Why Stars Stop Being Stars: George Raft

February 9, 2020
The third in Stephen Vagg’s series of movie star cold streaks looks at the career of George Raft.

George Raft had perhaps the worst judgement of any film star in Hollywood history. Now, everyone makes career mistakes, even stars with highly-paid advisers, but no one seemed to reject more scripts that turned out to be classics than Raft. Consider this list: Belle of the Nineties (1934), Dead End (1937), High Sierra (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Double Indemnity (1944). Raft was offered them all but stepped away. If not for George Raft, it’s unlikely Humphrey Bogart would have become a movie star.

The irony is, Raft’s career actually survived turning down these movies – what ended his reign as a star were the projects he did afterwards. He basically suffered two cold streaks – the first passing up on a series of great movies; the second in selecting a bunch that killed his career. To give all this context I need to go back to the beginning…

Raft was born in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, in 1895 or 1901 (accounts differ). He left school at age 12 and tried a variety of jobs, including stints as an apprentice electrician, pool hustler, boxer and minor league baseball player. He also occasionally shipped illegal booze for gangster Owney Madden; many of Raft’s childhood friends became gangsters, like Bugsy Siegel and Raft might have gone that way if not for another path to glamour, girls and cash: dancing. Raft’s mother had taught him a few steps and he began working as a taxi dancer (someone who you paid to dance with you – it was a big thing in the 1920s); he was good at it and branched out to performing in nightclubs, exhibitions, speakeasies and concerts.

Raft was a good-looking guy who moved well, and more than a few people told him he oughta be in pictures. He went through Los Angeles while touring a show with nightclub performer Texas Guinan and decided to stay on, picking up small parts in movies, usually dancing and/or looking sinister. You can spot him in Side Street (1929), Goldie (1931), Palmy Days (1931) and Taxi! (1932).

Here he is in Side Street.

Raft’s first breakthrough came when cast as Spencer Tracy’s bodyguard in Quick Millions (1931), a gangster flick at Fox from writer-director Rowland Brown. Raft was chosen for his “seductive menace” and it was a decent part – flirting with girls, bumping off fellow gangsters, being shot down by Tracy. Raft wasn’t much of a technical actor – he never would be, not really – but he had swarthy good looks, moved with a dancer’s grace and brought authenticity to any role that involved speakeasies, shoot outs and nightclubs.

Howard Hawks then cast him as Paul Muni’s gangster sidekick in Scarface (1932), a variation of his Quick Millions role only with more meat on it – constantly flicking a coin with a fedora tilted down, seducing Muni’s sister, then paying for it with his life. The film took a while to be released  (Howard Hughes produced, and there was censorship trouble) but advance word was sensational and earned Raft a long term contact with Paramount.

Here’s a clip.

The studio started him off with support parts in films like Dancer in the Dark (1931) and Madame Racketeer (1932), and they loaned him to Universal for Night World (1932). Then Scarface’s release went wide and response was such that Paramount gave Raft the lead in Night After Night (1932), a nightclub drama. This picture is best best remembered today for introducing Mae West to cinema audiences – and she’s brilliant – but Raft was excellent too as a former gangster turned nightclub manager who is having a mid life crisis: he’s attracted to a toff girl who used to live in his club when it was a house, he’s not sure he wants to do his job, he’s got a crazy trashy ex who keeps causing him trouble, rival gangsters want to buy him out, he’s taking self-improvement lessons, etc. It’s an extremely likeable, engaging performance and forms a strong core for the movie, which proved to be a hit.

Raft appeared in a chapter of the all-star anthology picture If I Had a Million (1932), showing a surprising aptitude for comedy (he plays a conman unable to cash a million dollar cheque). Then he had the lead Under Cover Man (1932), as a crook who goes undercover to bust the baddies – a trope that Raft would come to love far too much for his own good.

The first time Raft turned down a role was when he was offered the male lead in The Story of Temple Drake (1933), based on William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. The actor did this because his character was too unsympathetic (to be fair, the part was of a gangster who kidnaps Miriam Hopkins, rapes her, and dumps her in a brothel). Raft was replaced by Jack La Rule and the resulting film was a commercial disappointment which did little for La Rue’s career – an outcome that served to give Raft a false idea of the quality of his instincts when it came to script selection.

