The Donovan Affair

USA, 1929, Directed by Frank Capra

Presented at SFSFF 2015
A Movie and Live Theater Event produced by Bruce Goldstein performed by the Gower Gulch Players

Essay by Bruce Goldstein

Frank Capra’s 1929 comedy whodunit The Donovan Affair was his very first all-talking picture. (His previous film, The Younger Generation, was a “part-talkie,” with alternating reels of silence and talk.) Based on the 1926 Broadway hit by the prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Owen Davis, The Donovan Affair, starring square-jawed Jack Holt as Inspector John Killian, was a big enough attraction to open at New York’s 5,900-seat Roxy movie palace, complete with a live stage show featuring the Roxyettes (precursors to the Radio City “Rockettes”).

For Capra, it was the beginning of the most fertile ten years of his career, a decade that yielded It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and other classics—one of the most remarkable string of hits in movie history.

So why have you never heard of The Donovan Affair? Because the only known copy, at the Library of Congress, is missing one little thing: its soundtrack. And, since Donovan was, as heralded, a “100% All-Dialogue Picture,” this has been a big deterrent to showing it anywhere.
Like many early talkies, Donovan’s soundtrack was recorded and played back on Vitaphone disks, one sixteen-inch disk for every reel of film. But not one of its eight disks has surfaced in recent years; the LOC’s print remains a talkie without talk.

So when I wanted to show it in the early 1990s as part of a comprehensive Capra series at New York City’s Film Forum, I figured I could do one of two things: run it silent, which would simply baffle the audience, or get some actors together to dub all the dialogue—live. I chose the latter. I mean, who wouldn’t?

But in order to pull this off, the dialogue would have to be precisely dubbed—and there wasn’t even a script. Not even Columbia Pictures, the original producers, had one. It was going to take months of detective work—and a lot of guesswork— to reconstruct the missing dialogue. In fact, it’s taken more than twenty-three years to finally nail it—and I still consider it a work in progress.
Surprisingly, the Library of Congress had neither the script nor Owen Davis’s original play (when a copy was finally located twenty years later, I was amazed to find that this had almost nothing to do with Capra’s film anyway). Then Wesleyan University, guardians of Capra’s papers, turned out to have the continuity script for the silent version (for theaters not yet wired for sound). (It’s important to note that this version is not the lost silent film—which used intertitles for the dialogue—but the talkie without sound.)

I finally hit pay dirt with the discovery of a dialogue list in the archives of the now-defunct New York State Board of Film Censors, a stenographic record (but not entirely accurate) of the dialogue, used to ferret out any dirty bits. It was exactly what I needed to get started.

Then, I arranged a screening at the Library of Congress. Anxiously clutching the dialogue list as the lights went down, I tried lip­synching the opening line: “Say, I’ll lay anybody in this room a bet ... that Donovan don’t show up.” It worked. I sat there dubbing all the voices, men and women, following only about half the dialogue. But there was certainly enough to work with.
Next I needed actors, but the kind whose idols aren’t De Niro, Pacino, and Brando, but Cagney, Robinson, and Tracy (Spencer and Lee). Actors who know to say “I’m Inspector Killian from headquarters” and not “headquarters.” I didn’t want it camped up, but played as true to the period as possible, as if the lost disks had actually turned up.

Through Film Forum’s longtime silent film accompanist, Steve Sterner—also an actor with an affinity for 1920s and 1930s movies—I met the like­minded actor Glenn Taranto, who proved the ideal Killian, delivering the inspector’s machine-gun interrogation in perfect synchronization. Eventually, we put together a cast of ten, with some of us taking two or more parts. Steve took the role of henpecked, stuttering Dr. Lindsey, while doubling as pianist and musical director.
I created a proper script from the dialogue list by adding scene breakdowns and stage directions. But the dialogue still matched only about sixty percent of the mouth movements. The actors themselves filled in even more dialogue by carefully studying the lip movements of his or her own character from video copies of the film. And since Capra was experimenting with sound (by having characters talking offscreen or with their backs to the camera), some of the dialogue had to be written.

But voices and music weren’t enough. We also needed lots of atmosphere: wind, rain, thunder, ringing telephones, doorbells, slamming doors, etc. In fact, everything you’ll hear at the Castro is a complete re-creation. That includes the surface noise of a Vitaphone disk. The soundtrack on the film itself is completely dead.

In a packed house for our first performance in 1992—Donovan’s first New York City screening in more than sixty years—the opening line of dubbed dialogue got some nervous laughter. Then the sound of ice being dropped into a glass got a huge laugh. It was just how audiences reacted to the earliest talkies, when everyday sounds brought down the house.

By the time the film ended, the audience had nearly forgotten about us and got caught up in the movie. It was a triumph, but it was over after just two performances. Five years later, in 1997, we repeated Donovan for Capra’s centennial year. Glenn had moved to Hollywood, so Killian was now played by Allen Lewis Rickman, another actor born at least five decades too late. Happily, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival show features both Allen and Glenn in key parts.

We’ve had other cast changes over the years, but the New York and Los Angeles actors who make up the Gower Gulch Players (after the nickname of Columbia’s Gower Street Studios in Hollywood) will be dubbing the missing voices of Jack Holt (star of Capra’s Submarine and Flight), Dorothy Revier (allegedly the model for Columbia’s “Torch Lady”), William “Buster” Collier (a close friend of Buster Keaton’s, who appears in Kevin Brownlow’s Keaton documentary A Hard Act to Follow), Wheeler Oakman, Alphonse Ethier, and comedians Fred Kelsey, Ethel Wales, and former Keystone Kop Hank Mann. And then there’s Agnes Ayres, who almost a decade before had been swept away in the desert by Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik.

You may be wondering if Donovan is worth all this trouble, or is it just an ancient potboiler that should be allowed to languish in silence? To quote a New York Times ad for the original Broadway production, “The Donovan Affair is the most thrilling, baffling, chilling, hypnotizing, electrifying, play that has been presented on the stage in the last generation.” At the Castro Theatre, you’ll finally be able to see—and hear—for yourself.

—Bruce Goldstein

Bruce Goldstein is the award-winning director of repertory programming of New York’s Film Forum and founder of classics film distributor Rialto Pictures.

The Gower Gulch Players: Glenn Taranto, Rick Pasqualone, Hannah Davis, Ashley Adler, Steve Sterner (also on piano), Yelena Shmulenson, Allen Lewis Rickman, Bruce Goldstein, and Frank Buxton.

The DCP used in this performance was transferred from the print in the Library of Congress. Special thanks to Mike Mashon.