Family & Companions
A prolific writer who transitioned to film following success on Broadway, Robert Riskin collaborated with Frank Capra on some of the director's most iconic films, eventually earning five Academy Award nominations along the way. Riskin first worked with Capra on the religious-themed drama "The Miracle Woman" (1931) and bleak comedy "The Platinum Blonde" (1931) before collaborating on their first truly great film, "Lad for a Day" (1933). But it was the classic screwball comedy "It Happened One Night" (1934) that helped define both their careers and lived on as one of the greatest examples of the genre. Of course, his work was not limited to Capra, and Riskin wrote for other luminaries of his day like John Ford and William Wellman. But it was with Capra that he did his finest work, as exemplified by "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936), "Lost Horizon" (1937) and "You Can't Take it With You" (1938). Tired of Capra taking credit for his work, Riskin made his last film with the director, "Meet John Doe" (1941), before branching off on his own. Following his service in the war, he wrote "The Thin Man Goes Home" (1944), "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" (1946) and "Riding High" (1950). Riskin suffered a debilitating stroke in 1950, though he received credit for "Here Comes the Groom" (1951) and "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961), which were written before his illness. Though he died relatively young, Riskin's output - particularly with Capra - remained virtually unmatched.
Born on March 30, 1897 in New York City, Riskin first entered show business as a teenager by writing scenarios in a number of silent films before attending Columbia University. After graduating, he branched out to Broadway in the 1920s as the playwright of such successes as "Illicit," "Bless Your Sister" and "Many a Slip." In 1931, Riskin moved to Hollywood when Columbia Pictures bought the rights to a number of his plays. It was also the year of his first collaboration with Frank Capra on the film "The Miracle Woman" (1931), a religious themed drama inspired by the true story of media darling Aimee Semple McPherson. It starred Barbara Stanwyck as a minister's daughter who becomes a famous evangelist despite her lack of faith and her love for a blind songwriter (David Manners). That same year, he wrote "The Platinum Blonde" (1931) for Capra, a rather bleak comedy about a wisecracking reporter (Robert Williams) married to a high-society woman (Jean Harlow), only to feel trapped by life in a gilded cage, leading him to find true love with a fellow reporter (Loretta Young).
Following the rare John Wayne comedy "Arizona" (1931), Riskin penned a number of movies the following year, including the crime drama "Virtue" (1932), which starred future girlfriend Carole Lombard, "Three Wise Girls" (1932) again with Jean Harlow, Irving Cummings' "The Night Club Lady" (1932), "Shopworn" (1932) starring Barbara Stanwyck and ZaSu Pitts, and "Big Timer" (1932) with Thelma Todd. He reunited with Capra on "American Madness" (1932), a clever social drama starring Walter Huston as an iconoclastic bank president who finds himself contending with a bank robber, unruly customers and a board of directors that would like nothing more than to fire him. Working with Capra again, Riskin wrote "Lady for a Day" (1933), a comedy-drama about a Broadway street merchant (May Robson) whose rouse to keep her daughter (Jean Parker) living in luxury becomes threatened after learning she is about to marry a Spanish nobleman (Barry Norton). The film was nominated for several Oscars at the 1932-33 Academy Awards, with Riskin earning his first nod for Best Adapted Screenplay.
While Riskin provided Capra with some of his best material, nothing compared to their collaboration on the multi-Oscar-winning "It Happened One Night" (1934), one of the greatest screwball comedies of all time. The film starred Claudette Colbert as a spoiled high-society girl who wants to marry a gallivanting playboy (Jameson Thomas) over the objection of her father (Walter Connolly). To keep her from marrying, her father isolates her on his yacht, which leads to her escape and encounter with an out-of-work newspaper man (Clark Gable). The bickering pair embarks on a madcap hitchhiking adventure that eventually leads to the mismatched pair falling in love. With snappy dialogue and the infamous scene where Colbert hails a car by exposing her leg, "It Happened One Night" became a huge hit and the first film ever to sweep the five major Academy Awards, winning for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay.
From there, Riskin wrote the boilerplate drama "Broadway Bill" (1934) for Capra, which starred Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy, then moved on to write the comedy "The Whole Town's Talking" (1935) for John Ford. Back with Capra, he penned the script for the second of their great collaborations, "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936), which starred Gary Cooper as Longfellow Deeds, a Vermont bumpkin who inherits millions and moves to the big city, where he encounters all manner of corruption. Jean Arthur co-starred in a key role as a cynical reporter who helps lead Deeds down the primrose path to his inevitable undoing. The film was another hit and lived on as an all-time classic, with Riskin earning his third Academy Award nomination, this time for Best Original Screenplay. Riskin made his one and only film as a director with "When You're in Love" (1937), a musical comedy starring Grace Moore and Cary Grant, and later adapted James Hilton's novel, "Lost Horizon" (1937) for Capra, a massively expensive philosophical drama entered on the enchanted paradise of Shangri-La that nonetheless became a big critical hit and earned several Oscar nods.
Riskin and Capra collaborated on the third of their iconic classics, an adaptation of the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play, "You Can't Take it With You" (1938), a utopian-minded screwball comedy about an eccentric family headed by a former businessman-turned-artist (Lionel Barrymore) who is happy spending all day painting despite his obvious lack of talent. But when one of the daughters (Jean Arthur) falls in love with her boss' son, the family tries and horribly fails to act normal in an effort to impress the in-laws. The film was one of Capra's most profitable of his career and once again received several Academy Awards, including Riskin's fourth for Best Screenplay. After producing two films, "They Shall Have Music" (1939) and "The Real Glory" (1939) with Gary Cooper, Riskin made his last film with Capra, "Meet John Doe" (1941), a satirical drama about a disgruntled and recently fired reporter (Barbara Stanwyck) who causes a public stir after writing a fake suicide note from a John Doe claiming he will jump off of city hall. But when the public wants to meet this John Doe, a fascistic tycoon (Edward Arnold) with presidential ambitions hires a former ballplayer-turned-homeless man (Gary Cooper) to play the part, using him as a springboard to launch his political aspirations. By this point, Riskin was fed up with Capra routinely taking credit for his work, leading him to never willingly collaborate with the director again.
In 1942, Riskin married "King Kong" (1933) star Fay Wray, a marriage that lasted until his death and produced two children. Meanwhile, that same year, he joined the war effort by becoming part of the Office of War Information, where he organized the overseas division. Following that brief respite from Hollywood, he wrote the fifth film of the series, "The Thin Man Goes Home" (1944), which followed Nick Charles (William Powell) on a visit to his hometown with Nora (Myrna Loy), where they find themselves in the middle of international intrigue following the murder of a local house painter. He next wrote "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" (1946), a rather enthralling film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck as a wealthy woman married to a simpering alcoholic (Kirk Douglas), both of whom are hiding a dark secret about her deceased aunt (Judith Anderson). He went on to write the William Wellman comedy "Magic Town" (1947) which starred James Stewart, but in 1950, Riskin suffered a debilitating stroke that prevented him from writing another script, though several were already written and later directed by Capra, like the musical "Riding High" (1950), "Here Comes the Groom" (1951) - which earned Riskin his fifth and final Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay - and Capra's final film "Pocket Full of Miracles" (1961). Wray suspended her own career in order to care for him, and Riskin died from a neurological illness on Sept. 20, 1955. He was just 58 years old.
By Shawn Dwyer