He did Pick Up (1933), a romance with Sylvia Sidney, then played another undercover man in Midnight Club (1933), shot in England. Neither were that exciting but Raft was then borrowed by Darryl F. Zanuck’s new company, 20th Century (soon to become 20th Century Fox), for its first film, The Bowery (1933), a brawling, entertaining buddy tale with Wallace Beery; Raft’s acting always improved when he was teamed with a more experienced co-star and the movie was a popular success.

Here’s a extended clip.

At Paramount, he did a weird drama with Frederic Marsh and Miriam Hopkins, All of Me (1934), which deservedly flopped (a contemporary critic wondered if the reels had been accidentally swapped around and it feels like that when you watch the movie today). Raft then had a great success with Bolero (1934) a dance melodrama with Carole Lombard. Raft was sometimes called “the new Valentino” because he looked like the late film star, and had a similar dancing background (the two men knew each other from the dance halls, incidentally); Bolero was a very Valentino-type role for Raft, who played a Belgian coal miner turned dancer, and the film is highly entertaining.  Raft’s triumph was somewhat dimmed by the fact that during shooting he punched out producer Benjamin Glaser for a perceived slight – an early warning sign that the star was turning into a bit of a tosser. Another indication came when he turned down the male lead in Belle of the Nineties (1934) with Mae West because his part was subordinate to West’s. This was Raft’s first truly dumb movie choice – there were to be plenty more.

He starred in a series of movies that no one particularly remembers: The Trumpet Blows (1934), playing a Valentino-esque matador (he walked out on the project until script changes were made but they did not seem to help); Limehouse Blues (1934), as a half-Chinese night club owner, in yellow face; Rumba (1935) with Lombard, an attempt to repeat the success of Bolero , but no way near as good; Stolen Harmony (1935), a big band musical, playing an ex-con who is handy on the saxophone. He was well received as the enforcer hero in the original screen version of Dashiel Hammett’s, The Glass Key (1935).

Raft was very animated in Every Night at Eight (1935), another big band musical, as well as She Couldn’t Take It (1935), a screwball comedy at Columbia where he plays a bootlegger who knocks a spoilt family into shape. It Had to Happen (1936) was a dreary drama at 20th Century Fox alongside Rosalind Russell, mostly notable for Raft’s attempt at broad Italian immigrant accent in the opening ten minutes – but Yours for the Asking (1936) was a surprisingly fun screwball comedy co-starring Ida Lupino, with Raft running a casino.

Raft was meant to make The Princess Comes Across (1936) with Carole Lombard but turned the movie down because, get this, he felt the cameraman would favour Lombard; Fred MacMurray stepped into the role, but it was a foolish decision on Raft’s part who teamed well with Lombard (the two never acted together again). He also refused to be in You and Me because it was going to be directed by the writer, Norman Krasna, who had (at that stage of his career) never directed before.

Paramount put Raft on suspension but he was taken off it to co-star with with Gary Cooper in Souls at Sea (1937), a buddy action movie directed by Henry Hathaway; it’s an entertaining flick where Raft gives one of his most effective performances, as an earring-wearing slaver (he had insisted the script be rewritten to make his character more sympathetic); once more, a bigger co-star made Raft lift his game.

Sam Goldwyn wanted him to play a gangster in Dead End (1937) based on Sidney Kingsley’s hit Broadway play, under the direction of William Wyler, then at his peak. Amazingly, incredibly, Raft turned it down – he did not want to play someone so unsympathetic – despite the quality of the material, the director, the producer, the crew and the other members of the cast. Humphrey Bogart stepped in to play the role and the movie was a big success, to no one’s surprise.

Raft ended up doing You and Me under the direction of Fritz Lang – it’s a strikingly weird movie about a department store where the workers are ex-cons and prone to breaking out into Kurt Weill songs; it flopped and Raft may as well have done it with Krasna.

Raft was reunited with Henry Hathaway for Spawn of the North (1938), another homoerotic-bromance-at-sea tale, only this time with Henry Fonda. That did well but then Raft refused to make St Louis Blues (1938) and The Magnificent Fraud (1939); both times Lloyd Nolan stepped in to take Raft’s place. After amiable comedy The Lady’s from Kentucky (1939) Raft and Paramount decided to part ways.

