Tag Archives: Robert Riskin

Meet John Doe (1941, Frank Capra)

There’s something off with Meet John Doe. Director Capra can’t find a tone for the film, but he also can’t find a pace for it. He tries to find the tone, over and over, usually with excellently directed sequences, but he just throws up his hands as far as finding the pace. If Robert Riskin’s script didn’t have strong moments for background characters, it would just be a bunch of great monologues for the actors. But Capra wants to step too far back from it all–John Doe has a wonderful cast and all Capra wants to do is rant about the Illuminati.

At its start, John Doe is simple. Barbara Stanwyck is a reporter. She loses her job. Angry–because John Doe takes place in a time when it seems like the Great Depression isn’t actually going to end, a forlorn attitude permeating throughout the film–she fakes a letter from someone fed up with the state of the world and promising to kill himself. Turns out the letter’s a hit, so Stanywck has to turn up the writer. She hires Gary Cooper. It’s Gary Cooper after all.

There’s a little humor with Cooper and sidekick Walter Brennan getting into a posh hotel and doing nothing. Riskin’s really good at these scenes. Well, then something happens and Cooper quits for a bit then he joins back up for a bit then it turns out the Illuminati have plans for him so he has to make a big decision. Along the way, he falls in love with Stanwyck (it’s Barbara Stanwyck after all), losing Brennan, and falls under the spell of Edward Arnold, the evil Mr. Big running this nameless city’s Illuminati chapter.

The nameless city should’ve been a bigger giveaway for the film’s problems. Capra doesn’t want anything to have personality except the concept.

Only, Riskin’s script has those amazing monologues I mentioned. James Gleason, who plays Stanwyck’s editor and Arnold’s reluctant stooge, gets at least two great scenes. His second one, where he gets wasted and talks about the Great War, is phenomenal. Gleason’s great and all, but that scene is phenomenal. Riskin’s dialogue is great, Capra’s patience is great, everything’s great. It just doesn’t belong in the movie. John Doe’s so lost, having every actor (except Cooper) directly address the camera when talking to Cooper’s character might work better. First person for the audience. Why? Because, while Capra’s interested in shooting the film well, having fantastic performances from his cast, he’s not actually interested in the film. It’s like he’s avoiding the lack of story.

Unfortunately, the rocky pace means no one gives an overall great performance. Brennan disappears, then comes back with nothing to do. He’s good, often really good, but the film doesn’t give him enough time later on. It never establishes who’s supposed to get the most time–even Cooper and Stanwyck manage to disappear from the story. The present action’s a mess. The film goes on for months and months and doesn’t let the characters grow.

It’s too much story. There are a half dozen points throughout the two hour runtime where Riskin and Capra could’ve focused for a far better experience.

Capra’s direction is outstanding. Riskin’s monologues are great. Cooper, Stanwyck, Gleason, Brennan, all great. Arnold’s not, but it’s hard to fault him. He’s got no part. He’s not even a caricature. He’s just “rich bad guy.”

Dimitri Tiomkin’s music has a few missteps, but it’s generally okay. It tends to stumble through the parts where everything else stumbles. Except maybe George Barnes’s photography and Daniel Mandell’s editing, their work is always strong.

Meet John Doe doesn’t work out. I wish it had, but it’s still one heck of a swing.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell Sr.; director of photography, George Barnes; edited by Daniel Mandell; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gary Cooper (John Doe), Barbara Stanwyck (Ann Mitchell), Edward Arnold (D.B. Norton), Walter Brennan (The Colonel), James Gleason (Henry), Spring Byington (Mrs. Mitchell), Rod La Rocque (Ted Sheldon), Irving Bacon (Beany) and Gene Lockhart (Mayor Lovett).


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE REMEMBERING BARBARA STANWYCK BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Magic Town (1947, William A. Wellman)

Magic Town is too much of one thing, not enough of another, but also not enough of the first and too much of the latter. There’s a disconnect between Wellman’s direction and Robert Riskin’s script. While Wellman can handle the broad humor of the script–there isn’t much of it and it stands out like a sore thumb–he also finds the humanity of the characters. Riskin’s not so much interested in the small h humanity of leads James Stewart and Jane Wyman; he’s more interested in the big story.

Stewart is a cutthroat–or so we’re supposed to believe–New York pollster who descends on an idyllic small town. It has the perfect ratio of people and opinions to match the national opinions and trends. With him, Stewart brings sidekicks Ned Sparks and Donald Meek. Sparks gets a couple things to do, but he and Stewart’s relationship is never clear and needs to be. Meek barely gets anything.

Of course, being a pollster, Stewart knows if the people learn they represent the national average, they’ll spoil. Following the Prime Directive, he pretends to be an insurance agent. The only one of the townsfolk in on the scheme is Kent Smith, who’s one sidekick too many. Riskin’s script gives Stewart two and a half external consciences for the first half of the picture, while he’s romancing Wyman, apparently thinking have too many external consciences will make up for Stewart not having an internal one.

Riskin’s wrong.

The first half of the picture is mostly Stewart and Wyman courting. They’re often lovely, thoughtful scenes completely out of place even in the first half. Looking back on them after Magic Town changes gears in the second half, they make almost no sense. It’s around the halfway point it becomes clear Wyman doesn’t really get to have a character in the film either. She doesn’t even get to take responsibility for her actions. And the last act treats her plain awful.

