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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).
Stolen Harmony (1935)
Get on the bus!
"Stolen Harmony" is a harmlessly shallow little musical comedy featuring the music of the forgotten Ben Bernie Band. Not allowing New York and Chicago to have all the action, gangland crime and car chases come to America's heartland as a gang on the lam crosses ways with a traveling Big Band in the middle of rural Missouri.
Bernie, the writer of the ubiquitous "Sweet Georgia Brown" (not performed here), plays rather fey band leader Jack Conrad, who hires ex-con Ray Ferraro (George Raft) to play sax on a tour to the West on a jigged up bus matched only the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile (You have to see it to believe it). Knowing the problems his background could cause, Jack changes Ray's name to Ray Angelo. When one of the dancers drinks himself out of a job, Ray fills in there as well and promptly falls for his partner. As this is Raft, there has to be crime along the way -- a robbery in St. Louis, hijacking by the Burrage gang out in the sticks and a great car chase through downtown Omaha.
Even aside from the spectacular bus, there is quirky humor throughout. The band's actual show is very much of the time and highlighted by a number with all the band members in costume for a squirrelly operetta. Raft could really dance - one of his signatures ironically was "Sweet Georgia Brown" - but he does only a few steps here for closeups and the rest of the few dance numbers are done (from a distance) by a double for some reason. The double and Raft do not match in form or style, so it's obvious. Besides Raft the only well known face belongs to a young Lloyd Nolan gleefully playing a very bad man.
Fans of gangster films will enjoy the great Omaha sequence at the end. The style of it is better than anything else in the film. It is as if cinematographer Harry Fischbeck were using this minor comedy to practice for his next "A" crime picture.
George Raft's best musical
This is a surprisingly good '30s dance film from Paramount. It is neither a frothy comedy nor a dated revue like so many musicals of the day. There's a bit of a story, some nifty dialogue and a whole lot of style.
The story follows Raoul (perfectly cast George Raft) as he rises from coal mine laborer to be a top dancer in pre-Great War Europe. Unrelenting and egocentric, he goes through a line of dance partners from whom he flees romantic entanglements until war changes everything. As unlikely as the plot sounds on paper, director Wesley Ruggles easily guides the action from Raoul's unfortunate experience in an amateur theater to a beer garden to a Paris nightclub to a London club to his own hot spot. Along the way there is the desperately possessive Frances Drake, erotic fan dancer Sally Rand, and best of all Carole Lombard as Helen, the woman Raoul really falls for.
Those who are watching the film just to see Lombard have to wait a while before she first shows up. In fact, it is even longer before we first hear the music of "Bolero" itself. But it's all worth the wait.
The dances are a great representation of Raft's vaudeville and nightclub act before he hit Hollywood. The portrayal of the first Paris club, in fact, recalls a very young Raft's real employment as a tea-room gigolo - dancing with dowagers for tips with the possibility of having to fulfill other obligations afterward. Sex has a constant presence here, as is usually the case with Raft's adult fare. The hint of it spices the dialogue and drives the action. Rand's famous fan dance is a sensual highlight, and Lombard easily strips down to her skivvies as well.
A major part of the consistent mood is Leo Tover's cinematography. He dramatically captured the dances as well as emphasizing the performances of the actors with light and shadow. Even in the distance shots of the Bolero number when dance doubles do the heavy lifting, there is never a break in the moment. Tover and Ruggles set up the film to play to Raft's strengths and let Lombard be Lombard.
As with so many movies, the grotesquely gruesome World War I is hacked down to about two minutes, but it does cause a huge turn in the plot. And believably so, as the long-term effects of poison gas really did ruin the lives of those who survived the war itself.
It is odd to see Raft and William Frawley playing brothers (they are almost different species), and it is not explained until very late in the film that they are only half-brothers. Also coming late is the sudden information that Raoul's mother was Belgian, making it convenient for him to join the Belgian army as a publicity stunt.