Leaving studios was a tricky business for movie stars in the 1930s but Raft’s luck still held – Warner Bros offered him a beautiful role in Each Dawn I Die (1939), playing a principled criminal who helps a crusading reporter (James Cagney) in prison. Raft’s performance is electric – tightly wound, dialogue trimmed, using his eyes – and the film was a big hit, causing Warners to offer a long term contract. After making I Stole a Million (1939) at Universal (an “aw-gee-I-didn’t-mean-to-turn-criminal” melodrama in which Raft is very good) he accepted.

Here’s the Each Dawn I Die trailer.

The Warners-Raft association should have been ideal – the studio made a lot of tough guy movies suitable for the actor – but it would turn out to be an even more turbulent relationship than the one he had with Paramount. Their first project for Raft was Invisible Stripes (1939), a so-so melodrama co-starring William Holden, with Bogart in support. Raft was offered the role of a gangster in the musical comedy It All Came True (1940), but turned it down, so Bogart stepped in again. Raft then promptly played a gangster for Walter Wanger in House Across the Bay (1940), which annoyed Warners, and no wonder.

The studio were mollified when Raft did They Drive By Night (1940), a truck driving melodrama with Bogart, Anne Sheridan and Ida Lupino. It’s a sensationally entertaining flick that was a solid box office success and should have convinced Raft that his new employers knew what they were doing, but his judgement continued to get worse. It probably didn’t hurt him in the long run to turn down parts in City for Conquest (1940) (Anthony Quinn took over), or South of Suez (1940) (George Brent stepped in). But he also rejected roles in The Sea Wolf (1941), High Sierra (1941) and The Maltese Falcon (1941) – these were all terrific films, and what’s more they were great scripts, and anyone with taste who could read would have been able to tell that. Raft sooked over The Sea Wolf because it wasn’t the lead – as if that mattered with Michael Curtiz directing, and Edward G Robinson starring from a Jack London novel. He turned down High Sierra because it was another gangster  part, despite the excellent source material and Raoul Walsh directing (admittedly Paul Muni rejected the role first for the same reason… but Muni was a proper actor, well established in a variety of parts and Raft wasn’t); Humphrey Bogart stepped in and the film catapulted that actor from resident Warner Bros villain into sympathetic anti hero. The Maltese Falcon had a first-time director it’s true, John Huston, but the source material was a knock out and the script divine – Bogart took over once more, Huston realised it beautifully, and the resulting movie became an instant classic which confirmed Bogart as a star.

Despite this series of missed opportunities, Raft maintained his professional status by teaming with Robinson and Marlene Dietrich in Manpower (1941), an excellent melodrama directed by Walsh. The movie also maintained Raft’s status as a tosser – he abused Robinson throughout filming for various perceived slights, even punching him at one stage (Raft admitted in later years he was unsure why he did it). To annoy Warners even more, Raft was offered the lead in All Through the Night (1942) but turned it down. Who took the part? You guessed it. Bogart. And incidentally, Bogart was meant to be Raft’s co-star in Manpower, but Raft refused to appear alongside him.

Clips from Manpower here.

Raft fought with Warners to make Broadway (1942) at Universal, and eventually they let him. This was based on a Broadway musical mixed in with elements of Raft’s own early life in New York – he actually plays himself, which is presumably part of the reason he was so keen to star in the film. It isn’t particularly well remembered but it’s a lot of fun, with plenty of gunfire and dancing, and was reasonably popular – Raft was best known for his gangster movies, but he was also a half-decent draw in musicals.

It’s been said that Raft turned down the lead in Casablanca (1943) but according to Warner Bros memos he never actually received an offer. He was certainly discussed as a possibility to play Rick Blaine (both the role and film were very much in his wheelhouse) – indeed, Raft actively campaigned for the part – but by now Warners were sick of him, as they had every right to be, and they cast Bogart, this time their first choice. I actually think Raft would’ve been fine as Rick Blaine – I heard Alan Ladd perform it on radio and he was fine too – but he wouldn’t have been as good as Bogart.

