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Carole and the screenwriter

In many ways, Carole Lombard is remembered as much for her romances as for her movies. The affair, and marriage, with Clark Gable is the stuff of legend, and most movie buffs are aware of her earlier marriage to another icon, William Powell. Her torrid, ill-fated romance with singer Russ Columbo also was a significant part of her life.

But there’s one other notable beau of Lombard who history tends to have forgotten at least in a social sense, although for several months he was Carole’s primary flame. His name is Robert Riskin, who had both personal and professional ties to Lombard’s life. He’s also one of those people who helped make Hollywood’s Golden Age truly golden.

Riskin was a screenwriter, one of the best of his era. He won an Academy Award, and many of his films remain classics. Yet his achievement tends to be obscured, largely because most of his scripts were for one of the movies’ most notable directors – Frank Capra. It’s no wonder that when a biography of Riskin finally came out last year, it was titled “In Capra’s Shadow: The Life And Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskin.” Or that late in his career, after he had a falling out with Capra, he held a blank page in the director’s face and told him, “Put the Capra touch on that!” Below are Riskin and Capra in happier times:



Born in New York in March of 1897, Riskin grew up on the rough-and-tumble Lower East Side of Manhattan. He overcame his environment through writing, honing his craft as a playwright; by the 1920s, he had written several successful Broadway plays. He had moved uptown, but in 1931, he headed west, like so many of his New York cohorts who couldn’t resist the siren song (and big money) of Hollywood, now that the movies were talking; writing dialogue was a completely different animal than writing title cards. Riskin went to Columbia Pictures, still deemed a second-tier studio in the industry, which had bought the rights to several of his plays.

Riskin’s first work at Columbia was an adaptation of his play “Illicit,” starring another New York emigre, Brooklyn’s Barbara Stanwyck. (For some reason, “Illicit” was never performed on Broadway.) The pregnancy comedy “Many A Slip,” from Riskin’s play, with Joan Bennett and Lew Ayres, followed, as did adaptation work for the John Wayne military film “Arizona.”

Riskin’s first collaboration with Capra came later in 1931, as Riskin’s play “Bless You Sister” became “The Miracle Woman” on screen. A cynical look at the evangelism racket, Stanwyck stars as a faux Aimee Semple MacPherson. There are plenty of pre-Code touches, and it’s intriguing to note that many call this the first real “Capra” film – indicative of the role Riskin’s writing would play in building the Capra legend. Riskin contributed dialogue to a Capra film later that year, “Platinum Blonde” with Jean Harlow, Loretta Young and Robert Williams, who died only three days after the movie’s release.

Riskin continued to work at Columbia, sometimes working in conjunction with Capra (“American Madness,” 1932), sometimes not. One of his non-Capra assignments came in ‘32, when Lombard was loaned out – or, as some in the industry might have put it, exiled – to Columbia after initially failing to set the world on fire with her Paramount releases. The film was called “Virtue,” and Lombard biographer Larry Swindell states that Carole had Columbia mogul Harry Cohn bring in Riskin to rewrite the overly melodramatic original script. The result was a pleasing drama, in many ways more interesting than much of the work Lombard was doing at Paramount.



Riskin would never write another Lombard film, although one almost came her way...but that qualifier could also describe several other actresses, including Myrna Loy, Constance Bennett, Miriam Hopkins and Margaret Sullavan, who either turned down the assignment or couldn’t fit it into the schedule due to work at their home studio. The film? “It Happened One Night,” which merely won Oscars for Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable, Frank Capra and, yes, Riskin – as well as for Best Picture.

But while Riskin might not have been writing for Lombard, he was certainly sociable with her. With Carole’s marriage to William Powell struggling in late 1932 (they wouldn’t divorce until the following August), Lombard and Riskin reportedly began a discreet affair, one that became more open once the divorce was granted. Their relationship wasn’t then a steady, one-on-one thing; Lombard’s torrid affair with Columbo took precedence, and Riskin occasionally squired Ginger Rogers, among other actresses. But soon after Columbo’s sudden death, sparks again flew between Riskin and Lombard. (While he certainly didn’t possess film-star looks, Riskin’s intelligence must have appealed to Carole, as earlier in the decade she had a platonic relationship with noted publishing mogul Horace Liveright; his rise and fall is worthy of a future entry.)

Here, courtesy of Carole Sampeck of The Lombard Archive, is a rare pic of Lombard, with Riskin at right, alongside MGM executive Irving Thalberg and wife Norma Shearer. (One guesses this was taken before Shearer drew Lombard's wrath by appearing in red to a ball where everyone was instructed to wear white.)



For much of 1935, Riskin was Lombard’s primary male companion. Swindell says the writer was interested in marrying her, and in fact proposed late that year, but that his reluctance to have children didn’t play well with Carole. By the start of 1936, their relationship had cooled a bit, despite the diamond and ruby earclips Riskin had presented as a Christmas gift. A few months later, Gable came on the scene, and Lombard’s relationship with Riskin was definitely in the past tense. (He previously was romantically linked to actress Glenda Farrell.)

However, as things turned out, Riskin would eventually marry a movie star, although Lombard wouldn’t be around to see it. In August 1942, Riskin married Fay Wray, who apparently liked writers -– her first husband was John Monk Saunders, who won an Oscar for “The Dawn Patrol” in 1930 (he also provided the story for the film “The Eagle And The Hawk,” in which Lombard has a small part), and she had a romance with Clifford Odets in between marriages. Riskin and Wray adopted a child and she gave birth to two others.

Riskin continued to write; his screenplays for Capra included "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town," "Lost Horizon," "You Can't Take It With You" and "Meet John Doe." He did non-Capra assignments, too, including the script to “The Thin Man Goes Home” in 1944, but he suffered a stroke in 1950 and died five years later.
Tags: fay wray, frank capra, robert riskin
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