Warner Brothers was the home of tough guys.
The studio was noted for its emphasis on films that dealt with social problems – including crime – and it kept under contract some of the manliest mugs in Hollywood. Going into 1939 Warners already had James Cagney (Angels with Dirty Faces, 'G' Men), Humphrey Bogart (The Petrified Forest, Bullets or Ballots), and Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar) on its roster of stars.
To that lineup it added a new tough guy: George Raft.
Born in Hell's Kitchen, New York City, Raft got his start in show biz not with the gangster roles for which he became famous but for his dancing. He was a Broadway and nightclub hoofer whom Fred Astaire claimed did "the fastest Charleston I ever saw."
Moving to Hollywood in 1929, Raft got his first meaningful role as a competitor in a dance contest (he was knocked down by one of the other contestants, played by James Cagney). In 1932 he played a coin-flipping hood opposite Paul Muni in Scarface.
Though he was widely known as a true gentleman, Raft grew up knowing plenty of real-life tough guys. He was on a first-name basis with Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, and was a lifelong friend of mobster Owney Madden, who he frequently visited while Madden was doing time in Sing Sing.
Raft undoubtedly drew on his intimate knowledge of these underworld characters when he played gangsters in the movies. But who could have predicted that the tough guys themselves would become Raft's biggest fans? They relished his entertaining and romantic depictions of their lives, his sense of style, and the smart/strong attitude he exuded from the screen.
The ink on Raft's contract with Warners was barely dry when he began making Each Dawn I Die, a prison picture that paired him with Cagney. For the studio it was a match made in heaven. Cagney's red-headed, freckled Irishman and Raft's darkly exotic looks (people thought he was Italian but both of his parents were German Jews) provided an attractive contrast.
Cagney plays a newspaper reporter who is on the verge of revealing a major scandal in the DA's office. He's framed for manslaughter and finds himself in a hellish prison where he slowly makes the friendship of Raft's seasoned crook. Among the film's highlights is a scene in which Cagney's character, after months in solitary, breaks down piteously before the parole board and begs for his freedom. Critics called it the best work of his career to date.
Meanwhile Raft's hood, having broken out of prison, starts collecting evidence that will free his friend. In the end he allows himself to be recaptured so that he can continue his work from inside prison walls.
Raft biographer Lewis Yablonsky wrote that "The film is almost documentary in its sociological coverage of prison characters and their related penological problems: the prison psychologist, the sadistic guard, the concerned warden."
Raft's underworld connections inadvertently saved Cagney from death or serious injury during the filming of Each Dawn... Willie Bioff, a New York gangster who had risen in the ranks of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, was notorious for using work stoppages, sabotage, and even outright violence (courtesy of goons imported for the purpose) to get his way with the studios.
Bioff and the brass at Warners were in the middle of one such labor impasse during the filming of the prison picture, and on several occasions Raft noticed Bioff lurking around the edges of the set and exchanging meaningful glances with the crew members adjusting lights in the rigging over the soundstage.
Months later Raft encountered Biaff, who revealed that he had been planning to harm Cagney. "The studio wasn't going to pay off and we were planning to take care of Cagney. We were all set to drop a lamp on him. But I got word to lay off because you were in the picture."
Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Crime Stories”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- July 5: Another Thin Man (1939) Not Rated
- July 12: Each Dawn I Die (1939) Not Rated
- July 19: Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) Not Rated
- July 26: The Roaring Twenties (1939) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com.