Robert Riskin

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Robert Riskin
Born (1897-03-30)March 30, 1897
New York City, New York
Died September 20, 1955(1955-09-20) (aged 58)
Los Angeles, California
Spouse(s) Fay Wray
(m. 1942-1955; his death)

Robert Riskin (March 30, 1897 – September 20, 1955)[1] was an American screenwriter and playwright, best known for his collaborations with director-producer Frank Capra.[1] Riskin’s older brother, Everett born in 1895, went on to a career as Hollywood film producer, from 1934-1952, serving as production head for many of Columbia Pictures noteworthy films : The Awful Truth (1937), Holiday, (1938), Here Comes Mr. Jordan, (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home, (1945).[2]

Early life[edit]

Robert Riskin was born on New York City’s Lower East side to Jewish parents, Bessie and Jakob, who had emigrated from Czarist Russia to escape conscription. He and his two brothers and two sisters grew up speaking Yiddish. An enthusiast of the vaudeville stage, the teen age Riskin took every opportunity to sneak into the theatre and catch the shows. He was a particular fan of the comedians who performed there and he habitually transcribed their jokes into a notebook he carried with him. While still a teen-ager Riskin took a job with a shirt-manufacturing firm, Heidenheim and Levy. The partners of this firm had a sideline business, investing in the new film industry and they sent the seventeen-year-old Riskin to Florida to run a production company. Riskin proceeded to turn out one and two reel films until his enlistment in World War I.[3]


At the end of the war Riskin returned to New York City where in partnership with a friend, he found some success in producing plays for Broadway. Riskin began his career as a playwright, writing for many local New York City playhouses.[1] Two of his plays, Bless You, Sister and Many a Slip, managed to have successful runs on Broadway.[1] Riskin continued his Broadway career until 1929, when the stock market crash saw a decline in theatre attendance causing many theatres to close. It was the beginning of the sound era in films calling for a need for talents that had a facility with writing dialogue, and experience with stage work. Riskin recognized he had the credentials and seized the opportunity by relocating to Hollywood.[3] He moved to Hollywood in 1931 after Columbia Pictures bought the screen rights to several of his plays. His first collaboration with director Frank Capra came in 1931 with the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle The Miracle Woman.

Although Riskin wrote a number of other films for Columbia, it was his string of hit ventures with Capra that brought him acclaim. Riskin received Academy Award nominations for his screenplays for the Capra films Lady for a Day (1933), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) with Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, You Can't Take It with You (1938) with Lionel Barrymore and James Stewart, and Here Comes the Groom (1951) with Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman. He was awarded the Oscar for his much-lauded screenplay for 1934's It Happened One Night.[1]

By 1941, when Capra directed Riskin's Meet John Doe,[4] the screenwriter had tired of Capra's knack for taking credit for Riskin's work. After several confrontations with the director while working on Meet John Doe, Riskin never willingly collaborated with Capra again. According to an account of Hollywood screenwriter David Rintels, that was denied by Capra, Riskin brandished 120 blank pages in Capra's face and challenged: "Put the famous Capra touch on that!".[5] In 1945, Riskin wrote the story for The Thin Man Goes Home[1] and had an uncredited collaboration on the 1946 film noir classic The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. The following year, he wrote and produced the minor James Stewart hit Magic Town. Directed by William Wellman, Magic Town has a similar flavor and tone to Riskin's Capra-directed films.

Just prior to World War II, Riskin became an associate producer for Samuel Goldwyn,[6] and in 1942 joined the Office of War Information (where he organized the OWI's overseas division).[1]

Riskin directed only one entire film, When You're in Love, a minor musical starring Grace Moore and Cary Grant. Unsuccessful at the box office, When You're in Love is now remembered (if at all) for an unusual publicity stunt: silent film-star Louise Brooks was given a chance at a comeback by appearing as a chorus girl in this movie. After the war, Riskein and his brother created their own film company. Their first film, Magic Town, was written and directed by Riskin but the directing was finished by director William A. Wellman.