The studio did put Raft into a Casablanca knock off – Background to Danger (1943) where he plays an American in neutral Turkey who gets caught up in intrigue. Raft still had enough misplaced confidence in his own taste to insist on script rewrites that changed his character into someone who was secretly an undercover agent all along… an adjustment which completely undercut the point of the story. By now, Warners and Raft were sick of each other and in November 1942 they parted ways.

Here’s the trailer for Background to Danger.

Raft went on to turn down the lead in one more classic movie when Billy Wilder offered him the star part in Double Indemnity (1944). To be fair, a number of other male stars passed on this – the role was very unsympathetic – but Raft’s reason was especially dumb: he wanted the character, again, to be secretly an undercover police officer. Wilder moved on, found Fred MacMurray, and created history.

I used to figure that from this point on, it was all downhill for Raft – who could survive a cold streak of so many bad decisions? Especially without the support of a major studio? But the next few years continued to be very good for Raft.

At Universal he had the lead role in Follow the Boys (1944), a musical best remembered for featuring cameos from a lot of Universal’s contract list at the time, plus stars who had recently made movies for the studio – including Orson Welles doing his magic act and WC Fields performing an old vaudeville bit. Raft did the Charleston, carried the A plot and the movie was a box office success. So too was a musical he made at Fox, Nob Hill (1945), one of those “gay 90s” period pieces the studio like to churn out, directed by Hathaway.

Watch him dance in Follow the Boys here.

Raft went to RKO to make a thriller for director Edwin Marin, Johnny Angel (1945), playing a sea captain investigating his father’s murder. This enjoyable, unpretentious programmer (more an “A minus” than a “B”), co-written by Steve Fisher, surprised everyone, including the studio, by making a profit of over a million dollars.

Also successful was Whistle Stop (1946) for United Artists, an entertaining film noir with Ava Gardner and Tim Conway. The quasi-feminist Mr Ace (1946), produced by Benedict Bogeaus and directed by Marin, did less well, but he and Marin had another hit with Nocturne (1946), a tight little thriller for RKO where Raft plays a detective who snarls at rich people, pushes suspects into swimming pools and pervs on Lyn Bari.

So, since leaving Warner Bros, Raft had starred in five hit films out of six – that was a pretty good ratio. Maybe he wasn’t Humphrey Bogart, but he was doing well. Raft would have assumed his status would have continued indefinitely and you can’t really blame him.

Then the wind started to blow a little colder.

Raft made Christmas Eve (1947) for Bogeaus and Marin, a terrible portmanteau melodrama about three different brothers; the gimmick was, the schedule enabled Raft, Randolph Scott and George Brent to only film a few days each, but the script was weak and the movie flopped.

Raft established his own production company, Star Films, for whom he appeared in Intrigue (1947), directed by Marin: this was a film noir-ish tale of derring-do set in a studio backlot China, with Raft  seemingly attempting to channel Alan Ladd, as a leather jacket wearing flyer working for the black market. Raft and Martin promptly reteamed on Race Street (1948), a thriller where Raft is avenging the death of a friend.

These films were profitable but the profits were shrinking – television was taking over the B picture market, and these movies, entertaining as they are (they’re not bad fodder even now to watch late at night on a small screen) were basically Bs, with limited budgets and little known co-stars. In his heyday, Raft would regularly appear alongside stars of the same or larger stature – but that hadn’t happened since Manpower. In hindsight, this was to be a major mistake especially as Raft tended to be more effective as a second lead.

Raft decided to get exotic and play an officer in the French Foreign Legion for Star Films’, Outpost in Morocco (1949); the actor looks uncomfortable in a uniform and kepi which might explain why he returned to thrillers: Johnny Allegro (1949), an uneasy combination of crime movie and anti-Communist propaganda; Red Light (1949), an uneasy combination of crime movie and religious drama; A Dangerous Profession (1949) a tale about bail bondsmen with Pat O’Brien. The films became gradually less successful and Dangerous Profession lost over $200,000 for RKO. To make it worse, the Johnny Allegro shoot went on for so long that Raft missed out on the chance to star in Don Siegel’s highly entertaining The Big Steal (1949); he was replaced by Robert Mitchum.

