Sunday, March 3, 2019

FAY WRAY AND ROBERT RISKIN, THE BLOGATHON: Black Moon and Broadway Bill, a busy 1934

Classic Movie Hub and Once Upon a Screen observe the release of Victoria Riskin's book about her famous parents and their 1942-1955 marriage with a blogathon running on March 2nd, here and 3rd, here.

Hollywood in 1934 was grappling with the prospect of truly enforcing the Production Code, which will take them a while. Thousands of films were created for public consumption. Comedy series, shorts, animated shorts, westerns, dramas, musicals ... something for everyone was being turned out and those employed in the industry were kept very busy, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin included. 

Fay Wray

Actress Fay Wray, whose career in the California suburb began in a decade earlier, unexpectedly found herself revered for a horror-fantasy picture called King Kong. Married to talented yet troubled John Monk Saunders and the mother of a young daughter, the busy actress would see 11 movies released that season. Talk about a full plate!

Robert Riskin

A theatre-mad kid from New York Robert Riskin became a producer at a young age thanks to his employers in the garment industry. After serving in WWI he became a playwright and when Hollywood was impressed with his work, a screenwriter at Columbia Studios. Robert Riskin's many screenplays at Columbia during the 1930s, particularly in films directed by Frank Capra, have stood the test of time as truly memorable classics. 1934 would see the release of his only Oscar-winning screenplay out of five nominations, It Happened One Night. Consider the relevance and emotion to be found in American Madness, Platinum Blonde, Meet John Doe, You Can't Take It With You, Lost Horizon, and more.

"When you believe in things that you don't understand then you suffer"
- Stevie Wonder, Superstition

Among Fay's 1934 out of melodramas, comedies, and adventures, we find this nifty horror film from Columbia directed by Roy William Neill and produced by Robert Riskin's brother Everett. The director of tidy thrillers, noirs and the bulk of the Universal Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Neill had a unique filmic touch which you will find on display in Black Moon.

Dorothy Burgess

Fay Wray plays Gail Hamilton, a secretary whose love for her married boss Stephen Lane played by Jack Holt causes her to decide to leave her position. For her last assignment, she is to accompany Mrs. Lane, Juanita played by Dorothy Burgess on a trip to the Caribbean island St. Christopher, where she spent her youth. Also on the trip will be Lane's daughter Nancy played by Cora Sue Collins and her nurse Anna played by Eleanor Wesselhoeft.

Juanita's uncle, Raymond Perez played by Arnold Koff, is the last of a long line of plantation owners on the island and he strenuously objects to his niece's visit. There are many signs, including a murder that should have prevented the trip, but since when does anyone in a horror movie heed warnings.

Madame Sul-Te-Wan

Juanita's childhood nurse Ruva played by Madame Sul-Te-Wan raised the girl in the mysteries of her VooDoo cult which include blood sacrifice. Juanita feels compelled to return to her rightful home in order to feel whole. Her sense of belonging to the natives supersedes any loyalty to her family which has oppressed the Islanders. Gail senses that trouble is coming and sends for Mr. Lane. Lane and American ex-pat "Lunch" McClaren played by Clarence Muse, must ferret out the secrets and avoid the dangers lurking under the full moon.

Fay Wray, Jack Holt

Neill keeps the appropriate oppressive atmosphere at the boiling point and ground-breaking cinematographer Joseph August paints the setting with lush darkness that is almost hypnotic. Dorothy Burgess has the meatier role and she is terrific. Fay Wray has to play "normal", and she is a  welcome comfort in the role. Note: Although in almost a constant state of panic, Fay and Dorothy are dressed in the most gorgeous day and nighttime gowns by Hall of Fame costumer Robert Kalloch. If you tend to veer away from politically incorrect pre-code horror, you may find Black Moon worth it for the fashion show.

It Happened One Night was not Mr. Riskin's only "road" picture on the screen in 1934. Broadway Bill combines issues of class, happiness and horse racing, and comes up with a picture that so charmed its director Frank Capra, that he made it twice.

