Friday, March 22, 2019



On a Wednesday afternoon at the end of February, I slogged through the rain, my car moving at a crawl across a bridge mired in traffic, to the east side of the San Francisco Bay. Into wild and woolly Berkeley, California, I drove. Berkeley, that university town known far and wide for its political uprisings, fine school and lingering spirit of the late 1960s. But my visit on that rainy day had nothing to do with politics or school, though it did have something to do with a bygone era. I was on my way to see a movie, a very special screening at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive of one of Hollywood’s great classics, a quintessential romp of a romantic comedy released at the tail-end of the Pre-Code era, It Happened One Night (1934).

Victoria Riskin is the daughter of Fay Wray, of King Kong fame, and screenwriter Robert Riskin, who partnered with Frank Capra on just about every one of the director’s best films. Victoria was in Berkeley that day for a screening of the film that brought her father a screenwriting Oscar and to discuss her new book, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir, with film professor/author Joseph McBride. The screening/discussion coincidentally occurred on the 84th anniversary of the evening that It Happened One Night swept the Academy Awards in 1935. Winning five Oscars, the film was the first to win the top awards known as “the Big Five”: Best Picture (Columbia), Best Director (Capra), Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert) and Best Screenplay (Riskin). Only three films in the history of the Academy Awards have taken “the Big Five.”

Oscar winners Clark Gable, Harry Cohn, Frank Capra, and Claudette Colbert (with Shirley Temple) on Oscar night, 1935
Joe McBride teaches film at San Francisco State and most recently published the Ernst Lubitsch bio, How Did Lubitsch Do It? (Columbia University Press, 2017). Among his biographies is one written more than 25 years ago, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (Simon & Schuster, 1992). He has known Victoria for many years and, according to her, he served as an advisor/sounding board as she labored over her memoir. The two spoke in general about what, for Ms. Riskin, became an exercise in rediscovering her mother and father’s lives on a more intimate level. But for this event, the pair focused mostly on It Happened One Night and the Capra-Riskin juggernaut.

Victoria Riskin, a psychologist turned screenwriter and past president of the Writers Guild West, spoke of rummaging through her parents’ letters and mounds of photos as well as researching other materials and resources as she explored their lives.

Fay Wray, born in 1907, came from Utah and an impoverished family background. She was pretty, vivacious, with an infectious laugh, and apparently irresistible to all who encountered her. She was onscreen in the movies by age 16. Robert Riskin, born in 1897, was from New York’s Lower East Side and a Jewish family of five children. He found his way into the film business at age 17. Wray and Riskin were apparently drawn to each other on first sight but didn’t get together until World War II was underway. By then Wray had already been married once and had a young daughter. Riskin was still a bachelor but had had more than one Hollywood romance, with Carole Lombard and Glenda Farrell among his exes. It seems that from the moment the pair, both now unattached, finally did get together they were inseparable. Eventually, she proposed to him. Victorian Riskin reflected on the impact of immersing herself in her parents’ long-gone world,  “…it was like living in a ‘30s Hollywood movie,” she said, with relish.

Robert Riskin and Frank Capra

As for Robert Riskin’s other significant relationship, his collaboration with Frank Capra over ten years and seven films, their paths first crossed in 1930 at Columbia, when the studio bought the rights to Riskin’s Broadway play, Bless You, Sister. Capra was assigned to direct, but Riskin turned down the chance to write the screenplay. In fact, he advised against the film being made at all. The play, he said, had been a critical success yet failed to attract an audience. Columbia was committed, though, and went ahead, with Capra at the helm, Barbara Stanwyck starring, and Jo Swerling penning the screenplay. The film, re-titled The Miracle Woman (1931), would, as Riskin predicted, do poorly at the box office.

The director and screenwriter would soon team on Platinum Blonde (1931) the story of a reporter who, though close to one of his colleagues - a “girl” reporter who is clearly sweet on him - marries a flashy blonde rich kid. Initially called Gallagher, the name of Loretta Young’s character, the film’s title was first changed to The Gilded Cage, since the focus of the story had shifted to the male protagonist (Robert Williams). The title would change again, to Platinum Blonde, because the third co-star was rapidly rising starlet Jean Harlow. Harlow’s trajectory continued upward with the film’s success. Lead actor Robert Williams, whose star-making performance brought unanimous rave reviews, would have risen, too, but he died suddenly just days after the film opened. Victoria Riskin remarked that Robert Williams’ performance in Platinum Blonde echoed her father in more than one way. The actor’s facility with Riskin’s smart, snappy dialogue recalled her father’s own flair and style, she said, and Williams also physically resembled him. The Williams character would be an early iteration of one that would recur in later Capra/Riskin works, what Joe McBride has called a “common man protagonist thrust into a situation of great wealth and tempted to forget his true allegiances."

Halliwell Hobbes and Robert Williams in Platinum Blonde

Capra and Riskin would soon score an even bigger hit, one that would also bring Oscar nominations. Lady for a Day (1933), adapted by Riskin from a Damon Runyon story, tells of fruit seller Apple Annie whose daughter has been raised far away from home and believes her mother is a socialite. When the girl plans a return visit, Annie faces a shattering crisis.  The film received four Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing/Adaptation and Best Actress (May Robson).

