Robert Riskin (left) and Frank Capra (right).
According to an often-told story, Frank Capra gave a magazine interview in the late 1930s about the "Capra Touch" in award-winning films such as "It Happened One Night" (1934) and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936). without even mentioning Robert Riskin, his screenwriter. After seeing the play, Riskin reportedly showed up at Capra's office, threw a stack of 120 blank pages on the director's desk and ordered, "Try adding the Capra touch to this!"
We don't know if this really happened or not. Riskin's brother Everett swore it. A friend and screenwriter, Philip Dunne, claimed it was Everett who spread the story, and Robert Riskin himself denied that it ever happened. Capra explained, "Bob was too much of a gentleman to make up this stupid story."
Riskin's daughter Vicky isn't so sure if she'll agree it's such a stupid story. "This could be an artful way for (Capra) to divert the criticism of him contained in the story." She also suggests that if it had happened, her father's tone would have been "teasing and simple. Capra and Riskin teased each other regularly, and there was affection and joke between them. My father also had his personal pride that made me believe the story might be true, but he would not have sent it to anyone else. "
Riskin was incapacitated by a stroke in 1950 and over time was not even visited by Frank Capra. A close friend found this lack of consideration regrettable, but Riskin declined to say, "You're talking about my best friend." This loyalty was not reciprocated by Capra, who was not supposed to attend Riskin's funeral in 1956 and who had systematically downplayed the importance of Riskin's writing and claimed author status for himself in all of his work. In 1977, when Capra responded to new suggestions that Riskin's contribution to the spirit of Capra's films had not been fully recognized by the director, he insisted:
Regardless of where the original material came from or which writers were working on my scripts, all of my films – good, bad, or smelly – were Capra films, shaped by my own kind of humor, philosophies, and ideals. They expressed dreams, hopes and fears that came out of my gut, for better or for worse. For me, like a lot of other filmmakers, it's “a man, a film”.
So much for giving Riskin an iota of the famous “Capra Touch”.
Conclusion: Whether or not Robert Riskin actually confronted Frank Capra seriously or playfully with the 120 blank pages, Capra deserves to be challenged, just as it was mentioned in the famous anecdote, and a few more.
Special thanks go to Victoria Riskin for the personal communication cited here.
About Richard Raskin
Richard Raskin was born in Brooklyn in 1941 and currently lives in Denmark. His main interest was telling short films. For over 30 years he taught students at Aarhus University the art of making short films. He has served on juries and lectures at international film festivals, is the founding editor of Short Film Studies published in the UK, has written books and articles on short film, co-founded a school called Multiplatform Storytelling and Production, and wrote the screenplay for an award-winning short film, Seven Minutes in the Warsaw Ghetto.