." -Edward G. Robinson

Raft became outraged when he was handed a role that involved playing a “heel” who refuses to help his family and becomes embroiled in Nazi spy activities. 'All Through the Night' (1942) starred Humphrey Bogart, and Raft was placed on suspension.

George’s last film for Warner’s, 'Background to Danger' (1943), the spy one he had agreed to, was directed by Raoul Walsh and co-starred Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. In it, Raft played a G-man, and in one scene, which had to be reshot several times, he is tied up by spies Lorre and Greenstreet. Perhaps out of boredom, Lorre began to blow smoke in George’s face. According to Mack Grey, “George told him at least five times to ‘knock it off.’ Remember, George was actually tied up. Lorre would laugh and he spitefully kept blowing smoke at George. Finally, when George was untied, he was so furious he ran into Lorre’s dressing room and clobbered him. But this was one time,” Mack added, “when a guy really deserved it.”

Under the paternal tutelage of Fox’s head of production, Darryl F. Zanuck, Betty Grable became a reigning box-office queen in a series of campus, gay nineties, and Latin American musicals that were a popular diversion of the early forties. There she appeared in the Cole Porter musical Du Barry Was a Lady (1939), which starred Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr. This part earned her rave reviews and 20th Century-Fox brought her back to Hollywood in triumph to replace an ailing Alice Faye in Down Argentine Way.

Raft fell for Betty Grable when she was a glamorous young actress of twenty-two. Apparently Grable first had a crush on Raft when she was just a wide-eyed, sixteen-year old chorus girl, possibly on the set of Palmy Days. A Modern Screen (August 1941) article, written in the peculiar “popular romance” style of that period, presented an historical account of Betty Grable’s first reaction to Raft. So, when somebody told her that George Raft wanted to take her to the six-day bicycle races, she didn’t believe it. She went to her mother. “I couldn’t go —could I?” She dressed with shaking hands, too excited for speech. Too excited, alas, to speak at all, all evening. Her smile was ready, and her eager, responsive look, but she still didn’t believe it. George Raft was embarrassed, fidgety, whispering about “cradle-robbers”, “I’m giving her back till she grows up.” But, in fact, Raft was smitten with the child star and followed her mushrooming career from the sidelines.

Her next leading role after Down Argentine Way was in 'Tin Pan Alley' (1940), a musical with Alice Faye, John Payne, and Jack Oakie. Faye was Fox’s reigning musical star, but she was to be eased out and replaced by Grable —as Grable was to be replaced by Monroe in the early fifties.

By 1942 Betty Grable was one of the top ten at the box office, and her famous legs, Grable’s gams, were insured by Lloyd’s of London for more than half a million dollars. Countless men in the Allied Armed Forces drooled over Betty’s pinup pictures, and her photo was a favorite fighter plane insignia. Grable was a national darling, and the drums and fifes of Fox’s publicity department played overtime to hail the girl in whose arms, flacks said, every GI wanted to die.

The Sunday after Raft’s return from Washington, George called Betty and escorted her to a Bundles for Britain benefit, then took her dancing at the Mocambo. They had a grand time, and at her door he asked to see her again. “’When?’ she asked me. ‘Tomorrow night?’ I suggested. “We hit all the Hollywood nightspots. At first we had two things in common. Neither of us drank and we loved to dance. Between dances we’d have fruit-juice drinks or I’d send for icecream sodas, which both of us were crazy about. Sundays I’d take her to baseball games. Sometimes we’d drive to Caliente for the races. On Tuesdays and Fridays we went to the fights. Betty shared George’s interest in sports and got along well with Mack Grey and the other people around Raft. If they were working, Raft and Grable preferred quiet evenings at his home where they dressed casually for informal meals. After dinner they would play gin rummy or bridge, just as any married couple might.

Betty characterized George as "one of the kindest and most generous men I have ever known." Unfortunately for the principals, their romance was tailormade for gossip columns. But it wasn’t the journalistic excesses that caused difficulty; it was the unseen presence of Grayce Mulrooney that clouded an otherwise promising affair. Day by day Betty felt more strongly that there could be no lasting future with Raft. When she began to date other men, they quarreled bitterly. A friend recalled an evening with Betty and George at Ciro’s: “Betty was table-hopping, greeting and hugging other guys. George sat at his table with me looking depressed. He waved his hand in disgust at Betty. ‘Look at her jumping around. I could give that broad half of Sunset Boulevard and still wouldn’t know where I stood with her.’

