Friday, June 21, 2019

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir

Fay Wray
Fay Wray made more than a hundred films, some with outstanding producers and directors of the era and opposite the greatest leading men: Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, William Powell and Victor Jory. She used her earnings to buy her family a home in Hollywood and support them in comfort. She had an infatuation with Cary Grant after they starred together on Broadway, a brief romance with Howard Hughes, and a serious one with the playwright Clifford Odets. The most famous of her leading men, however, was a giant ape known as King Kong and never did she have a single regret.

Robert Riskin was a playwright responsible for numerous classics that helped define American to itself and the world: Lady for a DayThe Whole Town’s TalkingIt Happened One NightMr. Deeds Goes to TownYou Can’t Take it With YouLost HorizonMeet John Doe and It Happened One Night. The latter of which was the first film to sweep the five top Academy Awards – Best Picture, Director, Writer, Actor and Actress. A record matched only twice in the three-quarters of a century since by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs. As a result of such success, Riskin is credited for pulling Columbia Pictures out of a poverty row status, and was frequently called on by Harry Cohn to give judgments on most pictures Columbia put int production. 

Robert Riskin and Fay Wray

Both Fay Wray and Robert Riskin met at a Christmas Eve party in 1940 but it was not until two weeks after Pearl Harbor that they found each other again. They connected and a life-long relationship followed. Some of their movies (at least two of Wray’s and sections of Riskin’s Lost Horizon) remain “lost” to this day, providing film buffs something sought after both in legend and newspaper/industry trade briefs. Thankfully, their daughter, Victoria Riskin, wrote a Hollywood memoir that documents both the personal and professional careers of her parents.

I have always said that the best way to write a biography is to contact family relatives and get the scoop – including scans of family photographs, recollections passed down through generations, etc. Sadly, many today stockpile newspaper clippings and magazine articles and document the careers of Hollywood actors chronologically, providing lengthy plot summaries for motion pictures to pad their text, and reads like a standard filmography in prose form. Rarely are any of these books worthy of reading; if anything, they inspire others to fulfill the task properly. Thankfully was have Victoria Riskin, daughter of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, to not only provide us with the much-needed background but also a passion and love for the material. 

Granted, Fay Wray wrote her own memoirs a long time ago titled On the Other Hand, but Victoria Riskin felt everyone already read the book and instead devoted most of her tome on the details never disclosed in her mother's autobiography. (Though, to be fair, a few passages in Victoria's book are reprinted from that other book, which she appropriately notes, for the importance of certain passages.)

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir (2019, Pantheon Books) is a magnificent read. She avoids discussing King Kong behind the humorous anecdotes that Wray encountered in the years following production, and instead focuses on her career as a whole. Robert Riskin accomplished so much in Hollywood yet so few realize just what movies he was responsible for, and the direction Frank Capra took as a result of his influence. Behind-the-scenes anecdotes during production of their movies, rare never-before-published photographs and how the two participated in the war cause are reason enough to buy this book. But perhaps the biggest compliment I can give is Victoria’s description of movies I knew about (such as Lady for a Day) that were so fascinating that I was inspired to sit down and watch half a dozen. No other book has prompted me to pull off DVDs from my shelf in the living room and take time from a busy schedule to watch them. If you are looking for a book to read at the beach this summer, or planning to read only one Hollywood memoir this year, this is that book.

A link to buy a copy of the book today:

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Green Hornet Newspaper Strip

Bert Whitman
In 1939, George W. Trendle proposed a Green Hornet newspaper strip to help cross-promote both the Universal Studios cliffhanger serials and he radio program. A minor attempt was made involving proposed art work but the idea fell through.

