The Donovan Affair at Film Forum 10/19/14 at 3:40

On Sunday 10/19/14 at 3:40, Film Forum will present a screening of director  Frank Capra’s 1929 film “The Donovan Affair.”  The film will be shown  as part of the repertory theatre’s current retrospective of Capra’s movies, which runs through  October 23.

Original poster for Frank Capra's THE DONOVAN AFFAIR (1929). CouI attended Tuesday’s screening of “The Donovan Affair.” It was a fun, riotous evening – a perfect blending of film history and really ingenious live performance.  “The Donovan Affair” is a rare event not to be missed. The story behind “The Donovan Affair” is nothing short of fascinating and Film Forum’s presentation of this nearly lost film represents a level of commitment to film restoration, repertory cinema, and performance that I do not think has ever been accomplished.

While it is hardly unusual for Film Forum to show a film made 85 years ago, Sunday’s screening of “The Donovan Affair” will be only the seventh time that this movie has been shown since its release 85 years ago.  “The Donovan Affair” was an early sound movie.  Early sound films did not have their sound tracks on the film prints themselves. These movies required a separate record (called a Vitaphone) to be played alongside the film as it was being projected.  There was one Vitaphone record (a 16” disk) for every reel of film. “The Donovan Affair” is an eight reel film advertised as a “100% All Talking Picture.” In an irony of fate, today not one of the film’s eight disks exists, rendering the film an incomprehensible, silent artifact.

Twenty-two years ago, Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum’s Director of Repertory Programming, had the idea to have actors perform the dialogue to “The Donovan Affair” live, along with the film, while also providing live music and sound effects. The only problem was that there was no script of “The Donovan Affair” still in existence. Although he could not locate a script, Goldstein recalled “finding a dialogue list in the archives of the now-defunct New York State Board of Film Censors.” However even this list only had about 50% of the film’s dialogue. The rest of the dialogue came from a committed group of 10 actors who crawled through the film, reading the lips of the film’s actors, and pulling as much dialogue as they could from the silent images.

According to Film Forum’s press notes, “The Donovan Affair” has only been performed five times in the past 22 years.  Tuesday’s performance was performance number six and it was incredible. The cast of 10 was set up in the back of the theatre and provided voices and sound effects for this fun murder mystery. I know, from my own experience working as a post production supervisor in the film industry, how hard it can be for an actor to re-record only a few lines of dialogue for one scene and get them in sync with the image up on screen. So, to listen to this cast get their voices in sync to an entire movie, all the way through, without stopping, was highly impressive. In addition, this is a cast very much in touch with the dialogue and performance technique of actors from the 1920s. After a while I almost forgot that there were actors providing the dialogue and became engrossed in this early “whodunit.”

“The Donovan Affair” was Capra’s first attempt at making a movie with sound dialogue.  Capra would, of course, go on to direct many great films including “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), “It Happened One Night” (1934) and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), to name just three.  Of “The Donovan Affair,” Capra said it was, “the beginning of a true understanding of the skills of my craft.”

Sunday’s repeat performance of “The Donovan Affair” will be a very rare opportunity to discover this nearly lost piece of cinema history. Who knows when it will be performed again? For more information on “The Donovan Affair” and the other films in Film Forum’s Capra retrospective go to  Film Forum is located at 209 West Houston Street (west of sixth avenue).


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on October 16, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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