Myrna Loy, Helen Vinson, Helen Flint
Warner Baxter, Walter Conolly, George Meeker, Jason Robards Sr.

Dan Brooks played by Warner Baxter is like many of us. Dan toils at an uninspiring day job while devoting his leisure time to the thing that he loves. The thing that Dan loves is his racehorse, Broadway Bill. Dan is champing at the bit, so to say, to head out to the track with stable hand Whitey played by Clarence Muse and show the world what Bill can do.

Dan's wife Margaret played by Helen Vinson and boss/father-in-law J.L. Higgens played by Walter Connolly at a loss to understand Dan's attitude toward business. Dan's young sister-in-law Alice played by Myrna Loy gets it. She gets Dan. She loves Dan. Obviously, Dan has married the wrong Higgins.

Higgins employee: "Higgins! That's not a family; it's a disease!"

J.L. Higgins runs Higginsville and its various industrial enterprises with an iron fist. He runs his family of four daughters and three sons-in-law the same way. J.L. expects and receives compliance from all in his orbit.

Dan Brooks (on the Higgins residence): "Doesn't anything ever change in this mausoleum?"

Alice: "Yes. Bedspreads and underwear."

Dan Brooks' Declaration of Independence

"Wait a minute, Mr. Higgins. I have no intention of selling my horse. As a matter of fact, I'm leaving Higginsville in the morning. Everything you say is true. I have neglected the business. The reason is simple; I've hated it, I've always hated it. Not that it isn't a good business, mind you. It's alright for you or Mr. Winslow or Mr. Early. I don't blame them for wanting it, they're suited to it, I'm not. Oh, I know I sound crazy to you - maybe I am, but somehow you strike me the same way. Everything here seems lopsided to me. Higginsville, the Higgins family, the Higgins enterprises. Oh, don't get offended. It is just we don't speak the same language that's all. You are interested in only one thing; accumulating money, expanding the Higgins enterprises, gobbling up all the little fellows. Look, you have just snatched the Acme Lumber Company away from some poor people that spent their lives building it up. I hope it made you happy. Look at you; you haven't taken a vacation in 40 years. You're just rotting away in your own little kingdom. Well, if that's your idea of how to live, you can have it. It isn't mine. And I'm sure it isn't Margaret's. And another thing, I wouldn't get rid of that horse for you or anybody else. Someday you're going to take off your hat to Broadway Bill. It's true I was broke when I came here but Margaret and I are leaving the same way. We don't want a thing out of Higginsville. If it's just the same to you, you can accept my resignation. I'll wait for you in the car, Margaret."

Margaret: "If you're going to wait for me, you needn't bother."

J.L. Higgins: "The meeting is adjourned."

Myrna Loy, Warner Baxter

Breaking with conventionality, Dan and Whitey take Broadway Bill on the track circuit accompanied by Alice where they will face triumph and tragedy. There will be trouble with crooked bookies and jockeys. Reputations and fortunes will be lost, but in the end, lives will be changed for Dan and Alice, and one unexpected Higgins.

Frankie Darro, Warner Baxter, Clarence Muse, Douglas Dumbrille

Robert Riskin's quick wit,  self-deprecating humour, and keen character insight are on full display in the screenplay for Broadway Bill.

Frank Capra's 1950 remake of Broadway Bill retained much of Robert Riskin's dialogue. After all, if it isn't broke, why fix it? The breezy and still touching story benefited from the addition of songs by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, and Bing Crosby's easy-going persona as opposed to Warner Baxter's intensity. The laid-back attitude added a kindred touch to the relationship with Whitey, again played by Clarence Muse, and with the racehorse Broadway Bill. Riding High also features a delightful cameo by Oliver Hardy and a charming final role for Harry Davenport as the Higgins' family butler.

Clarence Muse, Bing Crosby, Coleen Gray

Along with the script, archival footage, and Clarence Muse, Capra also used the following actors from the 1934 film:  Irving Bacon,Ward Bond, Frankie Darro, Douglas Dumbrille, Margaret Hamilton, Paul Harvey, Charles Lane, and Raymond Walburn.

