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Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Gentleman Gangster: Stone Wallace on George Raft – Part 2

This is part two of an interview I completed with George Raft biographer, Stone Wallace. For part one, click here. For everyone else, enjoy:

Emma: How did Raft get into film acting? Did he have any training before beginning acting or was he simply a natural performer?     
Stone: George was friendly with Texas Guinan, a famous cabaret hostess of the time and partner with mobster Larry Fay in the El Fey Club.  (The pair were later immortalized, if somewhat fictionally, as Eddie Bartlett and Panama Smith in The Roaring Twenties, played respectively by James Cagney and Gladys George). George often danced at the club and when Texas was asked to go to Hollywood to appear in the movie Queen of the Night Clubs, George accompanied her - either as merely a companion or maybe her bodyguard. George appeared briefly in the movie. He initially was filmed doing a whirlwind dance number but the scene was cut for some reason and instead George can quickly be seen enthusiastically waving a baton while conducting a night club orchestra. George appeared in a few other minor film roles, such as Goldie and Side Street and eventually decided to try and make acting his career. The clubs in New York where George had earlier enjoyed success were rapidly closing down due to the Depression and George was anxious to try another line of work - one preferably related to show business. It took him a while and apparently he endured some rough times trying to establish himself, but he got his first break when director Rowland Brown ran into Raft at a prize fight and remembered George from his impressive dancing in vaudeville and cast him as Spencer Tracy's second-in-command in the gangster drama Quick Millions. From there, George was off and running. His next "big" break came when Howard Hawks cast him as Paul Muni's henchman in Scarface.  His success in that film led to his being placed under contract to Paramount.
Interesting about Scarface. Jack LaRue told me that it was he who was originally cast in the Guino Rinaldo role but that after just a few days' filming director Hawks felt that LaRue possessed too much authority to be believable as Muni's henchman. LaRue accepted the dismissal gracefully and even (supposedly) suggested his pal George Raft for the role. I tend not to believe this account. LaRue was just beginning his own career in movies and it seems unlikely an actor hungry for his own success would introduce his own competition. In any event, if true, Raft reciprocated the favour when he turned down The Story of Temple Drake and LaRue was given the role. Unfortunately, the results for Jack LaRue were much less favourable for his future career.

Emma: Would you say the Paramount years were the most successful for George Raft?
Stone: I'm really not a huge fan of most of Raft's Paramount output. I think George fared much better at Warners and it's interesting to speculate how his career would have progressed had he signed with Warners after the success of Scarface rather than going to Paramount. Paramount had a more European style whereas Warners of course was urban and gritty. But I will say that well into his Paramount contract George scored big with three features: The Glass Key, Souls at Sea and Spawn of the North (probably my second favourite Raft film). What is interesting is that Raft's last film for the studio, The Lady's from Kentucky, was relegated to the second feature on the double bill. Doesn't really say much for George's future with Paramount.

Raft and Robinson
Emma: On a personal note, Raft had a short lived relationship with his only wife, Grayce Mulrooney, although they never legally separated. How did the pair meet and why did you think they never divorced?
Stone: Grayce Mulrooney had been one of George's early ballroom partners, later to leave show business to work as a social worker, and while George dated many girls, Grayce held a particular attraction to George. While he wasn't exactly keen on the idea of getting married and settling down given that he was focusing on advancing his career, he eventually gave in to her (persistent) demands that they marry and they wed in 1923 when George embarked on a four-month tour with on the Keith Vaudeville Circuit. The union was rocky right from the start and as far as Raft was concerned, his marriage to Grayce pretty much ended shortly after their honeymoon. Ironically, legally, because a divorce was never obtained, George Raft had one of Hollywood's most lasting marriages: from 1923 until Grayce Mulrooney's death in 1970. Forty-seven years. Incidentally, there's a rumour that George actually had been married once before and that he had a son from that union. To my knowledge, it was something that - if true - George never discussed.
The reason Grayce gave for never divorcing George was because of her devout Catholicism. Raft believed her reasons were more selfish, that she felt it would be worth more financially to stay married to him than to merely accept a cut-and-dried divorce settlement. After all, she was receiving a hefty ten percent of his earnings and at his height George was averaging more than five grand a week.

