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In Capra's Shadow

In Capra's Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskin

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    In Capra's Shadow
    Book Description:

    Because screenwriter Robert Riskin spent most of his career collaborating with legendary Hollywood director Frank Capra, Riskin's own unique contributions to film have been largely overshadowed. With five Academy Award nominations to his credit for the monumental filmsLady for a Day,Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,You Can't Take It with You,Here Comes the Groom, andIt Happened One Night(for which he won the Oscar), Riskin is often imitated but rarely equaled.

    In Capra's Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskinis the first detailed critical examination of the Hollywood pioneer's life and work. In addition to being one of the great screenwriters of the classic Hollywood era, Riskin was also a producer and director, founding his own film company and playing a crucial role in the foundation of the Screen Writers Guild. During World War II, Riskin was one of the major forces behind propaganda filmmaking. He worked in the Office of War Information and oversaw the distribution -- and later, production -- of films and documentaries in foreign theaters. He was interested in showing the rest of the world more than just an idealized version of America; he looked for films that emphasized the spiritual and cultural vibrancy within the U.S., making charity, faith, and generosity of spirit his propaganda tools. His efforts also laid the groundwork for a system of distribution channels that would result in the dominance of American cinema in Europe in the postwar years.

    Riskin's postwar work included his production of the 1947 filmMagic Town, the tale of a marketing executive who discovers the perfect American small town and uses it for polling. What Riskin created onscreen is not simply a community stuck in an antiquarian past; rather, the town of Grandview observes its own traditions while at the same time confronting the possibilities of the modern world and the challenges of postwar America. Author Ian Scott provides a unique perspective on Riskin and the ways in which his brilliant, pithy style was realized in Capra's enduring films. Riskin's impact on cinema extended far beyond these films as he helped spread Hollywood cinema abroad and articulated his vision of a changing America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5966-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-14)

    In late December 1950, Robert Riskin returned home from work early, complaining of weakness in his left arm and hand. His health had deteriorated over the previous few weeks, and he could no longer concentrate on his screenwriting duties at Twentieth Century-Fox, where he had an office. Riskin was already aware that he needed to see a neurologist, and now the realization that he might become incapacitated made him confess his worst fears to his wife, actress Fay Wray. Wray immediately took him to the hospital. “I drove him carefully . . . carefully, believing, crazily, that a sudden stop...

    (pp. 15-40)

    Robert Riskin was born on the Lower East Side of New York City on March 30, 1897. He was one of five children born to parents Jakob and Bessie, émigrés from tsarist Russia who had escaped to America so Jakob could avoid conscription into the army. Jakob’s aversion to tsarist rule developed out of a way of life that saw him steal horses from the army only to sell the same animals back to the military for a profit. Riskin’s father became a committed socialist and was proud of it. His fervent belief in socialist values acted almost as a...

    (pp. 41-84)

    By 1932, Riskin had already begun to establish himself as a key figure in Hollywood screenwriting. He had immediately demonstrated his credentials as a writer of smart dialogue and witty rejoinders on Frank Capra’sPlatinum Blondein 1931, and in the course of the following year, Columbia head Harry Cohn set Riskin to work on a whole series of projects. The very first screenwriting job he undertook after the Capra film immediately drew attention to his work. In Jerry Hoffman’s adaptation of the Augustus Thomas playArizona(1931), Riskin modernized the dialogue and gave a more contemporary feel to the...

    (pp. 85-126)

    Riskin and Capra’s next movie,Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York on April 12, 1936. It received much popular and critical acclaim, building on the endorsements and favor garnered byIt Happened One Nightmore than two years before.¹ Capra had not put out a movie at all in 1935, his first concerted break from filmmaking since before his collaboration with silent comedian Harry Langdon in 1925. But his year away did nothing to dim the excitement and enthusiasm for his new picture.Mr. Deedswas the high-water mark in the public...

    (pp. 127-154)

    “Everybody gets so worked up about it. Everybody takes it hard.”¹ If Riskin’s words appear perplexing, it is because he felt perplexed about what he had gotten himself into following the release ofLost Horizon.The April 1937 interview inVarietysuggested that Riskin needed to achieve some measure of closure and desired to break the bonds of the debate over the movie that was raging around him and Capra. The article did not specify how critics and audiences felt about certain aspects of a picture that had engendered more critical and analytical discussion of the pair's cinematic capabilities, as...

    (pp. 155-190)

    For Robert Riskin, the Second World War began well before the United States’ entry into the conflict in December 1941. Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that Riskin’s role in America’s propaganda efforts during the war should have been obscured for so long, considering his singular commitment to the cause from early on. Having taken leave of Capra and their production company, Riskin accepted an assignment withLibertymagazine late in 1941 that sent him to Britain to report on wartime film activity there. Riskin did more than simply report on the state of British movie production, however; he actually offered...

    (pp. 191-216)

    Riskin returned to California permanently in 1945 and settled back into the Hollywood existence, with one major alteration: the bachelor scenarist, who had been away from the movie capital periodically for three years, now had a family to look after. Together with Fay Wray, Fay’s daughter Susan (from her marriage to John Monk Saunders), and two recent additions—Bobby, who was already two by July of that year, and Victoria, who was born that summer—Riskin moved into a big, two-story English Tudor home on Stone Canyon Road in Bel Air. Situated below the famed Bel Air Hotel, it was...

    (pp. 217-230)

    Riskin liquidated the assets of his production company in 1949, much as Frank Capra had done with his Liberty Films early in 1948. Capra sold Liberty to Paramount and concluded a three-picture directing deal with them that he hoped might resurrect his career. It may seem strange now to state that Capra was looking to reestablish his credentials when one of his previous two films for Liberty had beenIt’s a Wonderful Life,but that movie did not do as well at the time as its now-revered status would imply.¹ The second and final film he made under the Liberty...

    (pp. 231-240)

    In his narrative account of postwar Hollywood,The Story of Cinema,David Shipman spends a few moments detailing Robert Riskin’s 1947 production ofMagic Town.He describes the film as interesting and quite good in places but nevertheless remarks on how much the movie reflected Riskin’s dependence on his directorial mentor, Frank Capra.¹ Charles Maland offers the view that Riskin helped Capra to introduce “cynical urban types” to his stories, improved the dialogue, and tightened story construction. But while Riskin operated as a “sounding board” for the director, he did not, according to Maland, “create Capra's social vision.”² Stephen Handzo,...

    (pp. 241-244)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 245-268)
    (pp. 269-274)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 275-290)