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By Susan M. Kelly

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1936 R95 George Raft Linen Premium Photo1934 George Raft Real Photo CardIn a string of movies during the 30’s and 40’s, George Raft became the quintessential Hollywood tough guy, bringing an air of gritty realism to his gangster roles.  Raft actually played the part so well that he managed to carry the gangster image into his off-screen life, a fact that did little to help his career.

Born George Ranft, he began life in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City, a neighborhood that necessitated the development of the “tough guy” image which would serve him so well in later years.  He tried prizefighting for a time, but eventually gave it up in favor of much less violent pursuits.  Showing a great interest and aptitude for dance, the dashing young man found himself working in some of New York City’s most fashionable nightclubs.  He earned a spot in the stage act of Texas Guinan and eventually landed on Broadway. 

While working in the nightclubs, George was introduced to the world of organized crime, an association that would last throughout his life, but he was soon hearing the siren call of Hollywood and he left New York behind for the movie business.  He arrived in Hollywood in 1928 and took a succession of small roles until his breakout performance in 1932’s “Scarface”.  Playing Guino Rinaldo, the cool-headed henchman to Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte, Raft stood out with his toned down, well crafted performance.

His performance was so convincing it led to speculation about Raft being a gangster off-screen as well.  Raft recognized the power of publicity and he encouraged the rumors, including his supposed ties with well known mobster Bugsy Siegel, in an effort to stimulate his career.  The effort paid off as his career moved forward at a rapid pace with a succession of tough guy roles in films such as “Pick-up” (1933), “All of Me” (1934), and “Stolen Harmony” (1935).  That same year, he appeared in an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel “The Glass Key”, putting up one of his better performances as a man trapped in the middle of a mob war.

He continued playing to gangster type in “Each Dawn I Die” and “I Stole a Million” (both 1939) and other films.  In 1940, he broke from the mold a bit to play a tough guy with a heart of gold in “They Drive By Night”.  He starred with Humphrey Bogart as a pair of brothers who are wildcat truckers.  The down on their luck characters suffer through one hardship after another yet refuse to let any of it beat them.  Raft brought a lot of charm to his characterization as one of the “little guys” who makes good, but he would be less successful in his own career in the coming years, even as his co-star, Bogart, saw his star begin to rise.

Over the next few years, Raft began to build a rather dubious name for himself as the man who turned down some of the best roles of his time.  He bypassed starring roles1946 Humphrey Bogart Motion Picture Premium in “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon” which made Humphrey Bogart a star, then turned down the lead in George Raft Movie Still“Casablanca” because he didn’t want to appear opposite a then unknown Ingrid Bergman.  Approached by director Billy Wilder, he also refused the lead in “Double Indemnity”, a role which eventually went to Fred MacMurray.

He chose instead to continue with his mobster roles, playing a whitewashed version of himself in 1942’s “Broadway” and then actually playing himself in the wartime morale booster “Stage Door Canteen” (1943).  Though he had pretty much torpedoed his chances as a leading man, he continued to work steadily in his patented hard-boiled character parts throughout the 40’s, including turns in “Johnny Angel” (1945), “Intrigue” (1947), and “Johnny Allegro” (1949).  He veered from the pattern briefly with a comedic turn in the offbeat “Christmas Eve” (1947), but for the most part he stuck with what he knew best.

The onset of the 50’s brought a run of bad luck both on-screen and off.  Troubles with the IRS coupled with the failure of his self-owned syndicated TV series “I Am the Law” took their toll, yet true to his tough guy image, Raft soldiered on.  He continued his string of character roles and did a cameo spot in “Around The World In Eighty Days” (1956), but his career seemed to be flagging.  He reconnected with Billy Wilder and turned in a deadpan satire of his own gangster image in “Some Like It Hot” (1959).  Though well received, the role failed to revive his career and he finished out the decade making films in Europe.

He returned to the U.S. and continued to appear in small roles in such films as “Ocean’s Eleven” (1960), “The Patsy” (1964) and “The Silent Treasure” (1968).  When his finances took a hit, he sold the movie rights to his life, which was filmed as “The George Raft Story” in 1961, with Ray Danton in the title role.  An authorized biography, “George Raft” was published in 1974 and he would be portrayed on film again in Barry Levenson’s 1991 film “Bugsy”, this time by Joe Mantegna.

Never able to completely detach himself from Bogart’s considerable shadow, his final film appearance came in 1980’s “The Man With Bogart’s Face”.  He died not long after the film was completed.  Though he never achieved leading man status, with all of his trademark grit and determination he was nevertheless able to carve out a lasting niche for himself, leaving behind a unique film legacy as Hollywood’s classic gangster.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey.  Susan is a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.