Johnny Allegro, 1949
George Raft (born George Ranft; September 26, 1901 – November 24, 1980) was an American film actor and dancer identified with portrayals of gangsters in crime melodramas of the 1930s and 1940’s. A stylish leading man in dozens of movies, today Raft is mostly known for his gangster roles in the original Scarface (1932), Each Dawn I Die (1939), and Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy Some Like it Hot, as a dancer in Bolero (1934), and a truck driver in They Drive by Night (1940).
George Ranft was born in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City to a Catholic family of German descent, the son of Eva (née Glockner) and Conrad Ranft. His father was born in Massachusetts to German immigrant parents, and his mother was a German immigrant. His parents were married on November 17, 1895, in Manhattan. His elder sister, Eva, known as “Katie,” was born on April 18, 1896.
Although Raft’s birth year in obituaries has been reported as 1895, he is recorded in the New York City Birth Index as having been born on September 26, 1901 in Manhattan as “George Rauft” (although “Rauft” is likely a mistranscription of “Ranft”); the 1900 Census for New York City lists his elder sister, Katie, as his parents’ only child, with two children born and only one living. On the 1910 Census, he is listed as being eight years old. A boyhood friend of gangsters Owney Madden and Bugsy Siegel (and later a “wheel man” for the mob), Raft acknowledged having narrowly avoided a life of crime.
As a young man Raft showed aptitude in dancing which, with his elegant fashion sense, enabled him to earn work as a dancer in New York City nightclubs, often in the same venues as Rudolph Valentino before Valentino became a movie actor. Raft became part of the stage act of flamboyant speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan, and his success led him to Broadway where he again worked as a dancer. He later made a semi-autobiographical film called Broadway (1942) about this period in which he plays himself. He had a great success as a dancer in London in 1926, the Duke of Windsor was “an ardent fan and supporter.” Fred Astaire, in his autobiography Steps in Time (1959), says Raft was a lightning-fast dancer and did “the fastest Charleston I ever saw.”
Vi Kearney, later a dancer in shows for Charles B. Cochran and André Charlot, was quoted as saying:
“Oh yes, I knew him (George Raft). We were in a big show together. Sometimes, to eke out our miserable pay, we’d do a dance act after the show at a club and we’d have to walk back home because all the buses had stopped for the night by that time. He’d tell me how he was going to be a big star one day and once he said that when he’d made it how he’d make sure to arrange a Hollywood contract for me. I just laughed and said: ‘Come on, Georgie, stop dreaming. We’re both in the chorus and you know it.’ [Did he arrange the contract?] Yes. But by that time I’d decided to marry… [Was he (Raft) ever your boyfriend?] How many times do I have to tell you …chorus girls don’t go out with chorus boys.”
In 1929, Raft relocated to Hollywood and took small roles. In Taxi! (1932), starring James Cagney and Loretta Young, Raft has a colorful unbilled dancing role as Cagney’s competitor in a dance contest who wins only to be knocked down by Cagney. His big break came later that same year as the nickel-flipping second lead alongside Paul Muni in Scarface (1932). Raft’s convincing portrayal and his lifelong friendships with Owney Madden, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky led to speculation that he was a gangster. When Gary Cooper’s romantic escapades put him on one gangster’s hit list, Raft reportedly interceded and persuaded the mobster to spare Cooper. Orson Welles explained to Peter Bogdanovich in their interview book This is Orson Welles that, as Raft’s career accelerated, the actor was particularly an idol and role model for actual gangsters of the period in terms of dress and attitude.
He was one of the three most popular gangster actors of the 1930s, with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson; Raft ranked far above Humphrey Bogart in fame and box office clout throughout the decade. When the studio refused to hire Texas Guinan, the performer upon whom one of the movie’s characters was based, because of her age, Raft advocated for the casting of his friend, Mae West, in a supporting role in his first film as leading man, Night After Night (1932), which launched her movie career. He appeared the following year in Raoul Walsh’s energetic period piece The Bowery as Steve Brodie, supposedly the first man to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge and survive, with Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Fay Wray and Pert Kelton. Raft memorably dances into the picture in his opening scene wearing a derby.
Some of his other movies include If I Had A Million (1932; an episodic ensemble film in which he plays a forger hiding from police, suddenly given a million dollars with no place to cash the check), Bolero (1934; in a rare role as a dancer rather than a gangster), Limehouse Blues (1934; with Anna May Wong), a brutal and fast-paced adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key (1935; remade in 1942 with Alan Ladd in Raft’s role as a result of the success of the remake of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon), Souls at Sea (1937; with Gary Cooper), Spawn of the North (1938; with Raft garnering top billing over Henry Fonda and John Barrymore), two with Humphrey Bogart: Invisible Stripes (1939) and They Drive by Night (1940), with Bogart in supporting roles, Each Dawn I Die (1939; with James Cagney and Raft as convicts in prison), and Manpower (1941; with Edward G. Robinson and Marlene Dietrich). Although Raft received third billing in Manpower, he played the lead.
The years 1940 and 1941 proved to be Raft’s career peak. He went into a gradual professional decline over the next decade, in part due to allegedly turning down some of the most famous roles in movie history. Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon transformed Humphrey Bogart from supporting player to a major force in Hollywood in 1941.
Raft chose Raoul Walsh’s Manpower over The Maltese Falcon because the Falcon’s director, John Huston, had never directed before and a racier pre-Code version of the film already existed. Raft was also reported to have turned down Bogart’s role in Casablanca (1942), although according to some Warner Bros. memos, this story is apocryphal.
Following the release of the espionage thriller Background to Danger (1943), a film intended to capitalize on the success of Casablanca, Raft demanded termination of his Warner Brothers contract.
In 1946 Raft earned a reported $108,000 for the year. His career as a leading man continued through the 1940s with films of gradually declining quality often produced by Benedict Bogeaus or filmed overseas for tax benefits in Great Britain and Italy, spiraling steadily downward until his name was finally limited as a box office draw. In the summer of 1951, Raft had the title role in the radio adventure series Rocky Jordan. He played “the owner of a cabaret in Cairo whose life is steeped in intrigue.”
During the 1950s he was reduced to working as a greeter at the Capri Casino in Havana, Cuba, where he was a part owner. In 1953, Raft also starred as Lt. George Kirby in a syndicated television series police drama titled I’m the Law (in which he invested his own money), which ran for one season and was one of the earliest instances of a movie star of his previous calibre accepting the lead in a TV series. He wound up occasionally accepting supporting roles in movies, such as playing second fiddle to Robert Taylor in Rogue Cop (1954). Raft satirized his gangster image with a well-received supporting performance in Some Like it Hot (1959), but this did not lead to a comeback, and he spent the remainder of the decade making films in Europe. He played a small role as a casino owner in Ocean’s 11 (1960).
Granted a year’s visa to the United Kingdom in 1966, Raft was a greeter in several clubs where he had a cameo in 1967’s James Bond spoof Casino Royale. In the early 1970s, Raft appeared in a now-famous Alka Seltzer television commercial playing the role of a prison inmate. He was an American English-speaking syndicate leader alongside French actor Jean Gabin in the 1966 French gangster movie, Du rififi à Paname, and his final film appearances were in Sextette (1978), reunited with long-ago co-star Mae West, and The Man with Bogart’s Face (1980), a nod to 1940s detective movies.