Sunday, September 26, 2010

Remembering... George Raft

Handsome, menacing George Raft - born on this day in 1895 - was one of Hollywood's most popular leading men in the 1930s; while he often played gangsters and hoods, he initially found work as a dancer - a fact wittily alluded to by Chazz Palminteri's character in Woody Allen's 1994 comedy Bullets Over Broadway.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket In fact, it was Texas Guinan who gave Raft his first big break in show business - as she'd done with so many others, such as Ruby Keeler - dancing in her 300 Club; she also gave him his break in the movies when he appeared alongside her in the 1929 lost film Queen of the Night Clubs.

Although he'd been one of the biggest stars of the 1930s, he'd also been typecast as a heavy, and an Italian one at that - despite his German heritage. By the 1940s and 1950s Raft's career was suffering from bad choice-itis; he became best known in latter years as the man who turned down most of the roles that would make Humphrey Bogart a star. Although he had a memorable turn as mob boss 'Spats' Columbo in Billy Wilder's 1959 classic Some Like it Hot it did not lead to more work*.

Which is not to say he didn't have his fun along the way... In the early Thirties he gave Tallulah Bankhead such a bad case of gonorrhea she had to have a hysterectomy; as she was being wheeled from the hospital she gave her doctor one of those quips for which she'd already become famous and on which he probably dined out for years: 'Don't think this has taught me a lesson!'

Raft's career was oddly bound up with that of Mae West; it was in his film Night After Night (1932) that West made her movie debut, stealing every scene she's in (as was her wont); nearly fifty years later he made his second-to-last appearance in her final film Sextette (1980). When they died - two days apart, in November 1980 - their bodies were both stored in the mortuary at Forest Lawn together.

In the 1991 film Bugsy, Raft was played by Joe Mantegna.

*The same fate befell Gloria Swanson, who could have parlayed her star turn in another of Wilder's classics, 1950's Sunset Boulevard
, into much more than she did; in both cases the public seemed to consider these one-time legends as mere novelties - relics of a bygone era, even - in an age long before irony alone could save a career.

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