Writing Pictures- The Classic Screenwriters: Robert Riskin
by Robin Bailes
Try as I might to concentrate on the writer, this always ends up as the story of two men. Robert Riskin met Frank Capra at a story conference for a play of Riskin’s that Columbia had bought the rights for called Bless You Sister. Riskin made an impression on Capra by arguing vehemently that they should not make the film since the play had been a flop and the film would be too. So sure was Riskin that he refused to write the screenplay. The idea that a writer would argue against his work being filmed and then turn down a job astounded Capra, but he went ahead with the film anyway, retitled The Miracle Woman. He should have listened to Riskin, the film was indeed a flop.
Under contract at Columbia, Riskin worked on a few mediocre to poor films before Capra hired him to work on dialogue for Platinum Blonde. The film tends to get forgotten today but it is great fun and was very successful, largely due to Riskin’s contribution. The writer and director worked together on a total of nine films (both winning Oscars for It Happened One Night) with Capra directing four more based on Riskin material (including two remakes). Riskin introduced the moral emphasis into Capra’s work, the underdog spirit which we think of as Capraesque. In fact, an awful lot of what we think of as Capraesque is in fact Riskinesque. You’d never know it from watching his films but Capra was a Republican, as was another of his regular writers Myles Connolly. Riskin was very left-wing, as was yet a third Capra writer Jo Swerling. It was this mix of ideas that saved Capra’s films from becoming polemics, they appealed to people across the political spectrum because they were written by people from across that spectrum. That said, it was undoubtedly Riskin’s ethics that really informed the stories, to the extent that critics started to question whether these were Capra films or Capra/Riskin films.
This was unfortunate. Despite his talent, Frank Capra was an insecure man and from early on in their association he began to play down Riskin’s contribution and frequently tried to obtain co-writing credit for himself. Riskin, meanwhile, had to watch Capra getting praise (not to mention a lucrative profit share scheme) heaped on him for what the writer felt was his own work. Columbia boss Harry Cohn gave Riskin a shot at directing himself but the result, When You’re in Love, flopped and Riskin never directed again.
The pair parted company in the late 30s then re-teamed in the early 40s for a brief attempt at independent production, resulting in their last film together, Meet John Doe, which feels like a watered down amalgam of their greatest hits. Riskin had some success with other directors though relatively small. Capra made great films with other writers but so many of his triumphs are informed by his Riskin films, It’s a Wonderful Life especially seems to lift ideas wholesale from American Madness and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
The sad truth is that both men could do without the other, but neither was as good. Capra was a great interpreter of Riskin’s work, and Riskin wrote to the director’s strengths. If they could just have accepted this fact, they probably would have been all the happier for it.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here. There’s a huge amount that could be written on the relationship between these two men, who so defined each other’s work (if you want to know more, avoid Capra’s revisionist and self-serving autobiography), but the thing that I take from it is that, contrary to the current trend of writer/directors, there is a real value to director and screenwriter being different, but equally skilled and strong-willed, people. It may be a volatile relationship, but the whole is likely to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Robin Bailes is a freelance writer with various credits on stage, page, screen and radio. He has 4 published stage shows, has written for 6 BBC radio shows, was a winner in the BBC’s Last Laugh sitcom writing competition and has a feature film in development with Andris Films. He is writer and presenter of the web-series ‘Dark Corners (of this sick world)’ and has written short stories for various publications both print and online. Robin is a passionate devotee of silent cinema has written a book on the subject called ‘Just As Good But Quieter’, for which he is currently seeking a publisher. Robin is currently available for paid writing work.