Thanks to a new book from Victoria Riskin on her parents, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, a whole new chapter of Hollywood’s history has been opened up to all of us.
Miss Riskin weaves the story of each parent as a separate tale that on occasion will converge and to be honest she had me rooting for Fay to find her true love, Robert Riskin, the whole way. The past is brought to life on the page and if you love movie history then you’ll know most if not all of the characters involved in their stories. From Cary Grant to Harry Cohn. From Frank Capra to none other than King Kong, they’re all here, living and breathing.
I knew very little of Robert Riskin aside from some of his writing credits so there was much to learn here about the Oscar winner for It Happened One Night who also wrote Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and in the years that followed had a Dachshund named Deeds. (I mention this because my co-pilot here in the movie room Brando the Wiener Dog found that to be a spectacular name) Even after Fay and Robert found each other and happiness together the war pulled them apart and Riskin spent a good many months overseas organizing documentary films to be produced and shown about the American way of life. Thanks to the many letters that Miss Riskin includes in the book written by Robert to Fay I again found myself rooting for love to conquer all.
As for Fay’s career, there is so much more than just King Kong to remember her by. Covered here include silent films like Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March to being paired opposite a number of well known leading men once the “talkies” arrived. Aside from Fay being born here in my own country of Canada I can’t say I knew much of her personal life. Let’s just say there was plenty of drama ahead for Fay during her first marriage and a near second one to Clifford Odetts. Thankfully Riskin was waiting in the wings.
No I’m not sharing much about the book aside from the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed travelling back through time to experience it and the fact that Miss Riskin had me developing a great admiration for Fay Wray both as an actress and as a strong willed woman and provider who put her family before herself and her movie career. I also like the fact that she weaves her own story into the book on her journey to discovering more of her father’s past (Riskin died in 1955) and including many of her mother’s reflections as Fay looked back on her career and the love of her life.
If you love classic film history then this purchase should be an easy decision to make. Considering December is around the corner it would also make a great gift for the film buff in the family or for those who love all things Kong.
Now about those 10 questions …..
I had almost purchased this book a couple of months ago but when I learned that Victoria Riskin was going to be in Pennsylvania at a classic film festival I attend yearly I put the book off so I could get one directly from her and of course have it signed. While on stage after a showing of King Kong she was generous in sharing stories of her parents and chatting about her own life, fielding question from the small but loving crowd that came to the convention.
It was the next day I found the courage to introduce myself, purchase a book and invite her to visit Mike’s Take On the Movies. I left her with a total of 11 questions that she kindly responded to via email and I’m including them here for everyone to enjoy and to hopefully spark your interest in Fay Wray, Robert Riskin and Victoria’s wonderful window to the past.
With films like Kong, Most Dangerous Game and Below the Sea, your mother played a lot of physical roles. Any injuries minor or serious to report?
Fay was a natural athlete, not the Olympian kind, but a naturally agile and energetic spirit. She filmed The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong in the same year and even sometimes on the same sets at RKO, requiring of her considerable stamina. In both films she always was running and escaping, first from the big ape and then from the evil Count Zaroff. She loved it. Earlier in her career she was in two-reel Westerns at Universal Studios which also required hard work — riding on horses or wagons – long hot days, the pounding sun. In Wild Horse Stampede – the film still exists — a wagon crashes and in the calamity she suffered a broke nose. She had a tiny scar, which was for me a charming reminder of her early days of movie-making.
Aside from King Kong, who was your mother’s favorite leading man?
William Powell was a good friend and gave her little acting tips she appreciated – how to tilt her head or work with the camera. They were in Behind the Make Up together, directed by one of the few women directors in Hollywood – Dorothy Arzner. Ronald Colman was as charming in person as in his films – she made The Unholy Garden with him and Ronnie and his wife were lifelong friends — and of course, like everyone, she adored Cary Grant. They starred opposite each other in a play on Broadway. She loved working with Spencer Tracy in Shanghai Madness – he was so natural and honest – and she wished they could have made more films together. She loved making White Lies and before that, Mills of the Gods, largely because her co-star in both films was Victor Jory, whose energy and high spirits were infectious, she said, and provided a special chemistry.
Where does the Oscar your father was awarded for It Happened One Night currently reside?
My brother has the Oscar in his home.
If you could produce a remake of one of your father’s films, what would it be?
If a film has worked well in the original, it’s generally better to leave it alone and not attempt a remake. Rarely does a remake succeed. But one of my father’s films that’s a bit more obscure is Magic Town with Jimmy Stewart and Jane Wyman — a charming Robert Riskin film directed by William Wellman who was more of an action film director and the results could have been better perhaps. There were other factors that stood in the way of its success – the post-war depression, the rise of the blacklist – but I rather love that film and think it could be remade.
Is there a film of your mother’s you wish were better known or remembered?
Of course no film can compete with the iconic King Kong. That said, there is a collection of films my mother starred in that I like in particular: Behind the Make Up, The Bowery, The Affairs of Cellini. Film fans know these movies but most people don’t. Everyone knows King Kong. That’s how it shall ever be. Kong and Fay keep each other in the limelight.
