A blog titled “Rafting the Film Vault” may appear to be a fan page for George Raft, but it isn’t. It is instead, a personal exploration into the vast collection of films made since the birth of cinema that uses George Raft as an entry point. The forgotten star provides an intriguing trajectory into the archive to discover films and filmmakers that have fallen by the wayside of mainstream cinema history, or just my own schema of this history. Considering George Raft as a figure of obscurity is a personal judgment, and what is considered worthy of reviving for appreciation today is even more subjective. Nevertheless, the way my uncanny discovery of the actor led me into fascinating areas of films that had previously eluded me, has inspired this project to unearth old gems from the past and elucidate the value they may still have for us today.
It was purely by chance that over the new year of 2015, I was watching a program about scientific explanations of the paranormal. I became infatuated with one particular phenomenon that scientists have yet to explain: the case of a little boy who vividly remembers and longed for a past life in Hollywood. How could a three year old child remember so many details that he was even able to identify the man he was as Marty Martyn – an obscure Hollywood agent who only appeared once on the screen in a lesser degree obscure film made in 1932 called Night after Night?
When I found the film Night after Night to satisfy my curiosity about what a reincarnated man looked like in motion, I was instead stunned at how this snappy little film provided such a rich reading into its era with maximum entertainment value. The film is “little” because its relatively simple story about a rags to riches nightclub owner who falls in love with a Miss Park Avenue patron, only runs for 73 minutes and is set almost entirely inside one speakeasy. Its clever script, directing and casting constitute the success of the film, but the main attraction is undoubtedly the dapper star George Raft, who too is so emblematic of his era. The viewing experience sparked so many ideas about the age old questions of the purpose of film and what makes a good film, that I felt it was time to start writing about them.
As I began reading into the life and works of George Raft, I became troubled that an actor considered one of the biggest stars of his day and had worked and ranked among the big names so familiar to me, had not been on my radar as a classic movie buff. I had been reared from the age of 13 by the Turner Classic Movies channel and developed this mania into an academic pursuit at university. I thought I knew just about all the important parts of Classic Hollywood film there could be, but realised there was a whole lot more if I hadn’t considered George Raft as a major figure. An important reason for this is obvious, George Raft and the many other films and stars I traced through him, lie outside the popular history and were at Paramount or other studios that TCM Asia does not broadcast. At the same time, it was not that I had never heard of George Raft, who did later move to Warner Brothers for a brief stint. I recall being impressed by his performance when I caught Each Dawn I Die on TCM one afternoon a few years ago. I had always felt he was a familiar face and wondered who he was, but my intrigue then was only limited to a quick wiki search.
My deeper interest in George Raft after seeing him star in Night after Night coincided with a phase in my academic research on revisionist history. I was in the final stage of my doctoral study of a controversial 1930s Taiwanese film critic called Liu Na’ou, and was not only infatuated with anything 1930s, but highly sensitive to the question of how we remember the past. Unlike the way Liu Na’ou is condemned in the politicized history of Chinese cinema, George Raft is largely omitted from the Hollywood canon. As that famous Oscar Wilde saying goes: “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”. It appears that almost everyone of his generation the world over knew him as a big star, yet younger generations have never even heard of him. If he is remembered in film circles, it is usually for giving up roles that made other actors legends and has a poor reputation as a bad/wooden actor. He is perhaps best known as “The Man Who Would be Bogart” – the title of a biography written by Stone Wallace. George Raft had been a bigger star than Humphrey Bogart in the 1930s and had a salary multiple times bigger, but posthumously Bogart is revered in the echelons of film history as the greatest male star of Classic American cinema, an honour officially bestowed to him by the AFI.
In my attempt to recover treasures of the past, I must however state here that this is not an apologist website for George Raft and other forgotten folk. I do believe that establishing a canon is important in encouraging film fans like myself to continue to appreciate great cultural works and the artists that made them long after they were released. Of course, there is also an obvious reason why no effort or investment has been made to release many of these old films on home video (as is the case of many of George Raft’s later films) and attempting to deviate from the established classics often ends up inevitably crisscrossing back with the mainstream. Nevertheless I still find that questioning the selection of the canon does yield some positive findings. I hope to do more than just encourage the excavation of films from the archive for wider viewing, but also bring up interesting issues about filmmaking and culture that are pertinent across time and regions.