It is a rare occasion when going to the movies feels like an event. In the digital age of cinema, through home video, online streaming, DCP projection etc. watching a movie is more casual than ever. No longer are we in the days of adjusting your television at 3:00 AM to try and get channel twenty-one for some pre-code movie you’d always wanted to see. No longer do we watch gorgeous Technicolor in black-and-white, or silent movies at the wrong speed, or scratched and warped 16mm prints smelling of vinegar (still the only way to see, say, James Whale’s Journey’s End), or even panned-and-scanned VHS recuts. Nowadays everything is right there, too easy, and often highly lacking in fun. This is the romanticized history lesson I received from some old timers standing in front of me while waiting in line (another movie-going experience that is all too rare) to see The Donovan Affair, part of the extensive Frank Capra retrospective at Film Forum, and a filmgoing experience that I am delighted to say qualified as an “event.”
The Donovan Affair, Capra’s first talkie, and according to Capra himself, “the beginning of a true understanding of the skills of my craft,” is emphatically a talkie. Less than two years after the transition to sound, Capra’s confidence as a talking picture director is on display in his use of dialogue both on-screen, off-screen and even in the dark. Every scene is 100% talk. Or, at least, was 100% talk. One complete print of the film is known to exist, but all of the 16” discs which held the film’s soundtrack, one of the earliest methods of syncing sound to the moving image, are entirely missing—a testament to the lack of regard for movies, both silents and talkies, in that ever-so-fragile transition era. (Famously, almost 80% of silent films are lost; I’m curious what the percentage of early talkies were lost as well.)
So here we are, 85 years later, appreciating not only Capra but his Donovan Affair, all because of restoration technology and the brilliant idea to present the half-extant film as close to its 1929 incarnation as possible. On Sunday, October 19, 2014, like Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Bruce Goldstein, the director of repertory programming at Film Forum, who first presented The Donovan Affair in this way 18 years ago, entered his laboratory, Theater #2 at Film Forum, and with his team of Igors (a cast of very talented actors from both coasts, and a wonderful silent film accompanist) and the tools of a maniac (a table of various sound effect devices including ratchets, hammers, bells and horns), Goldstein brought this long-dead silent gem of early sound cinema back to life. Suddenly, if only for an hour and a half, The Donovan Affair lived, breathed, and yes, talked.
Never has any other experience so strikingly brought me to a crossroads of cinema, radio and theater. Each role in The Donovan Affair was voiced live by actors hidden out of view from the audience, each delivering a performance all their own while restricted to the timing and energy of the shadows on the screen (often constrictively slow due to this being an early talkie). This juggling act was itself interesting to witness. The result was nearly seamless, the biggest giveaway of the trickery being the crisp fidelity of the voices on screen as a result of modern microphones and mixing, rather than the primitive methods of 1929. In fact, that very improvement might be the biggest flaw of the event: The Donovan Affair with live voicing might even be better than the original.
I predict this version is at least more entertaining, because to be quite honest, and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying this, The Donovan Affair isn’t really a remarkable film. It’s about as classic an early talkie whodunnit murder mystery as there ever was, with all the tropes we are familiar with—the suspicious butler, the aloof detective and dimwit assistant, and a slew of archetypal socialites in tuxedos and evening gowns sipping champagne around the dinner table, set to the backdrop of a bourgeois mansion on a stormy night. It’s our familiarity with these essential components to the theatrical whodunnit that generated much of the fun. With each moment, such as the obligatory murder when the lights went off, the audience chuckled not only at the ridiculous actions of the characters on screen, but at the quaintness of the plotting and storytelling trickery. It is a joy similar to that which can be had from watching a truly bad movie, catching a boom pole shadow in a shot, or laughably bad acting. In the medium of film, which is so rooted in tricks and illusions, occasionally it can be fun to see through the illusion, outsmarting the magician.
One of these moments comes in full form when, again, the lights are ordered to be turned off in order to inspect Jack Donovan’s mysterious glow-in-the-dark finger ring. As everyone in the audience saw coming, the lights go out and it’s curtains for Jack Donovan–the all around good-for-nothing whom everyone at the table holds a grudge for. The real humor comes with the pay off of this bit. Later on, Inspector Killian, played by Jack Holt and Allen Lewis Rickman, orders that everyone get back to where they were at the time of the murder, and has the lights turned off yet again in order to “recreate the murder.” We laughed knowing the inevitable—another character was going out with those lights, and sure enough when the scream was heard, the audience was overcome with laughter.
This predictability isn’t to say that The Donovan Affair is a bad film—but, if the soundtrack to this film did exist, would we be paying this much attention to it? Would it still be selling out? Try going to any of Film Forum’s other early Capra talkies or silents if you want the answer.
Rhetorical questions aside, we cannot afford to dismiss The Donovan Affair. With all of its delightful familiarities, it serves as the perfect canvas on which to experiment. That is exactly what the Film Forum Players’ performance of The Donovan Affair was—an experiment. The screening took us back in time, not only in the way that usually happens when you go see a movie from 1929, but in a way that derives much more from the zeitgeist of early talking cinema—an era when experimentation in moving pictures was at one of its most feverish and uncertain moments, when the idea of syncing sound to image was a novel one, and often (as proven to be in this case) a fragile one. This screening sparked an appreciation of the technology, and a glimpse at those early innovations of the medium. The experience itself was a history of film condensed into an hour and half; at first people laughed with each newly added telephone ring and footstep, but after the amusement of this novelty wore off, we had progressed all the way from 1894 to 2014, demanding something of our art, reacquiring our critical taste. People sat quietly in that theater until they were no longer laughing at the effects, but instead the jokes and the characters.