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Donovan Affair, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Screwball murder, even if something important's missing."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL: I wonder how unusual for films to be half-lost in the way that Frank Capra's "The Donovan Affair" is. Usually, it seems, some percentage of the film's length is gone, either due to misplaced reels or capricious cutting; here, the entire length of the film is present but the soundtrack is missing. That's a bit of a conundrum for what was billed in 1929 as Columbia's first all-dialogue picture, and though there's no perfect solution, some compromise is worth it, because it's an energetic little murder comedy.

The body-to-be is Jack Donovan (John Roche), who owes money to Mr. Porter (Wheeler Oakman) and a number of other gangsters and had insinuated himself quite thoroughly into the household of millionaire Peter Rankin (Alphonso Ethier) - he's just getting around to dumping Mary (Virginia Brown Faire), the family's maid; friends with daughter Jean (Dorothy Revier), and blackmailing Peter's second wife Lydia (Agnes Ayres). Why he's invited to Peter's birthday party is anybody guess, but there he is, along with Porter, Jean's fiancé David (William Collier Jr.) and family friends the Lindseys (Hank Mann & Ethel Wales), with butler Nelson (Edward Hearn) making sure it all goes smoothly. Well, at least until the lights go out and Inspector Killian (Jack Holt) and rather less brilliant partner Carney (Fred Kelsey) are on the case.

The screwball mystery is a neglected genre today - I'm not sure how often it even shows up on stage, which was the original home of The Donovan Affair and probably where the genre works best. This is a good one, serving the audience a good mix of characters with some motive or another without requiring the party to be almost entirely an assembly of horrible people, which is nice, if you're going for light comedy rather than a group of psychopaths. The script is mostly fun, and does the audience the service of making sure that when it is stupid, there's some sort of payoff for it.

Capra, meanwhile, makes the leap to talkies with enough assurance that it's little wonder people now find the fact that he started his career doing silents a surprising bit of trivia. There is the occasional bit of odd framing and editing as there are no built-in cuts for the intertitles and the camera can't move quite as freely as it did before, but he keeps things interesting visually rather than feeling like he's repeating the same shots again and again, while keeping the story and all that dialogue moving quickly without eating the audience out.

The cast seems to be adapting well too, whether it be to talking pictures or doing film work instead of being on stage. John Roche makes the right sort of entertaining first impression as the sort of heel one doesn't mind seeing murdered but who is fun to watch while he is around, while Alphonso Ethier and Edward Hearn carry themselves with debonair class. Agnes Ayres and Dorothy Revier make the Rankin ladies intriguing suspects but not necessarily untrustworthy, while Virginia Brown Faire has some flapper Spink to go with being the jilted and nervous maid. Jack Holt and Fred Kelsey seem to be playing their detectives big, but they're still usually fun to watch despite often getting stuck with some of the clunkier bits.

Of course, you can't entirely judge those performances, because half of them are lost on long-vanished Vitaphone discs, so when the film has played during the last twenty years, it's often been with a sort of live dubbing going on (after a process of researching and lip-reading, because the script is lost too). That can be a very hit-and-miss process, because the tone of this sorry of comedy made in this period is not necessarily something today's actors do that often. In this case, they seemed to be trying for the snappy, not-quite-natural cadences of classic screwball comedy, but often over-reach into parody. I wonder if they would be better off erring on the side of playing it straight rather than the other way around.

But, hey, that's the way you can see it right now, when the rare chance to see it does pop up, barring an exciting discovery. I hope someone finds the soundtrack or finds a way to maybe sample the actors' voices from other films and use a speech synthesizer or something. If nothing else, it would fill a gaping hole in Capra retrospectives that people currently sticks out like a sore thumb.

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originally posted: 06/02/15 14:00:03
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