Black Snake: The Forgotten Life of George Raft

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George Raft


The difference between Humphrey Bogart and George Raft came down to this: Bogey was an actor; Raft was a gangster. Bogart acted tough. Raft was tough. Raft conspired to ensure that no one remembered him. Bogey, the phony tough guy, became legend.

Raft was a much more interesting character than Bogart or any of the other stars on the Warner Bros. lot in the heyday of the studio system during the 1930s and 1940s. I became fascinated with him while researching a book on movie stardom, If The Other Guy Isn’t Jack Nicholson, I’ve Got the Part. I thoroughly researched his life in Hollywood and talked at length to one of his biographers, Lewis Yablonsky, who spent a lot of time with Raft before he died.

I was so fascinated that I cast Raft in a pivotal role in The Confidence Man, my novel of Hollywood in 1928 as movies began to talk. In the book, Raft plays the role he played in real life when he first arrived in Los Angeles– the New York hoodlum who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen (his real name was George Ranft) with his pals Owney Madden and Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, notorious gangsters who were his lifelong friends.Bugsy_Siegel_George_Raft

James Cagney, also from New York, and a fellow traveler on the Warner Bros. lot, thought Raft was the toughest guy he ever met. Before he became a movie star, Raft worked variously as a baseball player, boxer, and most successfully as a taxi dancer who specialized in the tango. He had glossy black hair and a ferret-like face that showed no emotion, that hid everything. Edward G. Robinson, another New Yorker, called Raft’s face, “a fantastic, arresting mask.”

He was always beautifully dressed, and he popularized the idea of wearing a white tie with a black shirt. He married only once to a woman he claimed he never made love to. Nonetheless, around Hollywood, he was known as the Black Snake because of the size of his penis and was said to make love to as many as three women a day. He had affairs with Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, and Betty Grable, among others, but refused to divorce the wife he never made love to.

Owney Madden bankrolled Raft in Hollywood, thinking it would be great to have a mob guy in the movies. Director Howard Hawks cast him in his 1932 production of Scarface opposite Paul Muni. Raft came on the screen flipping a nickel. It was Hawks’ idea, but it became a trademark for Raft.

By 1937, under contract at Paramount Pictures, Raft was the star Owney Madden hoped he would be, making over two hundred thousand dollars a year, the third highest paid actor in the industry (behind Warner Baxter, the original Cisco Kid, and Gary Cooper). But he was always the outsider in Hollywood, uneasy about his abilities, and increasingly unwilling to be in the movies what he was in life—a gangster.

“If you’re a meany in every role,” he said, “the people back in Deep Sleep, Wyoming get to think you’re that kind of guy.”

That mindset led the Black Snake to turn down the roles that made Humphrey Bogart a star and transformed a short, balding former Broadway actor who had been trapped in Warner Bros. B movies into a celluloid icon.

Raft’s mistakes began piling up when producer Samuel Goldwyn, mounting a movie version of the Broadway hit, Dead End, wanted him for the role of Baby Face Martin, a psychopathic gangster. When he read the script, Raft was appalled. This was precisely the sort of character he didn’t want to play.

The role went instead to Bogart, and put him on the road to stardom. By now, Raft had arrived at Warner Bros., the last place he should have landed if he didn’t want to play ‘meanies.’ Warner Bros. specialized in them.

Studio boss Jack Warner became convinced that Raft couldn’t read, and that’s why he ended up turning down so many parts. He refused to play the heroic seaman who takes on a brutal captain (played by Edward G. Robinson) in a screen adaptation of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf. The part of the seaman went to an unknown named John Garfield who became a star, thanks largely to the movie. Thus the stage was set  for what producer Hal Wallis described as Raft’s two decisions that “finally sank his career.” Those decisions are now part of movie lore, about the only reasons the Black Snake is remembered at all these days.

George Raft in the 1940sIt was John Huston, then a novice screenwriter at Warners, who suggested the studio film W.R. Burnett’s novel, High Sierra. The story concerned the last days of an aging mobster named Roy “Mad Dog” Earle. Jack Warner assigned no-nonsense Raoul Walsh to direct, and Walsh immediately thought of Raft for Earle. To everyone’s amazement—although by then they should have known better—Raft said no.