Ms. Riskin's joint biography of her parents is available as of February 26th.
Follow on twitter @vriskin.


  1. First, I love that you took time to mention Robert Kalloch's wardrobe in "Black Moon". I haven't seen this film, but I'm going to make it a priority now!

    Also, thanks for reminding me of the terrific screenplay in "Broadway Bill". It's been some years since I've seen it, but I remember what an unexpectedly good script it had, thanks to Robert R. Time to watch it again.

    1. Thanks so much for visiting and sharing this Sunday morning with me and these movies. I had so much fun revisiting Broadway Bill/Riding High and I know you will as well.

  2. That BLACK MOON poster is pretty awesome.

    1. I agree! I looked over lots of lobby cards, etc. but this is outstanding.

      I now have a Roy William Neill trilogy with Black Moon 1934, The Black Room with Karloff 1935, and Black Angel 1947 noir.

  3. Thanks so much for entering the Blogathon. I've yet to see Black Moon, but it's going on my 'to see' list now. And thanks for reminding me about Broadway Bill; I haven't seen it in ages...

    1. My pleasure. I plan on enjoying your interview tomorrow, when things quiet down around the house.

      Broadway Bill is that sort of a movie; when we revisit it we wonder why we stayed apart so long.

  4. I remember Fay Wray from KING KONG. Also I saw her in Crime of Passion with Raymond Burr(the future PERRY MASON) and BARBARA STANWYCK(the future Victoria Barkley on THE BIG VALLEY). Fay played the wife of Raymond whose character was named Tony. Wasn't Fay also in TAMMY AND THE BACHELOR starring Debbie Reynolds? I believe Fay played the mother of Peter played by Leslie Nielsen.

    1. Your recall of Tammy and the Bachelor is correct.

      Along with Crime of Passion/Raymond Burr, you can also see Fay Wray guest starring in three episodes of Perry Mason.

      I wrote about Crime of Passion a few years ago in an article I called "Desperate Housewives of Film Noir."

  5. Yes, that is an awesome Pre-Code poster for BLACK MOON. It may not provide Fay Wrap with one of her best roles, but I'll watch any movie directed by Roy William Neill. It's hard to think of another director of the 1930s and 1940s who maximized a small budget as well as him.

  6. I agree with you about Neill. The movies on my shelves by director count would place him near the top of the list. Those Holmes flicks make a difference, and the fact that I can rewatch them says a lot about the director.

  7. As soon as I saw the name HELEN VINSON I remembered that I saw her in the movie IN NAME ONLY(1939) with CARY GRANT, CAROLE LOMBARD, KAY FRANCIS, PEGGY ANN GARNER and I believe, CHARLES COBURN as Carys wealthy father.

    1. In Name Only is a movie I haven't seen since I was a teenager. I remember Helen Vinson most from Beyond Tomorrow, The Kennel Murder Case, Torrid Zone, and, of course, Broadway Bill. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is another great picture in which she appeared.

  8. Do you know very many MYRNA LOY movies? Ive seen CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN & its sequel plus two with CARY GRANT-MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE and THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBYSOXER. I have also seen THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES where she plays the wife of MR. FREDRIC MARCH(the TCM star of the month). She also played the aunt of one of our favorite movie stars-DORIS DAY in MIDNIGHT LACE. I think most people who have seen that movie will remember DORIS in the park with all that fog in London and then Doris running back to her apartment.

    1. I enjoy Midnight Lace. It has great atmosphere. I've seen most of Myrna Loy's movies, from the 1930s onward. The Thin Man movies, and her others with William Powell always come to mind first. She is adorable in Broadway Bill. Her autobiography, Being and Becoming is very interesting.

  9. I've watched Riding High but not Broadway Bill. So interesting to know that Capra used many actors from the original in the remake! Anmd Fay releasing 11 films in 1934 is something extraordinary!
    Amazing article, as always!

    1. Thank you so much. It means a lot getting that pat on the back.



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