And then came It Happened One Night. Clark Gable as Peter, a roguish newspaper reporter constantly in and out of favor with his editor. Claudette Colbert as Ellie, a headstrong young heiress who has eloped with a gigolo/adventurer, to the chagrin of her father who knows the score. But dad has had her snatched from the jaws of a disastrous marriage and locked up on his yacht in Miami.  Ellie escapes and runs into Peter, both soon on a “night bus” north, where she hopes to rendezvous with her bridegroom. Peter hopes for a scoop, a front-page news story that will put him back in his editor’s good graces. Madcap monkey business ensues.

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934)

Released just a few months before enforcement of the Hayes Code locked into place, the movie was a blockbuster. The film’s roaring success planted Capra, Riskin, Gable and Colbert firmly on Hollywood’s A-list as well as elevating the stature of Columbia Pictures. On Oscar night, February 27, 1935, when the film took the five top awards, Columbia’s co-founder and top exec Harry Cohn effused, “I want to thank Frank Capra, I want to thank Robert Riskin. I was only an innocent bystander.”

Victoria Riskin shared some backstory on It Happened One Night. No one involved beyond the writer and director, she reported, was very interested in the production, particularly Claudette Colbert. Colbert preferred more glamorous roles and more sophisticated scenarios. The prospect of wearing one outfit through most of the film and attending to a narrative that largely takes place in fairly shabby settings (a night bus, roadside motels, country roads and gas stations) did not appeal to her. Nor was she interested in working for a 2nd-tier studio like Columbia. And perhaps she also knew that Myrna Loy, Miriam Hopkins and Margaret Sullavan had already turned the role down. But money talked – she bargained for five times Gable’s salary, got it and signed on. Clark Gable was no one’s first choice either, that had been Robert Montgomery. But Montgomery was with MGM and L.B. Mayer said “no.” Instead he offered Clark Gable, thinking an assignment with a Poverty Row studio like Columbia would serve as a lesson and proper punishment for Gable who, Mayer felt, was making unwarranted salary demands of MGM.

It Happened One Night is one of those great classics that still holds up. Despite dated surface details, its core is solid. The story became an established standard, the runaway heiress meets and falls for the stand-up guy. Gable and Colbert, whose onscreen chemistry sizzles, deliver the goods in their respective roles, he as an ambitious but honest (and gorgeous) young man and she a spoiled but basically decent young heiress (although when I imagine Myrna Loy in the part, I tremble). But the writing, especially the dialogue, makes this film sing; it’s clever, sexy and great fun, start to finish. For this we can thank Robert Riskin’s screenplay.  His insight, humor and idealism shine through, underpinning the film’s timeless appeal.

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert...the proper way to dunk

Over the next few years, Capra and Riskin would make Broadway Bill (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937) and You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and their working relationship blossomed, both creatively and financially. And so, in July 1939 Capra and Riskin, each investing equally, formed a production company. Capra took 65% ownership and Riskin 35%. The company’s first film would be Meet John Doe (1941). The story follows Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a one-time ball player now “on the bum,” who is whisked into the desperate scheme of a pressured reporter (Barbara Stanwyck). Though the film has earned the status of “classic” in the years since, it underperformed during release. Though it did moderate box office, the film's lack of success was a personal and financial disappointment for the new company, and this was enough to prompt its closing. According to Capra, “Uncle Sam…took ninety cents out of every dollar, Riskin and Capra…ten cents. Bob Riskin and I got the hell out of the kitchen and dissolved our corporation.” Meet John Doe was the last film on which Frank Capra and Robert Riskin actively collaborated. With war looming for the US, each would ultimately go his own way. Over time, Capra would take more and more credit for the films he made with Riskin, notably in his 1971 autobiography, The Name Above the Title. Riskin, who had died in 1955 at age 58 following a stroke, became a footnote to Capra’s career.

In his 1992 Capra bio, Joe McBride points out that “In his later attempt to undercut Riskin's importance to his career, Capra misleadingly cited [It’s a] Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith [Goes to Washington] as examples of masterpieces he made without any help from Riskin. This, of course, ignores both films' ritualistic adherence to the Capra-Riskin formula . . . ."

Along with his win for It Happened One Night, Robert Riskin received Oscar nominations for three of his other films with Capra: Lady for a Day, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can’t Take It with You. He would be nominated for one more after their split, Here Comes the Groom (1951). By the time the film went into production, Capra was now attached to direct but Riskin had already been incapacitated by the stroke that would alter and shorten his life.

Today Robert Riskin is revered as a legend among classic era screenwriters and, fittingly, the University of California Press has compiled six of his best screenplays, Six Screenplays by Robert Riskin. Click here for details.


For your chance to win a copy of Victoria Riskin’s engrossing new book, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir, a book that’s been garnering high praise since publication, email and note “Bob & Wray” in the subject line. A random drawing will be held on March 29 and the winner will be notified immediately. Entrants must be residents of or have a mailing address in the Continental USA.


Latest News: New York’s Film Forum is now showcasing a series, “Bob and Wray: A Hollywood Love Story” from March 21 through April 2, that features the films of both Fay Wray and Robert Riskin. Victoria Riskin will be appearing at select screenings. Click here to learn more and for ticket information.

With thanks to Pantheon Books for a review copy of  Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir.

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