OK, I’ll admit that the title is a bit of an over-simplification. However, in the annals of Hollywood, never has one actor so torpedoed his own career, while pushing another actor upward at the same time. Let’s take a look at this story.
George Raft grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, where he was a childhood friend of Owney Madden, who would become a powerful mobster in the days of Prohibition. Raft toyed with being a boxer and then taught himself to dance. He hit it big in Vaudeville in the early twenties and was a top dancer. At the same time, he hung out with professional gangsters, gaining access to them through his friendship with Downey. He studied how they walked and talked, and mastered the art of imitating their mannerisms.
After appearing in a few films as a dancer, he broke through in 1932. Long before Rod Steiger and Al Pacino played Capone roles, Paul Muni made a classic gangster film: Scarface – Shame of a Nation. Raft had a part as Rinaldo, a coin-flipping gunman. Raft played a great gangster because he knew the real deals and used mobsters such as Arnold Rothstein as models. Raft received strong reviews for his character.
He had the lead in a 1935 version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, though it is Alan Ladd’s portrayal in 1942 that is remembered today. Several elements of The Glass Key can be found in the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, one of the finest gangster films of the past forty years.
In 1937, Raft turned down the role of Baby Face Martin in Dead End. He felt that Martin wasn’t sympathetic enough, and he didn’t like the way Martin’s mother slapped him in the movie. Dead End was a very successful stage play and MGM was making a big budget adaptation. It would have been a good role for Raft.
Instead, Bogart was cast as Martin and got good reviews. The film was directed by William Wyler, who would tap Bogart late in his career for the lead role in The Desperate Hours. So, Raft rejects a role and Humphrey Bogart takes it. We are on the cusp of a pattern developing.
George Raft signed with Warner Brothers in 1939 as part of their “Murder’s Row.” Paul Muni, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were already at Warners and gave the studio the strongest lineup of tough guy leading men. Muni’s days at Warners were winding down and Raft had every opportunity to supplant Cagney and Robinson to become number one. Meanwhile, a guy named Bogart played supporting roles in which he was usually gunned down by the star (maybe he could have headed up Warner’s “Murdered Row”).
Word is that as soon as Raft signed with Warners, he bumped Bogart out of the “Hood Stacey” role in Each Dawn I Die, with James Cagney. Each Dawn I Die holds up well today but might have been even better with Bogart instead of Raft.
Continued in Part II