Lesser Part of a Greater Sum, Riskin Languishes in the Shade

The problem with writing a book about a screenwriter is made obvious by the title of this book: If you have to give top billing to a director, you’re in trouble.

Ian Scott’s In Capra’s Shadow examines one of the most interesting screenwriting talents of the 30’s, although it might be easier to define Robert Riskin by what he wasn’t than by what he was. He wasn’t as bawdy and proudly disreputable as Ben Hecht; he wasn’t as socially radical as Dudley Nichols; and he didn’t have Sam Raphaelson’s knack for silky allusions—and illusions.

Basically, Frank Capra and Robert Riskin worked together fairly consistently from The Miracle Woman (1931) to Meet John Doe (1941)—10 movies in all, including It Happened One Night (1934), Broadway Bill (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937) and You Can’t Take It with You (1935). These are all smooth but primarily transformative adaptations, both of previously successful material— Lost Horizon, You Can’t Take It with You—and obscure short stories. Riskin’s script is almost always better—deeper, more original, usually enlivened by a vigorous storytelling snap—than the source.

When they weren’t joined at the hip, Capra made three movies with other writers, including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939); and Riskin worked on six scripts for other directors, including John Ford, for whom he wrote the amusing The Whole Town’s Talking (1935). The fascinating failure of Meet John Doe, in which Capra methodically painted himself into a narrative corner but lacked the rigor to follow the Christ parable through to the bitter end, basically ended his partnership with Riskin, but not the friendship.

As to the comparative worth of their solo work: Without Riskin, Capra made one good movie ( Mr. Smith … ) and one great one: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Riskin’s solo activities were less ambitious, and less successful. He produced and wrote the flop Magic Town (1947), wrote the story for The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), wrote a charming picture called Mister 880 (1950) and a script for actor Clifton Webb, before a crippling stroke put paid to his career at the age of 53. Five long years later, in 1955, he died. (His wife, Fay Wray, once spoke poignantly to me of having to return to work in order to pay for Riskin’s medical care, and finding the pickings for a middle-aged actress rather slim in the Hollywood of the early 1950’s.)

WHEN TWO TALENTS ARE YOKED TOGETHER, they abrade and jostle in unexpected ways, with the creative result often greater than the sum of the parts. To take just one example, posterity will be far more interested in Lennon/McCartney than in the music composed by either man on his own.

While any book devoted to a screenwriter—still the least-examined component of filmmaking—should be welcomed, it’s possible that screenwriters don’t make the best subjects, if only because they’re primarily reactive. (One obvious exception: Ben Hecht, who should be the subject of competing biographies.)

Robert Riskin was born to Russian-Jewish parents on the Lower East Side in 1897. He never wrote a novel, and got into the movie industry by writing and producing largely unsuccessful plays, so it’s hard to make a case for him as a creative force like Samson Raphaelson or Charles Brackett, who both had fairly high profiles on the East Coast and were able to leverage their talent and prestige till they had a considerable degree of control over their work in Hollywood.

To judge from Ian Scott’s book, Riskin was liked by other writers—a notoriously churlish bunch—and was generally regarded as clever, witty and kind. In other words, he was professionally ambitious but lacked the volcanic ego that, along with talent, is the motivating force of any major artistic career.

It’s hard to weigh Riskin’s talent, because so much of it was animated by the singular ability of Frank Capra to get actors to relax; Riskin may have written the mimed baseball game in Meet John Doe, but what makes it work onscreen is the joyous byplay of Walter Brennan and Gary Cooper; likewise, the vast stadium showdown in the same movie works because Capra mounts an epic scene that Leni Riefenstahl would have envied. With some notable exceptions (Joseph Mankiewicz, a few others), the art of the movies isn’t contained in the blueprint of a script, but in the camera and what it captures.

As might be intuited from Capra’s monomaniacal autobiography The Name Above the Title (1971), the milk of human kindness was featured more prominently in his films than in his life. After Riskin’s stroke, Capra never visited him in the hospital and only telephoned Fay Wray once in the five years that her husband was incapacitated.

And yet, when Jo Swerling complained to Riskin about Capra’s behavior, Riskin chastised him, saying, “You’re talking about my best friend.” At least Capra was consistent: After Riskin died, Capra gave every indication that Riskin was a glorified amanuensis.

The mysteries of this relationship, as well as the creative partnership that was at its core (or is it the other way around?), are not dispelled by Mr. Scott, who lectures at the University of Manchester in England. His book is dutiful and slightly dull. He either doesn’t want to quote from primary documents, such as letters, or couldn’t find them. He tells us that Fay Wray kept a record of Riskin’s conversations after his stroke, and he tells us that those conversations were largely lucid and discursive—but he doesn’t tell us what was actually said. That’s too bad: The vivacity of Riskin’s sensibility, so evident in his scripts, might have lightened the predominantly gray mood.

Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, was published last year by Simon & Schuster.

Lesser Part of a Greater Sum, Riskin Languishes in the Shade