From all the writing I've been doing about my friend Vicki Rskin's wonderful, just-published book A Hollywood Memoir about her parents, actress Fay Wray and Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Riskin (It Happened One Nigh), I've come across a bunch of interesting videos that I thought I'd post, along with some stories. And given how many articles I've written about it already, I decided not to drag it out further and just put them all together, in one big Fay Fest.
I don’t know what this first video is from, but it has to be within the last year because they mention the Broadway musical of King Kong. It’s a piece on the original movie that uses a lot of an old interview with Fay. I do recognize the announcer, Bill Kurtis who was a very popular TV news anchor in Chicago who then went on to do national work for CBS. And later became a host on several documentary TV series. (Fun note for perspective: I found out only a few years ago that he was close friends with my dad’s cousin -- and my second cousin -- Marion Elisberg Simon, who was sort of a doyenne of Arts, social programs, and Jewish community in Chicago, and he wrote an introduction to her autobiography a few years ago. She only just passed away last year at 99.)
I also came across this fascinating video from 1998, when Fay was 91. She had been invited to come to the Oscars, and host Billy Crystal goes down into the audience to talk to her. What's interesting is that she seems surprised that he's there, which seems unlikely since you wouldn't invite a 91-year old legend to the Oscars, plan to talk to her live, and not tell her. What's also possible, if not likely, is that they did indeed tell her, and at 91 she just got the stories conflated and thought they meant to only have her stand up and wave. The point here, though, is that this is a recipe for something going very, very wrong, live on TV, with a massive worldwide audience -- and yet Fay (although a bit flustered) is sharp, bright and utterly charming. And while every moment you think it's going to go kablooey, it never does. What leaps out too are the looks of joy and awe on the faces of all these major stars in the audience, because that's Fay Wray there, at 91. (By the way, that's her daughter Vicki sitting to her left, with short dark hair and wearing a sort of plaid jacket with black lapels.)
When I noted above that Fay was charming in the video, that shouldn't come as a surprise. From all I've ever heard from Vicki, and stories from others -- including a friend who waited tables years ago and she was a regular-- that she was incredibly charming. I got to meet Fay Wray once, when she was around 92. Her son-in-law David Rintels (who's a good friend of mine) brought her to an event I was at, and he introduced us. It was a very short conversation, but long enough to make me believe every lovely thing David and Vicki and others had told me about her. Incredibly sweet.
She lived to 96, and I remember David once saying that as long as festivals would invite Fay to appear with King Kong that Fay would stick around. What’s fascinating is that she also was a very good writer, and wrote several Broadway plays, including one with Sinclair Lewis who apparently fell in love with her and wanted to marry her, though she wasn’t interested. She did have a relationship though with Clifford Odets.
My favorite story about her is when David told me that the filmmaker Peter Jackson wanted to meet with her before he made his new version of King Kong. To put perspective on the story, Jackson had of course directed, co-written and produced the Lord of the Rings trilogy which together grossed about $3 billion, of which he got a solid royalty. And his absolute favorite film growing up was King Kong. So, he REALLY wanted to meet with Fay, who was 88 at the time. A lunch was set-up between the two, and afterwards David and Vicki asked how it went. “Oh, it was fine,’ she said, “he was a very nice young man. But I really don’t think I’ll be able to invest in his movie.” She’d thought that that was why Peter Jackson – who was SO rich at that point he could have funded the movie himself -- wanted to meet with her, to help finance the film. They explained her, no, he just wanted to meet with her because he was such an admirer.
He actually offered her a role in the movie, to play the lady at the end who says the famous like, “It was beauty that killed the beast,” but she said no. Her reasoning was that “I had made my ‘King Kong,’ and this is his.”
