Monday, July 15, 2019

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin
A Hollywood Memoir
by Victoria Riskin
Pantheon
Hardcover ISBN: ISBN 9781524747282
February 2019
416 pages

AmazonBarnes and Noble Powells

"My mother had a pioneer resilience, a vulnerability, a need for admiration... she never expected life to magically take care of her." - Victoria Riskin 
"[My father] was a private man who expressed his deeply held values and philosophy largely through his writing." - Victoria Riskin

In Victoria Riskin's new book Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir she paints a portrait of her two talented parents who were integral members of early Hollywood history in their own unique ways. Alternating chapters tell parallel stories of the actress and the screenwriter  There were a few bumps in the road before they began their romance amidst the backdrop of WWII. Wray and Riskin raised three children together, Susan from Wray's previous marriage and two fathered by Riskin, Robert Riskin Jr. and the youngest Victoria, whose name was inspired by America's victory in the war. Their romance was cut short when Riskin suffered a series of debilitating strokes of which he would never fully recover. He passed away in 1955 and Wray would outlive him for nearly a half century.

"She was at ease, often sparkling and impish, or graceful and guileless, beautiful and confident." - Victoria Riskin

Fay Wray is best known for her iconic role as Ann Darrow in King Kong (1933). The legacy of that performance would overshadow all of her other work which was vast in range. She started off in Hollywood as a teenager making silent comedies and two-reel Westerns. Eventually she graduated to meatier parts and leading roles in films like Erich von Stroheim's The Wedding March (1926). A successful transition into talking picture saw her a plethora of Pre-codes including Doctor X (1932) and The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Wray was a founding member of the Screen Actor's Guild and active in the community. She met and fell in love with John Monk Saunders, Hollywood screenwriter best known for his work on Wings (1927). The two had a tumultuous marriage that ended in a bitter divorce. Saunders' life had been spiraling out of control for years and he eventually committed suicide. They had one daughter Susan, later adopted by Wray's second husband Riskin. Wray stopped working during WWII to focus on her family and supporting the war effort. It wasn't until Riskin's stroke that she returned to work. In the 1950s her career saw her in films such as Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) and Tammy and the Bachelor (1957). She worked in TV as well until she retired in 1965 only to return once in the 1980s.


"Writer and director each make a unique and invaluable contribution. One has the story to tell and the other a way to tell it. Each can make the other better." - Victoria Riskin

Robert Riskin arrived in Hollywood 1930 via Broadway where he brought his unique talents story development, character building and dialogue. According to Victoria Riskin, her father's films "reflected love for his characters, especially the ordinary people he cared about and the smart, independent women who were equal to- at least equal to-the men they were paired with." Under the helm of Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures, Riskin collaborated with director Frank Capra. The Riskin-Capra partnership gave birth to many successful projects including Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934) You Can't Take It with You (1938)  Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941). During WWII, Riskin worked for the United States Office of War Information and wrote and produced many propaganda films to help American war efforts. Riskin was a founding member of the Writer's Guild of America West and worked up until his debilitating stroke in 1950.

Robert Riskin and Fay Wray

Wray and Riskin's paths crossed various times throughout their careers but it wasn't until they attended a Christmas party hosted by actor Richard Barthelmess that a romance sparked between the two. On their first date they saw The Grapes of Wrath (1939) together. Wray was involved with Clifford Odets at the time but once that ended and WWII began the two found each other again and married on August 23rd, 1942.

Their youngest daughter Victoria Riskin has worked as a psychiatrist and a human rights activist. She wrote and produced movies for television and following in her father's footsteps she joined the Writer's Guild of America West and later served as president. In her book, she writes about her parents in glowing terms but isn't afraid to take a step back to criticize actions she didn't agree with.
Books written by family members have a natural bias and should be taken with a grain of salt. Riskin backs up her claims with examples and facts. The author's familial connection with her subjects is also a bonus for the reader because it gives us access to information that might have been available otherwise including family stories, personal letters and archival photos.

I enjoyed reading Riskin's wartime love letters to Wray and the author's stories of growing up in the Wray-Riskin household. Plenty of behind-the-scenes stories add richness to the text. The book is a memoir but also a "life and times" type of book and the author provides lots of context of the different eras (silent, Pre-Code, Great Depression, WWII, blacklist, etc.) and of key figures who orbited Wray and Riskin's world including Frank Capra, Harry Cohn, Jo and Flo Swerling, Merian Cooper, Dolores del Rio, etc. There are insights into Wray's complicated relationship with King Kong and the author's own reaction to seeing the film for the first time which I found very illuminating. The alternating chapters switch from Wray to Riskin and back but follow their lives in chronological order.