But the movie isn't about plot - it's about mood and style. This is the only "A" musical Raft was fortunate enough to get. The studios threw him into other musicals occasionally, but they were all cheaper, slap-dash affairs (like the vastly inferior "Rumba" with lover Carole again) trying to make the same buck without half the production value and certainly without quality direction.
Christmas Eve (1947)
Those who have seen "The Sons of Katie Elder" and the much more recent "Four Brothers" may sense some surface resemblance to this forgotten holiday movie. An eccentric old heiress (Ann Harding) in trouble needs her long-lost sons to come to her rescue by Christmas Eve before her nephew Philip (Reginald Denny) takes control of her fortune. In this case, her three sons were adopted as infants and left as soon as they could make their own way in order not to sponge off a kindly lady who gave them everything.
We first meet Michael (George Brent), a spendthrift playboy whose debt puts him at Philip's mercy. Mario (George Raft) is an escaped con now running a night club in South America who falls into the clutches of an escaped Nazi. Jonathan (Randolph Scott) is a rodeo cowboy barely scraping by out west who has a strange experience at a baby mill. While on the surface each is a specific stereotype, as soon as they learn of their adoptive mother's predicament - she savvily holds a press conference - all priorities fall in line. A certain nobility despite their failings is a reaction that bonds them as a real family.
Brent is bland as usual playing bland comedy with Joan Blondell clinging on to spice things up. As expected, a slimmed down Raft gets some romance, some fighting and some tragedy. Scott has to deal with that kind of "cowboy talk" that only exists in movies, where everything is a ranch metaphor, but he's charming. Harding (actually younger than all of her "sons") stretches to play double her age, and comes across just fine. Denny is variously a rat and a skunk, but he gets his. Wonderful and very busy character actor John Litel is the FBI agent after Raft. Back in '40, he played an unfortunate truck driver in Raft's "They Drive By Night" and years later was coincidentally in "The Sons of Katie Elder." "Christmas Eve" has no big emotional kick and little holiday sentimentality, but there is genuine family affection. It is not a special film, the story lines somehow both stereotypical and nonsensical. It can be stodgy and it's easy to see why it's little remembered. Clearly everyone in it was capable of better, yet there are satisfying moments.
Quick Millions (1931)
Better the second time around
"Quick Millions" is a shadow of better gangster films made the same year (Public Enemy and Little Caesar) but for all its awkwardness it grows with the viewing and is better the second time around.
Aesthetically, it is not an important film and explores only familiar territory. Still, there are unexpected delicious moments. The studio seemed to be trying to make Spencer Tracy into James Cagney with this turn as a racketeer trying to class himself up.
In film history, "Quick Millions" is important. It was Tracy's first starring role, and he needed it badly. It's not a common character for him and yet his skills at underplaying are clear and marvelous. For George Raft, who looks totally GQ in his every scene, this film was the direct reason he landed a similar henchman role in the terrific "Scarface," which proved to be his breakthrough. It also got him his contract with Paramount. Despite a rough beginning, Tracy and Raft became good friends while filming "Quick Millions." It's an interesting aspect, almost an unconscious battle of screen chemistry. Just try to keep your eyes off Raft doing absolutely nothing in the background except shifting his weight while you're supposed to be paying attention to Tracy's important dialogue with other characters.
What works: Great lighting direction during the holdup at the "testimonial dinner." Focus on Raft's legs while dancing at a party, which initially seems to be just showing off his deft moves but in fact is leading up to the next time we see his legs in a brilliantly shot murder scene. Surprising musical interludes. Tracy incorrigible and so believable in carrying the film.
What does not work: Ham-fisted camera work - even in '31 cinematography was advanced beyond this clumsiness. Long-winded anti-racketeering speeches. While dialogue is often sharp, the storytelling leaves gaps.
And watch out for a flip of the bird.
Whistle Stop (1946)
A badly constructed plot, clunky direction and a leading lady with unclear motivation sinks this film noir attempt.