When I went to see the remake, I was wondering if he’d give a sort of thank you to her in the end credits, having met with him. So, I waited through the looooong credits, until they got to the scroll at the end of all the names he thanks. Dozens and dozens in a very long list (including her daughter Vicki) – and then, when the long scroll of names in small print passed by there then came one final credit. In massive letters that literally filled the entire screen –
AND THE INCOMPARABLE
Every time I tell that story, the pure generosity of it by Peter Jackson and his clear affection for her almost (honestly) brings me to tears.
Fay retired from acting after marrying Robert Riskin, but when he passed away much too early from a stroke, she came out of retirement and went back to work, doing a great deal of TV shows among other work. Eventually she retired again.-- but one last time she again came out of retirement in 1980, at the age of 73, to act in one last production. But there was a good reason for it. It was the acclaimed Hallmark Hall of Fame TV film Gideon's Trumpet with Henry Fonda based on the true-life landmark case that brought about the right of a defendant to counsel.whether or not it can be afforded. But that wasn't the reason she did the film -- it was because it was written and produced by David Rintels, her son-in-law, married to Vicki Riskin.
Here's her one scene, as Gideon's landlady. If you want to jump to her brief appearance, it comes at the 4:00 mark. By the way, that's her in the freeze-frame below.
Anyway, the memoir has been getting good reviews, including in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press. (The mere fact that any of them -- let alone all -- reviewed it is impressive enough to me, since publishers would kill to get a book reviewed in any such a major publication.) The Post review oddly doesn’t talk about the book much, but more about the lives of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin. But it does end with this, saying: “Researching and writing this book has given Victoria Riskin — and her readers — two related pleasures: getting to know the man who championed the little guy on film and remembering the woman who screamed life into a Fay Wray doll.”
And here's a very nice Q&A that the Los Angeles Times did with Vicki just the other day. You can read it here.
I said the other day that I wouldn't post any more updates about my friend Vicki Riskin's book, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir unless it hit #1 on Amazon's Hot List for new releases in drama and plays. And I'm a man of my word.
I did say "Updates as they occur," so here's the latest for Vicki Riskin's memoir, from Amazon's Hot List of new releases in drama and plays. Now at #3 AND #4 for Kindle and hardcover.
Not to worry, no more updates unless it hits #1. But for now --
The other day, a friend mentioned something that had just happened to him, which in turn reminded me of one of my all-time favorite comic stories, written by James Thurber and given a tremendous rendition when done in the off-Broadway revue A Thurber Carnival in 1960, a show which ran for 223 performances. I realized that rather than tell my friend about it, or try to get him to read the story, which I didn't know the chances of that, I should see if I could track down the cast recording. And indeed, the audio was there on YouTube.
The story is File and Forget, and I will say no more about it, since much of its fun is how the thing develops. The cast of the show, most of whom are in this sketch, are gems. Many of the names aren't well-known today, though some are and all were high quality names at the time. Tom Ewell plays Thurber in the sketch, and others include Paul Ford, Peggy Cass, John McGiver and Alice Ghostley. And there's near-perfect underscoring music to complement it all.
One fun historic note. Fun, but one of those stories that makes me SO wish I could have seen it live, or at least if only there was video of it. The story is that James Thurber was a bit of a ham, and for a few weeks into the run, the producers had the brilliant idea to bring in Thurber to play himself! Because he was legally blind, they built a sort of conveyor belt with a chair on it, to bring him onstage and off. And, of my, do I wish there was a video of that.
Happily, there's audio of the selection.
Just a quick update to let you know that my friend Vicki Riskin's book about her parents, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir, was published four days ago. And as of 3 PM today, the Kindle edition is on the Amazon Hot List for New Releases in Drama & Plays at #5! And the hardcover edition is #7!
(When I received an email alerting me to both editions making the list, the note said the Kindle version was #9, and the hardcover was #17. Within an hour, those figures had to be revised upward....)
As I always say, I tries not to steers ya wrong. And here's hoping that it continues to climb up the various lists. Updates as they occur...