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir is an engrossing and informative book written by a more than capable storyteller. Readers will find much to enjoy within the pages of this memoir. It does require some level of interest in Hollywood history to full appreciate the book but chances are if you're visiting my blog you already fall into that category. Watch my book review video for some additional thoughts on the book and how it's structured.





Thank you to Pantheon Books for sending me an advanced reader's copy of the book for review.



This is my second review for the Summer Reading Challenge.



Saturday, July 6, 2019

Madame X (1966)


"The moments of love are the only ones that matter." - Madame X 

Directed by David Lowell Rich, Madame X (1966) is one in a long line of frothy soap operas that delivers a good old-fashioned sob story. This film pulls out all the stops and leaves nothing behind in an effort to put its viewers' emotions through the wringer. It stars Lana Turner as Holly, later known as Madame X. She starts out as a happy woman, still beaming with that newlywed glow, but over the years her life slowly spirals out of control and she loses everything; her family, her identity and her will to live. Holly is married to Clay Anderson (John Forsythe), an upstart politician with big aspirations for his career. They live at the Anderson family mansion in Fairfield County, Connecticut with Estelle (Constance Bennett, in her final role), the glamorous matriarch who secretly hates her new daughter-in-law. Holly and Clay have a son, Clay Jr., and as Clay's work takes him abroad, Holly finds herself alone and neglected. She seeks solace in the arms of playboy Phil Benton (Ricardo Montalban). When tragedy strikes, Estelle finally finds a way to get rid of Holly from the Anderson family's life for good. Holly is given a new identity and a new life and any semblance of happiness becomes a thing of the past.




To tell you any more about Holly's story and the other characters who come into her life would be to spoil some major plot points. The fascination with Madame X/Holly's story is how many twists and turns it takes. Many men come into her life refusing to take no for an answer including her husband Clay (John Forsythe), her lover Phil (Ricardo Montalban), her Swiss rescuer Christian (John Van Dreelen), her blackmailer Dan (Burgess Meredith) and finally her grown son Clay Jr. (Keir Dullea). She's the pawn in a very cruel game of life and shows just how ugly it can be.

Madame X is one of many adaptations of French writer Alexandre Bisson's 1908 play La Femme X. Film adaptations began in 1916 and over the years it's been remade or has loosely inspired stories. There is a Madame X (1920) with Pauline Frederick, Madame X (1929) with Ruth Chatterton, Madame X (1937) with Gladys George and a 1981 TV adaptation starring Tuesday Weld. By the mid 1960s, the story had long been a property of MGM. When producer Ross Hunter procured the rights to adapt Bisson's play once again to film, he brought the property with him to Universal. He wanted it brought up to date for 1966 and screenwriter Jean Holloway was assigned to work on the script. Hunter had his eye on Douglas Sirk to direct but that plan fell through and David Lowell Rich, who went on to become known for his disaster films, was assigned to the project.

This was a nice plum role for its star Lana Turner. Over the course of the story she undergoes several transformations starting out as a glamorous blonde dressed in Jean Louis gowns and draped in jewels by David Webb and furs provided by Ben Kahn. As we follow Holly's story her look changes to reflect her changes in identity, her downward spiral and the passing of years. Turner effectively plays the character who eventually becomes known as Madame X because she will not say her own name to protect her loved ones. This character suffers one injustice after another and essentially carries the burden of the world on her shoulders. It can be too much even for a melodrama.

Madame X is worth watching for the fine cast of performers but the story is tiresome. There is no respite from all the suffering Holly has to go through and that made me feel exhausted by the end of that 1 hour and 40 minute journey.

The opening sequence and some of the early scenes were shot at the Anderson Estate in Holmby Hills, California. The Gothic Tudor style estate was built in 1927. 5 years after Madame X was filmed it was purchased by Hugh Hefner upon his girlfriend Barbi Benton's encouragement. It was later transformed into the Playboy Mansion. In season 5, episode 1 of the reality show Girls Next Door, Hugh Hefner shows the film to his girlfriends Holly, Bridget and Kendra and explains how the driveway was shot repeatedly to make it seem like it was longer than it was. In the film, we see the opening gate, the driveway, the mansion and a couple other areas of the estate. The interiors were shot at Universal.






