‘Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir’

Victoria Riskin with a portrait of her mother. —Gabrielle Mannino

A love story in turbulent times.


Vicki Riskin grew up surrounded by Hollywood royalty. Her mother, Fay Wray, famously co-starred with King Kong, and her father, Robert Riskin, was an Academy awardwinning screenwriter for such classics as “It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” and “Meet John Doe.”


Victoria Riskin’s mother, the actress Fay Wray, starred in King Kong. —Courtesy Victoria Riskin

Ms. Riskin’s recently published book, “Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir” is an entertaining account of a love story between two remarkable people set against the backdrop of the golden age of Hollywood. But the backstory delves into much weightier material, such as the role of the movie industry during World War II, the red scare that terrorized the industry, and a complicated relationship between Riskin and his longtime collaborator, Frank Capra.


We sat down with Riskin in her beautiful home on the south shore of West Tisbury and talked in depth about “Faysie” and Bob and the times they lived in. 


A tumultuous time

“The Hollywood labor wars all but consumed the movie business in the 1930s. The depression was still taking a terrible toll in the country. People wanted answers, change, saviors. Some thought the country’s hope lay in President Roosevelt or Huey Long or some newly minted prophet. Others looked to a new economic order, socialism or communism. There was growing concern about the rise of fascism in Germany. People everywhere were caught up both in their individual plights and the larger problems of the distressed country and the world.”  –“Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir”


A+I: One of the things that struck me in reading your book was how, during the time your parents were in their heyday in Hollywood — say from the Thirties into the Fifties — the whole town was so involved in politics, political events. Beyond just making movies, the writers, actors, directors, and executives all seemed deeply involved in the issues of the time.

VR: It’s true. Partly, of course, it was that the times were tumultuous, not just in Hollywood but in the country. The Depression, with a quarter of the country out of work, F.D.R. and the New Deal, the Dust Bowl and the migration west, all in the first half of the Thirties. People paid attention — they had to pay attention — to the people sleeping under newspapers, the businessmen selling apples for a nickel on the street corner. And they talked about what to do about it, asked who or what made sense — Roosevelt? Hoover? Communism? Fascism? Labor was flat on its back in the Thirties and trying to form unions, with the companies resisting bitterly — and then, in the second half of the Thirties, the rise of Hitler and the start of the Spanish Civil War, the passionate debates all around the country about whether America should get involved or stay out as Spain and Czechoslovakia fell and Britain and France were struggling to stay alive. Hollywood, with more than its share of bright, committed, passionate, idealistic people, was involved in all these issues. It’s a wonder they had time to make so many movies. But they did, and very, very good movies, too. It’s still called “the Golden Age of Hollywood.” 


Were your parents very involved?

They both loved Roosevelt and campaigned for him. They were both involved in the earliest days of founding their unions — my mother with the Screen Actors Guild, my father with the Screenwriters Guild. My mother was innately less political than my father. I think you could say of my father that from his earliest days as a writer he took the side of the ordinary people, the little guy. He identified with them, and they became important and sympathetic characters in his movies as they tried to fight through the Depression — the Walter Huston character in “American Madness,” May Robson in “Lady for a Day,” Gary Cooper in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “Meet John Doe.” His recurring theme was that if we all hang together, if we care about and help each other, we’ll all be fine. Is that political? 


Anything else come to mind?

In 1940, when my father was at the height of his career and able to make any movie he wanted, he gave it all up — paid his own way — to go to England to volunteer his services to the British Ministry of Information. He had the idea that if Americans knew how the British were being threatened by Hitler, how they were just ordinary, decent people like us, America would get off the fence and send them the help they needed. He made radio broadcasts back to America on CBS for Edward R. Murrow. Then after Pearl Harbor he came back to America, to do what he could for his country.



Hollywood joins the war effort.

“Hearing that something exciting was happening on 45th Street, some of America’s greatest talent in writing, directing, acting, cinematography, music, and editing signed up to tell America’s story: novelist John O’Hara, dramatist Frances Goodrich and her partner Albert Hackett, actors Ralph Bellamy and Burgess Meredith, playwright Garson Kanin, director Jean Renoir, and composer Aaron Copland, some in the studio, some crisscrossing the country to find and tell the story, all working for next to nothing. Together the group was remarkable, unprecedented, never to be duplicated, and the films proved it. Over an intense three years, the Overseas Film Branch of the OWI produced 26 short films and dozens of newsreels. They would be dubbed into 22 languages and seen by millions of people around the world.”  –“Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir”



What did your father do during the war?

He got what was for him a dream position with the U.S. Government. He was named head of the Overseas Film Division of the Office of War Information. The idea was to show newly liberated people what life in America was like, what freedom was like, and now that they were finally out from under the yoke of fascism and had choices to make, democracy American-style might be worth considering. The films were small, intensely human, the softest propaganda imaginable, and they attracted huge audiences, and people who saw them say they made an enormous difference.  


Victoria and her mother during The 70th Annual Academy Awards. —Courtesy Victoria Riskin

Stylistically, who shaped the vision of the films?

My father set the direction for the films and recruited top documentary filmmakers and Hollywood talent. The Hollywood guys were used to a controlled environment — sets, lighting, costumes all created on the studio lot. The documentary professionals were dedicated to going into the field to capture reality. When Hollywood director Joseph von Sternberg filmed a small town in Indiana and painted silver on tree leaves to capture more light, the documentarians were horrified. The two sides were constantly at loggerheads. When Von Sternberg finished his film and it looked fantastic — the documentary guys were impressed. In the end, the two sides worked fantastically well together.


What were the logistics of showing the films?

