Following “Bugsy” Siegel’s arrival in Los Angeles, his old New York friend and now movie star, George Raft, introduced him to all of Hollywood’s motion picture glitterati. Together they became regular attendees at movie parties, race tracks and the top nightclubs. Although Siegel’s background was common knowledge amongst the movie community, the mobster’s handsome features, sartorial elegance and social conduct belied his tough and murderous history. Hollywood was utterly intrigued and totally mesmerised with George Raft’s pal – Mr. Benjamin Siegel.
What Siegel really did in Los Angeles – as a representative of the East Coast Crime Syndicate – is pure speculation, as no-one precisely knew all the details. According to one account he organised a union of movie employees that all the film studios were forced to pay not to strike. Another had him dominating all forms of gambling in the city including bookmaking, roulette, crap games, and the numbers racket.
Indeed, gambling was Siegel’s forte, as he was fond of betting large wads of money on the horses and casino tables. However, what is definitely known during his time in LA is that he nurtured the germ of an idea of building a mob-controlled hotel and casino. This would come to fruition some years later when he opened The Flamingo, on the outskirts of a small town in the Nevada desert named Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, George Raft’s typecasting battles continued at Paramount, resulting in more than 20 disagreements and almost the same amount of suspensions. Movie stardom, celebrity and money had given him status and a sense of security, although his expensive habits and expansive generosity made it impossible for him to hold on to money for long. As one of Paramount’s biggest contracted stars, he was eagerly sought by other studios for loan-outs. Awareness of his popularity with millions of movie fans only increased Raft’s arrogance and continual refusal of the movie roles Paramount wanted him to undertake. This finally resulted in Raft demanding a termination of his contract, and a relieved Paramount agreed. Shortly after he signed with Warner Bros.
Hiring new actors was Warner’s way of reminding his stars and their agents that they were all replaceable. However, what Warner was unaware of was that Raft, too, did not want to make any more gangster movies.
Raft had become increasingly embarrassed by recurring reports in the media that he was closely tied with organised crime bosses such as Bugsy Siegel. Everyone knew the reports were true, but Raft thought he could offset them by reforming his onscreen image.
Back in 1937, whilst still at Paramount, independent producer Sam Goldwyn had offered Raft the role of “Baby Face” Martin in the movie Dead End. Martin, a psychopathic killer, is on the run from the police and hides out in the New York slums where he was raised. But Raft balked at certain aspects of Martin’s character and actions when he meets a gang of kids who idolise him. Raft wanted a scene where he tells the youngsters how bad his life is and for them not to grow up like him. Goldwyn, who considered that Raft always portrayed “a magnificent hoodlum” onscreen, pleaded with him to play the part as written. But Raft turned it down. The role of the killer Martin eventually went to Humphrey Bogart, who at the time was a second string Warner Bros. contracted character actor – and Bogart played the part brilliantly. Furthermore, Raft’s refusal of this and other films in the future would be the greatest boon to Bogart’s movie career.
Raft’s first movie for his new studio was Each Dawn I Die (1939), in which he co-starred with his pal James Cagney, who had persuaded him to take the part. Cagney plays a crusading reporter about to expose a tie-in between the district attorney and the mob. He gets sent to prison on a trumped-up charge where he meets “Hood” Stacey (Raft), the tough king of the prison yard who, through nefarious methods, gets Cagney exonerated and the crooked DA arrested but is himself killed in the process. In addition to its major box-office success, the film set a standard for all subsequent prison movies.
Raft’s next film, Invisible Stripes (1939), also had a prison theme – Raft plays an ex-con trying to go straight. During the production, Raft upset the director and rest of the cast by continually changing his character’s lines so that he would appear less hard-bitten. Events got so fractious on set that Jack Warner intervened by threatening to kill off Raft’s character much earlier in the film than was scripted. The production proceeded smoothly thereafter, but after the film wrapped, Raft would reject any other script that dealt with crime. Finally, he agreed on the trucking melodrama, They Drive by Night (1940), which also featured fourth-billed Humphrey Bogart. It proved to be Raft’s finest film throughout his brief tenure at Warner Bros.
During his time at Warner, Raft refused the starring roles in two motion pictures that are now considered Hollywood classics. As with Dead End, the beneficiary would again be Humphrey Bogart, only this time both films would propel him to major star status.
In High Sierra (1940), Raft was cast as Roy Earle, an ageing and weary bank robber. He refused the role, objecting not only to
the character’s line of business, but also to the character’s death. But Bogart gave Earle a sympathetic code of ethics and although he was on the wrong side of the law, Bogie played him as a likeable anti-hero. High Sierra was an instant hit at the box-office. Raft also refused The Maltese Falcon (1941) when he was cast to play private investigator Sam Spade. The reasons for his refusal this time was that he considered it be an unimportant film; he also objected to the fact that it had been assigned to an untried director. The untried director was future Academy Award-winner John Huston. Huston would later state, “Everything was intended for George Raft at that time and I was not Raft’s greatest admirer. He was very much a Mafia type and liked to display it. He practically refused everything that was thrown at him. He really was very ignorant about movie roles. Poor devil threw away his film career.”
The Maltese Falcon was an instant classic and remains so today. When George Raft watched the movie for the first time he quipped, “There but for the grace of me, go I.” Raft, the friend of mobsters, had now gained another reputation: “The man who made Bogart.” He made one more film at Warner Bros. and then paid Jack Warner $10,000 to buy out his own contract. Raft had decided that long-term studio contracts were not for him; instead he would freelance as an independent actor, selecting and negotiating each movie deal himself.
George Raft would soon discover that his choice of movie roles did not necessarily correspond with what paying audiences wanted to see. His many miscalculations would ultimately precipitate his decline as a movie star.
To be concluded… in STACK 164, June 2018.