Beautiful if slutty Mary returns to podunkville after working in Chicago because ... well, we really never know why for certain, but apparently her whole purpose is to be a problem between two local guys. She has a history with Kenny, a good-for-nothing, but immediately takes up with Lew, the oily big wheel in a small town. Nothing much happens until Kenny's bartender buddy (a terrific Victor McLaglen) plots to rob and kill Lew and draws Kenny in on the action. Their plot putters out but somehow Mary ends up back with Kenny, so Lew sets up the ultimate revenge.
Though sympathetic, Kenny is an odd role for Raft, who was hardly one to play a drunk let alone a real bum. Gardner tries to make sense out of Mary but it's a tiresome part. McLaglen gets the best part in the movie, but everything is so choppy and unexplained there is no real arc to the story.
Russell Metty's cinematography is appropriately moody but it's hard to discern if he really meant to make McLaglen look old, Raft look haggard and Gardner look so cheap.
Highly sanitized, but the boy can move!
With only a brushing acquaintance with the truth, "Broadway" offers a glimpse of the early speakeasy life of George Raft. Raft plays himself, a good idea as later attempts would prove no one else could ever portray him. It is a bowdlerized version of his time as a dancer employed in the nightclub of Texas Guinan - here renamed Lil. This George Raft is all about work, pines for only one woman, and never met a gangster he liked - so far from reality it has to provoke a smile. But its heart, and his, is in the right place.
The movie is completely worth seeking out for the all too brief George Raft style of dance. Too rare were the films that allowed him to exhibit that "fastest dancer in New York" technique. Raft was past 45 when he shot this and was recreating moves from his 20s, and that alone is impressive. The boy could still move! Raft's poker pal Pat O'Brien gets to play a wise cop again, and bombastic Broderick Crawford is a real scene-stealer as the bootlegging gang leader with a penchant for murder.
A major problem with the film is its complete neglect of setting. There is no attempt to create the styles of the late 1920s, which would have added so much atmosphere (and truth). It could have used a lot more grit as well.
Mr. Ace (1946)
Hard-boiled political romance
This is an undervalued little political drama from an era when politics on the big screen suddenly became popular. While so many such films are based on saccharine preaching or play cute with the "women in politics" theme, there's not an ounce of sugar here.
Ambitious socialite congresswoman Margaret Chase (Sylvia Sidney) seeks the governor's office, and knows exactly how to use the crooked political system (and even her estranged husband) to get there. One thing she needs is the endorsement of the nefarious Tomahawk Club and its top dog, Mr. Ace (George Raft). Like any seasoned politician with more aspirations than ethics, she has no qualms with buddying up to the shady characters. Ace toys with her but is not one to be manipulated. Watch him watch her as he introduces her to his "friends" as if waiting for her to exhibit the same hypocritical benevolence of any male politician trying to curry favor - and she does. The passionate moral compass of the story is her former professor, Joshua Adams, who (for reasons that differ from Ace's) does not want her to be governor. There is a portrait of modern politics as Margaret believes she and Adams are manipulating Ace when in fact Ace and Adams are conspiring against her.
The script by Fred Finklehoff shows great restraint. We get only as much backstory as we absolutely need. The people are human; nobody is an innocent angel and no political bad guy is cackling into his cloak. As in real politics, everyone is trying to manipulate everyone else. Even in "romancing" each other, Margaret Chase and Eddie Ace are actually testing each other's political wills. No hearts and flowers here. This is a romance of black coffee and hard-boiled eggs.
And how refreshing to see actors of a "certain age" actually acting their ages. Sidney is a mature, dynamic woman, and gets to play one. Being attracted to Mr. Ace does not turn Margaret into a brainless flit, nor does Ace let the attraction drown his cynicism. She's more than willing to use backhanded tactics to get around him politically, and he responds by turning the system against her. Only then does she have a change of heart about the entire campaign. And only her obvious change of heart allows Ace to rethink his own motives.
