ABOUT ROBERT RISKIN
Hollywood isn’t often noted for its’ successful marriages. However, writer Robert Riskin and actress Fay Wray were one of the exceptions. The two were married for thirteen years until his death parted them.
Their daughter is publishing the book Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Affair. I am participating in The Fay Wray and Robert Riskin Blogathon honoring these two Hollywood stars and the book hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and AnnMarie at Classic Movie Hub.
One of the things I am always bemoaning about our modern films is the lackluster, disappointing dialogue. Classic films were full of snappy one liners, rapid fire conversations full of double entendres and attraction disguised as insults. They were witty and smart, but could also be cutting and sharp. It is rare to run across this verbal brilliance in new releases. Which is why I wanted to focus on Robert Riskin for the sake of this blogathon.
It’s only in recent years, that I have developed an interest in the talent behind the camera. Riskin is one such person. He worked as a screenwriter and playwright. His most successful films were those he collaborated on with Frank Capra. Riskin won an Oscar for his writing on It Happened One Night and was nominated for four others. He was clearly a wordsmith who had an innate grasp of the English language in action.
One of the lesser known films Riskin and Capra collaborated on is Platinum Blonde. It marks the second time they worked together. Though Riskin wasn’t the only writer on this film, he was in charge of the dialogue. It is one of the earliest displays of his natural talent.
Reporter Stew Smith (Robert Williams) is a star reporter admired by his colleagues and a thorn in the side to his editor. He is also the secret crush of his friend and female fellow reporter, Gallagher (Loretta Young).
Stew Smith: My name’s Smith, Stewart Smith. No relation to John, Joe, Trade, or Mark.
In the course of his work, he meets and falls in love with heiress Anne Schuyler(Jean Harlow). Stew marries her believing she will be happy to live with him on his salary. Anne, however, secretly believes she can transform Stew into a kept man.
Stew’s co-workers happen to agree with Anne’s assessment that he will become one of the idle rich. This angers Stew but his efforts to resist Anne prove futile. He has all but given up on his past life, when an unexpected encounter with Gallagher brings reminders of his former happy life. It’s just the spark Stew needs to fight to become the man he once was.
Gallagher: Don’t turn around now, but, there’s a very beautiful girl up there that seems to be staring at us.
Stew Smith: Staring at us?
Gallagher: My mistake, she’s glaring.
Stew Smith: She’s glaring – it must be my wife.
I’ve always thought of myself as a fan of Capra’s films. But perhaps it’s not just Capra I appreciate but Riskin’s contributions as well.
Since I first watched Platinum Blonde I’ve been captivated by its’ humor and charm. The newspaper profession is one that is so often depicted in classic film, as to be rather common. But somehow Stew Smith manages to be memorable. A lot of that can be attributed to Robert Williams natural performance as a man who truly loves his profession. His Stew has his own brand of integrity, which is often lacking in film reporters.
In fact, I would go so far as to say, Williams gives the standout performance in this film which also stars Jean Harlow and Loretta Young. Harlow is rather wooden and not quite her usual svelte self. Young too, gives a natural performance but it lacks the charisma that Williams displays.
Character actors Walter Catlett and Reginald Owens play to character in secondary parts as the quasi-villains of the picture. Halliwell Hobbes is perhaps the only one who comes close to matching Williams. As the Schuyler family’s sober, common sense butler, he occasionally breaks with the rules and interacts with those of lesser social status.
Along with William’s (and Hobbes) performances, the other thing which makes Platinum Blonde sparkle is Riskin’s dialogue. Of course, the character of Stew Smith is the one who benefits the most from Riskin’s snarky but witty way with words. No matter who Stew is interacting with, he always manages to outwit them whether he is teasing the butler;
Smythe, The Butler: The gentleman from the Tribune.
Stew Smith: There’s no gentlemen at the Tribune.
or talking back to his editor,
Conroy, The Editor: You know what to do in a drawing room?
Stew Smith: It isn’t a question of knowing what to do… it’s knowing how to get IN one that counts.
or feeding off the competition with his fellow reporter and nemesis,
Binji Baker: No use you you hanging around here. Just buy a copy of the Tribune, read it over, then make a rewrite… you can use it for your last edition.
Stew Smith: It’ll never make the last edition. It’ll take me four hours to translate your story into English.
Stew is never without his most powerful asset and weapon…his words. Which of course is befitting for a reporter. It’s interesting that his marriage to Anne neutralizes him in this area. While he still spouts off Riskin’s clever dialogue, Anne’s use of sexual attraction renders Stew’s words completely powerless.
Platinum Blonde may have been an example of life imitating art for Riskin through the character of Stew Smith. Not only did he imbue Stew with a love of the written word, but he made him a hobbyist screenwriter. In fact, Stew’s return to his abandoned screenplay, thanks to encouragement from Gallagher, is the first clue that he has returned to himself. It also acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy for Stew as his play begins to resemble his dreams for the future.
No matter how many times I watch Platinum Blonde it always feels fresh to me, despite a few things in the film which have aged. The fashions have changed, the mores are different, even the way in which news is investigated and reported has changed. But what makes this film remain watchable and entertaining is the humorous dialogue and that’s thanks to Riskin. After all cleverness and wit never go out of style.
This has been my contribution to the Fay Wray and Robert Riskin Blogathon. Please stop by and visit Aurora at Once Upon A Screen and Annmarie at Classic Movie Hub Blog for more contributions on this classic Hollywood duo.