Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge - Fay Wray and Robert Riskin - A Hollywood Memoir

August 24, 2019



There are only a few weeks left in Raquel's Summer Reading Challenge so I think this is sadly going to be one more year that I fail to tackle 6 books. I think I might cheat a little next year and do all of my reading in the winter, when I always have more free time, and then post my reviews the following summer. It'll just be our secret :)

I've only finished one book so far, but boy was it a good one. I read "Fay Wray and Robert Riskin - A Hollywood Memoir" by their daughter, Victoria Riskin. For a while when I was a teenager I used to say that Frank Capra was my favorite director, believing that he was the driving force behind movies like Meet John Doe, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, and You Can't Take it With You. But several years ago I started to realize that the movies he made apart from Robert Riskin didn't have the same appeal to me. Yet movies that Riskin made without Capra (particularly Magic Town and The Whole Town's Talking) still had what people refer to as "The Capra Touch." That was when it dawned on me that I wasn't actually a big Capra fan all these years -- I was a Riskin fan!

Going into this book I was an admirer of Riskin's screenwriting, and I loved Fay Wray in '30s horror movies like Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, but I didn't know anything at all about them personally. I didn't know that they were both beautiful, poetic souls, madly and deeply in love with one another. I didn't know that they were passionate progressives who were active in politics. Fay Wray's letter to Robert Riskin detailing her anxiety-riddled election night listening to returns coming in on the radio was a snapshot of my own election night experiences watching MSNBC. Her hope and relief when FDR won was so relatable that I immediately felt emotional flashbacks to November 2008. Victoria Riskin imbues this book with the spirit of her parents -- you can sense how much she loved them, how much they loved her, and how witty and smart and sweet they were. Little details like Fay Wray packing peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, or Robert Riskin keeping notes on words that amused him so he could work them into scripts (pixelated!) not only represent a daughter's loving remembrance but they help bring these Hollywood icons to life again and create a clear and wonderful picture of who they were.

In addition to the insights into their personal and private lives, the book also delves into behind-the-scenes cinema history involving casting decisions, writing credits, studio disagreements, and box office success. My favorite (or perhaps least favorite -- it breaks my heart now thinking of what could have been!) casting anecdote was that Robert Montgomery was originally the first choice to play Peter Warne in It Happened One Night. Gable is fine in the role and I love that movie, but my Robert Montgomery-loving heart aches for a version with him and Claudette Colbert instead. And be sure to have a box of tissues nearby when you read about the destruction of *hours* of footage that Harry Cohn cut from Lost Horizon. Even the stories that could be considered somewhat "juicy" are laid out with complete and utter loveliness -- like the time that Cary Grant told Riskin that he had been madly in love with Fay Wray but she was better off without him. In another book this might have felt very "TMZ" but Victoria Riskin tells the story with a sweetness that makes you forget you're reading about an affair between two of Hollywood's biggest legends that was never meant to be. It's just a warm and wistful remark from a man who once loved her mother.

I can only think of one other biography I've read (Truffaut: A Biography) where I was sad to have to say goodbye. I've grown to really love Fay Wray and Robert Riskin and as the story progressed, when signs of Riskin's failing health became apparent or when Wray was getting older, I winced knowing that things were about to end. But thank goodness that they left us so many movies to remember them by. Like Victoria Riskin said in the book, she hears her father in the words of John Doe or Longfellow Deeds. And Fay Wray's delicate beauty is forever preserved in movies like The Wedding March and King Kong. I may be finished reading, but I can still revisit their films and live with them a little longer.

1 comment:

Raquel Stecher said...

Wonderful review Kate! If you're going to read one book during the summer this is a really good choice. I liked what you said about discovering you were really a Riskin fan. Same thing happened to me! That's why I'm grateful to learn more about the people further behind the scenes and not to stop at just the director and the star.

You should host a winter version of the challenge! I think that would be fun. I definitely read more during the colder months but with summer there's time off and travel so I feel like generally there are more opportunities for reading. But for me the heat makes me read less so the challenge is a nice kick in the butt.