Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir is a meticulous and heartfelt account of the lives of the titular couple that was written by their daughter, Victoria Riskin. The book is a traditional biography, however the author’s relationship to the subjects gives the book resonance and depth that few show business bios can approach.
The book is structured so each chapter alternates its focus between Riskin and Wray before it leads up to their meeting and marriage in the 1940s. It then follows Wray’s efforts to support her family following Riskin’s death in 1955. Along the way, we hear Victoria Riskin’s memories of her parents and her realization about the impact that both her parents had on both popular culture, and (particularly in the case of her father) the social politics of the nation. Victoria Riskin is deeply respectful of her parents and their accomplishments and their legacy.
Robert Riskin is a name that is not as well known to the general public but needs to be, and odds are that you’ve seen some of the films he wrote: It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Meet John Doe (1941), Lady For a Day (1933), Lost Horizon (1937) and You Can’t Take It with You (1938). His collaborations with director Frank Capra turned out some of the finest American films ever made and helped to shape an optimistic social conscience during the darkest hours of the Great Depression. The films he and Capra crafted, particularly It Happened One Night, helped to elevate Columbia Pictures out of its ‘poverty row’ status, when it became the first film to capture the top five Academy Awards for 1934. Over the years, Capra took credit for crafting their collaborations to the point where he ultimately erased Riskin’s involvement altogether. Victoria Riskin fights to reassert that her father was the voice of optimism in these films and deserved equal (if not more) credit than Capra ever gave him credit for. She shows that her father, the son of idealistic working class immigrants, was shaped into a conscientious writer by his everyday experiences. He managed to convey an idealism that was unparalleled in American cinema and it remains untouched. Victoria Riskin paints a portrait of a man who was very much like the characters he wrote: principled, thoughtful, intelligent, hopeful and charming.
Fay Wray has been immortalized for playing Ann Darrow in King Kong (1933), but that helpless starlet bears little resemblance to the hard-working lady who raised Victoria Riskin. Wray started working in her teens to support her family and would continue to do so through most of her life. Born in Canada to an icy, controlling mother who made the fateful (but inexplicable) decision to allow fourteen-year-old Fay to go to Hollywood, where after trials and tribulations, she found her way into movies. Wray’s career would span more than six decades, and she appeared in over 100 films as well as television and theater. Fay would endure many personal challenges in the early part of her life including having to defend her well-being against her demanding mother, and surviving a torturous marriage to writer John Monk Saunders that drained her both emotionally and financially. In the early 1940s she met Robert Riskin and the pair began a whirlwind romance culminating in their 1942 marriage; by the mid-1940s Wray was finally secure in her domestic life. She had retired from acting and began to focus on raising her family until Riskin’s health began to decline following a stroke in the early 1950s. His death in 1955 would pull the rug out from under her sense of security and she would have to return to acting to keep her family together.
The final chapters of the book are particularly poignant as Riskin begins to ponder her father’s legacy and gives the reader a glimpse of Wray in her twilight years. Robert Riskin’s story skirts a number of issues that affected early Hollywood, notably his role in pushing screenwriters towards unionization--actions that would have consequences as McCarthyism was beginning to rise in the 1950s. Unbeknownst to him, the FBI began to compile a file on Riskin that in all likelihood would have been used against him if his poor health hadn’t taken him out of circulation in the 1950s. This monitoring was particularly insulting given Riskin’s selfless service for the Office of War Information during WWII, in which he took a radical cut in pay that would ultimately impact his family’s financial well-being when his health was in decline.
The book is not just a genealogical odyssey for the author, but does have some great stories for film lovers. Chapter seven is a particular delight for movie buffs as Riskin begins to recount the development of Wray’s greatest career success, King Kong (1933), a film that would save RKO studios from bankruptcy and turn her into a pop culture icon recognized around the world. Riskin also follows the stories and production histories of her dad’s best films with longtime collaborator, Frank Capra. While it is particularly disheartening to hear that they more or less drifted apart, it’s almost bewildering to know that two men so completely different were not only able to collaborate but were able to make some of the finest films of all time. As Capra’s career began to decline in the 1950s, he began to grasp at straws to keep the memory of his once glorious career alive; this ultimately meant that he excised Riskin from both his professional and personal narratives. Capra did not visit Riskin while he was sick, nor did he attend his funeral when he passed.
As the most recognizable name on the cover, Fay Wray will probably be the attraction for most readers (and she is one amazing lady!), but the book really rewards the audience by introducing us to Robert Riskin. The voice behind some of the most prolific films in American history, Riskin has been slighted because he has never really been given the recognition he deserves. This book is a step towards rectifying that slight and putting the spotlight on Riskin and the pivotal role of the screenwriter in the filmmaking process.