Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir is a fascinating and moving memoir of the actress and screenwriter by their daughter, Victoria Riskin. Alongside the insights into their personal and professional lives is an intriguing glimpse into the world of classic Hollywood, a place made tumultuous by war and political uncertainty.
I confess that before reading this book, the only Fay Wray picture I was familiar with was King Kong (1933), the film which immortalised her forever as the tiny blonde carried atop the Empire State Building by the titular gargantuan ape. The movie’s cult status ensured lifelong fame amongst certain branches of film fandom for Wray, and she wholeheartedly embraced them. But she also deserves to be celebrated for her work in silent pictures, including Erich von Stroheim’s romantic epic The Wedding March (1928), as well as her time as one of Hollywood’s first scream queens in films like Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933).
Robert Riskin is rather a different matter. As is typical in Hollywood, the screenwriter never gets enough credit, and I have loved many of his films for years without knowing his name. He worked extensively with Frank Capra, and the pair produced some of the most enduring classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age. A handful of his titles include It Happened One Night (1934), Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936), You Can’t Take It With You (1938) and Meet John Doe (1941). His relationship with Capra is detailed extensively in the book, revealing both the inner workings of one of Hollywood’s most successful partnerships, and the many ways in which it represented power struggles in the wider industry.
Riskin introduces her parents separately, unwinding the tales of their lives before they met and gradually became intertwined. It’s a technique which works very well, and I felt like I really got to know Wray and Riskin over the course of the memoir. Both experienced terrible hardship and sorrow, but also worked hard to build a wonderful home and family together alongside their professional successes, even when separated by the Atlantic Ocean and all the perils of World War II.
It was fascinating to learn about Robert Riskin’s work with the Overseas Motion Picture Unit during the war. Alongside making propaganda films for the American government, the Motion Picture Unit trailed the army as they liberated towns across Europe from the Nazis, rushing into the smoking ruins to get cinemas up and running again as soon as possible. Some of the films they showed amongst the rubble, like Autobiography Of A Jeep (1943), can be found online.
The book is absorbingly and emotively written, and Riskin draws a vivid portrait of her parents which makes clear how much she admires them both, without being afraid to admit to their respective flaws. It never feels gratuitous or indulgent, offering not only a deep understanding of who Wray and Riskin were as people, but also of the unique and unpredictable age in which they lived. They are certainly at the centre of the narrative, but Riskin also looks further afield to provide context for the extraordinary lives which her parents lived. I learned a great deal about so many aspects of the early industry, from its complex politics and the impact of the war, to the primitive days of live television and the fear it struck into the hearts of film executives (as well as the hope it provided for many of the players they’d forgotten). Riskin’s extensively researched and multifaceted memoir is a resounding success, and I would wholeheartedly recommend Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir to anyone interested in the often murky world of Golden Age Hollywood filmmaking.