Take note of Roman Bohnen as Prof. Adams. Amid all the professional politicians and their cold-blooded calculations he is the emotional voice of infuriated idealism. This same year ('46) Bohnen also appeared in the brilliant "The Best Years of Our Lives" as a completely different sort of character (Dana Andrews' soft-spoken, alcoholic father). He's simply remarkable.
"Mr. Ace" was the third of a trilogy of films Raft and Sidney did together. "Pick-Up" brought them together in the early '30s, "You and Me" in the late '30s, and then "Mr. Ace." Their natural chemistry ages like fine wine.
Follow the Boys (1944)
USO training film
In a great tribute to all the performers who have entertained American Fighting Forces, Follow the Boys assembles a nifty all-star group to let the folks on the home front see what the soldiers are getting. The film combines real footage in the field mixed with performers recreating their USO acts.
The result is a bit like a training film for the USO, but it does help us appreciate how so many performers went above and beyond the call of duty. From the wonderful Andrews Sisters to magical Orson Welles, it is an eclectic revue. There is a particularly touching section in the middle, from Artur Rubinstein to a montage underscored by beautifully melancholy songs from Dinah Shore.
Of course to get to all this, you must wade through a negligible plot about a husband-and-wife dance team (George Raft and Vera Zorina) who split over one of those obnoxious movie misunderstanding as he wants to put all his efforts into entertaining the troops. The dialogue is pedantic, Zorina is a cold fish, and Raft is stiff - until he's dancing.
Though he seems to be enjoying himself ONLY when he's dancing, Raft had an emotional investment in the film. In real life, he was among the troop entertainers, and he had also been very close to Carole Lombard, who had died earlier engaged in exactly that work. Perhaps it was his personal tribute to her. He is in one of the best numbers of the film: Louis Jordan and his orchestra perform "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby" and then accompany Raft as he dances "Sweet Georgia Brown" in the rain for a group of black soldiers. Though Raft was at his peak weight here, he was still nimble afoot.
Every Night at Eight (1935)
Showcase for fans of classic radio
Three adorable but out of work and homeless women try to win $100 in amateur contest on the radio, but when Susan (Frances Langford) passes out from lack of food, the prize goes to supremely confident and good-looking band leader Tops (George Raft). Once he really hears them sing, however, he brings them on board with his band. And by working them day and night brings them success with their own radio program. But his hyper-strict rules have Dixie (Alice Faye) and Daphne (Patsy Kelly) chafing for some freedom. Though Susan has quietly fallen for Tops, she goes along with the girls' scheme to buck his authority and possibly ruin his show.
Sure it's not much of a plot, but this is a good-natured showcase for a host of talents and great wisecracks from Patsy Kelly. The girls are fun, Faye and particularly Langford get great solos. Langford makes "I'm in the Mood for Love" a standard. Raft, besides looking cool, gets to do a little dancing. Harry Barris has some rousing if brief little vocal ditties. And truly marvelous is uncredited singer James Miller, who takes over in the middle of the extended "I Feel a Song Coming On" number.
If you're a fan of old-time radio you'll recognize all the corny exchanges and weird acts on the "gong show" radio program and maybe try to sing like a chicken yourself.
Invisible Stripes (1939)
OK melodrama that tries hard
This film should have been more interesting with the potential of such a cast. The script tries to be important. Indeed, we again get a "Les Miserables"-themed story of a parolee trying to go straight but finding all of the rules and society's prejudice forcing him back to crime. But Lloyd Bacon's sluggish direction holds everything back and it is never interesting storytelling.
How can a film with George Raft, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden not be compelling? Thank you, Mr. Bacon, for demonstrating. Raft tries hard to be the nice guy but the script gives the character no depth. He could be any ex-con coming home after a stint in Sing Sing. He seems handcuffed throughout. He does believably make a (much) older brother for Holden - the voice, the nose - but he surely can't pass for 27. Holden is so young and enthusiastic and all his acting mechanics are hanging out there for everyone to see. As few as his scenes are, Bogart is a steady if smarmy hand to get the action started.
