Monday, May 29, 2017

Frank Capra & Robert Riskin

When one thinks of famous Hollywood collaborations, the first thing to come to mind is a famous actor/actress team like William Powell and Myrna Loy or a director/actor pair like John Ford and John Wayne. A director/writer isn't something that springs to mind but if it does, then it is probably the directing and writing team of Frank Capra and Robert Riskin.

When you interview Capra, all he will talk about is Riskin, and when you interview Riskin, all he wants to talk about is Capra.
- 1936 feature by Dudly Early (McBride, 298)

The films of Frank Capra are instantly recognizable with their common themes of the common man from a small town with high ideals who meets and overcomes corruption out in the big world, whether it's politicians, business tycoons, or mean old men who own the town. It's a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town: all of these share these themes (as well as a mostly familiar cast with either Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper at the helm). While these films have been called "Capra-corn" by some, they did and still do inspire the people of the world to fight evil and hope for a better future for mankind. They instill hope and patriotism and truly embody the spirit upon which America was founded.

But where did the words that inspire these feelings come from? Well, mostly from Robert Riskin.
If serendipity smiles, a writer may team up with a man who makes his own films. If the team-up is symbiotic and successful, the experience can be very rewarding: artistically, economically, and as lagniappe for the ego. Such was my long team-up with Robert Riskin (Capra, 147-148).
While Capra is all praise for Riskin, it appears there was an Edith Head situation: Capra would take credit for some of the writing and play down Riskin's part in the same way that Head would accept the Oscar for Best Costume in Sabrina (1954) and not mention Givenchy, who had provided the majority of the wardrobe.
We worked together on scripts (Capra, 148).
He [the writer] puts so much into it, blows up a slim idea into a finished product, and then is dismissed with the ignominious credit line - dialogue writer (Riskin in a 1937 interview).
Luckily for us, Riskin didn't let that get in the way of his collaborations with Capra, as they made nine movies together. Their first real collaboration was Platinum Blonde (1931), with Riskin credited with providing dialogue, even though the story came from a script Riskin had written earlier titled Gallagher (Loretta Young's character in the film. The title was changed to Platinum Blonde when the up-and-coming Jean Harlow was added to the cast).
The brilliance of Riskin's contribution and of Capra's direction elevated Platinum Blonde from a formulaic comedy into a first rate film (McBride, 233).
 The film also set the tone for their future films together. It brought together the "essential character and thematic elements that would be present in the Capra-Riskin classics...that established Capra's reputation as the most important American director of the 1930s." The character of Stew Smith (Robert Williams in his best and final screen role. He died four days after the premiere from appendicitis) has several qualities that would show up again in various Capra films, the "prototype of the common man protagonist thrust into a situation of great wealth and tempted to forget his true allegiances" (McBride, 233).

Their third film together was Lady for a Day Although Riskin had already written three scripts for Capra prior to this film, it was the first in which the relationship between the two really came out, with Riskin writing the script, Capra making minor changes, and then taking credit for doing more than he did. While it's unfortunate that Capra failed to give credit where it was due, it was also a fact that together these men created something amazing.
Riskin had the faculty of putting the words down on paper the way Capra wanted to see them. Capra couldn't keep it all in his head. His idea of a story line was excellent...but he would not always know how to get there. In the technical aspects of putting it on paper, Riskin was better than Capra.
- Chet Sticht (McBride, 297)
Riskin, Robson, Capra
Riskin brought to Capra a slangy, down-to-earth humor, almost a cracker-barrel philosophy, which worked well with Capra's style. But Bob was a soloist...he could not take the fact that Capra was boss. Bob finally wanted to get out and be a celebrity on his own.
- Sidney Buchman (McBride, 294) 

Starring May Robson in the title role, the film would bring Oscar nominations to both Capra and Riskin and seal Capra's status as a top director. This was followed with the five-time Oscar-winning It Happened One Night (1934) starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert (more on that here).

The story behind It Happened One Night is a story of a film that almost wasn't made and starred two people who didn't want to be in it. And it turned into one of the most beloved comedies of all time, setting the stage for the Screwball comedies that the 1930s were famous for.

However, Capra's Oscar win was a turning point in the relationship between Capra and those he worked with - mainly Riskin. In Joseph McBride's biography of Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, he seeks to find the answer of what happened. Winning the Oscar "only deepened his [Capra's] self-doubt and insecurity...multiplied over his anxiety over the fact that he had to share his success with someone else." It was this fear of not knowing whether his success was his own or merely a fluke based off of someone else that led him to "appropriate credit belonging to his writers" (312).

It also affected his future decisions. "I chickened out. I didn't want to make any more pictures. Every story I thought of doing seemed very poor. How could I top this?" (313). Thankfully he did and some of his later films have topped It Happened One Night, notably It's a Wonderful Life (1946) will live forever.
One of the things I've noticed is that certain pictures will live forever, and they're beyond you. I look at 'em and they don't seem to be mine. It's difficult for me to understand (McBride, 312).
Capra and Riskin next made Broadway Bill (1934) followed by Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) starring Gary Cooper as Longfellow Deeds. The film told the story of a small town tuba player who inherits a lot of money and, after being brought to his senses by a farmer who reminds him about the poor, and tries to give it all away, only to be accused of insanity. It was Riskin's favorite film that he wrote for Capra and garnered him an Oscar nomination and another win for Capra.

While working on their next picture together, Lost Horizon (1937) starring Ronald Colman, Riskin decided it was time to split from Capra and direct his own films.
Within a year Riskin will be a better-known director than Capra and Capra will fade unless he hurries to discover another writing partner as smart as Bob Riskin.
- Columnist Cameron Shipp (McBride, 359) 

After a lot of fighting with Columbia, Riskin finally directed one film, When You're in Love (1937) starring Cary Grant. It "applied to the letter all the ideas which had made his comedies famous. It had everything except that little something - and the film was a failure" (Sidney Buchman, McBride, 360). Capra meanwhile got Sidney Buchman to rewrite Riskin's script for Lost Horizon (Buchman wasn't credited). He also wrote a script for a film about Chopin that Capra was unable to make.

