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Nob Hill (1945)
Welcome to American, little girl
This Technicolor semi-musical seems an odd assignment for Henry Hathaway, but perhaps it's his direction that keeps the tough side of San Francisco tough even with showgirls, rich dames and little girls traipsing around. Hathaway was one of the few directors who understood - from experience on earlier great films with him - how effective a broken George Raft could be, and when that moment comes in this film it is quietly Raft's best scene. Raft plays Tony Angelo, owner of a popular saloon in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, a saloon that is more of a three-ring circus with shows, boxing matches and drinking going on simultaneously. He's got an undefined romance with his star showgirl Sally Templeton (young Vivian Blaine) and his political opinions carry a lot of weight in that rough part of town. In walks little Irish girl Katie (Peggy Ann Garner) expecting to meet her uncle, only to find he has died. Tony, who was his boss, agrees to take her in for a couple of months until the next boat leaves for Ireland. She introduces him to Miss Carruthers (Joan Bennett), who lives on Nob Hill. Her brother Lash Carruthers is running for office, and brother and sister both realize working up a relationship with Tony could bring in much-needed votes from the lower part of town. Though knowing full well that those down below don't mix with those on the hill, Tony is drawn into the propaganda of her sweet talk. In this sense, he is as naive as Katie as to their true intentions, and he alienates his fellow bar owners with his new political stand. Only after the election does he get a reality check. Strange to say, but parallels can be drawn between Tony and Shakespeare's Proteus in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona." One look at a beautiful new girl and he seems to completely forget about his true love down the hill. And when he is ultimately rejected he becomes disturbingly aggressive. Blaine, who has all the musical numbers, is a lovely entertainer but one would not guess from this role what marvelous comic chops she had. That would really come to the fore years later in "Guys and Dolls," which also featured B.S. Pulley, who plays a barman in "Nob Hill." (Another link to that film is the fact that the production design was fashioned after the Raft trademark gangster style, coin-flipping and all -- too bad he wasn't in it.) Garner was one of the true great child actors, always earnest and natural even when putting on an Irish accent. She's the heart of the story, always thinking the best of the grownups around her. Bennett (who starred with Raft 10 years earlier in the screwball comedy "She Couldn't Take It") has a rather thankless part, an admittedly split personality who does not seem to know what she really wants. There is nothing particularly special about this film. But to see this particular mix of actors has historical interest, and it would be nice to see it available on DVD.
She Couldn't Take It (1935)
The original Paris Hilton
Some things never change, and "She Couldn't Take It" proves we'll always have the idle rich stealing the media spotlight with their idiotic antics. Here we have a pleasing '30s comedy with witty characterizations, nifty dialogue and lots of action. And forget about the tendency of screwball romantic comedies to never allow anything truly bad to happen along the way. We are dealing with gangsters here, after all. Dizzy blonde heiress Carol Van Dyke (Joan Bennett) throws her father's money about freely in a string of attention-seeking exploits, engagements and arrests. Give her a Chihuahua, and she'd be Paris Hilton. Her drunken brother is just as bad, and her mother is the worst of the lot. Their ill father Daniel Van Dyke (Walter Connolly) is actually relieved to be sent to prison on tax evasion in order to get some rest. There, he is sought out by former beer runner Ricardi, who is interested in Dan's business skills but disappointed to find the man such a marshmallow for his out-of-hand family. Ricardi freely offers him advice to rein them in, including smacking the wife in the kisser. On his death bed, Dan coaxes Ricardi, who is about to be released, into accepting the position of trustee to put a leash on the family. It is culture shock for Ricardi, who is determined to turn his life around, and his pal Boston (Wallace Ford). And his main problem is getting Carol under his thumb as she goes to drastic measures to get her own way. The cast is spot on across the board. Bennett takes on the bratty blonde persona surprisingly well. Connolly is excellent, taking his trademark flustered executive in a new direction. Billie Burke, as his wife, really does deserve to smacked in the mouth for her coquettish viciousness. Alan Mowbray is ham perfected as Carol's actor fiancé whose conversation is made up entirely of quotations. He even aims "Julius Caesar"'s "I would rather be a dog, and bay the moon, than such a Roman" at Raft. And, amusingly, Raft gets a chance to spoof him. The movie does belong to Raft, who is quite a kick here and rather self-revealing. Much of the script, in fact, seems constructed around him and exaggerating his real background, with Ricardi being cruelly referred to as a West Side criminal and a "cheap Hell's Kitchen butcher." The scenario of a man with a poverty-stricken, shady background being thrust among the upper crust has a real feel to it because of him. There are actual moments of character development here. Director Tay Garnett shows a nice touch for screwball comedy, even when incorporating murder into the mix. He nicely bookends the story with high-speed cop chases. On that score, there is no real respect for law enforcement, with the cops being mainly buffoons, surely a sign of the times.