You may recall that a couple weeks ago, I wrote a massive rave about a new book by my friend Vicki Riskin, a double memoir about her parents, the actress Fay Wray and Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Riskin, called, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Love Story.
(Yes, yes, I know that yesterday was the Big Hearing in Congress, but I did write about it twice yesterday, albeit briefly. But mainly, hey, Vicki is my friend, and I have my priorities...)
Anyway, among a great many things that I wrote in my lavish praise of the book was this paragraph --
"But the main reason I loved the book is that it did in a memoir what I look for when reading biographies of any sort. I tend to wade in very warily when I read biographies, most-especially celebrity biographies. What I like in any memoir is not so much that it's just nice tales of famous people's lives, but that it's as much a history book of the times with "edges" and shadings that give context. And to my great pleasure, this is that. It is not a mere collection of stories by a loving daughter putting her family world in the most-shining light, but rather about the Depression, the Golden Age of Hollywood, world war, McCarthyism (with her father being a target, despite his work for the government's war effort) and more -- at the center of which are the two separate lives of the author's parents pushing through it all until they finally meet. Fascinatingly, that meeting doesn't even come until the last third of the book, so it's like following a winding path of successes and major hurdles before simply getting to that point."
My biggest concern with my rave was that people wouldn't believe me, that they'd think it was just my friendship kicking in and biasing my opinion, no matter how much I bent over backwards to explain why I was trying my best to be objective and honest, that being otherwise would risk(in) my credibility for future reviews. Sometimes I am, admittedly, biased, but I state that. In this case, I was being absolutely objective and honest.
I now point you to the first paragraph in a review of the book by the Associated Press, published yesterday.
"If there was an Academy Award for movie books, Victoria Riskin would be making room beside the Oscar her father won for writing the romantic comedy classic 'It Happened One Night.' Part biography, part Hollywood history, part love story, Riskin’s memoir about her parents is captivating and poignant."
And it ends with --
"A psychologist who turned to writing and producing for television, Victoria Riskin enhances her family history with delightful (and sometimes damning) vignettes of movie people. With readers she shares a special sense of discovery: seeing a parent try to find their place and hoping to love and be loved when they get there. Just like in the movies."
And if that isn't enough, here's the first paragraph of the book's rave review in the Wall Street Journal --
"To know Fay Wray was to adore her. She had a joyous, jubilant personality and retained her can-do outlook to the end, living until she was 96 despite a life that offered more than her fair share of problems. In 'Fay Wray and Robert Riskin,' Victoria Riskin remembers her parents with warmth and a perceptible touch of melancholy.
Told you so, told you so, told you so.
It really is that wonderful. Honest. If you want to read the full, glowing review by Douglass K. Daniel, you can find it here. I'd give you the link to the Wall Street Journal review, but you have to be a subscriber to access the full thing. Oh, okay, for those who are subscriber's, it's here.
The book is really terrific, and it's now officially be published, as of a couple days ago. For those interested in getting it, or want to check out more about the book, you can find it here on its Amazon page.
And again, yes, the book is really terrific, with a double emphasis on the "really" -- not just as an adverb to reinforce "terrific," but to mean...HONEST. It really is.
A few years ago, my friend Vicki Riskin asked me to read the first draft of her new book that she'd just finished writing. I said I was very happy too -- though in truth as happy as I was, I was also wary, almost terrified. After all, while most writers say that they want your honest opinion, they don't. What they want is to hear you say, "This is my absolute 100% honest opinion -- not since William Faulkner has literature moved me so much."
But this was more of a challenge. Not only was it a book that Vicki was giving me, over 400 pages, not a screenplay that one can breeze though in a couple hours, but far, far, FAR more problematic is that it was a memoir about her parents. If I didn't like -- no, if I didn't love -- the book, how on earth do you tell someone that their story about their parents isn't any good.