Riskin's next two credited films (he contributed to H.C. Potter's The Cowboy and the Lady) were again with Capra. You Can't Take It With You (1938) brought Capra his third Oscar and Riskin yet another nomination (he would be nominated a total of five times with one being his win for It Happened One Night. All were for Capra films).


The next film would be  Meet John Doe (1941), but in the meantime, Riskin left Capra again to become Samuel Goldwyn's executive assistant, as well as "script-writer and script doctor."
From now on, nobody will need to wonder what Riskin wrote or didn't write. The 'Riskin Touch' is being publicized... As collaborators, Riskin [had] as much hand in the directing as Capra in the screen writing.
- Washington Daily News, Katherine Smith (McBride, 404)

During this time, Capra made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and the 30 minute Cavalcade of the Academy Awards (1940).
Here is Capra, without the help of Riskin, back to his finest form - the form of Mr. Deeds. It has always been an interesting question, how much Capra owed to his faithful scenario writer. Now it is difficult to believe that Riskin's part was ever very important, for all the familiar qualities are here.
- Graham Greene (McBride, 409)

Less than a year after they had gone their separate ways, Riskin, dissatisfied with his contract with Goldwyn, accepted Capra's offer to become vice-president of the newly formed Frank Capra Productions, Inc. Their first film, Meet John Doe, was also the final film Riskin and Capra made before going their separate ways during WWII - Capra directing the famous "Why We Fight" series and "Know Your Enemy" documentaries (Capra also filmed Arsenic and Old Lace in 1941, which wasn't released until after the Broadway play's final run in 1944).

It took a war to break us up (Capra, 148).

Meet John Doe, like the post-war It's a Wonderful Life (1946), was not well received and the plans for a sequel were dropped. It also caused the Capra and Riskin to dissolve their newly-formed company. Riskin then left Hollywood to work on war propaganda films in London, which angered Capra (he felt abandoned) and ended the "friendship," though they would often see one another and keep up the pretense of being friends.
Even after they broke up, Bob never spoke critically to me about Frank. He wasn't that kind of guy.
- Tom Pryor (McBride, 441)
Although they had parted ways, each continued to impact the others career, both trying unsuccessfully to distance themselves from each other. Capra claimed that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life were both successes made without Riskin when in fact they both used the successful Capra-Riskin formula (McBride, 520). After the war, Capra made two films based on Riskin material - Riding High (1950), a remake of Broadway Bill, and Here Comes the Groom (1951) from a story Riskin had sold to Paramount. While the latter film was in production, Riskin suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair. He died in 1955 (shortly before his death, he was awarded the Writer's Guild's Laurel Award). To the end, despite their arguments, each man still claimed that the other was his best friend.
For the rest of the 1950s, Capra made education documentaries followed by two final films, A Hole in the Head (1959) written by Arnold Schulman and Pocketful of Miracles (1961), a remake of Lady for a Day. The rest of Capra's life was spent writing his autobiography and appearing in television specials. He died in 1991 at the age of 94.
Frank Capra's films stirred the moral and political conscience of American moviegoers, and his movies will forever be revered as American classics.

- Ronald Reagan

The following Capra-Riskin films are available on YouTube:

This post is part of The Favorite Director Blogathon hosted by myself and The Midnite Drive-In. Be sure to check out everyone else's favorite directors!

Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. Joseph McBride. Simon & Schuster. 1992.
Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title. An autobiography. Frank Capra. MacMillan Co. 1971.


  1. Never would have thought of a writer director symbiotic relationship, but a couple did pop into my mind after reading this. Great review.

  2. I don't know who said it, but there's an old quote that always stayed with me: "Where's the statue to the writers in this town?" It all starts with the words, but this is film and that is not enough. Helluva cycle for the tortured creative types.

    1. It's a shame that they didn't always share credit back then. It's getting better though! Thanks for reading :)

  3. What a well-written article. I've always been a fan of Frank Capra's films but didn't realize how instrumental Riskin was to his success.

    1. Thanks! This post turned out so much different than I had envisioned, once I started doing the research. I learned a lot! Thanks for reading :)

  4. Fascinating...the collaboration between Riskin and Capra included so many of Hollywood's greatest films of all time...and Riskin was truly the unsung hero. Nowhere near as memorable a screenwriting name as someone like I.A.L. Diamond who always collaborated with Billy Wilder...Thank you for the history lesson! Now I want me a big helping of "Capra-corn" - I love those feel-good movies!
    Thanks also for hosting this amazing blogathon, Phyllis!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! I keep wanting to look into the stories of other writers (Norman Krasna is another favorite). Have fun watching some Capra-corn ;)

  5. What an interesting, overlooked duo! Now that I think about it, Capra often did go back to Riskin's material after their break-up, didn't he? It's a shame they couldn't have made up before Riskin's death. Great article, Phyl!

  6. Great post! I invite you to submit it to this week's The Classic Movie Marathon Link Party. It ends tonight at midnight so if you miss this one, there is a new one each Monday night at 8 pm ET

    1. Thanks for reading and for the invite! I just added it :)

  7. What a nice story of friendship, collaboration and some trouble on the way. You certainly did a lot of research and I loved that you added so many quotes.
    Thanks for co-hosting this great event!

    1. Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it! I certainly enjoyed learning about it :)

  8. Fascinating story of the partnership between two very talented men. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the Capra/Riskin collaboration! Great post!

    John V

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks so much for reading :)