But she’s still good. Better than Stewart, who’s always likable, even when he’s being a complete jackass, if only because the film doesn’t recognize him having the ability to be responsible for his own actions.

Wellman approaches the filmmaking seriously when it comes to Stewart and Wyman’s ordeal. Magic Town looks like a dark noir, Joseph F. Biroc’s moody photography, Roy Webb’s emotive score. It’s just the script doesn’t recognize the ordeal. Riskin has some exposition he wants to get into the characters’ dialogue. He doesn’t have time to make the human drama work.

Nice support from Ann Shoemaker and George Irving.

Magic Town tries too hard with what its got without ever fixing what isn’t working.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Riskin and Joseph Krumgold; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; edited by Sherman Todd and Richard G. Wray; music by Roy Webb; production designer, Lionel Banks; produced by Wellman and Riskin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (Rip Smith), Jane Wyman (Mary Peterman), Ned Sparks (Ike), Kent Smith (Hoopendecker), Donald Meek (Mr. Twiddle), Ann Shoemaker (Ma Peterman), George Irving (Senator Wilton), Wallace Ford (Lou Dicketts), E.J. Ballantine (Moody), Howard Freeman (Nickleby), Mickey Roth (Bob Peterman), Mary Currier (Mrs. Frisby) and Harry Holman as the mayor.


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE WILLIAM WELLMAN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY LIZ OF NOW VOYAGING.


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Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936, Frank Capra)

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is astoundingly (and rightfully) confident. Director Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin don’t shy away from anything in the film–Capra’s more than willing to go with sentimentality, but the film isn’t often sentimental. Even when Jean Arthur’s world-weary reporter breaks down, she doesn’t get sentimental.

Most of the film involves Arthur deceiving Gary Cooper’s titular Mr. Deeds–he’s a small town guy who’s just inherited twenty million dollars–for her story. He becomes infatuated, she starts to regrow her heart. Riskin’s script runs these two subplots parallel to one another, but somehow not concurrent. Deeds maintains three perspectives throughout–Cooper’s, Arthur’s and, in the beginning, Lionel Stander’s.

Stander is sort of Cooper’s sidekick (a rich man’s press agent) but he’s also the first one to come around to Cooper’s way of doing things. Capra and Riskin take the Hollywood norm–the New York newspaper picture–and mix in the social commentary of the Depression, while bringing in a big question of town vs. country values. It’s a very tricky combination and they always do it perfectly; Deeds is a marvel of filmmaking construction. The way Capra uses sound–Cooper and Arthur are romancing in a picturesque New York landmark, the hustle and bustle around them, but the sound just has them. The lovely Joseph Walker photography just adds to it. Lots of quiet moments for Cooper and Arthur, who both give marvelous performances.

Everything about Mr. Deeds is fantastic. It’s an exceptional motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Clarence Budington Kelland; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Gene Havlick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Gary Cooper (Longfellow Deeds), Jean Arthur (Babe Bennett), Lionel Stander (Cornelius Cobb), Douglass Dumbrille (John Cedar), Raymond Walburn (Walter), Ruth Donnelly (Mabel Dawson), George Bancroft (MacWade), Walter Catlett (Morrow), John Wray (Farmer) and H.B. Warner (Judge May).


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The Thin Man Goes Home (1945, Richard Thorpe)

The Thin Man Goes Home is very genial. It would be hard for it not to be genial given some of the supporting cast is around just to be genial–familiar character actors like Edward Brophy, Donald Meek and Harry Davenport are around to be likable. And why shouldn’t William Powell and Myrna Loy heading to small town U.S.A. be genial? Of course, there’s a murder mystery, but director Thorpe manages to keep the investigation of it amusing too.

The film’s problem is the geniality is the important thing, not just an approach to the story. Thorpe does really well with some of the comedic set pieces–the Grand Central Station sequence at the beginning, followed by a great packed train car sequence, then there’s a later one with Loy trailing Brophy to comic effect. He does great with Loy and Powell’s few scenes together too. Eventually their visit to Davenport and Lucile Watson (as Powell’s parents) and the murder mystery make it hard to make time for scenes together.

At least, it’s hard for Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor to figure it out in the script, which is strange, since it’s a really breezy piece of writing. Between Powell acting without sensible motivation, one large subplot being entirely ignored and then a few characters forgotten about, the script’s Home’s biggest problem.

Powell and Loy are good, though she gets much better scenes, and the supporting cast is fine.

After being a reasonably successful entry, the third act is a complete disaster.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Thorpe; screenplay by Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor, based on a story by Riskin and Harry Kurnitz and characters created by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Ralph E. Winters; music by David Snell; produced by Everett Riskin; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Nick Charles), Myrna Loy (Nora Charles), Lucile Watson (Mrs. Charles), Gloria DeHaven (Laura Ronson), Anne Revere (Crazy Mary), Helen Vinson (Helena Draque), Leon Ames (Edgar Draque), Donald Meek (Willie Crump), Edward Brophy (Brogan), Lloyd Corrigan (Dr. Bruce Clayworth), Anita Sharp-Bolster (Hilda) and Harry Davenport (Dr. Bertram Charles).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | THE THIN MAN.