Walsh went around to talk to him. “I’m not going to die,” Raft insisted.

“But you have to die,” Walsh argued. “You’re a baddie who killed two people. The censors won’t go for it unless we knock you off.”

Raft was the last actor in the world who wanted to play someone who killed two people and then died for it. “Tell Jack Warner to shove it,” the Black Snake snarled.

In fairness, just about every star on the Warners lot turned down the part. Finally, out of desperation, Walsh turned to Bogart. He said yes, and thus High Sierra marked the turning point in his career. “The performance made him a star,” Walsh later said.

Worse was yet to come. John Huston had found another book he liked. This one was a mystery about a hard-boiled San Francisco private detective named Sam Spade. It was called The Maltese Falcon, and Huston not only wanted to write it, he also wanted to direct. Since it already had been filmed twice at Warner Bros., dismal efforts both times, Warner wasn’t particularly interested in a third picture.

Nonetheless, another version could be done cheaply so  Jack Warner allowed Huston to both write and direct The Maltese Falcon. This time, Raft wasn’t asked. He was simply assigned to play Spade. The first Raft knew of the movie was when the script arrived at his door. Not surprisingly, the day Raft was to appear for wardrobe tests, he never showed.Bogart in The Maltese Falcon

Four days before The Maltese Falcon started shooting, Raft sent Jack Warner a note: “As you know, I feel strongly that The Maltese Falcon…is not an important picture and, in this connection, I must remind you again…you promised me that you would not require me to perform in anything but important pictures.”

Thus Huston was able to turn to the actor he had wanted all along for Spade: Humphrey Bogart. Not only was the movie a critical hit and unexpected commercial success when it was released in 1941, but after years of toiling in the Warner Bros. factory, it made Humphrey Bogart a star.

There was some talk about Raft doing Casablanca, and Raft told his biographer Lewis Yablonsky that he turned down the part of Rick Blaine because it wasn’t right for him. His final dumb move, if that was the case.

However, it’s probably not true. By that time, the studio was fed up with Raft and sold on Bogart. According to Aljean Harmetz in Round Up the Usual Suspects, her riveting book about the making of Casablanca, no one at Warner Bros. seriously considered anyone else. For the record, Raft didn’t just turn down Bogart movies. Subsequently, he said no to Billy Wilder who wanted him for Double Indemnity. The role went to Fred MacMurray; the movie became a film noir classic.

By the 1950s, after a series of increasingly mediocre and unsuccessful pictures, George Raft was pretty much washed up, remembered less as a movie star and more for what he wanted everyone to forget—his gangster past. He never gave up his mob connections, though, and there was one consolation: Because he did not smoke or drink, he long outlived Humphrey Bogart, dying in 1980 at the age of eighty-five.

However, the Black Snake could never outlive Bogart’s legend, the legend that might have been his, if only he had said yes when he said no.

Confidence Man Cover 3D


For more on George Raft in The Confidence Man please click HERE.




Author of "The Sanibel Sunset Detective" and "The Strange." Ron spends part of the year on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he writes detective novels featuring private eye Tree Callister. When he is not in Florida, he resides outside Toronto, Ontario with his wife, Kathy.

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5 comments on “Black Snake: The Forgotten Life of George Raft
  1. David Watts says:

    Sounds great Ron but is it really a novel?

    David Watts

    • ronbase says:

      It is indeed a novel, Dave…the print version should soon be available…meanwhile, I’m going to be in London as of the weekend for a month…I’ll get in touch when we’re settled, and hopefully we can get together…!

  2. Nadine Lanier says:

    Back in the 70s I was living in Hollywood. My husband at the time met George Raft, who made a pass at him…what do you make of that? Was he in the closet?

    • ronbase says:

      Hi Nadine…Thanks for your note…I spent a fair amount of time with one of Raft’s biographers and did a great deal of research into his life…found him absolutely fascinating…the gangster who did not want to play a gangster in the movies…all sorts of paradoxes and contradictions…so who knows? Sexually he may have been open to anything…as I guess your then-husband can testify….

    • Christine says:

      Sorry, but I doubt this story. After everything I have read about Mr. Raft, I don’t think he leaned this way or was in the closet. This is the one and only time anyone has made this comment about him.

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