Robert Riskin (left) and Frank Capra (right).

According to a story often told, Frank Capra gave a magazine interview in the late 1930s, going on about the ‘Capra touch’ in such award-winning films as It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), without once mentioning Robert Riskin, his screenwriter. After seeing the piece, Riskin is said to have showed up at Capra’s office, throwing a stack of 120 blank pages down onto the director’s desk and commanding, “Try putting the ‘Capra touch’ on that!”

We don’t know whether or not this really happened. Riskin’s brother Everett swore it did. A friend and screenwriter, Philip Dunne, claimed it was Everett who spread the story and that Robert Riskin himself denied it ever happened. Capra stated: “Bob was too much a gentleman to come up with that corny story.”

Riskin’s daughter Vicky is not so sure she agrees that it’s such a corny story. “That might be an artful way for [Capra] to deflect the criticism of him implied in the story.” She also suggests that if it did happen, her father’s tone “would have been teasing and easy. Capra and Riskin regularly teased each other and there was affection and banter between them. My father also had his own personal sense of pride which makes me think that the story could be true, but he would not have broadcast it to others.”

Riskin was incapacitated by a stroke in 1950 and as time went by he was not visited even once by Frank Capra. A close friend found that lack of consideration to be deplorable, but Riskin objected saying, “You’re talking about my best friend.” That loyalty was not reciprocated by Capra, who was not to attend Riskin’s funeral in 1956 and who systematically downplayed the importance of Riskin’s writing, claiming for himself an auteur status in all his work. In responding to new suggestions that Riskin’s contribution to the spirit of Capra’s films had not been fully acknowledged by the director, Capra insisted in 1977:

Regardless of where the original material came from, or what writers worked on my scripts, all of my films – good, bad or stinko – all were Capra films, stamped with my own kind of humor, my own philosophies and ideals. They expressed dreams, hopes and angsts, that came out of my guts, for better or for worse. With me, as with many other filmmakers, it is ‘one man, one film.’

So much for crediting Riskin with even one iota of the famous ‘Capra touch.’

The bottom line: whether or not Robert Riskin actually confronted Frank Capra, either in earnest or playfully, with the 120 blank pages, Capra would have richly deserved to be challenged, exactly as evoked in the famous anecdote, and then some.

Special thanks to Victoria Riskin for personal communications cited here.

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About 

Born in Brooklyn in 1941 and presently residing in Denmark, Richard Raskin’s main interest has been in short film storytelling. For more than 30 years, he taught students at Aarhus University the art of making short films. He has served on juries and lectured at international film festivals, is the founding editor of Short Film Studies published in the U.K., has written books and articles about the short film, co-founded a school called Multiplatform Storytelling and Production, and wrote the script for an award-winning short film, Seven Minutes in the Warsaw Ghetto.