THE DONOVAN AFFAIR (1929)
Running Time: 83 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Frank Capra
Cast: Jack Holt, Dorothy Revier, William Collier Jr., Agnes Ayres, John Roche, Fred Kelsey, Hank Mann, Wheeler Oakman, Virginia Brown Faire
THE DONOVAN AFFAIR has two distinctions. It was the first all talking picture directed by Frank Capra. And, it’s a semi lost film. There are complete prints of the film. It has been transferred to safety film and there are preservation copies in existence. However, it was made in the earliest talking picture era (1929) using the Vitaphone process that meant it was shown in theaters using the sound on disk method, where the sound track was synchronized to the film. Unfortunately, no copies of the soundtrack disks have been found. Furthermore, no copies of the script have ever been found. There was a censor’s dialogue guide that proved to be inaccurate. This means that beyond its original release it was impossible to show it.
Some enthusiasts decided to take on the impossible. They were going to resurrect the dialogue through a combination of lip reading and guesswork. So a band of actors have recreated the dialogue track six times in the past 22 years, each time improving on the last. So each showing is an event. This past October, Bruce Goldstein at the Film Forum, presented two performances of THE DONOVAN AFFAIR complete with sound effects and even static to simulate the background noise of an 80-year-old soundtrack.
To be sure this is no lost work of art as say the many, many lost reels of GREED are. It pales in importance to say Hitchcock’s first sound film, BLACKMAIL (which was not without its tribulations.) Started as a silent, its transformation to sound presented a problem because the leading actress, a nice London home girl, was played by a heavily accented Czech actress. Hitchcock had to have another actress speak the lines off-camera, dubbing the lines live, so to speak. The very same technique used to present THE DONOVAN AFFAIR at the Film Forum.
The picture itself is a familiar one. A very familiar one indeed. There is a dinner party that takes place during a thunderstorm. There is a guest at the party who is a terrible rotter whose existence threatens the well-being of several of the other guests. The Mr. Donovan of the title. The lights are turned off for a bit of business with a glow in the dark ring and when they go on again Mr. Donovan is slumped dead on the table, a huge carving knife in his back. It’s a set up that was so “done” that even in the twenties it couldn’t be played straight. Later, in the ‘30s, it found new life in the hands of Philo Vance or Nick and Nora Charles. Why is it I can remember some dialogue from a Charlie Chan that goes something like this: “Everybody in this room has a reason to hate grandfather” “Look pop, the lights are flickering”? Even “The Family Guy” did a two-episode take on the same premise. It’s played strictly for laughs. Like most early talkies, it’s based on a Broadway play. Most run-of-the-mill Broadway plays of the 1920s seem to have been written strictly for gents in evening dress and the ladies in frocks. As THE DONOVAN AFFAIR was released before the Crash and Depression, that didn’t count against it.
In Frank Capra’s autobiography he says that at this time the studio, remember, Columbia was a faintly disreputable poverty row organization (Columbia, the germ of the ocean), their only asset was Jack Holt. Basically, every picture at Columbia was a Jack Holt picture. His lantern jaw visage was the model for both Dick Tracy and Al Capp’s parody, Fearless Fosdick. Holt here is the detective who must solve the case from the assembled suspects. Everyone had a good reason for wanting Donavan dead. Holt is accompanied by Fred Kelsey as his comical sidekick who is given most of the broad comedy duties. Kelsey was an ex-Keystone Kop and played the lead detective in THE LAUREL-HARDY MURDER CASE. Here he’s often paired up with Hank Mann who was also a Keystone Kop and is sort of his nemesis playing a doctor with a stutter and a wife who won’t shut up about her twins. Jack Holt shows up, and informed that the body has been moved, admonishes the dinner guests that the next time they have a dead body not to move it. There is a running joke between Holt and Kelsey where Kelsey answers each of Holt’s commands with the query, “Now?”
There is a second murder, identical with the first. Once again the lights are turned out again, a couple, well more than a couple, of red herrings and a guilty party easier to guess if you haven’t seen the picture than if you had. This time the body isn’t moved so there’s progress of some sort.
If you’re like me and would rather see a picture you haven’t seen, good, bad, or indifferent, rather than an absolute classic you’ve been watching many times over sixty years, then you will delight in THE DONOVAN AFFAIR. The cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff is first rate. There is none of the static crowding over the microphone that has been parodied in films about the early talkies. You’re sure not to have seen it. It also is off handedly Pre-Code. Certain details would have been changed five years later after the imposition of the dreaded Code. And of course Capra completests will have to see it. There was some talk about recording a new sound track and issuing a DVD. Then you’ll be able to see this most rare Capra talkie.
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