everyone recognizes Frank Capra was spoofing old dark house mysteries in Arsenic and Old Lace, few understood he
was also spoofing himself. That is because his very first 100% talky was a murder
mystery set in an atmospheric manor, but almost nobody has seen it since its
1929 premiere. Perversely, there is decent print preserved in the Library of
Congress, but none of its sixteen inch Vitaphone soundtrack discs survive. On
the other hand, we have the sound for its trailer, but not the film.
part of his efforts to mount comprehensive Capra retrospectives, Film Forum repertory
programmer Bruce Goldstein has reconstructed the dialogue to produce special “live
read” presentations of Capra’s The Donovan Affair. Twenty-some years in development, Goldstein and company’s
stagings were a highlight of last year’s TCM Film Festival and the current
Frank Capra film series soon to conclude at Film Forum.
Donovan is a gambler, adventurer, and all around cad. If you didn’t want to
kill him, you probably didn’t know him very well. His next dinner date will be
his last. He has been invited to the birthday party of Capt. Peter Rankin, who
hates his guts, because he knows Donovan has been blackmailing his trophy wife
Lydia (but he has not used any of the proceeds to pay off his gambling debts).
Donovan also has eyes for her step-daughter, which rankles her tightly wound fiancé.
To make matters worse, Donovan happens to be available now that he seduced and subsequently
abandoned the Rankin’s maid.
Donovan only has himself to blame, especially when he has the lights turned out
to show off his glowing cat’s eye ring, in a scene that only works in a
synch-sound picture. When the lights come on again, we see someone has availed themselves
of the opportunity to dispatch the heel. Soon the blustering Inspector Killian
and his oafish right-hand man Carney are on the scene, but they do not inspire
much confidence, especially when their attempt to recreate the murder works a
little too well.
if we could hear them, Jack Holt and Fred Kelsey are probably putting the “ick”
in shtick as Killian and Carney, but Capra seems to be having great fun playing
with sound. Complicating matters for Goldstein and crew, Capra experiments with
conversations conducted between people in different rooms, often outside the
camera’s field of vision. Plus there are plenty of those chaos-generating
blackouts. It is quite the tricky shoot, featuring a good deal of skulking
outside the house and the exchanging of loaded glances.
the MST3K aesthetic, the live read
cast plays it scrupulously straight within the film’s dramatic context. Of
course, they still convey the larger than life nature of their characters,
maintaining an appropriately madcap energy level. For many viewers, Boardwalk Empire’s Allen Lewis Rickman
and The Practice’s Michael Badalucco
will be the most recognizable fuming and bickering away as Killian and Carney,
respectively. However, for discerning patrons, James Karen is the man, having appeared in The Return of the Living Dead, Poltergeist, Samuel
Beckett’s Film, and the original
Broadway production of A Streetcar Named
Desire. Yes, wow. Naturally, he brings the voice of authority to Capt.
time to time, lost films are rediscovered, but this is more like a
resurrection. Donovan must have been
somewhat successful, since Capra’s career continued on an upward trajectory following
its release. It is clearly a product of its time, but it is frankly scandalous
that Columbia could misplace both the sound and the script (forcing Goldstein
and his cast to supplement an incomplete dialogue transcript found in the files
of the defunct New York State Board of Film Censors with studious lip-reading
sessions). This Frank Capra we are talking about. Films like It’s a Wonderful Life, It Happened One Night,
and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are
not just movies, they are pillars of American culture.
The effort was definitely worth it. Despite the
nostalgic creakiness of the film, it leads to a greater appreciation of the breadth
and depth of Capra’s career and his early mastery of sound. It is also just a
lot of fun to watch the dark and stormy bedlam. This is something you cannot
see every day, so if Goldstein and the Donovan players ever mount a live-read
near you, jump at the chance to see it. The
Donovan Affair definitely added something special to Film Forum’s Capra
retro, but they have yet another special to come. Following the Wednesday night
(10/22) screening of You Can’t Take It With You, Rickman will moderate a Q&A with Anne Kaufman and Chris Hart,
the daughter and son of playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.
Labels: Film Forum, Frank Capra, Lost films, Murder mysteries