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Riskin, Robert

RISKIN, Robert


Writer. Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 30 March 1897. Education: Attended public schools in New York and Baltimore. Military Service: Served in the United States Navy during World War I. Family: Married the actress Fay Wray, 1942; two daughters and one son. Career: Left school at 13 to work in textile mill; as a youth, studio manager on short films for Victor Moore in Florida; freelance writer: plays She Couldn't Say No, A Lady in Love, Bless You, Sister, The Lady Lies, and Many a Slip were produced in New York, 1926–30; 1931—first film as writer, Men in Her Life: contract at Columbia, often working with Frank Capra; 1941—adviser to British government on film as propaganda; then worked with the Office of War Information: created the Overseas Motion Picture Bureau, and served as its chief, 1942–45; 1945—formed Robert Riskin Productions; 1950—stroke ended his writing career. Awards: Academy Award for It Happened One Night, 1934; Writers Guild Laurel Award, 1954. Died: 20 September 1955.


Films as Writer:

1931

Men in Her Life (Beaudine); Platinum Blonde (Capra); Three Wise Girls (Beaudine)

1932

The Big Timer (Buzzell); American Madness (Capra); Night Club Lady (Cummings); Virtue (Buzzell); Shopworn (Grinde)

1933

Ann Carver's Profession (Buzzell); Lady for a Day (Capra); Ex-Lady (Florey)

1934

It Happened One Night (Capra); Broadway Bill (Capra)

1935

Carnival (W. Lang); The Whole Town's Talking (Ford)

1936

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Capra)

1937

When You're in Love (+ d); Lost Horizon (Capra)

1938

You Can't Take It with You (Capra)

1941

Meet John Doe (Capra)

1944

The Thin Man Goes Home (Thorpe) (+ pr)

1947

Magic Town (Wellman) (+ pr)

1950

Mister 880 (Goulding)

1951

Half Angel (Sale); Here Comes the Groom (Capra)

Films as Associate Producer:

1939

They Shall Have Music (Mayo); The Real Glory (Hathaway)

Publications

By RISKIN: books—

Lady for a Day and It Happened One Night (scripts) in Four-Star Scripts, edited by Lorraine Noble, New York, 1936.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (script) in Twenty Best Film Plays, edited by John Gassner and Dudley Nichols, New York, 1943.

Six Screenplays by Robert Riskin: Platinum Bonde, American Madness, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, Meet John, Berkeley, 1997.


On RISKIN: articles—

Film Comment (New York), Winter 1970–71.

Films and Filming (London), March 1972.

Corliss, Richard, "Capra and Riskin," in Films and Filming (London), November-December 1972.

Frank, Sam, in American Screenwriters, edited by Robert E. Morsberger, Stephen O. Lesser, and Randall Clark, Detroit, Michigan, 1984.

Hicks, Jimmie, "Frank Capra (Part 2)," in Films in Review (New York), January-February 1993.

"Whey You're In Love," in Reid's Film Index (New South Wales), no. 20, 1996.

Turner, G., in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1997.


* * *

A writer of sophisticated stage plays in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Robert Riskin had over 20 screen credits in a career which lasted two-and-a-half decades. More than half of his work was with Frank Capra—a creative union which culminated in some of Riskin's best screenplays. Among these works are American Madness, Lady for a Day, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, and Meet John Doe. Of these only Lost Horizon is an adaptation—and it is a solid translation of the novel that became a successful film that won popular and critical acclaim.

The collaboration of Capra and Riskin evidently became a vital force in creating a body of some of the best Capra films. While it is difficult to judge how much Riskin added to a Capra film, a close reading of the director's work indicates that his favorite writer probably influenced some of the satirical and sophisticated tone of the films—not necessarily changing Capra's overall vision, but polishing many of the aspects of his creation. Since Riskin was schooled in the sophisticated stage comedy he was well able to provide Claudette Colbert, the rich man's daughter in It Happened One Night, with plausible and sparkling dialogue. Working for other directors in the early 1930s, Riskin handled urbane characters in such works as Men in Her Life, Night Club Lady, and Virtue. Even in these minor works critics lauded the characterization and the wisecracks as they had praised his dialogue and comedy characters for the stage dramas Bless You, Sister and Many a Slip. Riskin added insight and effective dialogue for the protagonist bank president and his high-society friends in Capra's American Madness. The director, although also a writer, was not noted for handling this type of material in his 1920s films.

Some of the Riskin touch is evident in even his most atypical work, the adaptation of Lost Horizon. Two characters, played by Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell, were given comic characteristics that did not exist in the novel. In the 1940s Riskin became a producer-writer on his own and created the fifth in the series of "thin man" pictures, The Thin Man Goes Home, plus a film called Magic Town, a work that had many of the characteristics of a Capra picture. But the magic in Riskin's dialogue began to fade and he would never equal his best work of the past, when he had a marvelous symbiotic relationship with Frank Capra.

—Donald W. McCaffrey

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