Despite this. during the 1930s and 1940s he was one of Hollywood's leading box office successes, with leading man roles in many quality non-gangster films such as 'Bolero' in 1934, 'They Drive by Night'. In 1940 and 'Christmas Eve' in 1947.
BiographyHe was born George Ranft, in New York on September 26, 1895, the son of a delivery driver of German ancestry. He had one elder sister, Eva. He grew up on 41st Street in Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan and learned at a young age how to fend for himself on the streets.
He worked after school as an errand boy and a fishwrapper and after leaving school aged 12, he worked as an apprentice electrician for a year, then boxed professionally for two years, using the ring name "Dutch Rauft" and hustled pool.
In 1911, he played minor league basebal/l for Springfield of the Eastern League, but his batting was poor and he was dropped. He was looking for something he could do well and he soon found it.
Dancing CareerRaft was an exceptionally gifted dancer having been taught originally by his mother.. He began to make money as a paid partner in dance halls in the poorer parts of New York. After winning a competition for his speciality dance, the Charleston, he became a full time professional dancer and started giving dancing exhibitions at various New York clubs and restaurants.
He was naturally very light on his feet and he quickly became a well known figure in the city. He went on tour around Europe, giving Tango and Charleston exhibitions and helped to popularise the new dances in various capitals including London, Rome and Paris.
Returning to America, Raft joined the infamous vaudeville star and saloonkeeper, Texas Guinan at her 300 Club on 54th Street, a speakeasy that managed to stay in business during Prohibition. He danced at the club and also produced some of her shows. He soon moved to Broadway where his stage successes included 'The City Chap' in 1925, 'Madhattan' and 'No Foolin' the following year and 'Padlocks of 1927' in 1927.
Early Movie CareerRaft's first contact with movie studios came when he worked on the Paramount Publix circuit, dancing in stage shows that were often presented before movies.
He moved to Hollywood in 1927 and continued to dance in nightclubs to earn money. His movie debut was in 1929 in 'Queen of the Nightclubs' which starred his old associate, Texas Guinan and he followed up with small dancing roles in 1929's 'Gold Diggers of Broadway' and 'Side Street'.
His fledgling career received a boost in 1931 with 4 movies to his name, including a small role as a gangster with Spencer Tracy in 'Quick Millions' and with Eddie Cantor in 'Palmy Days'. Again in 1932 he appeared in small roles as a dancer or gangster with top named stars such as James Cagney and Loretta Young in 'Taxi' and Miriam Hopkins in 'Dancers in the Dark'.
Early Hollywood Stardom 1932The film which helped to make Raft a star was 'Scarface' in which he played a gangster and became well known for frequently flipping a coin during scenes. The movie starred Paul Muni and was a substantial hit. It was actually made in 1931 with a delayed release, Even before it came out Paramount signed Raft up to a contract and gave him the lead role in 'Night after Night', a film with a character based on Texas Guinon. When Paramount refused to sign Guinan to play herself because of her age, Raft suggested his friend Mae West for the role. It was the start of West's film career.
Raft continued to appear regularly in movies during the next two decades. In the 1930s he was one of the three most popular gangster actors on screen, alongside James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, and ranked far above Humphrey Bogart in fame and box office clout throughout the decade.
In 'Bolero' in 1934 he again played a dancer, co-starring Carole Lombard. In May of that year he signed a new contract with Paramount, to reflect his new status as a bona fide Hollywood star.
In 1937 Raft played opposite one of Hollywood's biggest stars, Gary Cooper, in 'Souls at Sea'. Raft originally turned down the part as his character was a coward, but returned when the part was rewritten. The movie was a big hit and in 1937 Raft became the third highest paid star in Hollywood, behind Cooper and Warner Baxter. In May of that year he tested for the role of Rhett Butler in 'Gone with the Wind'. It is interesting to speculate on what effect he would have had on the film if he had been successful.
Raft was proving to be a difficult employee for Paramount, refusing parts on numerous occasions and being suspended by the studio several times. Eventually, in February, 1939, Paramount's patience snapped and the studio ended his contract.
Hollywood Peak 1940-41Raft's career was rescued and resuscitated by Warner Bros studios who invited him to appear opposite James Cagney in a prison film, Each Dawn I Die in 1939. The movie was a great success and in July 1939 Raft signed a three films a year contract with Warners.