What was your mother’s favorite movie of all those she appeared in?
The Wedding March, an epic silent film with Erich von Stroheim, was far and away her favorite. She had just turned eighteen when she was cast by him in her first big starring role. She played Mitzie, an innocent young girl who falls in love with a dissolute Hapsburg prince. Class and destiny keeps them apart. Von Stroheim was magnetic both as actor and director. He kept a musical trio on set—piano, cello, and violin—playing Viennese waltzes and marches to put the actors into the right mood. Who wouldn’t love that. In one of Mitzie’s romantic scenes, set in an apple orchard, he ordered 50,000 handmade apple blossoms (some accounts say 500,000) to be fixed to the trees. Extras were dressed in authentic Austrian military uniforms, including underwear, all shipped in from Vienna. He made Fay look beautiful and for her, everything about the experience was movie-making on a grand scale.
Did she have a favorite film your father had written?
Like everyone, my mother loved It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lady for a Day, Lost Horizon – everything Riskin wrote. One little film, Platinum Blonde, was a particular favorite of hers, mine too, because so much of the style and humor of the lead character reminds us of my father. My mother actually starred in a Robert Riskin film herself, Ann Carver’s Profession, and said she especially appreciated the quality of the writing. They didn’t meet until a few years later.
Was she amazed at the special effects of Willis O’Brien as the rest of the world has been ever since the release of King Kong?
As film historians now understand, new techniques of animation, rear projection, puppetry, stop-motion and process photography all had to be invented and refined for King Kong. Designing, manufacturing, and adjusting an eighteen-inch-high mechanical doll for Kong’s body and then visually matching it to an eight-foot arm required all of Willis O’Brien’s masterful and meticulous technical skills. Kong’s movements were filmed painstakingly, one small, discrete action at a time. Later in life Fay understood the extraordinary accomplishment and admired O’Brien even more.
Did your mother ever miss out on a role or turn one down she later regretted?
My mother hoped to do another film with Spencer Tracy and wanted to do Man’s Castle. The part went to Loretta Young instead who was dating Tracy at the time as luck would have it. She also went after the lead in Lost Horizon. Here’s how I describe it in my book: “At the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, she approached a man she had never met, the film’s screenwriter, Robert Riskin. She introduced herself, telling him how much she wanted to be in his new film. “His mind was on his tennis game . . . He stood, patient and kindly, holding the gate open with one hand . . . just as pleasant as he could be.” He said he would talk to Capra. ‘He went through the gate and I went back to the chair under an umbrella and thought about his qualities: charmingly objective, a lighthearted dignity, and intelligent easiness…’ It would be three years before they saw each other again. She never asked and never knew if he had talked to Capra on her behalf.”
What prompted your mother to appear in the 1980 film Gideon’s Trumpet with Henry Fonda after a 15 year hiatus from appearing in front of the camera?
My husband, David W. Rintels, was the writer and producer of Gideon’s Trumpet. He always loved the book by Anthony Lewis and was making it for Hallmark Hall of Fame. My mother and David adored each other and when he asked, “please, please” would she take a small role, she couldn’t say no. Her name gave additional cache to the film. Also, doing a scene with Fonda was just too wonderful to pass up. She loved being on the set whenever we were filming and everyone in the crew loved having her.
I tossed in an 11th question because she told this story on stage at the film convention and I loved it. Just wanted to share it with those of you who drop by on a regular basis.
Tell about the first time you saw King Kong yourself.
This is how I described that moment in my book.
“Growing up, I knew my mother had been the damsel in distress in King Kong and at times it made me self-conscious. In fourth grade, a schoolmate teased, “Hey, is your dad an ape or something?” Occasionally someone would say, “Wow, your mom’s the lady in King Kong.” I mumbled, “yes,” not wanting to be the focus of special attention.
I was nine years old before I saw the film. My mother told me it was going to be on television.
‘Would you like to see it, honey? You don’t have to, of course, but I think you’re old enough.’ At nine, I wanted to be old enough for everything.
I hardly recognized my dark-haired mother playing the very blond and waif-like Ann Darrow, wearing a clingy white dress, but I got lost in the drama of the crew landing on Skull Island, the beating of the natives’ drums, the gigantic and terrifying Kong, the way he kidnaps the blonde lady, the destruction he unwittingly causes, his love for her, and finally the tender and gripping scenes of Kong on top of the Empire State Building.
My mother came into the living room a few times, checking on me. When the end came, I was in a heap, crying.
“Sweetheart, I hope the movie didn’t upset you. Did it bother you to see your mother in danger that way?’
‘I was upset for King Kong! He didn’t want to hurt you. He just liked you. You and those men were so mean to him. He didn’t deserve to be treated that way.’
For three days, I brooded over how my mother could have been party to such cruelty.
Such is the power of movies.”
I’ll conclude by thanking Miss Riskin for taking the time to participate in this fan’s passion of bringing movies of the past back to life in my own way here at Mike’s Take. And again I’d encourage one and all to pick up a copy of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin : A Hollywood Memoir.