The added challenge here is that Vicki's parents were renowned. Her father was screenwriter Robert Riskin, one of the founders of what is now the Writers Guild of America, as well as the long-time partner of director Frank Capra, and the Oscar-winning screenwriter for It Happened One Night (the first film to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress). Robert Riskin was also the writer of Mr. Deeds Comes to Town, Meet John Doe, You Can't Take It With You, Lost Horizon, Lady for a Day (which was later remade by Capra, as well, as Pocketful of Miracles), and many, many more. And he headed the U.S. government's Bureau of Motion Pictures during WWII. (I wrote about him in more detail here.) And her mother was even more famous -- honest -- the actress Fay Wray, best-known, of course, for starring in King Kong, but also with a half-century-long career of making more than 100 films, and even wrote Broadway plays and books. And an autobiography with one of the best titles ever -- On the Other Hand.
I knew that Vicki was an excellent writer. She herself is a former president of the Writers Guild. And the writer and producer of numerous screenplays and TV movies. (Not to mention a former practicing psychologist, an international board member for 12 years of Human Rights Watch, and recipient of the WGA's Valentine Davies Award for "bringing honor to writers everywhere.") But writing a book is another matter entirely from a screenplay. Especially one that's a memoir of your parents.
So, it was with great trepidation that I opened the fist page of that first draft with clenched fingers and clenched jaw. And it's important that you know all this as I dive into my reaction to it all.
The book was tremendous.
I don't say this lightly. Or as a friend of Vicki's. I say it in relief. I was terrified about what to say if to her it wasn't any good. By page 30, I was overjoyed. By the end, I was sorry to see it over. And I said this to her not to be nice, but knowing that if I'm not honest with the author when they've given me a draft to read for comments, I don't do them any good. Worse, I'm doing them a disservice because they can't fix what needs work. And I did give her some comments about things I thought should be addressed. But the overriding first comment was that she'd written an absolutely wonderful book.
And before I go any further, it's important for me to interrupt here to say that I'm not alone in thinking this, because after battling the hellish and uphill world of publishing, Vicki broke through the near-impenetrable walls and sold the book to Pantheon Books (part of Knopf Doubleday) and it's being released in just a few weeks, on February 26, 2019. The title is Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir.
And it's not just me and the publisher who love the book. Among the critiques is Kirkus Reviews saying "In this engrossing tribute to her parents, the author provides a thoughtfully documented portrait of early Hollywood. A must-read for fans of this era of film history." And Kenneth Turan, film critic of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Victoria Riskin brings a graceful touch and a fluid writing style to one of the great real-life Hollywood love stories in this warm, evocative and deeply moving tale." And more.
Like biographer Michael Korda of such Hollywood tales as Charmed Lives and Queenie, and a former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, who says, "Victoria Riskin has written a fascinating, richly detailed and superbly illustrated account of the lives of two remarkable people," adding that "This is not only the love story of two brilliantly talented people, it is a brilliant piece of cinematic history, at one robust, touching and deeply satisfying.". And he finishes with "For anybody who is interested in the movies, Victoria Riskin’s book will be must reading."
So, I'm not lying. It is tremendous.
Beyond the writing, it did something most memoirs don't do, which is note flaws in character, especially when those characters are your parents. But thankfully, while being open and honest -- even going into their romantic relationships before meeting one another (Fay Wray had had a loving, but very difficult first marriage that ended with her husband passing away, but also a romance with the playwright Clifford Odets and what was largely a one-way relationship with an infatuated Sinclair Lewis, all of which the book deals with) -- both main characters come across as pretty wonderful, even noble people, but not white-washed by an adoring child, rather as well-rounded individuals with highs and very real struggles, all deeply documented and supported by their actions professionally, politically, with family, and through social concerns. In fact, after finishing reading the book, one of Vicki's nervous questions to me was "How did my parents come across? Were they okay??" I thought for a moment and then finally answered, "They come across like I wanted them to adopt me by page 140." (I should note that a few years back I had reason to meet her mother one time when she was in her 90s, and in just that brief time she was as warm and lovely as she comes across in the book.)
