Review of The Donovan Affair
Murder scene
Murder scene from The Donovan Affair.

Early talkie, The Donovan Affair, surprises with unique recreation of this classic whodunit film


The most unique movie-going experience of the 2013 TCM Film Festival in Hollywood was the screening of The Donovan Affair, a 1929 comedy whodunit with mysteries of its own, chiefly the disappearance of both the soundtrack and script.

The Donovan Affair was Frank Capra and Paramount Pictures first all-talkie. Ironically, the sound discs have been missing for decades. The good news is, the film in its entirety still exists in the Library of Congress.

The film presentation at the Egyptian Theater was made possible through the use of live actors dubbing the dialogue along with sound effects and piano accompaniment. Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum, is responsible for this clever work-around. He even performed a role in the re-creation and Steve Sterner, the pianist for the production, played a part, as well.

The history of The Donovan Affair’s restoration began in 1992 when Goldstein wanted to include it in a Film Forum series about Capra’s early works. He knew the sound discs were missing but thought he could assemble a group of actors to dub the dialogue. Another challenge surfaced. The film was missing its original script, also. Then, Goldstein discovered a dialogue list in the archives of the inactive New York State Board of Film Censors. Unfortunately, this dialogue only matched about 60 percent of the mouth movements of the film’s actors. Each cast member in the recreation carefully studied his or her own character, reading lips at times, to interpret the dialogue. This resulted in the retrieval of another 20 percent of the dialogue. Since then, analysis of the film has garnered even more of the script.

Before the film started, Goldstein showed the audience an early sound disc which would hold up to ten minutes of recorded sound. One sound disc would be run in sync with each reel of film. The Donovan Affair would have required eight sound discs.While all the discs are lost, the disc for the movie’s trailer still exists, and this was shown to the audience before the film began.

With the actors, sound effects tech and pianist below the stage and silent screen, my first impression was that I was present at a radio show. The actors’ voices ranged from lilting to brusque, and they were distinctive, sometimes exaggerated, just like a radio play. Remarkably, they were fairly in sync with the screen actors’ lips much of the time and their voices even seemed to match the per-sonalities and physical appearances of the film’s characters.This was probably because of the skills of the troupe which was made up of around 10 actors, some of them veteran character actors, such as Michael Badalucco, who has appeared in many films and is known for his Emmy award-winning TV role in The Practice. With the successful merging of the film with sound, it wasn’t long before I forgot about the live actors and focused on the film’s actors and the story.

At an elegant dinner party held in a large mansion, a guest, Jack Donovan, shows everyone around the table a ring that he says glows in the dark and has unusual powers. The lights are turned

out to see the ring's mysterious glow.When the lights are turned back on after the parlor trick, Jack Donovan is slumped over the table, a knife in his back, murdered. Everyone in the house—
host, family, guests, servants, even the gardener—has a motive to kill Donovan, who was a gambler and philanderer.

The police are summoned and Inspector Killian shows up, with his bungling assistant Carney. Killian asks for a re-enactment of the events leading up to the murder. The lights are turned out and another guest is murdered. Undeterred, the Inspector asks for a third re-enactment.

Repetition of events and characters' lines were some of the comedic elements used in this murder-mystery film. Sometimes, even the sound effects were amusing. The loud clink of ice dropping into a glass followed by an equally loud spritz of soda was surprisingly funny. Maybe the reason Capra devoted so much screen time to such a mundane activity was because he wanted to milk the new technology for all it was worth, to make his first talkie rich with all types of sound. And since there was very little action in The Donovan Affair, even the preparation of a cocktail added some much-needed movement.

The cast included Jack Holt, a strong character actor, who played Inspector Killian; Fred Kelsey as Carney, the assistant; John Roche as Donovan; and Agnes Ayres as Lydia Rankin, one of the women in the household. She was also the female lead in Rudolph Valentino’s 1921 The Sheik.

Based on a play by Owen Davis, The Donovan Affair falls into the sub-subgenre category of a murder-mystery set in a mansion or manor where the assembled guests are each a suspect. This may be the first film of this story type. The Bat (1926) and The Cat and the Canary (1927), which pioneered the comedy-mystery genre, were similar, but each of these films were set in old, dark houses and had horror elements. The Canary Murder Case (1929), considered to be the first modern detective film, was a whodunit with a police detective and an array of suspects, but it wasn’t set in a mansion with the suspects all present at the exact time of the murder.Whodunit films with a similar setting and structure as The Donovan Affair were very popular in the 30s and 40s. Good examples are The Dark Hour (1936); And Then There Were None (1945). Later movies include Murder by Death (1976) and Clue (1985).

It’s possible that the ending to The Donovan Affair may be another “first” for films. But, I don’t want to go there and spoil it for readers. Someday, the funds may be available to record this reconstructed “soundtrack” for a DVD release. Or, maybe the original sound discs will be discovered in an old run-down, abandoned theater or the attic of a home that once belonged to a movie projectionist. Now, that would be an old-fashioned, happy Hollywood ending.

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Goldstein and actors
Actors dub lines for DonovanAffair
Live actors dub dialog at the screening of The Donovan Affair. (Photo courtesy of Turner Classic Movies).
Bruce Goldstein (fifth from the right) and the cast of actors who made the screening of The Donovan Affair possible. (Photo courtesy of Turner Classic Movies).