Emma: Raft notoriously had several extra-marital affairs; including apparently with famous actresses, such as, Norma Shearer, Betty Grable and Marlene Dietrich. Were any of these relationships serious? Was he seriously considering marrying any of them?
Stone: Another rumour was that George might not have really wanted a divorce from Grayce. Staying legally wed provided a convenient way for him ever to have to tie himself down in a relationship; allowed him to maintain his freedom. Raft always denied such was his intention. He said that he desperately wanted to marry socialite Virginia Pine and, later, Betty Grable, and had literally pleaded with Grayce on more than one occasion to divorce him. But she stubbornly refused. After his romance with Grable dissolved, Raft never allowed himself to get involved in a serious relationship and he dated primarily starlets (such as Barbara Payton) and hookers. It's interesting to contemplate how Raft's life would have fared had he ever been allowed the experience of marital life. If George sincerely did want to marry either Virginia Pine or Betty Grable, I think it's sad that he was denied this happiness because of what I view as a greedy and maybe vindictive wife.
Raft's relationship with Norma Shearer was another matter. Their coupling was frowned upon by MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who said: "A nice Jewish girl like Norma should not be going around with a roughneck like that." Meaning Raft, of course. It is doubtful that their relationship ever would have led to marriage, however. They were merely steady dating companions; after all Norma hadn't been widowed that long from Irving Thalberg, whom she deeply loved - as did L.B.
 Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard were two gals Raft admits he was crazy about. While George and Carole occasionally dated, there could be no future for a lasting relationship with the shadow of Grayce Mulrooney always looming overhead. Carole also once made the comment that no girl could stand up to George Raft's sexual needs. He had quite a reputation in that area, which I will tactfully refrain from elaborating on. Raft also apparently had a fling with Dietrich but a long term romantic relationship never developed between the two, though each deeply admired the other, personally and professionally. With all the turmoil that went on between Raft and Edward G. Robinson during the filming of Manpower, Dietrich wrote in her autobiography that she retained only the warmest memories of George Raft as her co-star in the movie.

Raft and Betty Grable
Emma: Your book’s title clearly shows the connection between Raft’s and Humphrey Bogart’s careers. Raft is notorious for turning down the starring roles in what would become famous Bogart pictures, such as, High Sierra and Maltese Falcon. Do you think Raft could have executed these roles as well as Bogart? Also, do you see other similarities between the men, such as, acting styles?

Stone: I think Raft would have done very well as urban gangster and former street kid "Baby Face" Martin in Dead End. After all, that was Raft's milieu, unlike Bogie who was born into privilege (if not a particularly happy home life). I'm not as sure about High Sierra. Bogart had already played a grassroots bandit in The Petrified Forest, whereas, again, Raft was more closely associated with the suave, well-dressed "night club"-type of racketeer. It's kind of like trying to picture George Raft as a cowboy, which I don't think ever would have come off. As for The Maltese Falcon, the picture certainly would have been different with Raft essaying the role of Sam Spade . . . but arguably it could have worked because of John Huston's expert direction. If Raft behaved himself on the set I think Huston could have coaxed an effective performance out of him. Would it have been as good a film as the version we now have? Probably not. The movie has a terrific ensemble cast and the players work in a near-perfect synchronicity, like the finest tuned clockwork. I feel that Raft might have somehow upset that balance. I do know that Huston adamantly did not want to work with Raft, whom he did not particularly care for as an actor or as a person, once referring to him as a "definite Mafia type." Huston expected there to be trouble on the set based on Raft's reputation - and besides he had Bogart in mind for the part all along.

Of course the story about Raft turning down Casablanca is false, even though in later years Raft himself perpetuated the story (like Bela Lugosi later claiming it was he who persuaded Universal to cast Boris Karloff as the monster in Frankenstein). The truth is that Raft actually campaigned for the role of Rick, and Jack Warner was okay to cast him, but Hal Wallis and Michael Curtiz wanted Bogart. Wallis, in particular, had grown dissatisfied with how George thought he could dictate solely what was right or wrong for him when it came to projects. Had Raft taken on The Maltese Falcon, then it is possible he might have been awarded Casablanca, but thanks to George's career blunders at the studio, Bogart had risen rapidly through the ranks and was no longer regarded as "George Raft's brother-in-law."

Emma: What do you feel was George's main strength as an actor?
Stone: I've always said that George Raft performed at his best when paired with a strong (usually male) co-star. The proof is in the pudding: Consider Quick Millions (Spencer Tracy), Scarface (Paul Muni), The Bowery (Wallace Beery), Souls at Sea (Gary Cooper), Spawn of the North  (Henry Fonda), Each Dawn I Die (Cagney), Invisible Stripes and They Drive By Night (Bogart), Manpower (Edward G. Robinson) - up until Rogue Cop (Robert Taylor). And of course talented directors like Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway, Lloyd Bacon,  Raoul Walsh, Billy Wilder. Since I know you are an admirer of Bolero,  I will also concede having a co-star like Carole Lombard definitely didn't hurt. But if you look at when Raft's career began to fade, you'll notice the (lack of) calibre of his co-star and directors not particular of the highest talent.