Flora Robson, as the mother of Raft and Holden, is the most sympathetic character. The actress had a tremendous soul to give weight to what could be a thankless part. Only through her does any real feeling come into this melodrama. And though nearly seven years younger than Raft, just a little age makeup makes her look as if she could at least be his aunt.
It is interesting that the film never shows the cons in actual prison stripes. The only two scenes of Raft and Bogart in prison are in the shower (thank you) and in the warden's office before leaving.
I do like to show this film to friends after they've seen John Ford's "Mary of Scotland" just so they can be amazed at Moroni Olsen's range.
You and Me (1938)
What a fascinating little film, on a variety of levels. There is an expressionism that would have made Elmer Rice proud as well as a distinctly European approach. It feels as if it could be either a German product or from much earlier in the '30s when Hollywood was still in an experimental phase of self-discovery. There is nothing quite like it out there.
This is pure Fritz Lang, coupled perfectly with Charles Lang Jr.'s photography, with Kurt Weill's music jumping in abruptly to make you catch your breath. The blend of comedy and drama is smooth.
The plot line is familiar to this cast. A businessman makes a point of hiring parolees at his department store, where some are clearly having trouble adjusting. Joe has abided by the strict demands of his parole and his time is at last up, freeing him to marry Helen. But she has never told him that she too is an ex-con and still has several months of parole to serve. She has to tell lie upon lie to cover up the secret. Meanwhile, his old gang is nipping at him to join up again in another heist scheme.
Not for the last time, the film exposes the difficulties of staying straight, difficulties arising both from the system itself as well as peer pressure.
Some plot points are similar to Pick-up, a George Raft-Sylvia Sidney film of a few years earlier, but this story is much stronger. At this time Raft was in the middle of a five-year era when he was at his best - relaxed and in character, willingly joining in the sometimes unusual proceedings. Sidney is beautifully sympathetic as a criminal, always hoping two wrongs will make a right. What a one-of-a-kind screen presence she was. Her work with Raft always seems like two pals getting together again. That makes the wedding night sequence and the around-the-world honeymoon all the more entertaining.
The rest of the cast, from wonderful Harry Carey to cynical Roscoe Karns, turns in strong, imaginative performances. As odd as some moments might be, everyone is clearly "in on" Lang's vision.
There is a great scene of the gang reminiscing about their prison days that displays that vision full force. This is what the film is all about.
The Glass Key (1935)
A perfect match of styles
Stark cinematography, crisp story-telling and quirky humor make this a ground-breaking film, showing later film noir creators the basics.
The classic Dashiell Hammitt story gets a unique treatment. The still, anticipatory mood punctuated with abrupt, staccato dialogue is an inspired match for George Raft, playing perfectly to his strengths. Like Raft the film is stylish, watchful and reticent. He doesn't have to fake a thing. Edward Arnold is at his best as Paul Madvig in the center of the drama.
As for plot, the ne're-do-well son of a senator is found dead in the gutter, and all the "evidence" points to his girlfriend's father, Madvig, a political boss in town. Arch-enemy Shad O'Rory (Robert Gleckler) pulls out all the stops to bring him down while Madvig's right-hand man Ed Beaumont (Raft) goes through hell to prove his innocence.
In one torturous sequence, Raft never speaks a word while being abused (not to mention mocked), and that silence is visually compelling. There is a delicious use of stark shadows throughout. Instead of a bombastic soundtrack we get subtle use of organic sound. A key scene of violence is underscored marvelously by a swinging light fixture and a solo rendering of "Walkin' the Floor" echoing up the stairs.
Pig-eyed Guinn Williams is somehow both comic and brutal as Shad's hired thug. Charles Richman is everything a senator should be. Claire Dodd is the passionate sister of the murder victim, and Rosalind Culli makes a watery Miss Madvig.
It is entertaining to see a very young Ray Milland in the brief role as the murder victim. And then there's Ann Sheridan, memorable in only one scene as one tough nurse.