After 'Invisible Stripes' later in 1939, he appeared with Humphrey Bogart and Ann Sheridan in 1940 in the dramatic and still eminently watchable 'They Drive by Night'. The film was another great success. In 1941 Raft appeared with Edward G. Robinson in 'Manpower'. The production was marked by conflict and at least one fistfight between Raft and Robinson, due to Raft's resentment at having third billing despite having the largest role in the film. Despite the friction, the film was another commercial success. Raft was on the crest of a wave - or at least he appeared to be.
Career DeclineOver the next decade Raft's career gradually declined. Part of the reason was his habit of turning down roles which would be later made famous by other actors. In 1941 'High Sierra' and 'The Maltese Falcon' transformed Humphrey Bogart's career from supporting player to major star, but both were first offered to Raft and refused. Raft was also reported to have turned down Bogart's role in Casablanca the following year, although this has never been confirmed.
In 1943 Raft bought himself out of his Warner Bros. contract. He continued making movies as a leading man during the rest of the decade but with films of gradually declining quality. In 1945, the maritime thriller, 'Johnny Angel' was a surprise hit but 'Mr Ace' the following year was a box office flop.
He returned to RKO to make the popular film noir 'Nocturne' in 1946 but his next three films were disappointing: 'Christmas Eve' and 'Intrigue in 1947 and 'Race Street' the following year. Raft was seen as associating with disreputable underworld characters and his reputation suffered a blow in June 1947 when his friend Bugsy Siegel was murdered.
His star continued to wane after the disappointing 'Outpost in Morocco', Johnny Allegro', Red Light' and 'A Dangerous Profession' all in 1949 and all of which performed indifferently. Raft was now a 'B' movie actor.
Later CareerDuring the 1950s Raft worked as a greeter at a casino which he part owned. in Havana, Cuba. He was a supporter of the new medium of television and he starred in a television series entitled 'I'm the Law', one of the first instances of a Hollywood star doing a TV series. He also continued appearing in movies, but in supporting roles, as in 'Rogue Cop' and 'Black Widow' in 1954. He was one of many guest stars in 'Around the World in 80 Days' in 1956 amd he also had a small role in Billy Wilder's 'Some Like it Hot' in 1959, when he satirised his early 'Scarface' coin-tossing performance.
The remainder of his movie career was spent in small roles in generally small films. His final film appearances were in 'Sextette' in 1978, with Mae West again and finally, 'The Man with Bogart's Face' in 1980.
PersonalRaft was known for having contacts with figures from America's underworld. He established numerous shady connections as a young man fending for himself on New York's streets. He knew the city's top crime gang leaders and almost certainly did low level jobs for them.
During Prohibition, whilst earning a living as a dancer, he also worked as a driver, transporting booze to the speakeasies. For the rest of his life Raft was marked as an associate of criminals and it ultimately had a bad effect on his career. He was interviewed by FBI agents on two occasions in 1938 and 1953, and in 1944 he gave evidence when Bugsy Siegel was on trial for bookmaking. In 1965 he was convicted of income tax evasion and was fined $2,500. The following year he was prevented from entering Britain because of his alleged Mafia connections.
Raft had one marriage, to Grace Mulrooney, whom he met when he was a dancer and married in 1923, before he became a star. The couple remained married until her death in 1970. She was a devout Roman Catholic which probably explains why the couple never divorced. Raft certainly played the field during his marriage, with affairs with Betty Grable, Virginia Pine, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, Carole Lombard and Mae West, amongst others.
George Raft died from leukemia in Los Angeles, California, on November 24, 1980. He was interred in Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.
George Raft Academy AwardsNo Nominations:
George Raft Filmography
Queen of the Night Clubs
Gold Diggers of Broadway (uncredited)
The Three Brothers (uncredited)
Dancers in the Dark
Such Things Happen
The Sporting Widow
Night After Night
If I Had a Million
The Trumpet Calls
All of Me
The Glass Key
Every Night at Eight
It Had to Happen
Yours for the Asking
Souls at Sea
You and Me
Spawn of the North
The Lady's from Kentucky
Each Dawn I Die
I Stole a Million
The House Across the Bay
They Drive By Night
Stage Door Canteen
Background to Danger
Follow the Boys
Outpost in Morocco
A Dangerous Profession