Betty confided in Louella Parsons, who dutifully used almost every detail of their romance in her column: “I would have married George Raft a week after I met him, I was so desperately, so deeply in love with him. But, when you wait two-and-a-half years, there doesn’t seem to be any future in a romance with a married man. “I am doing my best to try to forget him. I do know there’s no turning back.” Studios might allow romances, but long-term affairs were not tolerated. Raft lavished expensive gifts on Grable —diamonds, furs, even racehorses. Time does heal ruptured and bruised relationships, and in the years that followed Raft and Grable became good friends again and occasionally went out together, with her husband Harry James. Her untimely death in July 1973 was a terrible blow to Raft. For Raft, Betty Grable was his last important romantic involvement. He at last accepted that he could never again endure the pain that came from breaking up with a woman. Casual relationships required no emotional involvement and therefore could not be heartbreaking.

Dean Martin, then Jerry Lewis’ partner, vividly remembered George’s lifestyle during this period. George missed Betty but he carried his torch in grand style. “I was awed by his place in Coldwater Canyon. The most gorgeous women in town would be there. They would swim nude in the pool or we would sit around and talk. George would lounge all day in his silk robe at poolside. He never swam. In fact, the only exercise he ever had was with broads or shuffling a deck of cards. When the girls would unfold their dinner napkins there would either be a hundred dollar bill or some expensive earrings, or for special broads a brooch or a bracelet. George had class.”

In spite of George’s Don Juan exploits with women, he continued to have little confidence in himself as an attractive lover. “I guess women thought I was a sexy guy. I don’t know why. I don’t think I’m handsome. I guess they like the Latin lover or greaseball type. I never had trouble getting almost any woman I wanted. But yet I was always afraid of rejection. A woman always had to come toward me seventy-five or a hundred percent before I would make an advance."

Raft had thought people like Jack Warner and Durocher were friends he could trust, and he felt they had betrayed his trust. Certainly, though, his association with them had boosted his public reputation. However, another acquaintance, Benny Siegel, the notorious New York gangster, would cause Raft’s career to suffer.

Two years after Siegel’s death while making Red Light (1949) with Virginia Mayo, Raft tried to capitalize on Bugsy’s habit. “I remembered Benny’s haircombing compulsion and thought it a good mannerism, like the Scarface coin-tossing.” Siegel was a tough guy, if not a potential killer. But with Virginia he was an old-fashioned lover. He wrote her love poems addressed, “To My Sweetheart.” Their “love Bible” was Forever, a book by Mildred Cram which told a romantic fantasy about a modern Romeo and Juliet, who, unable to be together in life, assure each other that after death they will be reborn to consummate their love.

Billy Wilder offered Raft a feature role in his forthcoming comedy, Some Like It Hot (1959). The picture had a sixteen-week shooting schedule, and after completion Raft planned to return to his post at
the Capri. Hot, which starred Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lem-mon, Pat O’Brien, Joe E. Brown, and Raft, opens in the mid-twenties of Al Capone’s Chicago. By coincidence, two musicians, Lemmon and Curtis, witness a St. Valentine’s Day-type gangland massacre committed by Spats Colombo, played by Raft, and his mob.

[Raft remembering Marilyn:] “The last time I saw Marilyn I was driving down Sunset, near the Beverly Hills Hotel, and had to stop for a light alongside a big, chauffeur-driven black Caddy with the shades down. All of a sudden, Marilyn, who was in the limousine, saw me. The shade went up and there she was, with her big smile, waving hello. She looked pale, but gorgeous as ever. I cried when I heard what finally happened to her."

In 1965, when George was indicted for income tax evasion, he told the judge with a wry understatement, “I was never a good business man. I’ve always been a little careless with my money.” -George Raft (2000) by Lewis Yablonsky

"Drunken Angel" is a 60-plus-year-old, black-and-white, subtitled Japanese movie with virtually no action and not a single gun shot. It focuses on the mercurial relationship between a cranky, alcoholic doctor and a brazen young yakuza dying of tuberculosis. And you’ll see one of the first important works of Akira Kurosawa, the legendary Japanese filmmaker whose style impacted nearly every other director on our list. “His influence on me and other filmmakers throughout the entire world is so profound as to be almost incomparable,” said Martin Scorsese. The pinstriped gangsters and their girlfriends all dress and wear their hair like Westerners (the so-called “big boss” resembles George Raft, down to the detail of him flipping a coin). Source:


Anonymous said...

I started watching George Raft when I was an 8 year old girl, on the Ben Hunter matinee. No, he wasn't classicslly handsome but he was very sexy in that 'bad boy' sort of way. I also had crushes on Gene Kelly and Don Ameche. I loved Raft in 'Tonight and Every Night' with Mae West, another favorite of mine.

Anonymous said...

I've been a Grorge Raft fan, since I was 9 years old girl and began viewing his films on The Ben Hunter Matinee. I thought he was very sexy, and the man could dance. I also had crushes on Gene Kelly and Don Ameche. 'Tonight and Every Night' with West and Raft is one of my favorites.