Relationship with Frank Capra[edit]

Between 1931 and 1936, Riskin and Capra collaborated on six films, Riskin contributing to at least six other screenplays. Throughout the 1930s both director and scriptwriter maintained what appeared to be a harmonious working partnership. Their personal relationship, however, was strained, Riskin’s liberal politics in conflict with Capra, a committed, conservative Republican. The leading characters in Capra’s greatest film successes came to be identified in the media as “Capra’s Heroes,” when in fact they were more a product of Riskin’s ideology and social conscience.[7]

In 1939, looking for a creative autonomy unavailable under the control of the studio system, Riskin and Capra formed an independent production company, Frank Capra Productions. The partnership was divided 65/35; 65% for Capra, 35% for Riskin. By 1941, enthusiasm for the joint endeavor had decreased and after completion of just one film, “Meet John Doe,” the formal production association dissolved.[8]

During the time of his declining health, home confinement, and final residence at the Motion Picture & Television Country Home and Hospital, Riskin was regularly visited by old friends such as Edward G. Robinson, Jack Benny, and Irving Berlin. Long time friend and screenwriting colleague, Jo Swerling and his wife remained devoted visitors. Conspicuously absent was Frank Capra, who never visited Riskin during the five years of his illness. Swerling was pained by Capra’s behavior, but Riskin refused to disparage Capra maintaining a loyalty to the man, calling him “his best friend.” The Los Angeles Examiner covered Riskin’s funeral in September 1955, describing the “notables” in attendance. The report also identified the “one man who wasn’t there.” Frank Capra did not attend Robert Riskin’s funeral.[9]

Stroke and death[edit]

In 1950, Robert Riskin suffered a debilitating stroke that prevented him from writing additional scripts.[1] His last screenplays, still in the pipeline, were produced between 1950 and 1951. Ironically, Frank Capra was assigned to Riskin's last original story, Here Comes the Groom, which he directed in 1951. Years after Riskin's death in 1955, Capra directed a remake of the 1933 film "Lady for a Day," which Riskin had written from a short story by Damon Runyon and Capra had directed. The 1961 version, with a screenplay by Hal Kanter and Harry Tugend from the Riskin-Runyon material was titled "A Pocketful of Miracles". The film became Capra's last.

Upon his death on September 20, 1955, Riskin was in the 13th year of marriage to actress Fay Wray.[1][10] Riskin had two children and one adopted daughter with Wray, including Susan (born 1936, adopted 1942), Robert (born 1943), and Victoria (born 1946). George Jessel read the eulogy at Riskin's funeral. Interment was at Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood California.

A biography by Ian Scott, In Capra's Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskin, was published in 2006 by the University Press of Kentucky.

Selected filmography[edit]


Academy Awards[edit]



Lifetime Achievement Awards[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Robert Riskin, Who Won 'Oscar' For 'It Happened Ohe Night,' Dies." New York Times. September 22, 1955.
  2. ^, retrieved December 25, 2013
  3. ^ a b Gladstone, Bill, “Remembering Robert Riskin,” November 15, 2011,, retrieved December 19, 2013
  4. ^ Churchill, Douglas W. "Capra and Riskin to Film 'Life and Death of John Doe' for First Independent Venture." New York Times. November 7, 1939.
  5. ^ Capra,, Frank. "'One man, one film' -- The Capra contention". 
  6. ^ "Robert Riskin Joins Metro as Producer-Writer -- Paramount and Roxy Top Holiday Marks." New York Times. January 2, 1942.
  7. ^ Scott, Ian, “In Capra’s Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskin,” University of Kentucky Press, 2006, p. 148
  8. ^ Scott, Ian, “In Capra’s Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskin,” University of Kentucky Press, 2006, p.138
  9. ^ Scott, Ian, “In Capra’s Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskin,” University of Kentucky Press, 2006, Proogue: "The Three Act Play"
  10. ^ "Fay Wray Married to Robert Riskin." New York Times. August 25, 1942.

External links[edit]