A Fine Man Once Said:

"Part of the 10 million I spent on gambling, part of it on booze, and part of it on women. The rest I spent foolishly."

- George Raft

Friday, May 6, 2011

George Raft: America's Lost Sartorial Icon (Part Two)

          As previously mentioned in Part One, Raft was one of the first guys on Broadway to sport that most classic look of the American gangster, the light-colored suit with dark shirt and light tie. It sounds cliched now, but its hard to overstate exactly how closely associated this look became with the world that Damon Runyon and others immortalized in their stories about the Broadway of the 1920s and 1930s. When Raft dressed like that on screen, viewers could only guess as to whether he was imitating real-life friends like Owney Madden or Benny Siegel, or if the gangsters were taking their sartorial cues from Raft. His off-screen demeanor and look was so closely aligned with the popular image of the racketeer, that, when Raft first arrived in Hollywood, Los Angeles police assumed he had arrived out west as an emissary representing Madden's interests on the Coast. After repeated pestering, Fox studio head Winfield Sheehan contacted District Attorney Burton Fitts to ask that Raft be left alone. Of course, such goings-on only added to the "authenticity" of Raft's "tough guy" performances.

          Here we see some film shots and publicity stills of the aforementioned light suit/dark tie combination:

Each Dawn I Die, 1939

By the 1950s, the look was so associated with the gamblers, hustlers, and racketeers of the era, that Fred Astaire used the imagery to great effect in his stylized noire-ish dance sequence for the 1953 film, Bandwagon.


          By the mid-thirties, Raft was known as a well-dressed man who personified the Broadway ethos. Around that time, he began a relationship with the socialite Virginia Pine. Befitting his newfound status as Hollywood royalty, Pine suggested that Raft frequent more conservative haberdasheries such as Oviatt's and Pesterre's. In February 1936, the magazine Modern Screen noted the conversion:

"Farewell-to-Elegance Item: George Raft announces, possibly with a nostalgic tear in his eye, that he has given up the high-waisted trousers which have so long been identified with the Raft wardrobe. 'Natty,' which used to be a one-word description of all the Raft finery, has been deleted from George's dictionary and his tailors have been instructed to mold his future garments along more conservative lines. We, who always wondered how George got his hands in his pockets without breaking an arm, congratulate him on his momentous decision. Goodbye, fond memories of former splendor; so long, classy cuts and dreams of checkered magnificence; and a polite hello to a brave new world - and awfully Bond Street - world!"

          As Raft was an established trendsetter at this point, men around the world took note. Whether Pine deserves the credit is unclear, although it seems that her relationship with Raft may have furthered his career simply by making  him a more comfortable dinner guest and and by softening his "underworld" aura. Whether by coincidence or calculated design, this newfound "respectability" culminated in Raft's only Oscar nomination, in 1937, for Souls at Sea with Gary Cooper. By 1938, Raft's relationship with Pine ended. As Virginia departed, Raft's high-waisted trousers returned.

          Of course, Raft never could quite rid himself of the "underworld" aura, despite the fact that he was a top box office draw (in 1940, his hands and signature were immortalized in cement in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre). This was undoubtedly due to the fact that he was still socializing regularly with reputed gamblers and racketeers. Examples abound of Raft's high-profile friendships. He just happened to be at the scene when Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was arrested for running a bookmaking operation in 1944. When Raft's mother died in 1937, not one acquaintance from Hollywood attended the funeral. However, old friend and one-time Duke of the West Side Owney Madden (at that point retired to his fiefdom at Hot Springs, Arkansas) hopped a train with his sidekick Frenchy DeMange for the funeral in New York. Raft was at ease with these men because of their similar backgrounds and upbringing - facts that apparently were not lost on the movie-going public.

Raft with Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, 1944.

          Interestingly, if Raft's familiarity with racketeers, hoodlums, gamblers, and the other assorted denizens of the underworld helped him with his on-screen tough guy portrayals, this "authenticity" also hampered his professional career in some ways. He was a stickler for details - if he thought a scene was not realistic, he could become difficult on the set and would refuse to do the scene.

