Thanks, friend Jonathan Smith, for making me more aware of screenwriter and producer Robert Riskin (1897-1955). To grapple with the legend of Frank Capra over time is to let a certain amount of scales fall from your eyes. Riskin was at once more and less than the “genius behind” the beloved director, but there’s one thing for sure, and that’s that Riskin has not gotten the credit he deserves for his contributions.
Raised in a Yiddish-speaking household in New York’s Lower East Side, Riskin grew up attending local vaudeville theatres, studying the comedians, and writing down their jokes. He briefly worked for a shirt manufacturer, and this led to his working for a movie company the firm had invested in. Circa 1916-19, Riskin, wrote, produced, directed, and generally superintended a string of “Klever Komedies”, many of them starring the vaudeville team of Moore and Littlefield.
In the 1920s Riskin went into the theatre as as a playwright, producer and director. His Broadway producing credits included The Mud Turtle (1925), The Bells (1926), She Couldn’t Say No (1926), A Lady in Love (1927) and Bless You Sister (1927-28), the latter of which he also co-wrote. He also co-wrote and directed Many a Slip (1930).
When the stock market crash pulled the rug out from under Broadway, Riskin tried his luck in Hollywood. The screen adaptation of his last Broadway play Many a Slip (1931), with Joan Bennett, Lew Ayres, and Slim Summerville, was one of his first films. The Miracle Woman (1931) was the film that brought him together professionally with Capra, and the partnership lasted actively for a decade, although later Capra remade some of their earlier collaborations, and directed one of Riskin’s screenplays without the close involvement that had earlier been their M.O. Subsequent projects that bear the names of both men included American Madness (1932), Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Meet John Doe (1941), Riding High (1950), Here Comes the Groom (1951) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961).
Riskin and Capra had officially parted ways after Meet John Doe. The tension between them is not hard to put your finger on. Capra was a bit of a grandstander and a credit hog. His habit of doing this extended back to the silent era, when he had a tendency to claim sole credit for the success of Harry Langdon. In the sound era, there was a tendency to brand his collaborations with Riskin as “Capra pictures”. But Riskin had also worked successfully outside the partnership, notably on such things as The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), co-written by Jo Swerling and directed by John Ford. Riskin was also the one who supplied the core liberal spirit in most of Capra’s pictures — Capra was politically a conservative Republican. Yet it’s too much to claim, I think, that Riskin was somehow the real talent in the partnership. Capra had made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) with other writers, though in both it could be argued that they were working with a template established by Riskin. But Capra was certainly was the one responsible for getting great performances out of his actors, and for shooting those performances to maximum advantage.
In 1942, Riskin married Fay Wray and joined the WWII effort on the Office of War Information When the war was over he returned to Hollywood, where he wrote The Thin Man Goes Home (1944), contributed to The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), and wrote and produced the “Capraesque” Magic Town (1947), starring Jimmy Stewart and directed by William Wellman. He also wrote screenplays for Mister 880 and Half Angel before he was felled by a stroke in 1950. Riskin lived another five years, but was unable to work after the stroke. George Jessel delivered the eulogy at his funeral.
To learn more about vaudeville please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic and silent screen comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.