Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir
Book review by Paul J. Bradley
Fay Wray and Robert Riskin were major artists during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Fay became the ageless icon of King Kong but also won positive reviews for her performances in many silent and early sound films.
Robert Riskin was an acclaimed and Academy Award-winning screenwriter whose partnership with Frank Capra is celebrated to this day. Even though Fay and Robert’s paths almost crossed earlier in their careers, they were soon to meet and fall in love.
In Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir, their daughter Victoria Riskin tells their story. Building on her own earliest memory of a snowstorm, she recalls her parents’ early struggles, their successes in Hollywood, and their happy times together.
Fay Wray was born in Alberta in Canada to a large Mormon family and Robert Riskin was born in New York to a Russian Jewish family. Both families did not have much money, but that did not deter Fay and Robert from being successful early in their Hollywood careers.
Kong and Stroheim
Despite being fondly remembered for her role as Ann Darrow in King Kong, Victoria reveals that her mother preferred her performance as Mitzi in Erich von Stroheim’s 1928 silent romantic drama The Wedding March. Stroheim had intended the lengthy epic to be a celebrated recreation of old Vienna, but the film struggled in the box office, effectively killing off his career.
As well as King Kong, Wray is also remembered for her performances in several horror classics of the period, including Doctor X, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, and The Most Dangerous Game.
Robert Riskin had modest success as a playwright before writing scripts for Columbia Pictures. It was his collaboration with influential Italian American director Frank Capra that brought him artistic and commercial success. Robert Riskin was interested in writing about the struggles of the ordinary American, a theme that became central in some of Capra and Riskin’s greatest films such as Lady for a Day, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, and Meet John Doe.
Both writer and director were initially more openly generous about each other’s talent, but Victoria informs that Capra would later tend to claim sole credit for all aspects of the films he directed. Capra began to subscribe to the auteur concept of the “One Man, One Film Theory”.
Fay Wray and Robert Riskin had previous relationships before they met. Wray was initially married to screenwriter John Monk Saunders, an alcoholic who was attracted to danger. Whilst married to Wray, Saunders continued having an affair with Bessie Lasky, the wife of studio head Jesse L. Lasky.
Whilst Wray seemed attracted to brilliant writers, Riskin was drawn to “spirited, attractive, independent women”, such as Irish American screenwriter Edith Fitzgerald, and actresses including Glenda Farrell, Carole Lombard and Loretta Young, but was not keen about getting married.
Beverly Hills Tennis Club
Fay Wray and Robert Riskin first met at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. Wray approached Riskin, who seemed to have his mind on his tennis game, and told him that she would love to be cast in his new film Lost Horizon. Robert said that he would talk to Capra. After the conversation ended, Fay Wray would reflect on his qualities which she felt he had: “charmingly objective, a light-hearted dignity, and intelligent easiness”. Three years would pass before they would meet again.
Wray and Saunders had a child together, but Saunders’s erratic behavior, lengthy periods of drunken binges, and addiction to drugs forced them to separate. Wray then asked for a divorce. This was another very difficult time for Wray because her mother died in a sanatorium in 1938 and she was also worried about what the increasingly erratic Saunders would do next.
The Right Man
Wray had longed for a partner that was not “flawed and injured” like Saunders. Being optimistic and determined, she seemed sure she would find the right man.
Fay Wray and Robert Riskin would soon meet again, and their love story would begin.
Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir is part Hollywood memoir and part Hollywood love story, but it is also an affectionate tribute by a proud daughter. There is so much detail about the early years of Hollywood along the way, including Riskin’s relationship with Frank Capra, Wray’s involvement with the Screen Actors Guild, and her work with other notable Hollywood filmmakers.
The happiness that Robert and Fay would find together is recollected by their daughter with joy and a touch of melancholy.
Insightful, intelligent, and brilliantly written, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir is not only a sensitively told love story and an honest account of two early leading lights of early cinema but is also a highly informative record of an important time in Hollywood’s history. This is the definitive book on the era.
Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir
By Victoria Riskin
Pantheon Books, New York
Hardcover £13.90 / $17.99