         On loan to Universal Studios for the film I Stole A Million in 1939, Raft told director Frank Tuttle he wouldn't do a scene where his character stuck-up a post office. Raft's reasoning? No one in their right mind would risk a federal rap for the little bit of money to be found in a post office. Raft refused to do the scene until the post office was changed to a tourist bureau.

          Much has been written about the long list of films - including Dead End, High Sierra, Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca - that went to Humphrey Bogart only after they were turned down by Raft. Of course, Bogart brought his own unique talents to the films, but its worth noting that Raft was always the first choice. It has been written that Raft often had trouble making his way through the scripts due to his lack of education, but it seems more likely that he simply did not have much interest in playing roles that he considered out of character or unrealistic. With that in mind, its not hard to believe the story that Raft  is said to have turned down Casablanca by stating that he just couldn't see himself crying alone in a bar over "some skinny Swedish broad" (Ingrid Bergman). The man who would be Bogart, indeed.

          As the 1930s drew to a close, Raft's popularity was at its zenith. Consider this report from the New York World Telegram of August 2, 1939:

George Raft is No. 1 Attraction at Sailing of Normandie

Old Neighbors Ignore Other Celebrities Including Mrs. Roosevelt and Norma Shearer

George Raft, the movie actor, who was born on West 41st Street, went back resplendently today to the old neighborhood and for a time was the No. 1 attraction among a large group of celebrities, gathered about West 48th Street pier for the sailing of the liner Normandie, including the wife of the President of the United States, a Cabinet officer and so many top-flight film favorites they could hardly be counted.

Oldsters of the district that bred Raft scarcely stirred when Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt passed toward the gangplank to bid goodbye to traveling friends; longshoremen didn't even look up when beauty in the form of Norma Shearer floated by; but there was a prodigious stir among them, a stoppage of work, and a crowding around when Raft appeared.

Workmen and idlers grabbed for the Raft's hand for hearty shakes, and they asked for autographs and spoke to him with easy familiarity, awed only by the garments he wore.

'My God,' said a longshoreman, 'that coat talks to you.'

The coat was a brown affair with enormous checks, setting off a checked sports shirt and sundry other articles of various shades of brilliant browns.

Raft was among the largest group of passengers - 1,397 - to sail.

Mrs. Roosevelt bade goodbye to her uncle, David Gray, and to Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury, Mrs. Morgenthau and their three children.

Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, sailed for the Riviera.

Other passengers who got some attention, after the Raft brilliance faded into a cabin were, besides Miss Shearer, Charles Boyer and his wife, Pat Patterson; Edward G. Robinson, his wife and their son; Bob Hope; Frederick Lonsdale, playwright; Gilbert Miller, producer; Roland Young.

          In later years, the elegance and style of actors like Raft from the Golden Age of Hollywood would be replaced in the 1950's and 1960's by the sophisticated cool of Frank Sinatra. Perhaps it is fitting, then, to leave the last word on George Raft to one of the Rat Pack who had a chance to see him at the pinnacle of his fame and popularity. Dean Martin was new to Hollywood in the late 1940s - around this time, Raft had recently split with Betty Grable. As Martin put it,

"Shortly after I first arrived in Hollywood, I had a chance to go to George Raft's house. As a kid, I guess I'd seen every picture he ever made, and to me he was a superstar. I was awed by his place in Coldwater Canyon. It was like the temple of a brothel. The most gorgeous women in town would be there. It wasn't just sex. They would swim nude in the pool or we would sit around and talk. George would lounge all day in his silk robe at poolside. He never swam. In fact, the only exercise he ever had was with broads or shuffling a deck of cards. Dinner was a special event. When the girls would unfold their dinner napkins there would either be a hundred dollar bill or some expensive earrings, or for specials broads a brooch or a bracelet. George had class."

1 comment:

  1. Great pictures of George Raft. He was truly a gentleman-well spoken, well dressed, and always stylish.