Under-Cover Man (1932)
The con is on
There are lots of good pieces in "Under-Cover Man" - solid cast, good plot, sections of good dialogue. But the directing and editing keep this from rising to the level it could have achieved. The cops are stymied by a series of Financial District thefts, and Inspector Conklin (David Landau) is particularly frustrated when murder becomes part of the M.O. Nick Darrow (George Raft), the son of one of the victims, is a petty criminal but asks the cops if he can go undercover to break up the gang and find the killer. He enlists help from Lora (Nancy Carroll), the sister of another victim, to con the conmen and get inside. It's a good story with complicated sidebars. There is a sensuous underbelly to some of the proceedings, and a consistent feeling of danger. The end is a bit abrupt, but that's OK. Raft is excellent as Nick a.k.a. Ollie Snell, playing cool with the criminals while letting the audience know his anxiety. Carroll fared best in romantic comedies, but she's suitable here. Noel Francis is quite good as an easy dame putting the moves on Nick. Gregory Patoff and Lew Cody are hatably smarmy as the ringleaders. And always watch out for Roscoe Karns. Problem is, James Flood was never a good director. He had a good eye for angles - and that comes through here - but seemed to know nothing about pacing a scene or shooting dialogue. Actors are left to meander through wordy sections, and there's no crisp editing to clean it up. In the end, a film that could have been a stand out is simply cosi-cosi.
The Lady's from Kentucky (1939)
George plays the horses
A struggling bookie calls in his last chance, an IOU for half-interest in a 2-year-old thoroughbred. The other half, of course, is owned by the title character, who fights his overly ambitious plans for the colt while quickly falling for his disarming ways. The only real reason to watch "The Lady's From Kentucky" is George Raft. He had about three screen personas in his career, most famously the soft-talking gangster, but this peppy part is the real Raft. He's completely in his element among the gambling joints and horse players. His blithe comfort makes this frivolous romantic comedy an easy watch. Unfortunately, Raft (and the horses) upstage everyone else, at least the white folks. Ellen Drew leaves little impression at all (except amateur emoting in a couple of scenes). Hugh Herbert becomes tiresome, and ZaSu Pitts is instantly and constantly annoying. The horses show far more engaging personalities. In fact, Raft's relationship with the colt is more endearing than the forced romance. There's more humor in personality than in the set-up comedy of the movie, and that can be chalked up to Raft -- whether giving blood for money, crawling under a house after a piglet or cozying up submissively to an old groom. There is little in common here with the running of a real horse farm, but that's business, and business does not fit Hollywood plots. Director Alexander Hall shoots all of the horse scenes well, and the races get brief, zippy coverage. But guaranteed you'll get sick of hearing "Camp Town Races" in almost every scene.
Background to Danger (1943)
International intrigue in hot spot Ankara, Turkey, during World War II is the center of this secret agent tail. Nasty Nazi Dr. Robinson (Sydney Greenstreet) plots to use lies in the press to push Turkey to ally itself with Germany against Russia. American Joe Barton (George Raft) is posing as a businessman when he falls into possession of falsified documents the Germans want printed in a sympathizing newspaper. Barton is soon mixed up with the Zaleshoffs (Peter Lorre and Brenda Marshall), a brother and sister claiming to be Russian spies who are after the same documents. Barton has trouble believing anyone, because they all attack him at various times and at least one of them is a cold-blooded killer. The plot had potential, but director Raoul Walsh did not seem to know quite what to do with a story of this nature and there is a complete lack of real emotion in the proceedings. He also seemed to be saddled with a low budget (the miniature train is painfully obvious). His three male stars all but play caricatures of themselves. Raft is all buttoned up and monosyllabic, Greenstreet is almost a cartoon, and Lorre chews the scenery and comes out best. Yet it is still a pretty good movie (if you can withstand being yelled out for the first five minutes and the overcooked musical scoring.) There is a great aura of suspicion over everyone, which leaves you guessing at everyone's connection with everyone else. There is also a great car chase, noir cinematography from Tony Gaudio that caresses Raft's closeups fondly, and some good visual bits that will make you smile.