Outpost in Morocco

Looking back, during this time, Raft should have tried to work with bigger co-stars, directors and/or studios, and gotten involved with more prestigious projects; I’m surprised he did not try another musical. He was getting on a bit by now but there are always parts for tough guy actors who look comfortable with a gun – contemporaries such as Cagney and Bogart remained in demand. In fairness, maybe Raft did try looking, but either he didn’t look hard enough or Hollywood were cooling on the actor. His well publicised friendship with Bugsy Siegel wouldn’t have helped, especially after Siegel’s corpse was found riddled with bullets in 1947 – movie stars who knew gangsters before they were famous was a bit titillating, but ones who continued to regularly associate with them is something else. And I doubt anyone had forgotten Raft’s track record of punching co-stars and producers.

He starred in two low budget films made in England: I’ll Get You for This (1950), with location work in Italy (and a scene where he dances the tango) and Escape Route (1951). He did another thriller in Italy, Loan Shark (1952), a short-lived TV series I’m the Law (1953), and had one last leading role in The Man from Cairo (1953). None of these did particularly well and the offers screeched to a halt. As Michael Caine once said, a star needs a hit in every five films, and Raft was well over the limit by now. His reign as a star was over.

Raft still had options. He returned to the stage, doing a dancing act, and his gangster mates offered him work as a “greeter” at casinos. MGM then gave him a strong support role in his first true “A” movie in years: Rogue Cop (1954), starring Robert Taylor. The movie was a hit and seemed to indicate a comeback for Raft – he was in another “A”, Black Widow (1954) at Fox, as a detective, then he played the lead in a “B” opposite Edward G Robinson (during that actor’s “greylist” period), A Bullet for Joey (1955), playing an exiled gangster who gets a chance to return to the USA if he helps kidnap a scientist in Canada for the commies. It seemed Raft was back – but after a cameo in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), the offers dried up again.

I’m not sure why this happened – Raft never mastered the art of acting, it’s true, but he still had presence and could have easily livened up numerous thrillers/gangster flicks. But they didn’t call.

In 1957, he reportedly rejected the lead in a picture with Bella Darvi called Morning Call because he was unhappy with the script – it turned out the project was a phoney concoction created by a jealous Daryl F. Zanuck to keep his mistress Darvi busy, with Raft roped in to give the project legitimacy. The script was eventually filmed as The Strange Case of Dr Manning” (1957) with Ron Randell.

Raft’s personal life continued to be colourful. He went to work as a greeter at a casino in Havana, Cuba, being present when Fidel Castro took over the country, and having to escape after the revolution. He had a share of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas but financial troubles forced him to sell his percentage only a few years before it would have turned him into a multi-millionaire. He went to Mexico to play an FBI agent who falls asleep at convenient times on a plane in Jet Over the Atlantic (1959). His best chance in years was a role as the villain gangster in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), poking fun of his Scarface coin tossing but always remaining a threat. This led to a series of similar cameos/in-jokes in films like Oceans 11 (1960), The Ladies Man (1961), For Those Who Think Young (1964), The Patsy (1964), Casino Royale (1967). He turned up in Euro-puddings like The Upper Hand (1966) (briefly squaring off against Jean Gabin) and Five Golden Dragons (1967).

Raft’s life was dramatised a second time with Allied Artists’ The George Raft Story (1961), starring Ray Danton in the title role – a movie much mocked for its many fictitious aspects but a bit of truth sneaks in (such as Raft’s difficulty to separate the roles he played from himself). He had troubles with the IRS. He worked as a greeter at a gambling club in London but was forbidden to re-enter England after a trip away because of his gangster connections.

Raft’s last decade saw him living on a pension (he was never good with money) and turn up in nutty films like Hammersith Is Out (1972), Sextette (1978) and The Man with Bogart’s Face (1980). He died from emphysema in 1980, having outlived Bogart by more than twenty years.

Raft’s fame lingered on: he inspired the Richard Gere character in The Cotton Club (1984), was the subject of a monologue in the Neil Simon play Broadway Bound, and he was portrayed by Joe Mantegna in Bugsy (1991). He’s remained in Bogart’s shadow since the 1940s – so much so that a 2015 biography of Raft was subtitled The Man Who Would Be Bogart.

What lessons can be learned from George Raft’s career? Where did he go wrong?

