Afternoon Delight is a daily diversion for when you’re just back from lunch, but not quite ready to get back to work. Check back tomorrow at 1 p.m. for another one
This week, Afternoon Delight is devoted to the art of American musical theater. We’ll be uncovering some remarkable dance numbers and dancers, some rarities, novelties and real achievements.
In this case, it’s a great dancer you may have never heard of — as a dancer, at least. It’s George Raft. Raft, of course, became known for his gangster roles and, in real life, he did associate with the mob, notably with Bugsy Siegel and various Havana casinos — each side borrowing bits of dress and gesture from the other. But his typecasting as a second-tier player came about only after a string of stupid career choices (he turned down roles in movies like The Maltese Falcon) — choices that let Humphrey Bogart become a star and left Raft being a hood the rest of his life.
But like James Cagney — that other pretend gangster — Raft started as a dancer, even performing on Broadway, in nightclubs and London choruses. There’s relatively little cinematic evidence left, but in this scene from 1934’s Bolero, Raft is impressive, to say the least.
He seems to have specialized in Latin dances (one of his other remaining cinematic numbers is a rhumba in, well, Rumba). In both cases, Raft’s dance partner was Carole Lombard, and here, the sexual connection between the two is unmistakable and intense. Frankly, they look like they’re having sex standing up (it certainly helps that Lombard, as was often the case, is clearly braless). Even if those are dance-doubles in the long shots, Raft seems glued to Lombard in the close-ups, revealing a sensuality and breathless emotional hunger pretty much unseen in his later performances (plus, in the moments before the dance starts, a gee-whiz eagerness that vanished pretty quickly in his life. You can make it go away even quicker and get to the dancing around 1:25).
As a dancer, Raft is sinuous yet elegantly still, maintaining an incredible line throughout, practically letting Lombard drape herself on him while he remains both urgent and vertical — until the release at the very end. From this scene alone, it’s not hard to imagine him becoming a Latin-lover leading man, easily the equal of Rudolph Valentino as a dancer.