Ready to Rumba

Thanks to regular Shadowplayer La Faustin for sending me George Raft, Lewis Yablonsky’s as-told-to bio of the Hollywood tough guy/hoofer. An unusually frank account — Raft admits his mob connection but tries to minimise/contextualise them, while being quite open about his days as a gigolo in New York “tea rooms” alongside Valentino.

He also manages to make ballroom dancing sound macho and dangerous — on stage, he would dance so fast he risked injury — if a foot accidentally hit a footlight it would be so painful he wouldn’t be able to continue, so he numbed his feet by replacing the shoelaces with wire, cutting off his circulation. In this manner, he was able to break a toe without feeling it.

George also recounts being set upon by a jealous lady during his dance hall days — she stabbed him through the chest with a long hat pin, missing his heart by inches. George drew a surprising lesson from this: “Up to then I never knew I was handsome. I felt I was the black sheep and the ugliest kid in my family. But I realized then that women could really go for me.”


11 Responses to “Ready to Rumba”

  1. Beauty is pain, Georgie.

  2. The dance sequence in Bolero is the work of an uncredited Mitchell Leisen.

  3. Doesn’t this mean it was even more dangerous for his female partners? Backwards in heels and all that?

    I flashed on a Benny Hill blackout of a movie set where a young actress waits in a bed. Prussian director Benny shouts, “Ve’re ready for the vedding night scene. Bring in the STUNT MAN!” Reaction shot from actress.

  4. I think Raft’s dance partners maybe didn’t have to move their feet that fast. Lombard’s dancing is mainly done by her Travis Banton dress in the clip above.

  5. Fred Astaire used to take people to Texas Guinan’s to watch Raft’s Charleston, q.v.:

  6. Damn, shoot that director! “Plenty of headroom, but we don’t need to see his feet. And edit it at random!”

  7. chris lanier Says:

    My only previous exposure to Raft is BACKGROUND TO DANGER. In that film, you can get a sense of what CASABLANCA would have been like if Ronald Reagan had snagged Bogey’s role. It actually works as an unintentional “pre-make” of THE THIRD MAN, with Raft as a hapless yank surrounded by foreign sophisticates – Peter Lorre, for instance, making effortless acting curlicues around him with just a cigarette and two half-mast eyelids, while Raft stands immobilized at the center of the screen, trusting his rigid jawbone to do all the emoting. The big difference from THE THIRD MAN is that, in this case, the surrounding movie actually corresponds to the B-movie the clueless American has playing in his head.

    The dancing clips do nothing to dispel Raft’s general sense of motile paralysis (the highlights spinning on his shellacked hair remind me of reflections shifting on a chrome pinball), but they do at least push it into a different register.

  8. Background to Danger was made when Raft had clout, which was the worst thing that ever happened to him — he turned down all the good roles and ruined the passable ones. The hero of Ambler’s novel is a genuine naif, but Raft had to turn out to be a secret agent. When Wilder pitched him Double Indemnity, he asked “Where’s the scene where I flip my lapel to reveal the badge?” Background to Danger actually has that scene.

    According to Welles, Raft had no delusions of acting talent: “I can’t say a line!” But he felt he had an image to protect. The irony is, he created that image in Scarface where he’s very effective, saying nothing, tossing a coin, playing the second-string thug.

  9. chris lanier Says:

    The “flip the lapel to reveal the badge” thing is great. That’s how he should have ended all his dance scenes. He stops spinning, finds himself nose to nose with Carole Lombard, breathing heavily – then flips his lapel to reveal a badge.

  10. It’s the solution to all life’s problems!

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