This does not have elements that became stereotypical in the more fully developed film noir - such as the femme fatale and overt lustiness, which were in the popular Alan Ladd remake of this story. This version does hedge on some violent elements and is a little too simplistic in others, leaving some plot points unclear at first. But the its consistent sense of its own style and sense of reality with the more believable cast let this first version stand on its own.
Uneventful and unimportant
"Rumba" is George Raft's best Latino film and that's not saying much. He at least gets to play a New Yorker, albeit a New Yorker of Cuban descent hanging out in Havana because gangsters in the States are out to get him. That idea is actually more exciting than the events that play out.
Carole Lombard gets some strong closeups and looks lovely. She plays a bored socialite a little too well, never seeming to rise above ennui even when she's dancing. She gets some nice little bits of dialogue but mostly could have phoned this one in.
Because of his sensual Latin looks, Paramount seemed insistent on making Raft do the sensual Latin dances. Sure, he could dance the rumba OK, but it is nothing like the hot style of dancing that made him famous as the "fastest dancer in New York" back in the '20s. Only in the first dance number in "Rumba" do we get a very brief glimpse of this.
Overall, this is hardly an important film for anyone - but look fast: Ann Sheridan is among the mass of dancers.
The Trumpet Blows (1934)
This plot blows
This is probably the weakest film George Raft had to make for Paramount. Someone at the studio got it into his thick head that Raft, the Italian/German from Hell's Kitchen, should be playing Latin roles, and this is one of the painful results.
The plot, if it can be called that, in "The Trumpet Blows" is minor and still makes no sense. The casting is absurd. The movie is set in Mexico without one single legitimate Mexican accent. Though Raft's character Manuel Montes is supposed to have spent several years in the U.S. getting educated, that does not begin to explain a West Side accent. Nor does Adolph Menjou's always-indescribable accent ever fit in, not to mention Frances Drake, Sidney Toler or anyone else.
There are some very nice atmospheric shots, and footage of real bullfighting. Raft and Drake have some nice bits together. Menjou is entertaining, and not just for his hilariously skinny legs. Drake gets a flashy dance number (before the days when they made women cover their bellybuttons). But overall this is a weak, minor film.
Sidenote: This is the only film Menjou and Raft did together, but they had "met" back in the 1920s when Menjou was a major Broadway star and Raft had a celebrated dance act in night clubs and Vaudeville. According to Raft, Menjou came in late one night after closing and insisted they drag Raft out of bed to perform the dance number. Raft performed for him, Menjou expressed his appreciation and walked out without giving him a tip for the special performance. When they met up again years later in Hollywood, Raft reminded Menjou he owed him some money.
All of Me (1934)
Minor film with unfinished quality
"All of Me" is not a highlight in the career of any of the principal players. It is slow to get to any point, and after the climax it slithers off weakly into nothing.
That said, none of the actors is bad here, and all have flashes of something quite special. James Flood's direction is so stilted it drags the sometimes interesting dialogue down with it. And none of the performances can quite rise above that. The plot is absurd while it tries to be important. The script plays coy with the obvious element of out-of-wedlock pregnancies not to mention premarital sex. The end scene, if you can call it that, is the limpest point of the film.
Fredric March is reteamed with Miriam Hopkins for the first time since they were so great in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." The combination is not nearly as interesting here. They are lovers (he a professor and she a student, for added raciness) who have intellectual differences about love and marriage. Only when they cross paths with George Raft and Helen Mack do they begin to discover that love is more about heart and soul than about a thought process. Raft and Mack are lovers trying to overcome a criminal lifestyle that has left them at the mercy of the System.
March underplays his role with aplomb and disappears for a long stretch while Hopkins (for good reason) seems to struggle to find motivation in her confused character. Their situation gets tiring and is set aside all together as the Raft-Mack subplot takes over. This is fortunate as it is much more interesting. Unexpectedly, after slogging through the storyline, Raft is quite compelling in the climax. Mack is direct and on-point throughout.
March and Raft were both stars for Paramount, and the studio would have had trouble finding two more different men with such different styles. That could have been interesting, but alas, they have only one scene together.