Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: Odd Couple? or Marriage Made in Movie Heaven?

Not far from my Santa Monica home is the legendary McCabe’s, where serious folk musicians gather to jam as well as to stock up on guitar picks and such. The upstairs walls are lined with candid photos of the likes of Joni Mitchell and Arlo Guthrie. These luminaries and many others have performed on McCabe’s tiny stage, to the delight of rapturous crowds. But why, in this downhome music mecca, is there a prominent poster of  Fay Wray, trembling in the arms of King Kong?

This mystery was finally solved when I met Victoria Riskin, psychotherapist, screenwriter, producer, and now the author of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir. Victoria is the youngest of three children of an unlikely Tinseltown couple whose thirteen-year marriage was going strong until Riskin’s untimely death, at age 58, on September 20, 1955. Victoria’s brother Bob, two years her senior, is the longtime owner of McCabe’s. So it makes sense that one wall of the funky guitar shop pays tribute to a vibrant woman who treated life as a great adventure. I had always mentally lumped Fay Wray with the scream queens of Hollywood, those damsels in distress—the mainstays of B-movies—who were forever needing to be rescued. But Wray at the time she shot King Kong was a major Hollywood star who shared the screen with some of the industry’s most talented actors, including Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, and Spencer Tracy. When a new project arose in 1933, she was told by director Merian C. Cooper she’d be playing opposite the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood. She immediately thought of Cary Grant, or perhaps Clark Gable. But ultimately she found Kong a very agreeable substitute for a Hollywood hunk. Years later, she confessed to a friend, “Every time I’m in New York, I say a little prayer when passing the  Empire State Building. A good friend of mine died up there.”

Fay Wray came from pioneer stock. Hailing from an impoverished Mormon family, the plucky teenager boarded a train in Salt Lake City to try her luck in the movie biz. By contrast, Robert Riskin was the child of Jewish immigrants, raised on the mean streets of New York. He arrived in Hollywood by way of his skills as a playwright, soon connecting with director Frank Capra. Together they turned out some of the wittiest films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. On 1931’s Platinum Blonde, Riskin was credited solely as a dialogue writer, but his sparkling script for It Happened One Night (1934) won him a screenwriting Oscar. He also contributed the Riskin touch to such other Capra triumphs as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, and Meet John Doe. Sad but true that in later years Frank Capra became enamored of the auteur theory, and resisted attempts to credit his favorite screenwriter (and longtime close friend) of playing any part in his own success.  Victoria remembers long after her father’s death, when the great director spoke before an appreciative crowd at the American Film Institute. During the question-and-answer period, he artfully dodged questions about working with screenwriters. Victoria was left to remember something her father had said twenty years earlier: “So little is known of the contribution that the screenwriter makes to the original story. He puts so much into it, blows up a slim idea into a finished product, and then is dismissed with the ignominious credit line—‘dialogue writer.’”

Wray and Riskin had different skills and very different backgrounds, but their marriage was rock-solid. In Hollywood (and elsewhere), that’s saying a lot.  

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