TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Twenty-Four — George Raft

Hard-boiled on screen and off.

George Raft was the essence of the 1930s cinema gangster – calculating, ruthless, and always handy with a gat.

Off-screen, he led a life that often mirrored his big-screen persona, rubbing shoulders with such real-life mobsters as Bugsy Siegel and Owney Madden and once describing himself as “kind of a greaseball type.” Actress Joan Bennett once said he possessed “an underlying toughness . . . beneath the finely veneered surface.”

IN THE BEGINNING:

George Ranft was born in New York City on September 26, 1895, one of 10 children of a department store deliveryman and his wife. Raised in the rough “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood of the city, the future actor (who changed his name to Raft in his late teens) frequently skipped school, spending much of his time getting involved in street fights, hanging out on local corners, and serving for a time as mascot for the New York Highlanders baseball team. He left home (and school) at the age of 13, sleeping in subways and mission homes and performing odd jobs to make ends meet.

Young George with Carole Lombard.

Raft was a professional boxer for a short time, then switched gears, capitalizing on his natural dancing ability to first get a job as a dance teacher at the Audubon Ballroom, and later entering ballroom dance contests and working as a “taxi-dancer” in local cafes. He got his first job on the legitimate stage at the Union Square Theater after an agent spotted him in a contest.

During the next several years, billed as “The Fastest Dancer in the World,” Raft toured nationwide with the Orpheum and B.F. Keith vaudeville circuits, landing bookings in some of the top clubs on Broadway and in Europe, and appearing as the featured dancer at Texas Guinan’s El Fey Club in New York. He made his screen debut in 1929 when Guinan offered him a role as a taxi-dancer in Queen of the Nightclubs, a film about her life as a famed nightclub hostess.

OTHER STUFF:

  • Early in his dancing career, Raft supplemented his income by working for his boyhood pal, Owney Madden, who had become a top gangster in New York. Among other jobs, Raft drove the convoy car for Madden’s fleet of beer trucks.
  • Raft claimed that he was “tricked” in the early 1920s into marrying Grayce Mulrooney, who was once one of his dancing partners. Shortly after they were wed, the couple separated, but Mulrooney refused to grant Raft a divorce – a stance that she maintained until her death in 1970.

    With Bugsy Siegel.

  • In the late 1930s, Raft decided he no longer wanted to be depicted as a criminal on screen; instead, he wanted to be seen as upstanding, even heroic. As a result, he turned down a variety of films, including Dead End (1937). High Sierra (1941), Double Indemnity (1944) – in the latter, Raft wanted the character of Walter Neff to turn out to be an undercover detective. The part was ultimately played by Fred MacMurray.
  • During the filming of his 1941 picture Manpower, Raft and co-star Edward G. Robinson engaged in what one magazine called “one of the fieriest feuds Hollywood has enjoyed in many a moon.” The two got into at least one fist fight, resulting in Robinson walking off the set. The two stars patched up their differences in later years and shortly before his death, Robinson praised Raft as a “true actor.”
  • On the night of Bugsy Siegel’s murder in June 1947, Raft was reportedly scheduled to meet the gangster at his home, but he was delayed by a bridge game.

    Raft and Mae West, together again at the end.

  • There is an excellent interview with George Raft on YouTube, from The Mike Douglas Show. The program aired just seven months before Raft’s death.
  • Raft appeared in Mae West’s first film, Night After Night in 1932, and her last film, Sextette, in 1978. Ironically, Raft and West would die within two days of each other in 1980 and their corpses were briefly alongside each other on stretchers in a hallway of the same mortuary.

MY SUTS PICK:

There are a number of good films airing on George Raft’s Summer Under the Stars Day, including the aforementioned Manpower, Each Dawn I Die (1939), Nocturne (1946), and one of my all-time favorite films, Some Like It Hot (1959). For my pick of the day, though, I’m going with They Drive By Night (1940), in which Raft stars with Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, and Ida Lupino. The story concerns a pair of truck driving brothers – Raft and Bogart – and their experiences when they decide to strike out on their own, including a tragic accident and Raft’s relationship with his boss’s emotionally unstable wife. It’s good stuff – check it out.

By the way, George Raft was never known as one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, but there’s no denying that he could cut a rug like nobody’s business. Check him out here in this clip from the 1930s . . .

. . . and join me for Day 25 of Summer Under the Stars!

~ by shadowsandsatin on August 23, 2020.

2 Responses to “TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Twenty-Four — George Raft”

  1. Over the years I have become fond of George Raft in a way that makes me sit through some movies that don’t really work for me. However, in a top-flight production like They Drive by Night or Each Dawn I Die, George is at his best. He deserves the SUTS tribute. I’m only disappointed that they are not giving You and Me another screening after Sylvia Sidney day.

  2. […] Day 24: George Raft […]

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