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The Donovan Affair (Movie 1929): ‘Accidental’ Frank Capra Silent

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The Donovan Affair Agnes Ayres Dorothy Revier William Collier JrThe Donovan Affair with Dorothy Revier, William Collier Jr., and Agnes Ayres. Frank Capra would win Best Director Academy Awards for It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can’t Take It with You (1938).
  • The Donovan Affair (movie 1929) review: Frank Capra’s very first all-talking feature – ironically, now back to being a silent – was not quite as interesting as its presentation at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

The Donovan Affair (movie 1929) review: In-house acting makes watching Frank Capra’s ‘accidental silent’ a memorable experience

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

I attended this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival screening of Frank Capra’s The Donovan Affair out of curiosity for the novelty of having in-house actors providing the dialogue for the action on screen.

The backstory is that this 1929 mystery comedy about a murder at a fancy party had both a silent and a talkie version. Eventually, the silent version was lost and the recorded disc for the sound version disappeared as well. The result was an “accidental silent,” as The Donovan Affair was referred to in the introduction.

In all honesty, it took some time to adjust my hearing to the voices coming from the footlights instead of the soundtrack. My impression was that this illusion was hit-or-miss: I really liked the sound effects of the rain storm and the background music, while some of the speaking voices seemed appropriate to the characters; on the downside, some of the others were a bit jarring to my senescent ears.

Hybrid performance

As for the movie itself, the plot – based on a 1926 Broadway play by Owen Davis (Icebound, Jezebel) – strained credibility, even for a comedy. One glaring example: One drop of blood was the only trace from a stabbing victim.

Now, I do admit I’m not much of a mystery fan, nor do I find Frank Capra’s oeuvre very engaging.

In fact, what fascinated me about the screening of The Donovan Affair was how those in-house actors must have felt projecting their voices to the characters on the screen. It was not quite a stage performance, nor was it like radio. Rather, it was a hybrid affair.

Yet the SFSFF audience responded with less cogitation. They roared with laughter and enthusiasm, which had somehow abandoned me.

The Donovan Affair (movie 1929) cast & crew

Director: Frank Capra.

Screenplay: Howard J. Green (also titles for the silent version) & Dorothy Howell.
From the 1926 play by Owen Davis.

Cast: Jack Holt, Dorothy Revier, William Collier Jr., Agnes Ayres, John Roche, Fred Kelsey, Hank Mann, Wheeler Oakman, Virginia Brown Faire, Alphonse Ethier, Edward Hearn, Ethel Wales.

Cinematography: Ted Tetzlaff.

Film Editing: Arthur Roberts.

Art Direction: Harrison Wiley.

Producer: Harry Cohn (studio head).

Production Company | Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

Running Time: 83 min.

Country: United States.

The Donovan Affair (Movie 1929)” notes

The Donovan Affair reviewed at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (website).

The Donovan Affair movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.

Agnes Ayres, William Collier Jr., and Dorothy Revier The Donovan Affair movie image: Columbia Pictures.

The Donovan Affair (Movie 1929): ‘Accidental’ Frank Capra Silent” last updated in April 2023.

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