The Donovan Affair: An Affair to Remember
March 31, 2014
The ads for Frank Capra's first "all talkie" boasted that you could "See and Hear The Donovan Affair...The screen's most amazing 100% Talking Picture."
Sadly, that's not the case anymore.
The presentation of the movie at the 4th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival on April 27, 2013 was by far one of the most exceptional film events I have ever attended. What made it so special, you ask? Well, the only way one can fully appreciate this film today is through a live staging-screening hybrid, an undertaking so large that it's only been done twice in the last 22 years: once in 1992 and again for the TCM Festival in 2013.
Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at The Film Forum in New York City, first came across The Donovan Affair in 1992, hoping to include it in a retrospective of Capra's early films. The Library of Congress holds a copy of the movie in its entirety, with one major hitch: all of the sound discs are missing.
Say what? An early sound film without its soundtrack? The irony! What would one do?
A 1926 Vitaphone projection setup, in which engineer E. B. Craft holds a soundtrack disc. Presumably, the audio for The Donovan Affair was on a disc like this.
Goldstein had a plan that would make viewing The Donovan Affair today nothing short of an affair in and of itself: he procured actors to deliver the missing dialogue and sound effects live, in the front row of the theater, as the film projected silently on the big screen.
Watching lips and movement is easy, right? Wrong.
Lip-syncing alone wasn't going to cut it - time to go to the script! But there came another roadblock: after searching, no known copies of the script turned up. Luckily, after some clever detective work, Goldstein was able to secure a copy of the dialogue from the now inactive New York State Board of Film Censors, but only 60-70% matched the on-screen mouth movements. Despite the setbacks, the actors worked hard to get the dialogue as close to the moving images as they could (wonder how many repeat viewings that took!). Goldstein noted that some of the actors in attendance performed at the 1992 staging of the movie as well - it must have been amusing for them to revisit the characters and story over 20 years later.
The actors and Bruce Goldstein after the screening. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
An outsider may think that a 'silent' movie screening today wouldn't come close to filling the 618 seats in the Egyptian's Rigler Theater in Hollywood, but 1. This was no regular 'silent' film screening, au contraire! and 2. You can never underestimate the power of classic film fans, some of whom travel across continents to attend the festival. Though I stood in line a good hour before the event started, I still think I was lucky to get in without a pass, because to my surprise, the theater was PACKED.
Like many early talkies, The Donovan Affair consisted of a simple setup, with the action mostly confined to a single room. It's standard murder mystery fare: after Jack Donovan (John Roche), a guest at an upscale dinner party, is murdered, Police Inspector Killian (Jack Holt) is called in and tries to re-enact the murder. Of course, another guest is killed, but conveniently the cops are already there for this go-around!
Without the dialogue, it's tough to adequately judge the acting of the original film, though in his review in The New York Times on April 29, 1929, Mordaunt Hall noted that while there were a few "poorly acted sequences... the audible angle of this film is quite commendable." Naturally, he had to highlight the way the film sounded! Just twist the knife in for audiences decades in the future, why don't you?
Hall went on to mention that the movie "is a yarn that sustains the interest, and because of its farcical quality it affords good entertainment." Well, what this version of The Donovan Affair lacked in dialogue and sound effects was made up entirely through the live performance that took place in the front row of the Rigler Theater. While I found myself getting a crick in my neck from snapping my head back and forth between the screen and the actors, I must admit the show was a spectacular feat. Some performers took on multiple roles and did sound effects at the same time - it felt like a cinematic circus! Amazingly, the voices were close to 100% in sync with the mouth movement on screen.
One thing I noticed, though, was that most of the male voices sounded similar to the inflections of the era, but the females had a harder time sounding authentic - perhaps women's voices have somehow changed more over time? There should be some sort of research into that - anyone up to it?
All things considered, I'm going to go ahead and guess that if it weren't for the mystery of the missing dialogue, The Donovan Affair wouldn't stick out in a (small) sea of early surviving sound films. However, thanks to Bruce Goldstein's heroic undertaking and the cast's dedication, this film has a new voice. Literally. If you ever get the chance to see this spectacle, DO IT!