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"Robinson's mad about Dietrich. Dietrich's mad about Raft. Raft is mad about the whole thing," proclaimed Warner Bros.' ad for Manpower (1941). And the promotional tag line was a fairly apt description of the movie's plot, featuring Edward G. Robinson and George Raft as high-voltage linemen, competing for the affections of nightclub hostess Marlene Dietrich. But as well as being creative PR, with the tag line the studio also cashed in on some real-life, behind-the-scenes gossip, better than any publicity they could've paid for, that included a fistfight, broken bones and an affair.
The trouble started with casting. Dietrich was the first star signed for the picture. Raft, who'd turned down roles in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and High Sierra (1941) that would go on to make Bogart a star, would likely have turned down Manpower as well if not for Dietrich. Raft had been fascinated with Dietrich ever since she'd arrived on the Paramount lot, apparently telling friend Gary Cooper at one point that he'd "give a year's salary for one night" with the star. (Over the course of filming Manpower Raft would get his wish and more. After beginning an affair, Dietrich moved in with Raft for a time.) With Dietrich and Raft committed to the movie, Warner Bros. still believed it needed another big name and brought in Robinson, much to Raft's dissatisfaction. Raft believed Robinson was miscast and that the role called for a big guy. Of course it probably didn't help Raft's feelings when Robinson received top billing. Dietrich, who was paid the most of the three at $100,000, received second billing, leaving Raft third billed.
Some of the on-screen competition for Dietrich probably spilled over into real life also. Raft was obviously taken with Dietrich, so much so that he got Jack Warner's approval to change a scene to prevent his character from looking weak in front of her. And Robinson seemed to appreciate Dietrich too, admiring her beauty and what he called a shared passion for the work. But the real conflict between Raft and Robinson arose over the different reading of a scene in Manpower. After a blackout, Raft and Robinson's characters are called on to climb up and repair some damaged lines during a storm. Raft believed it would be more authentic to let the characters climb in silence and only add dialogue once they reached the top of the poles. But Robinson argued for adding some dialogue before the climb. Tensions escalated pretty quickly, and before director Raoul Walsh could step in, several punches were thrown. Apparently Robinson took the brunt of it. He walked off the set and refused to continue with the movie. Time lost in filming sent the picture $200,000 over budget and, finally, the dispute had to be settled by SAG. Robinson and Raft finished this picture, but their relationship was icy to say the least. Dietrich simply stayed out of it.
Manpower certainly had its share of bad luck. During one scene, Raft's character strikes Dietrich. Hitting a woman went against everything Raft believed in, but he played the scene nonetheless. Unfortunately, he played it a little too well, accidentally making contact with Dietrich's face. The blow knocked her down a flight of stairs, breaking the actress' ankle. Even Raft didn't make it out of Manpower untouched. He fell 38 feet from a telephone pole and was rushed to the hospital unconscious, in shock and with three broken ribs.
But all's well that ends well. Dietrich and Raft went their separate ways after Manpower wrapped, but apparently maintained a friendly relationship. And Raft and Robinson would meet again on better terms. Years later the actors teamed up for a benefit, using the opportunity to poke fun at their relationship, which by then was something of a Hollywood legend. Robinson pointed a finger at Raft and told him to "get out of town." Raft began flipping his famous coin from Scarface (1932) and warned Robinson that Hollywood wasn't "big enough for the both of us." Much to the audience's delight, Raft and Robinson then hugged and danced off the stage together. The feud was over. And later, in his old age, a hospitalized Edward G. Robinson would receive a telegram that read, "Get well. Your pal, George Raft."
Producer: Mark Hellinger, Hal B. Wallis
Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Richard Macaulay, Jerry Wald
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Editing: Ralph Dawson
Art Direction: Max Parker
Music: Adolph Deutsch, Frederick Hollander, Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Hank McHenry), Marlene Dietrich (Fay Duval), George Raft (Johnny Marshall), Alan Hale (Jumbo Wells), Frank McHugh (Omaha), Eve Arden (Dolly), Ward Bond (Eddie Adams), Joyce Compton (Scarlett).
By Stephanie Thames