Madame X (1966) is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. When you use my buy links you help support this site. Thanks!

Kino Lorber's Blu-ray is a must especially if you want to take in the film in all of its Technicolor glory. It includes brand new audio commentary by film historians Lee Gambin and Emma Westwood, English subtitles, the film's theatrical trailer as well as various other Kino Lorber trailers.

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of Madame X (1966) for review.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Professional Sweetheart (1933)


"I want to sin and suffer. But right now I only suffer." - Glory

Miss Glory Eden (Ginger Rogers), aka The Purity Girl, is a radio sensation. Ipswich (Gregory Ratoff), the owner of the Ippsie Wippsie Wash Cloth Company, which runs their own sponsored radio station, is desperate to lock down Glory with a brand new contract. But Glory has other ideas. As the baby-voiced model of purity and innocence, the management team tightly controls her public image. Herbert (Franklin Pangborn) is in charge of Glory's wardrobe and diet and Ipswich's cohorts including his right-hand men Speed (Frank McHugh) and Winston (Frank Darien) do his bidding to protect their collective property. Glory is jealous of her maid Vera (Theresa Harris) who has a boyfriend and goes out dancing at night clubs in Harlem. Glory wants to live life on her terms! Complicating matters is Ipswich's rival the Kelsey Dish Rag Co. who wants to steal Glory away from them and sends agent O'Connor (Allen Jenkins) off to sabotage Ipswich's plans. So the Ippsie Wippsie crew comes up with a plan. They want to get Glory a beau. They zero in on Jim (Norman Foster), a simple country man from Kentucky who was plucked out of a batch of prospective fan letters. They bring him to New York City and thus starts the media circus of publicity stunts that journalists, including the clueless Elmerada (Zasu Pitts) and mid-mannered Stu (Sterling Holloway), just lap up. No one stops to think what Glory really wants... except for Jim. Will Glory find true happiness in the midst of all of this chaos?




Professional Sweetheart (1933) was directed by William A. Seiter for RKO. The story was written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, best known for her stage play Chicago. This Ginger Rogers' first film for RKO and later that year she signed her own contract with them. Norman Foster was loaned out from Fox to play the leading man.

The biggest draw for me to this film was the cast. There were so many of my favorites crammed into one 79 minute movie: Ginger Rogers, Theresa Harris, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Zasu Pitts and Sterling Holloway. Wow! My perennial favorite Akim Tamiroff has a small role as the hotel waiter who takes Frank Pangborn's elaborate food order.

Speaking of food, I love to see how it's represented in early films. I was delighted with one scene in particular when characters discuss what they'd like to order from the hotel room service.

What Glory (Ginger Rogers) wants to order: caviar, lobster in wine, avocado salad, champagne, fruit salad with whipped cream, nuts and maraschino cherries
What Herbert (Franklin Pangborn) orders for Glory: breast of young chicken on whole wheat toast with no mayonnaise, unsalted butter, baked apples with cream (certified not pasteurized), cocoa (not chocolate).
What Herbert (Franklin Pangborn) orders for himself: caviar, Lobster Thermidor, avocado salad, fruit salad with whipped cream, nuts and maraschino cherries, chocolate ice cream, hot fudge sauce and marshmallow cake.
What Speed (Frank McHugh) orders for Elmerada (Zasu Pitts) to delay her: Baked Alaska (because it takes 20 minutes to make.)




"You don't kiss like you look." - Glory

Professional Sweetheart warns viewers of the dangers of treating humans like commodities although it wraps up nicely in the end. Glory as a character can be insufferable with her spoiled behavior and tantrums. She wasn't winning any points from me with her blatant distaste for books. But you can't help sympathize with her. She just wants her personal freedom. That's something everyone deserves.

The film spices things up by featuring Ginger Rogers in various states of undress giving it some Pre-Code flavor. Allen Jenkins is probably the most suave I've ever seen him in a film role. As O'Connor he uses his knowledge of romantic relationships, women ("I know dames backwards.") and business to manipulate the different characters.