Emma: Raft probably does not have the legend status nor the enduring appeal today of Bogart. However, the stereotype of the film ‘gangster’ was created by him along with a handful of others. Why do you think Raft is not remembered today in a similar way to Bogart or Cagney?
Stone: Simply, bad career choices. A determined stubbornness not to be typecast as a gangster or hoodlum and, to a lesser extent, his desire not to die on-camera. It is obvious that Raft took his decision over accepting film roles seriously. He once said he wanted the public to like him (which I feel demonstrates his innate insecurity) and that was why he turned down the gangster roles in The Story of Temple Drake and Dead End. He found the role of "Trigger" in the former repulsive and sincerely worried that if he took on the part audiences would think he, George Raft, was like the character and that his future as an actor would be finished. Jack LaRue took on the role and it's true that his career never really took off afterward. So George's argument actually might have been valid. He rejected Dead End because he did not want the character of "Baby Face" Martin to encourage the kids in the film to partake of a life of crime, and of course that would have negated the whole point of the story. Later, of course, came the famous Warner Brothers rejections. What's really ironic and makes one question George Raft's thinking is why he would turn down the part of sympathetic gangster Roy Earle in High Sierra, a big-budget movie based on a bestselling novel by a recognized writer, and virtually beg to go on loan-out to United Artists to appear as a gangster (who dies at the end) in a much lesser - and silly - production: The House Across the Bay? A box of cigars to anyone who can figure out the reasoning behind that decision. I think what also really hurt George's career was his insistence after leaving the gates of Warner Brothers to play mainly good guys. The roles, in smaller budget movies at lesser studios, very soon became monotonous for audiences. In fact, when Billy Wilder approached Raft about playing the opportunistic insurance agent Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, Raft insisted on knowing when Neff was going to flash open his badge to reveal to Barbara Stanwyck that he was really an undercover cop. So much for George Raft in the part. In the 50s George Raft's "star" shone twice more - though briefly. And both times it was with him playing a gangster: Rogue Cop and Some Like it Hot. On the set of the latter Raft was quoted as saying: "Typecasting again. But what can you do about it? I just never seemed to get the breaks that Bogart and Cagney did."
The truth is, Raft was afforded virtually all of the breaks. He just never took advantage of them. John Huston said of Raft during the time George was under contract at Warners: "Everything at the studio was intended for George Raft." From The Sea Wolf to The Maltese Falcon, these were good parts that George missed out on. His beneficiaries in these roles became legends while Raft in the years to come became a nearly forgotten name.
Here's an enlightening story: A friend of mine appeared as an extra in the movie What Price Glory? and one day overheard James Cagney speaking with his co-star Dan Dailey. Cagney was saying that George Raft could have been one of the biggest stars in Hollywood if he'd only used better judgment. Raft would in later years place much of the blame on bad advice given him by his agent. But I don't quite buy it. Raft was a fiercely independent personality and was perfectly capable of making his own choices. Just too bad that many of them were bad.

Emma: Out of all the Hollywood figures in Hollywood, why did you choose Raft to be the focus of your biography?
Stone: Because I think George Raft is one of the most fascinating show business personalities, yet, career missteps aside, he has never really received his due. Today he's nowhere near as known as many of his movie contemporaries. He may not have been a great actor, but as I said before, he had a tremendous presence that even the most jaded critic would have to say was hard to turn attention away from. The guy was watchable. It is interesting how the program Biography did stories on Bogie, Cagney, Eddie Robinson and even John Garfield, yet Raft, who led the most colourful life of all, was never featured, and I even wrote to A&E to request they do a program on Raft. I mean from his days as a tough kid surviving Hell's Kitchen, his lifelong association with the underworld, top Hollywood stardom, then his career nosedive due to his turning down roles in films that became enduring Hollywood classics. His experience in Cuba during the Castro Revolution and his later expulsion from England. And of course his Don Juan reputation with famous and beautiful women of the day - and that is an article in itself.
To quote Bogie as Sam Spade in the famous role that George Raft turned down: "The stuff dreams are made of."

I don’t think I can end this article better than that other than to say a big thankyou to Stone Wallace for answering my questions. Also for anyone interesting in the career and personal life of George Raft, check out Stone’s book: George Raft: The Man Who Would be Bogart.  

6 comments:

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  2. its a great interview thanks for posting. Stone really knows and understands the man behind the facade. He was not the greatest actor but for quite a while he was a very popular star, probably for about 15 years. He was very stylish and elegant dresser who moved with the years and generations. His dress sense is still around today and we still people flipping a coin in the same manner . He was in the public eye a lot longer than most of his contemporaries. Stone should be congratulated for writing such an interesting biography.

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  3. "he had a tremendous presence that even the most jaded critic would have to say was hard to turn attention away from." Couldn't have said it better myself. Great interview, I enjoyed reading it very much. I didn't know George had an affair with Barbara Payton. Big thanks to Stone Wallace and Emma, I'm glad he isn't forgotten and I can't wait to read this biography!

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  4. I had the pleasure of meeting George Raft late in his life. It was at a party at the Greystone mansion, and his date was Mae West! I was all of 26 and thrilled to see these legends in the flesh. I guess they stayed friends all those years after her debut film with in the early thirties. Everyone was fluttering around West, so I took a moment and spoke to Raft. He seemed pleased that someone was interested in him too. I told him I really enjoyed his autobiography, published a couple of years before. His face lit up and he thanked me sincerely. He might have been surprised that someone of my age had appreciated his era.

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    1. What a wonderful story, Chris. I envy you. Would love to have had the privilege of meeting my film idol, Mr. Raft.

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