(Mother and early author.)
But the main reason I loved the book is that it did in a memoir what I look for when reading biographies of any sort. I tend to wade in very warily when I read biographies, most-especially celebrity biographies. What I like in any memoir is not so much that it's just nice tales of famous people's lives, but that it's as much a history book of the times with "edges" and shadings that give context. And to my great pleasure, this is that. It is not a mere collection of stories by a loving daughter putting her family world in the most-shining light, but rather about the Depression, the Golden Age of Hollywood, world war, McCarthyism (with her father being a target, despite his work for the government's war effort) and more -- at the center of which are the two separate lives of the author's parents pushing through it all until they finally meet. Fascinatingly, that meeting doesn't even come until the last third of the book, so it's like following a winding path of successes and major hurdles before simply getting to that point.
And its portrait of Hollywood is no snapshot thing, but encompassing since her mother's 57-year movie career began in the silent film era up to an acclaimed TV movie with Henry Fonda in 1980, the true-story Gideon's Trumpet (written in a nice bit of life's kismet by her son-in-law, and Vicki's husband, David Rintels). And Vicki's father's career started with SIX movies in 1931 -- including the classic Platinum Blonde with Jean Harlow -- and continued through TV work in the mid-1950s, before his untimely death from a stroke. And included his involvement with Frank Capra and also in the creation of the then-called Screen Writers Guild..
(Okay, here's another quote about the book, worth mentioning since it specifically is in regards to the Golden Age, from Kirk Douglas. "I was always curious about life in Hollywood before I came here. I found out in this fascinating book. And wow! What a story it is!")
And the thing is, the book doesn't just tell Hollywood Golden Age stories about her parents -- but from all manner of perspectives. There is a long, detailed, fascinating diversion into the life history of Merian C. Cooper, who directed King Kong, that is as adventurous and odd as that famous movie itself. And some of the best stories in the book have nothing to do with her parents at all, but are about that era in Hollywood.
(I'll digress a moment with my favorite story from the book about the screenwriter Jo Swerling who was one of Robert Riskin's closest friends -- and who with his wife Florence were godparents to Vicki. Swerling was a highly-accomplished writer whose many credits included It's a Wonderful Life, The Pride of the Yankees, and co-writer of the Broadway musical -- and its film adaptation -- Guys and Dolls. Swerling was a no-nonsense fellow not easily pushed around and working at the time at Columbia Studios, run by the dictatorial and oppressive Harry Cohn. One day Swerling's wife came to visit him at the studio. She got flustered this day and rammed her car in the parking lot into Harry Cohn's very expensive Rolls Royce. The tyrannical Cohn was furious and came storming into Jo Swerling's office. "What the hell was your wife doing smashing into my car?!" he screamed. Swerling calmly looked back and finally replied, "She probably thought you were in it.")
The book also includes my favorite "writer's story" that I'd read long before I even met Vicki (in fact, when I was still in college) and as it happens is attributed to her father. Though Vicki knows the tale, she notes that she's never been able to verify whether it's true or apocryphal. When Robert Riskin and Frank Capra teamed up on their series of classic movies, it was director Capra who got all the acclaim, known throughout the press and to movie audiences for his "Capra Touch." Indeed, Capra was happy to push his prominence throughout his career, and when writing his autobiography called it The Name Above the Title. One day, as the story goes, Robert Riskin came into Capra's office, dropped a ream of blank paper on the desk, pointed to it and supposedly said, to the eternal gratitude of screenwriters everywhere, "Let's see you give that the famous Capra Touch."
(Robert Riskin on the left, with Frank Capra.)
But more that wonderful stories like this, the book is about a much larger world that eventually brings these two, endearing people together.
