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Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Gentleman Gangster: Stone Wallace on George Raft – Part 1

In 1999 when the AFI released their 100 years…100 stars list of the top 50 greatest screen legends, most mainstream leading ladies and men were accounted for. They included Bogart – the dramatic actor, Cagney – the gangster, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly – the musical stars, Charlies Chaplin, Buster Keaton and The Marx Brothers – the comedians and Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brando and Sydney Poitier – the new age. But I think every avid classic film fan has at least one or two objections to the list. For me I like to imagine George Raft has place 51. He was as accomplished an actor as Robinson or Bogart. He could dance as well as Astaire and Kelly and he was more alluringly handsome than James Dean, Gary Cooper and William Holden combined. However, due to a few career blunders and bad advice, Raft doesn’t have the enduring appeal that his talent and charm should have demanded. Another person who shares my view is Stone Wallace, film historian and author of George Raft: The Man Who Would be Bogart. He graciously gave me an interview on everything George Raft – his films, career and all the juicy facts about his much publicized personal life. Because there is so much information I decided to break the interview into two parts. Below is part 1, enjoy:  

Emma: My all-time favourite film of Raft’s is Bolero as I think it shows his dramatic acting talents as well as dancing abilities. Do you have a favourite film of Rafts? Do you prefer him in a tough-guy gangster role or as a dancer?

Stone: I confess that I prefer George as a tough guy, and he excelled in such roles, especially visually. It was said that Raft patterned many of his on-camera hoodlums on gangsters he had known during his early New York days. But it's also true that some real-life gangsters modelled themselves on George Raft. "Bugsy" Siegel tried to emulate Raft's style of dress. "Crazy Joe" Gallo used to stand on the street corner flipping coins and talking out the side of his mouth.  Despite his talents as an actor, George Raft had influence.
Lombard and Raft in Bolero (1934)
I first discovered George Raft watching him play against Cagney in Each Dawn I Die during a summer spent in Chicago where I whetted my appetite for all things vintage underworld, which since early boyhood has always been my passion. Raft's "Hood" Stacey was an unforgettable screen character and I was immediately impressed by how Raft played (or effectively underplayed) the role and how much presence he had. He created the classic screen gangster: tough but ultimately courageous. Cagney himself admitted that Raft stole the picture from him. High praise indeed!
As for a favourite film: I enjoy all of his Warner Brothers output but I would have to give the nod to Invisible Stripes. Another great role for George: a sympathetic criminal. But the film also boasts a terrific supporting cast: Bogie, a young William Holden, and three favourite screen tough guys: Marc Lawrence, Paul Kelly and Joe Downing.

Emma: I read that Raft’s early life was spent with a number of ‘shady characters’ including some who would become key figures in the New York gangster underworld. What features of his upbringing do you think prevented him from entering a life of crime? Was it character or luck?
Stone: Raft said that the only two ways for a kid to survive Hell's Kitchen was to become a criminal or succeed at sports. And in George's case that pretty much held true since he never received much schooling.  I don't think he even finished grammar school. George, of course, was never truly a criminal. I'd say he remained on the outer fringes of the underworld. He did try sports: boxing and baseball, but was not very successful at either. Where he made his mark, of course, was as a dancer. And a dancer during those days in New York generally played at clubs that were associated with the underworld and so George rubbed shoulders with everyone from "Mad Dog" Coll to Dutch Schultz. His closest pal in the rackets, though, was a man whom George had basically grown up with who became one of New York's top mobsters: Owney Madden. George willingly did "chores" for Madden because of their close friendship - primarily helping to run booze during those years of Prohibition. And later it was Madden who suggested that George should try his luck in the movies. Even bankrolling Raft until George got his "break" in pictures.
George did once say that he did hold youthful ambitions to become a big shot in the underworld but that he really didn't have what it took and, more importantly, he didn't want to disappoint his mother, whom he adored. In fact, she once caught George with a gun on his person and asked him not to come around the apartment again. This hurt George so much that he really tried to distance himself from participation in the rackets and put more effort into a career as a dancer - a vocation his mother heartily approved of.
Raft with Siegel