Limehouse Blues (1934)
Drawing its title from the 1922 jazz standard, "Limehouse Blues" is a fast-paced, moody mix of crime and infatuation in a seedy London district. Director Alexander Hall and cinematographer Harry Fischbeck maintain a consistent aura throughout, making this film as brief and surprisingly good as a potsticker. George Raft plays Harry Young, an upstart crime boss of mixed heritage (one character calls him a "half-and-half"), who has infiltrated Limehouse from New York. Oddly, Raft needed little makeup to believably play half-Chinese. Whether Harry Young's wardrobe is of English or Chinese make, it is impeccable in every scene and seems to be part of the storytelling. Harry owns and even performs in a Limehouse nightclub with Tu Tuan (sultry Anna May Wong). He is closely in tune with his Asian culture, but that is shaken when white chippy Toni (Jean Parker) with xenophobic tendencies comes into his life. Parker is not for an instant plausibly British, becoming the biggest hurdle in suspending disbelief. Toni's stepfather Pug (malicious Montagu Love) is Harry's chief rival on the docks. Inspector Sheridan (Robert Loraine) has them both under a watchful eye. When Harry falls for Toni, and Toni starts seeing another young fellow (the hint is that he is a thoroughbred unlike Harry), and Tu Tuan's jealousy leads her to revenge, and someone ends up dead, well there you have a plot. Along the way we get slimy John Rogers, always just right Billy Bevans and even an uncredited Eric Blore creating his staple character. In heritage alone, Harry Young would seem a bit out of type for Raft, but his clear comfort in the part makes one think he drew on his New York memories of those he knew to put this one across. "Limehouse Blues" is a tasty trip through the Chinese sector, touching on race relations and self-value.
Madame Racketeer (1932)
A shark in sheep's clothing
Paramount's premier comedic supporting actress of the 1930s gets a star turn as an international con artist. Alison Skipworth (who must have been the template for Patricia Routledge) is perfect as a con woman posing as a world-traveling countess. The Countess has had run-ins with the law for 20 years and is familiar with almost every prison in North America. Suffering from a bit of rheumatism since her last imprisonment and apparently seeking a place to hold up for a while, she journeys back to Wisconsin to stay at the spa hotel run by the husband and daughters she abandoned 20 years before. All along the way, she pulls every trick she knows to keep herself in the chips. Husband Elmer Hicks (always funny Richard Bennett), an eccentric with a fetish for inappropriately placed music boxes (including in the toilet), helps her keep her identity under wraps, and the two daughter have no idea she is their mother. There is a lovely bit of subtlety as the Countess professes no concern for the welfare of her kids but works in the background to turn their fortunes around. She schemes to break off the relationship her younger daughter has formed with a smarmy mug (George Raft in a quietly comedic performance). The Countess also cons an even smarmier mug, the bank president whose greed has not allowed his son to marry the Countess's older daughter. The investigator (J. Farrell MacDonald) who has been arresting the Countess for 20 years just happens to show up at the same spa for his health just in time to get tangled in all the schemes. Everyone is perfectly cast. MacDonald is delightful, and it's somehow amusing to see Raft being constantly manhandled (when not being girl-handled). There is both witty dialogue and slapstick humor. The physical comedy is a great contrast to Skipworth's put-on dignity. She is the definition of an old pro. Skipworth and Raft were also happily cast together soon after in the winning comedies Night After Night and the Midnight Club. They, along with Bennett, also scored high marks in the marvelous If I Had a Million.
Shining light on an ugly business
Though not the greatest film by a long shot, the earnestness in bringing to the foreground the nasty underbelly of the black market in post-war Asia is a major redeeming value of "Intrigue." That innocent people starved while criminals prospered is a fact, and still occurs, unfortunately.
The story is told through the plot line of an American ex-military pilot in Shanghai. Brad Dunham (George Raft) along with three other flyers during World War II were court martialed and kicked out, accused of black market activity. The unjust shame has taken its toll, and Brad's three friends have died, including one by suicide. Brad himself now hangs out in Shanghai and has adapted to his infamy by turning to trade of which he was accused - smuggling. Meanwhile, his journalist pal Marc Andrews (Tom Tully) and the sister (Helena Carter) of one of the dead pilots are seeking to find the truth.