Helping too is that it's wonderfully written by a daughter who is herself a terrific, professional writer with great skill and insight. The risk of all memoirs like this is that it will fall into adulation, and in fairness while there are a few times when the book does creep towards that, it consistently pulls itself away by adding context, further depth and then moves on. I sense that's because (beyond being so well-written) underneath it all is the running theme that the best biographies have in making them not just specific on fascinating lives, but universal, asking who we are and how did we get here? The book is a gem.
For those interested, you can pre-order it here. And if you want to read more about the book, or people involved, or see more photos, this is the website for it all.
(Mother at age 90 and later author at the 1997 Academy Awards.)
I tend to enjoy interviews that are given by Tony Schwartz, who ghost-wrote Trump's Art of the Deal, and provides great and detailed information about Trump. And is mortified by his earlier participation. This is another, very good one from Sunday when he appeared on the A.M. Joy show on MSNBC, where he not only goes into specifics about Trump, but his own distraught involvement with the book.
Every year around this time, there are articles about which recorded version of A Christmas Carol is "the best." Usually it comes down to the films that starred either Alistair Sim or Reginald Owen.
But for me, as I explain every year (and did lthe last couple of years here), it's this one. It's not a movie, though, or a TV production. It's, of all things, an audio version that was done in 1960 for, I believe, the BBC. It's quite wonderful and as good an adaptation of the story as I've come across. It stars Sir Ralph Richardson as Scrooge, and Paul Scofield as Dickens, the narrator. Casts don't get much better than that.
I first heard this on radio station WFMT in Chicago which has been playing this every Christmas Eve for many decades. (And only couple few years ago finally moved on.) Eventually, I found it on audio tape. I've listened to it annually since I was a kidling. Some years I think I won't listen to it this year, but put it on for a few minutes for tradition's sake -- but after the first sentence it sucks me in.
There are four reasons why, for me, this is far and away the best version. But one reason leaps out.
First, the acting is as good as it gets. Scofield is crisp and emphatic as the narrator,and almost every creak of his voice draws you in to the world, and Richardson as Scrooge is a Christmas pudding joy. Second, being radio, you aren't limited by budgets to create the Dickensian world. Your imagination fills in every lush and poverty-stricken, nook and cranny -- and ghostly spirit, aided by moody sound effects and violins. Third, the adaptation sticks closely to the Dickens tale, and Scrooge comes across more a realistic, rounded-person than as a Mythic Icon.
And fourth, and most of all by far, unlike any of the other version, this includes...Dickens. While the story of A Christmas Carol is beloved, it's Dickens' writing that makes it even more vibrant than the story alone is. And that's all lost in the movie versions, even down even to the legendary opening line, "Marley was dead, to begin with." Or any of the other classic narrative lines. Or the richness of Dickens setting the mood and tone and description of the gritty and ephemeral and emotional world. All that's gone in movies, good as the productions may be. But all of that is here in this radio adaptation, and Scofield's reading of it is joyously wonderful and memorable. For many, this will be A Christmas Carol unlike any other you're aware of, giving it a meaning and richness you didn't realize was there. The ending of the tale is so much more moving and joyful here, as we listen to Dickens' own words, that begin with "Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more," and it soars from there, to perhaps my favorite passage about the new Scrooge and how good he is in the "good old world. Or any other good old world."
If you have the time or inclination, do give it a listen. Ideally tonight around the fireplace while roasting chestnuts and drinking a Smoking Bishop. (Listen to the recording, it's from Dickens...) Even if only for five minutes to at least get the flavor. You might find yourself sticking around. Or just let it play in the background during the day, if you have other things to do. It runs about 55 minutes.
(Side note: speaking of Dickens, if you know the original cast album of Oliver!, the actor here who plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, Willoughby Goddard, was Mr. Bumble on Broadway and in the original London production.)
This might not play immediately, since it's a large file and may have to buffer first. But be patient, it's worth it.
(That's Sir Ralph Richardson on the left, who plays Scrooge. And Paul Scofield must be the other one, as the narrator.)
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, is a regular columnist for the Writers Guild of America and was for the Huffington Post. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.
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