Unfortunately the racism in this film is quite palpable. The management team clearly wants to appeal to a conservative white audience ("It doesn't look good to the corn belt."). When they search for Glory's prospective beau they make it clear that he has to be as white and pure as possible. Especially after Glory has expressed her desire to visit Harlem. Frank McHugh's Speed travels to "Home of the Purest Anglo-Saxons" to find Jim (Norman Foster).

Theresa Harris has a marvelous role as Glory's maid and friend Vera. Glory wants Vera's lifestyle as a young woman living it up in New York City. Both Harris and her character get the shaft. Harris has a substantial role, even more so than Sterling Holloway who only speaks a few lines and gets on screen credit where Harris remains uncredited. Vera is Glory's superior when it comes to her singing skills and we get one glorious scene where Vera takes over Glory's show delivering a sexier and more adult voice over the waves. Vera disappears shortly after as the story wraps up in Glory's favor.




Professional Sweetheart (1933) is a lighthearted Pre-Code with a fantastic cast and a lot of charm. It suffers from the trappings of the era most notably in the depiction of gender and race.





Professional Sweetheart (1933) is available on DVD-MOD from the Warner Archive Collection and can be purchased at the WB Shop. When you use my buy links you help support this site. Thank you!

This is the film's DVD debut. George, D.W. and Matt of the Warner Archive Podcast discuss this film in the January episode Jungle Kings, Giants and Jokers.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I feature titles from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me copy of Professional Sweetheart (1933).

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Alice Howell Collection

Distilled Love (1920)

Ben Model's Undercrank Productions has released The Alice Howell collection, a two DVD set featuring 12 short films from master silent film comedienne Alice Howell. A mix of screwball and slapstick comedies, Howell knew how to entertain audiences with her knack for physical comedy, her amusing expressions and signature look. Model offers the following description:

"The character that she had developed was a slightly addled working-class girl with a round Kewpie-doll face topped off with a mountain of frizzy hair piled high on her head."

Howell reminds me a lot of British comedienne and actress Dawn French. As as a silent film star Howell pretty much stands on her own. Howell's career began when she and her husband relocated to California when he fell ill. Howell found work as an extra for Mack Sennett's Keystone Film Company. She eventually graduated from extra to supporting cast to leading lady. In addition to Keystone she also worked for L-Ko Komedy, Century Comedies, Emerald Film Co., Reelcraft and Universal. 

Neptune's Naughty Daughter (1917)

The shorts in The Alice Howell Collection have been digitally remastered from 35mm and 16mm print. Sources include the Library of Congress, the BFI National Archive, the Danish Film Institute among others. Each film is presented with an original musical score written and performed by Ben Model himself. A brief intro explains what's been done to restore each film and points out any missing scenes/reels, title cards or notable damage. The films are all offered in the best presentation possible making this collection of early comedies well worth the investment of any silent film enthusiast.

The films in the set include: 

Disc One:
Shot in The Excitement (1914) 
Father Was a Loafer (1915) 
Under New Management (1915) 
How Stars Are Made (1916) 
Neptune's Naughty Daughter (1917) 
In Dutch (1918)

Disc Two:
Distilled Love (1920) 
His Wooden Leg-acy (1920) 
Her Lucky (1920) 
Cinderella Cinders (1920) 
A Convict's Happy Bride (1920) 
Under a Spell (1925)

I didn't know anything about Alice Howell until I received this set and she's been a delightful discovery. My favorite shorts in the set include the boozy and whacky adventure comedy Distilled Love (1920) which features Oliver Hardy in a very early role, the madcap screwball comedy where Howell has triplets (in addition to her four kids) and her loser husband tries to abandon the family with hilarious results Father Was a Loafer (1915) and the backstage comedy (with an explosive ending!) where Howell pretends to be an actress to appear on promotional float How Stars Are Made (1916). Other notable films include Neptune's Naughty Daughter (1917) which is the only surviving film of the six shorts she made with Century Comedies and His Wooden Leg-acy (1920), one of several films Howell made in Chicago and is a side-splitting rags to riches to rags tale.

Alice Howell was a daredevil comedian and some of the stunts she did in the film are as impressive now as they were back then. She's largely forgotten today but is well overdue for a comeback. If you've never heard of Howell but love silent comedies or you're a well-established fan, you need to get your hands on this set!




Thank you to Ben Model for sending me a copy of this set for review!

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