Andrews' bigger story, of course, is the depth of damage done by the black market in China. Little does he know that Brad has joined forces with the dishy boss (June Havoc) of the main smuggling ring. Meanwhile Brad becomes exposed to that dark side by visiting children at an orphanage and seeing the homeless, starving people in the streets. Brad's better side does not have to fight very hard to gain the upper hand, but the challenge is to make right out his wrongs.
The direction is rarely inspired. Though there are a few nice bits of dialogue, the writing has an unfortunate trend toward the precious. Raft's relationship with either woman is not all that interesting. (There seems more reality in his male relationships and his interaction with the children.) It would have been a big improvement had the music in general been more honest to the setting. And yes, there is some stereotype in the Chinese-ness, but it is not the insulting subservience we see so much of in the Hollywood of the day. Plus we are briefly blessed by the presence of Peter Chong as a courageous editor.
Tully has the most passionate role as the voice of justice and social responsibility, and he's very good. It's a rather idealized picture of a journalist, but that's what people really want to see, not some boozing sellout. Raft, too, when free from the film noir elements, is earnest in the real theme of the picture. It's those film noir elements that seem to stiffen him and make the action implausible.
Still, the main subject of the film gives it human importance.
I Stole a Million (1939)
A few good moments in a so-so script
Hardly his most memorable film, "I Stole a Million" covers familiar territory for George Raft. A very good beginning sinks into a poorly constructed storyline, unfortunately, and the greatest actor in the world could not have pulled out of that.
Plot: The system, the fates and bad dudes conspire to stick taxi-driver Joe on the wrong side of the law. After meeting Laura, he tries to turn his life around, and for a while he succeeds - marriage, business, a kid on the way. But his past catches up with him, and he slides into deeper criminal action than he ever dreamed before. The title actually refers to a very brief, rapid section of the film.
The well-paced early part of the movie, with great car action, slimy businessmen, escaping the cops, and hopping a freight, holds real promise. But everything seems to come to a screeching halt when Joe meets Laura (Claire Trevor). It's hardly Trevor's fault; it's the sudden flowery music and saccharine mood. What made the film interesting at that point fades away though there are still a few good bits and another swell car chase. There is a nicely lit sequence of dancing in a diner (including an Elmer Fudd of a proprietor). And late we learn Joe was the abused son of an alcoholic - which provides only a nice bit of dialog, for the script does not allow it the interest it deserves.
Not helping is the odd fact that Raft and Trevor have all the friendly chemistry of a brother and sister. Again, it's not something that can be blamed on anyone. It does make one appreciate the instant chemistry Raft had with such wildly different actresses as Sylvia Sidney and Ann Sheridan.
A taste of things to come
Taxi! is most famous as an early starring role for James Cagney and more so for the fact he shows off his Yiddish-speaking skills. A great factor in this film is the variety of genuine New York accents on display throughout. Music to the ears! The plot line is a bit fractured, zipping from cab wars, to romance, to murder, and all that jazz. Cagney is an independent driver trying to rally the other cabbies to fight the big taxi company trying to violently run them all out of business. A fracas in a nightclub on his wedding night results in the stabbing death of his brother and he vows revenge.
Cagney plays a sometimes likable, sometimes obnoxious guy with a rotten temper. His violent outbursts are a sign of things to come in Cagney's cast of characters. He is electric even with subpar material. And, of course, he dances on screen for the first time. A very young and beautiful Loretta Young is a smarter romantic partner than Cagney usually got. By the way, her hairstyle is lovely. Leila Bennett steals the movie as a droning chatterbox who could have an hour-long conversation by herself. Most people know someone exactly like her.
Cultural points: We are treated to an early version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind" at the Cottonpickers Club. The Warner Bros. film takes a slam at Paramount's Fredric March - whose early film roles were more than reminiscent of John Barrymore. For the brief foxtrot contest, Cagney suggested producers hire George Raft as his main competitor because he remembered his dancing ability from their time in Vaudeville. Raft was in Hollywood as a bit dancer and had no notion of becoming an actor - that would change within a year. This is one of only two films these very good friends appeared in together (See "Each Dawn I Die" nearly 10 years later).