TCM Classic Film Fest 2013: The Donovan Affair (1929)
You can’t really review The Donovan Affair without discussing the unique way it’s presented. Frank Capra’s first talkie is a creaky parlor-room mystery with some tongue-in-cheekiness to it that still works today. But the big headline, as you’ve probably heard ad infinitum, is the film’s missing soundtrack, and the unique “work around” that’s brilliantly been created. Lost long ago, the missing audio discs mean the film can never be adequately presented, mostly because the early talkies were just that – talkies. And The Donovan Affair is an all-talking “affair,” so subtitles can never suffice. Producer and curator Bruce Goldstein came up with the most novel of solutions. He and a crew of voice actors did a lot of digging and even more lip reading to re-assemble the script and soundtrack. Goldstein was never able to find the script anywhere, but did secure the dialogue list from, of all places, the archives of the Censor Board. More research revealed he only had about 30% of the actual script, so over the years he painstakingly studied and analyzed every piece of documentation he could find to make what we have today, which he figures is (and accurately seems to play) about 90% accurate.
With his actors seated front and center, a sound man on one side of the screen, and a piano player on the other, we have a curious and effective hybrid of performance art -film and theatre .
The result takes some getting used to, as at first the experience is reminiscent of watching an improv troupe replacing a movie’s dialogue with campy and satirical dubbing, but the audience, and actors, soon fall in, and you end up really enjoying the picture, probably much more than if the soundtrack were still intact.
As usual with the first talkies, the camera is pretty much immobile, which doesn’t help the pace. As well, the dialogue was directed to be slow and succinct , which actually makes the job of the live actors less of a burden than if the rapid fire dialogue that would come into vogue only a couple years later were to characterize this film. Sometimes, in fact, the voice actors’ on the fly “dubbing” is amazingly in sync. The poor sound effects man does more than his fair share of the work, as, like a radio play, he opens and closes a real door, drops ice cubes imto a glass, and slides closed cabinet drawers. He does, however, bring this bygone art into the 21st century by pulling thunder, outdoor ambience, and phone rings off his laptop. He could use another sound fx person to handle the excessive demands put on him.
The Donovan Affair story follows the melodramatic three act structure of a classic whodunit. A cad is invited to a party that consists of guests who all have a clear motive to kill him. The lights go out, come on again, and our villain is murdered. Once the police inspector is called, we watch him bumble through an investigation that results in another dead body, and countless alibis, until the killer is revealed.
Capra’s ability to pull the humor out of the characters makes the tale worth watching . His understanding of repetition allows the audience to be in on the joke (he knew this was a pretty trite story, even for 1929) and creates such archetypal characters that we laugh even when the jokes are telegraphed a mile away.
It’s an amazing job of curation and performance, and an experience one will never forget. Hopefully, the troupe will someday record this soundtrack for a DVD release, so that more audiences can enjoy the film as it was intended, no longer lost to history.
Gallery of Images from The Donovan Affair