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The Warner Mob
With the Depression pushing the studio toward bankruptcy, Warner Brothers had to resort to crime—and crime paid so well that the company was able to recruit the toughest guys that ever shot up a sound stage.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
The actor warred with the studio for better parts, subjecting himself to over a dozen suspensions for refusing assigned roles. In interview after interview he insisted that he was really a stage actor and would never “go Hollywood.”
What Garfield seems never to have appreciated was the importance his image on the screen held for millions of Americans. For the urban poor, for the jobless, for the alienated, he was a symbol. He seemed to be one of them—tough and cynical on the surface but underneath bewildered and lost. It was rare for an ethnic to play romantic leads, and millions saw themselves as heroes on the screen for the first time. Boys from the slums would hear Garfield’s heavy Bronx accent and feel that the film’s happy ending might also be possible for them.
Garfield served out his seven-year sentence at Warner Brothers and then formed his own production company, scoring a tremendous critical and commercial success with Body and Soul (1947). Shortly afterward attacks on leftists and liberal entertainers by private and government groups began. Blacklisted in Hollywood, Garfield returned to Broadway to play the lead in Golden Boy fifteen years after the role had been denied him. That was 1952. With Broadway the only place he was permitted to act, he found his exclusion from Hollywood unbearable. He was trying desperately to clear his name with congressional committees when he died, suddenly, at the age of thirty-nine.
George Raft did not have the career conflicts of Garfield. He wasn’t a stage actor. He wasn’t even a movie actor. What he was, with his Valentino looks, was a movie star, and he collected a quarter of a million dollars a year from Paramount. But Raft never knew when he was well off. He terminated his contract because he objected to being confined solely to roles as an unsympathetic criminal, and signed up with Warner’s.
Raft didn’t want to play the bad guy anymore, because such roles were too close to the truth. His New York past included jobs as a gigolo, taxi dancer, and a runner for the gangster Owney Madden, and he had close ties to Bugsy Siegel. (W. R. Burnett based the gangster-turned-dancer character in Little Caesar on Raft.) Jack Warner, aware of Raft’s background, assured him that while he might be handed a criminal role now and then, the character would always have redeeming personality traits.
His first film on the Warner lot, Each Dawn I Die, offered just such a role: Raft was cast as an imprisoned underworld figure who dies to clear the name of his friend, a reporter, played by Cagney, who was an acquaintance of Raft’s from vaudeville days. Raft and Cagney both received good notices, and the picture was a box-office success.
There were, moreover, the undertones of a love triangle that pervaded the film both on and off the set. In Manpower Raft and Robinson play high-voltage installation and maintenance men who love the same woman—played, of course, by Dietrich. Raft actually was strongly attracted to Dietrich and believed himself to be in competition with Robinson. Although there was little evidence to support Raft’s jealousy, the studio capitalized on the possibility by putting out such attention-getting advertisements as: “Robinson’s mad about Dietrich. Dietrich’s mad about Raft. Raft is mad about the whole thing”—and insinuating that the script was inspired by a real-life situation. Raft’s romantic pursuit coupled with his professional differences with Robinson contributed to considerable tension on the set, tension that culminated several times in an actual exchange of blows. At one point both men refused to go on with the movie, and representatives from the Screen Actors Guild were brought in to make peace.
After Pearl Harbor, Jack Warner called the mobsters to active duty to fight the Axis on film.
Raft’s problems in Manpower were not limited to Robinson; he also had a set-to with Warner himself. Raft insisted on wearing the same long-point shirt collars in his role as high-voltage lineman that he had made fashionable in his private life. When Warner saw the early rushes, he felt the style was inappropriate to the character and sent him a memo to that effect. Raft complied but took the directive personally and felt deeply humiliated. He subsequently turned down three projects—All Through the Night, High Sierra, and The Maltese Falcon, perhaps as revenge.