His OWI team followed Eisenhower and the Allied Forces in trucks with thousands of film reels and projectors, screens, and generators, going from town to town across North Africa, through Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium, and then Germany. He reopened theaters wherever they could. People were cold and had no place to go, and they’d come in to see the OWI movies or Hollywood entertainment films my father had selected. They’d feel better for a moment. Maybe America wasn’t so bad?


Was the OWI successful?

Hugely successful. Older people in Germany still remember those films with appreciation. Of all the film projects Hollywood did during WWII, the OWI Overseas Film Bureau had the largest impact. 


The scourge of blacklisting

“The blacklist had begun. It spread through the industry, the town, the country. For a decade or more, no one was immune. The principal at the Los Angeles’ exclusive Westlake School for Girls distributed a pamphlet identifying people in the motion picture industry she said were communists, and exhorted students not to see their movies. The list was staggering in its scope and recklessness: actors Burt Lancaster, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Orson Welles, Katharine Hepburn, Danny Kaye, Rita Hayworth, Kirk Douglas, and dozens more; writers and directors John Huston and Philip Dunne, Ira Gershwin, Moss Hart, Garson Kanin, Oscar Hamerstein II, James Thurber, Billy Wilder, and dozens more. There was no evidence to support any of the charges.”

–“Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir”


The war was over and won, and your parents and everyone came back to Hollywood. Pretty soon after that, the blacklist started. What was the origin of the blacklist?

It goes back to the 1930s. Some extreme conservatives, in government but also in general, worried that Communists controlled Hollywood, influencing films and stirring the labor movement. In 1938 Representative Martin Dies Jr. [Congressman from Texas], head of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) arrived in Hollywood, and called people into his hotel suite to interrogate them about whether they were communists. In fact, dozens of people in the movie business had joined the Communist Party in the Depression, thinking if everybody had a job, a place to live -— egalitarian ideas -— that would solve the terrible suffering that was going on in the country. They were idealists. At first no one took Dies seriously. They figured HUAC would disappear, but it didn’t.  


How did all this affect your father?

During the war, before leaving for London to distribute the films, he was interviewed by a Civil Service Commission for his security clearance. The first question they asked was, Mr. Riskin, isn’t it true you are affiliated with a communist organization … the Screenwriters Guild? He was offended, because he loved the guild and his country. 


What role did J. Parnell Thomas have in the investigations?

After the war a New Jersey Congressman named J. Parnell Thomas took over from Dies as head of HUAC. He summoned people from Hollywood to Washington to give testimony about whether or not they were communists. The Hollywood Ten — nine writers and one director — refused to give testimony because they felt it was their First Amendment right to think, believe, say whatever they wanted. They all went to prison for refusing to testify. Ironically, J. Parnell Thomas was convicted of corruption about the same time, and was sent to the same prison. Ring Lardner Jr., one of the Hollywood Ten, saw Thomas working in the garden one day, and allegedly said to him, “Hey Parnell, I see you’re still shoveling the chicken shit.” Everyone in Hollywood loved that story.


How long did the blacklist last?

Ten, 11, 12 years. It affected the whole community.



Robert Riskin and Frank Capra.

David ended his piece with a story, possibly apocryphal, about my father. Robert Riskin had worked for years with Frank Capra, and all this time Capra gave interviews about Capra films, the Capra touch, Capra this and Capra that, often without mentioning that another man had written his films. One day, after reading one Capra interview too many about the Capra touch, Riskin put 100 pages of blank white paper on Capra’s desk and said, ‘Here, Frank, put the Capra touch on this.’”

–“Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir”



Your father wrote and Frank Capra directed 10 pictures together. There’s a story I love in your book about why in movies the director is better known than the writer. You write about how your husband, David Rintels, also a writer, told it. 

David is my husband, and a gifted television writer and playwright. Before we were dating, he wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times entertainment section about the “auteur theory,” or the notion that it’s the director who is the singular creator of a film. In a tongue-in-cheek way, he said writers could be called “directeurs” because they give direction to the film. He cited the famous story about my father and Capra. The Capra touch was often a romantic comedy with a strong woman spun into a Depression-era story with a man who had lost his way. 


What was the Robert Riskin and Frank Capra relationship like?

There was a wonderful creative spark between them. Capra had a great visual style, impeccable instincts about scenes. I love watching his camerawork, the warmth between the romantic leads. Capra’s mind was constantly churning. My father said when they were making a movie together, Frank was unable to sleep. He’d come in the next day with 100 ideas, 99 of them terrible, but one great one, and, as my father said, “I could make something of it.” They had friendly arguments, but both agreed on the basics of what made a good story. 


You write that Capra was in fact a conservative.

That’s true. He didn’t care for the New Deal or Roosevelt, who he feared was going to take away his hard-earned money. Capra admired Mussolini for a time, a tough guy whipping his country into shape. Politically, Riskin and Capra were opposite — my father a liberal-minded egalitarian, a humanist. While Capra’s success was built on my father’s stories and themes, Capra wasn’t comfortable with those ideas, a little like he was wearing a hat that didn’t fit him. 


Did Capra have a hard time sharing the limelight?

There came a time when things weren’t going well in Capra’s career, and I think his insecurities got the best of him. He discounted the importance of the screenplay and the writer to give the impression he was the sole creator of his movies. 


Did Capra and Riskin eventually have a falling-out?

They never really had a falling-out, but after the war they went their own ways. I suspect both men missed each other professionally. They stayed good social friends, although my mother said it was more a “superficial relationship,” and that’s probably true. 


Why didn’t Capra stand by Riskin when he was ill?

Capra never visited my father in the hospital when he became ill, and he didn’t come to my father’s funeral. I’ve thought a lot about why that was. I’ve speculated it was too emotional for Frank to see my father after his stroke, but if that was the case, he could have said so. It’s hard to understand — two people who were good friends, who liked each other, had a good working relationship. My father never held it against him. 

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