First of all, he was clearly a shocking judge of material – anyone who turns down Belle of the Nineties, Dead End, High Sierra, Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity simply has lousy taste. (It’s been said that Raft was barely literate but even in pitch form surely those stories were great.)

He also had troubles with his ego. Raft was at his best when teamed with a strong co-star but he shied away from Belle of the Nineties and The Princess Comes Across because he was afraid of being overshone by his female co-star. He punched out producers and co-stars. After Manpower, he didn’t appear in a movie with a bigger star than him until Rogue Cop.

His desire to always be sympathetic meant he missed out on roles in superb films that would have done wonders for him – Dead End, High Sierra – or damaged otherwise fine films – Background to Danger.

There was also a matter of his age. Raft didn’t drink but he was a heavy smoker and in his later movies you can practically see the nicotine oozing from his pores. He looks grey and emaciated.

So, for any movie stars who happen to stumble upon this article, here’s a quick summary of the lessons to be learned from George Raft:

– don’t let your ego get in the way of a good film;

– go for classy material when you can;

– try to go for the extra security of a name co-star when possible;

– try to vary the genres you appear in a little;

– it doesn’t matter if the director has never directed before;

– don’t get a reputation for punching out people;

– if you are best at playing a type of role (eg. a villain), by all means try other things but don’t give up the thing you’re best at;

– playing a character who is sympathetic isn’t as important as playing one that’s interesting;

– hang on to your money.

George Raft had a hell of a career. But it could have been that much better if he’d been able to avoid those cold streaks.

Part 1: Ryan O’Neal

Part 2: Margaret Lockwood

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Comments

  1. Celia

    Thank you for a great article.. Im sure many actors or stars Born at the turn of the 20th century into abject poverty were illiterate and learnt how to live through their screen parts its easier to continue to live with what yuo know also. But he was a hell of a handsome man and an amazing dancer and dresser who still influences fashion today. When ever yuuou see a dark shirt and white tie thats George. He outlives his contemporaries because of this. That bourgeois biography reveals a rounded man but also a man who couldnt escape his past

  2. Ford

    I dunno, Raft may have convinced as a tough guy, but I’ve never seen him hold the screen as an actor. In terms of talent he could never have competed with Bogart or Robinson.
    BTW, the expression “taxi dancer” was also a euphemism for prostitute.

  3. Steven Torrey

    I just recently (June 2020) saw “Some Like it Hot” with George Raft as Spats Colombo. As somebody else pointed–people forgot to tell George he was making a comedy. George plays the role straight to the daffy shenanigans of cross dressing Curtis/Lemon & daft Sugar (Marilyn Monroe). For such a major supporting role in the movie, George Raft is underappreciated for the dry, somber comedic undertone Raft plays.

    1. Mark Taha

      Some Like It Hot – my favourite film.If Raft had had more sense, would we remember Bogart? I actually thought Raft was Bogart the first time I saw him!

  4. JOE BERGIN

    Salamat,
    I appreciate the deep dive here . Myself. I always liked the guy.
    If good judgement was a necessary attribute I would have had few friends.

  5. Hal Erickson

    Film historians who interviewed Raft in the 1970s commented on what a sweet, gentle man he’d become in his later years, though he clearly held long grudges against fellow actors like Peter Lorre (“The son of a bitch stole my hat.”) Jimmy Cagney had nothing but nice things to say about Raft in his own autobiography; Edward G. Robinson had clearly forgiven George by the time he wrote his life story. Complex fellow.

    1. Stephen

      By all accounts he was very generous and loyal to his friends. The fact he punched out so many people at work indicates something else was going on.

  6. Alan Shuback

    As an actor Raft was a stiff. As a judge of roles he was an ignoramus. But what took Warner Bros. so long in figuring out what to do with Humphrey Bogart?

    1. Stephen

      He wasn’t conventionally good looking – the idea of a Hollywood star at the time (like now, really) was someone who looked like Tyrone Power. They just didn’t imagine him that way – when he was in “Petrified Forest” they would go “oh, he’s a gangster” but didn’t think of him as a lead until later. In fairness once Warners realised how to use him they did it beautifully – I don’t think any other studio would’ve exploited him as well.

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