Emma: Even after he became a Hollywood star, Raft was dogged by claims that he was involved in organised crime. He definitely seemed to have enduring friendships with several crime figures, do you think any of the suspicions were true?
Stone: It's a gray area when it comes to his participating in any underworld activities after he became a movie star. Again, there have been rumours and Frances Dee, his co-star in Souls at Sea, once said: "Everyone knew that he (Raft) was a gangster," though she never amplified her comment. But as for his friendship with crime figures: Certainly. Especially  his open and publicized friendship with "Bugsy" Siegel. But in fairness, many other stars became friendly with Siegel, who apparently could be as charming as they come and a fine and generous companion. Heck, Jean Harlow was godmother to Siegel's daughter Millicent. And a film figure as respected as Pat O'Brien could be found playing handball with Siegel. Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper - even studio head Jack L. Warner were seen in Siegel's company. Unfortunately, because George did have a past association with the underworld and also because of his screen reputation, his association with Siegel hurt him more than it did other Hollywood celebrities. I think audiences of the day wanted to believe George Raft really was a gangster and palling around with a known mobster like The Bug solidified that reputation. What really sealed the deal, in my opinion, was when Raft, against orders from studio executives, went to bat for Siegel during the latter's bookmaking trial. He testified on Siegel's behalf and at one point risked a contempt of court charge because he became so vehement in his defense of Siegel that he completely disregarded court protocol. And there's that famous photo of George and Siegel grinning at each other like Cheshire cats outside the courtroom that made front page headlines. What's unfortunate is that Raft did not need negative publicity at this point in his career. He was starting the downward spiral in '47.

Emma: Because of his background an underworld associations, did George Raft embrace or resent being cast as a movie tough guy?
Stone: I don't think he objected to being a tough guy, provided his characters were on the side of good, such as in They Drive by Night and Manpower, where he played "men of the people." Also later in his career where he played a succession of detectives and such. But I do feel that the gangster image might have hit a little too close to home. However, it did serve him well early in his career and certainly did make George Raft into a star. But once he reached that level of stardom where he could choose his roles (even at the risk of studio suspension - and by the way Raft holds the record at Paramount for the most time an actor was placed on suspension - 22 times in 7 years!) he clearly wanted to distance himself from playing hoods and racketeers, which is unfortunate because those decisions cost him roles in gems like Dead End and High Sierra.

Emma: He seemed to have a colourful young adulthood having stints as a dancer, chorus boy and an actor in vaudeville. How did Raft become interested in dancing? Is it true that he worked on some occasions with Rudolph Valentino?
Stone: Actually, Raft began his dancing career simply by hanging out at dance studios around New York. He possessed a natural ability and - like Cagney - had a knack for picking up dance routines quickly. He studied the moves of dancers of the day, perfected them to his own unique style, and was soon off and running. His mother was one of his earliest dance partners and they used to enter dance competitions together. George's specialty was always the Charleston and whenever he performed that number it never failed to bring down the house. Unlike Cagney, whose dance moves were stiff and somewhat eccentric (and I don't mean that in a bad way), George's dancing was fluid and sinuous, almost snake-like. But both men tremendously admired each other's dancing (and it should be noted that Fred Astaire  was also a huge fan of Raft's fancy footwork) and it was Cagney who personally recommended George for his dance contest rival in Taxi!
Yes, George and Valentino did work in New York tea rooms before Rudy made it big in the movies. Women (usually lonely, unattractive or elderly) would sip on cups of tea and study and then choose their dance companion - paying for the privilege, of course - and maybe even entice them into an after-hours rendezvous. Unfortunately, it was likely this experience that later was to tag George as a gigolo, a condemnation which he abhorred and vehemently denied. After Valentino died (and George remembered visiting with him shortly before his death and saw a very unhappy man), Raft was approached by theatrical producers to go on tour with some of Valentino's former dancing partners - including an act with one of Valentino's wives, Jean Acker, but Raft, to his credit, rejected all of these "ghoulish" propositions. Besides, he wanted to "make it" on his own merits, not capitalize off the fame of a deceased friend. But there was some logic in these offers as Raft possessed a striking resemblance to Rudy.
Cagney and Raft
 Get ready for part two including insight in Raft’s personal relationships and legacy!!!

2 comments:

  1. What a great post! I really enjoyed reading it! I've now added this biography to my amazon wishlist in the hopes that I can pick it up sometime in August (I've got way too many unread books sitting on my shelf at the moment). Can't wait to see what you've got planned for Part II of this story x

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  2. Great part one, can't wait for the next installment.

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