In 1940, Henry M. Snevily, general manager of The Bell Syndicate, Inc. in New York City, proposed the syndication of a strip for newspapers across the country. The Green Hornet, Inc. (Trendle) had been looking for some time for an artist who could picture the radio program to his satisfaction for a newspaper strip. Since Snevily proposed the idea and would front any artist fees, Trendle did not see a reason why he should reject the offer. The Lone Ranger had already succeeded in the newspapers. Trendle insisted that he oversee every detail of the conception art for The Green Hornet, as well as final approval of the art work. Dissatisfied with the initial conception art, Trendle explained that the Hornet should not be wearing a mask similar to The Lone Ranger, which covered the eyes and not the mouth. (Yes, that's how they initially conceived The Green Hornet would look like in the comics!)

Bert Whitman, a 17 year newspaper veteran, was ultimately hired after submitting a number of conceptions that pleased Trendle. Whitman’s first job was with the Chicago Herald Examiner as art office boy. He graduated to one-column cut artist. Later he worked on the Los Angeles Times. In Detroit, he spent four years as a sports cartoonist for The Mirror. When that paper folded, Whitman joined the Detroit News as a staff artist where he served for five years as a sports and editorial cartoonist. He left to join the Western Newspaper Union in Chicago as chief editorial cartoonist, his work then appearing in more than 2,000 newspapers via syndication. He resigned to go with a Cincinnati paper and, after a brief stay there, went to New York and was with Ken magazine until it suspended publication. While with Ken his editorial cartoons were picked up by British and European newspapers. 

The intention for The Green Hornet newspaper strip was to feature the cartoon six times a week (not Sundays) with each episode running from four to six weeks. Twenty-four daily strips, enough for four weeks release, were initially created so newspapers across the country could get an idea of the action depicted and determine whether to carry the strip. If enough newspapers bought it, the strip would be produced beyond the 24 strips. Fran Striker wrote the plot and the entire proposal was submitted in the form of a press book for Trendle's approval. Trendle disliked the artwork and the story, forcing the strip to cease production.

As an early Christmas gift to you, enclosed are the 24 comic strips that were created and proposed but never went to press. This was one of the few things my co-author, Terry Salomonson, and myself had regrets. We wanted to include these in our 800 page book about The Green Hornet, but the printers assured us that if the book was bigger, they could not guarantee the binding. So we had to trim 1,200 pages down to 800. (The same happened with The Shadow -- you have no idea how much more material has gone unpublished. Hopefully this blog, over the coming years, will help supplement what never went to print.)

The newspaper strip never came to be, but Whitman’s efforts were not in vain. His art ultimately found a home in the six Helnit comic books. But not the art you see above. Keep on buzzing!

Friday, June 7, 2019


October 2019 will mark the 60th anniversary of The Twilight Zone’s 1959 debut. To celebrate, the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation will be hosting “Serling Fest 2019” in Serling’s hometown of Binghamton, New York. The three-day event will be held at the Helen Foley Theatre (part of the Rod Serling School of Fine Arts) on October 4, 5, and 6. 

Confirmed guests include Anne Serling, Rod Serling’s daughter, author of As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling; Scott Skelton, author of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour; Mark Dawidziak, performer and prolific author of Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone; Nicholas Parisi, author of Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination; Amy Boyle Johnston, author of Unknown Serling; Reba Wissner, author of A Dimension of Sound: Music in the Twilight Zone; and yours truly, author of The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic

Boscov's in Binghamton, NY.
The event will include screenings, author signings and panel discussions, as well as visits to landmarks in Binghamton that were featured prominently on The Twilight Zone. On a tour of Binghamton back in 2015, I was able to visit the pavilion and carousel that Serling used in “Walking Distance,” and Boscov’s featured prominently in “The After Hours.” Besides fascinating panels, slide show seminars and book signings, you can tour Serling’s small home town and visit the bus station he wrote into “Mirror Image,” check out the Bundy Museum where an entire room is dedicated to Rod Serling, and ask an employee at Boscov’s if they have thimbles for sale on the 13thfloor.

CBS may be preparing a special telecast on the anniversary of the program’s premiere, but you can make plans to visit Serling’s home town for a little relaxation and hang out with folks who share a common interest.

For more information as it becomes available, stay tuned to