George Raft was not a great movie actor but during the 1930s and into the mid ‘40s, his onscreen presence made him a big movie star.
Along with Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, Raft played numerous “tough-guy” characters in the classic Hollywood gangster films. Today however, he is mainly remembered for refusing the two starring roles that made Humphrey Bogart a Hollywood superstar.
George Raft, the eldest sibling of immigrant German parents, was born and raised in the crime-infested Hell’s Kitchen district of New York City; this led him to a lifelong affiliation with members of the Mob. The young George trained as a professional boxer but was more often a driver and gun-carrier for the mobsters who ran the many illegal rackets throughout the city. His closest underworld tie was his boyhood friend, the notorious prohibition mobster, Owney Madden, who in the late 1920s ran the legendary Cotton Club.
Always impeccably dressed, George was also an excellent dancer and got his first full-time job as a “Charleston hoofer” in comedian Jimmy Durante’s club on West 58th Street. Dropping the ‘n’ from his surname, Raft appeared in a number of Broadway vaudeville shows. Whenever the shows closed he took his dance routines around the numerous New York nightclubs and speakeasies. It was in these types of establishments that he met and socialised with the likes of “Scarface” Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.
In 1929, Owney Madden suggested Raft accompany the outrageous nightclub hostess and singer, “Texas” Guinan, to Hollywood, where she had been invited to make a film. Raft’s job was to act as a bodyguard for Guinan whilst she starred in her first talking picture, Queen of the Night Clubs (1929). On Guinan’s insistence, Raft was given a small part in the film as a dancer and so made his screen debut. He decided to stay in L.A. to pursue his dance/movie career and managed to get uncredited dancing and gangster roles in a number of motion pictures.
Raft’s old New York dance pal, James Cagney (who had just had a huge hit playing a gangster in The Public Enemy), requested George – in an unbilled part – to play his rival in a dancing competition sequence in the Warner Bros. production,Taxi (1932). This led to Raft being cast in what would become his career-making role as a loyal henchman in Scarface (1932), with Paul Muni in the
Muni’s role as Tony “Scarface” Camonte was based on the Chicago mobster Al Capone, whilst the character Guino Rinaldo was modelled on Capone’s bodyguard, Frank Rio. The film’s director, Howard Hawks, had been impressed with Raft’s debonair and uniquely sinister appearance in Taxi and signed him up as Camonte’s bodyguard.
To cover Raft’s lack of acting experience, Hawks told him to base his character on the mannerisms of the various mobsters Raft had known in New York. Taking Hawks’s advice, he developed a quiet but menacing Rinaldo and added what he described as “a bit of business” that would become Raft’s particular trademark – the casual flipping of a coin. There were a number of scenes in the film where Raft had no lines of dialogue nor any action. Rather than just silently standing still in the scene, he began to continually flip and catch a coin which he became so adept at, he could flip and catch it even when staring at someone.
Hawks kept it in the movie, including the scene where Camonte, after accusing Rinaldo of fooling around with his sister (in fact they had secretly got married), shoots him. As Rinaldo slides down the inside of a doorway he flips the coin one last time but dies before he can catch it. Hawks would state, “The coin represented a hidden defiance that made George stand out in the picture. It probably helped make him a star”.
Raft was asked to make personal appearances in New York and Chicago when Scarface was released across the US. Returning to his hotel in Chicago following the showing of the movie, he was met by an ugly looking hoodlum with a bulge under his arm who said, “Raft, the big guy wants to see ya”.
Bundled into a black limousine filled with other hoods, they drove the increasingly nervous Raft to the Lexington Hotel – Capone’s Chicago headquarters. He was led into a private office and sitting there behind a huge mahogany desk was Al Capone himself.
Some years later, Raft would relate what was said at that meeting. “Capone looked up at me and said, ‘Georgie, so ya been playin’ my bodyguard, Frank Rio, in this Scarface pitcha.’ ‘Yes, I did, Al,’ I said. ‘But it’s nothing personal – as an actor you do what you’re told.’ Capone rubbed the long scar on his face then, leaning toward me, said, ‘Well you tell them Hollywood schmucks, they don’t know Al Capone. They bumped me off in the end and nobody’s bumpin’ Al off while he’s running Chicago. Yeah! You tell ‘em that Georgie.'”
Raft later heard that Capone liked the film and was flattered with the attention the movie had brought him. However, a few weeks following their meeting, Capone was sentenced to eleven years in prison for tax evasion.
Scarface proved a movie sensation and broke box office records across the US. It was – at that time – the most authentic motion picture on a Chicago mobster’s rise and fall tale that audiences had ever seen. But more importantly for George Raft, the movie propelled him up the Hollywood ladder. All the major film studios now sought his services as a potential leading man. He signed a contract with Paramount and made over two dozen films for the studio.
The standout movies during this period were Night After Night (1932) with Mae West in a supporting role; Bolero (1934), where he played a dancer opposite Carole Lombard; and Souls at Sea (1937), co-starring with Gary Cooper. But he quickly gained a reputation of being difficult to manage and was suspended by the studio numerous times for refusing roles specifically designed for him.
Raft also had a penchant for women, and his natural charisma attracted many of Hollywood’s glamorous actresses who were often seen with him at all the best Hollywood nightclubs. They were intrigued with his connections to the underworld and George revelled in his “dangerous ladies man” image.
When the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition in December 1933, it brought an abrupt end to the Mob’s most lucrative income – bootleg liquor. The organised crime syndicates in New York and Chicago were now forced to search for new areas to exploit.
Hollywood had always been a rewarding marketplace for illicit booze supplied by the Mob. Subsequently, Meyer Lansky, known as the “Mob’s Accountant”, sent the syndicate’s enforcer, “Bugsy” Siegel, to Los Angeles. Siegel’s brief was to look for new ways for the syndicate to extort money from the movie colony. When Siegel arrived in LA he was met and greeted by his old New York friend and now prominent movie star – George Raft.
To be continued…
In STACK issue 163, in JB Hi-Fi, May 2018.