When I think of famous Hollywood couples, I tend to think of Bogey and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, Pickford and Fairbanks — Riskin and Wray don’t immediately come to mind. After reading “Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir” by Victoria Riskin, that’s about to change.
Vicki Riskin, who lives in West Tisbury, is the daughter of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, and her new book should be required reading for people who consider themselves fans of Turner Classic Movies. It tells the story of Fay Wray, who grew up in a provincial Mormon family in Utah. At the age of 14, she set out for Hollywood accompanied by William Mortensen, a photographer and artist who promised he would get her into the movies. He succeeded in getting her the part of a clown in a silent comedy, and from that moment on, she was hooked.
Wray would go on to star in more than 120 pictures in her career, directed by masters like William Wellman, Erich von Stroheim, and Vincente Minnelli. She played opposite some of the greatest leading men of her time, such as Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, and William Powell. But there was one leading man in particular who would catapult Wray to stardom and allow her to achieve icon status.
“When my mother was offered the part of Ann Darrow in ‘King Kong,’” writes Victoria Riskin, “co-director Merian C. Cooper told her only that she would be cast opposite ‘the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.’ She thought he meant Cary Grant, or as a very acceptable consolation prize, Clark Gable. She adapted to Kong, and in time grew to appreciate and even treasure him. ‘Every time I’m in New York,’ she said late in life, ‘I say a little prayer when passing the Empire State Building. A good friend of mine died up there.’”
By contrast, Robert Riskin grew up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn. But he took an early interest in filmmaking, and by the age of 18 he and his crew had written, directed, and produced more than 100 films — 10-minute comedies, two-reelers. By the time Riskin was in his 30s he was extremely successful, and also writing and producing shows on Broadway, but with the stock market crash, he, like so many others, was left virtually penniless. Fortunately, one day he ran into a friend who had been hired as an agent for Warner Bros. Riskin had co-written a script called “Illicit,” and the friend thought Warner Bros. might be interested. Riskin ended up selling the script to Warner Bros. for the princely sum of $30,000, and this turned out to be a game-changer. In 1934 Riskin followed up “Illicit” with “It Happened One Night,” starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, and it swept the Academy Awards.
Riskin became the darling of Hollywood. With his movie star good looks, he was often seen at Sardi’s and the Brown Derby with actresses like Carole Lombard and Loretta Young on his arm. Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons dubbed him “the most eligible bachelor in Hollywood.”
The book has plenty of behind-the-scenes glimpses of glamorous parties and nightclubs. I’ll just share with you one of the passages which captures the Zeitgeist of the times. Carole Lombard “threw an enormous black-tie birthday party for [Riskin] at her house, where arriving guests found the living room knee-deep in hay, with mules and chickens wandering through the rooms, ducks paddling in the swimming pool, and a country band playing Western music.” This was vintage Lombard mischief.
Wray and Riskin would each undergo a failed marriage, but ultimately their paths would cross. The scene was a Christmas Eve party at Jessica and Richard Barthelmess’s house in 1940. Ms. Riskin writes that as everyone clustered around the piano, her mother did a little improvisational dance by herself, lost in the moment. Riskin crossed the room, and by the end of the evening, he had invited her to see “The Grapes of Wrath,” and this was the beginning of a beautiful love story. If the book were just about two remarkable people who fell in love against a glittering backdrop of Hollywood in its heyday, it would be worth the read. But Robert and Fay lived in fascinating and tumultuous times. While on the surface, being a movie star was glamorous, the reality could be more harsh.
“On ‘King Kong,’” Ms. Riskin writes, “[Wray] was required to work 22 hours straight. Also on ‘Kong,’ the director told her to ‘scream for your life’ into a microphone for eight uninterrupted hours so he could get the exact pitch he wanted for the soundtrack. For weeks afterward she couldn’t speak even in a whisper.” The book delves into the working conditions in Hollywood that would give birth to both the Screen Actors Guild and the Screen Writers Guild, which would strike at the heart of the studio system.
The book gets into the red scare that had been terrorizing the industry since the ’30s, ultimately resulting in blacklisting in the ’40s because of what the House Un-American Activities Committee considered the dangerous liberal ideas in Hollywood. “It spread through the industry, the town, the country,” Ms. Riskin writes. “For a decade or more, no one was immune … The list [of people accused of being communists] was staggering in its scope and recklessness: actors Burt Lancaster, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Orson Welles, Katharine Hepburn, Danny Kaye, Rita Hayworth, Kirk Douglas, and dozens more writers and directors … There was no evidence to support any of these charges.”
Of particular interest in the book is the relationship between Robert Riskin and Frank Capra. Together they collaborated on eight films as screenwriter and director, and were considered one of the most successful teams in Hollywood history. “I wanted to know about my father’s relationship with director Frank Capra,” Ms. Riskin wrote to me in an email, “so often written about by film historians. They were very different as human beings, but together they were responsible for wonderful films.” There was a populist quality to Capra’s films, “the Capra touch,” which referred to the glorification of “the little guy.” In reality, Capra was a hardcore conservative, and “the Capra touch” was a product of Riskin’s ideological and social conscience.
In 1950, Robert Riskin suffered a stroke which rendered him an invalid until his death at 58 years old. He left behind a remarkable catalogue of work, and received the prestigious Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement given by the Writers Guild of America. Fay lived until 96 years old, at times struggling financially, but always remaining resolutely positive with an indomitable spirit. Ms Riskin’s loving portrayal of Wray’s grace, wit, and intelligence made “Faysie” irresistible.
I asked Ms. Riskin what brought her to write the memoir. “For years,” she wrote to me, “I struggled with being the child of such high-profile parents. For a time it was a high-wire act emotionally — and then one day I grew up a bit, and suddenly I loved it all — Fay’s life and career, ‘King Kong,’ my father’s rich life and great movies. Now, even though there were hard times and sadness, as with every family, it’s all wonderful. That’s what I’ve tried to capture in the book.”
“Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir” by Victoria Riskin. Pantheon Books, available at Bunch of Grapes bookstore, Edgartown Books, and at amazon.com.