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Frank Capra's 'The Donovan Affair' gets a live soundtrack

The 1929 film's images survived, but its sounds didn't. Bruce Goldstein and a cast re-create them with 'as accurate a script as possible' at the TCM festival.

April 26, 2013|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Alphonse Ethier, left, and Jack Holt in 1929's "The Donovan Affair."
Alphonse Ethier, left, and Jack Holt in 1929's "The Donovan… (Everett Collection )

Frank Capra is best known for the three films for which he won the directing Oscar — 1934's "It Happened One Night," 1936's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and 1938's "You Can't Take It With You" — and the ultimate Christmas flick, 1946's "It's a Wonderful Life."

But only the most ardent Capra fanatic is familiar with his 1929 film "The Donovan Affair," the first all-talking motion picture he directed for Columbia Pictures.

"Nobody knows this movie," said Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York's Film Forum.

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It's not because it was a critical failure. Advertised as Columbia and Capra's first "100% all-Dialogue Picture," the comedy-mystery was based on a 1926 Broadway hit by Pulitzer Prize-winning Owen Davis. Reviews were favorable. And the cast included stalwart character actor Jack Holt and even Agnes Ayres, who had been wooed by Rudolph Valentino in 1921's "The Sheik."

The film has drifted into obscurity for one simple reason, Goldstein said: "The sound doesn't exist."

In the early days of talkies, the studios used a sound-on-disc system such as Warner Brothers / First National's Vitaphone. Theaters would sync the discs to the film.

The Library of Congress has the only known copy of the film but not the eight discs that constituted the soundtrack. Goldstein believes they went missing a long time ago because the film was never revived after its initial release.

The movie, he noted, "makes no sense without sound."

But now it does because Goldstein came up with a way to get around the problem. He uses live actors, sound effects and piano accompaniment to re-create the lost soundtrack as the film unspools on the screen. Think of it as a combination radio show / film presentation.

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The TCM Classic Film Festival will present the West Coast premiere of Goldstein's "The Donovan Affair" production Saturday afternoon at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

It was when Goldstein first sought to present "The Donovan Affair" at Film Forum in 1992 that he discovered that not only was the soundtrack missing, but so was the script.

He was able to get a copy of the dialogue from the archives of the now-defunct New York State Board of Film Censors, but it was only 60% to 70% accurate. He persevered with the experiment anyway. His friend Steve Sterner, who would provide the piano accompaniment, introduced Goldstein to actors who were "simpatico" with the early talkie era and interested in participating.

"I made a video copy of the film and each actor examined his or her part and did lip reading," he said. "We had to invent some dialogue."

Thanks to the digital era, "we now have a really clear copy and are able to see more and more of what they are saying," Goldstein said. "I have created as accurate a script as possible."

Goldstein has been in Los Angeles since Monday rehearsing the cast, which includes himself and Sterner. He wants to keep the identities of the rest of the performers under wraps.

"It's a big operation," he said, laughing. "We will have a wind machine, a thunder sheet and digital sound effects!"

susan.king@latimes.com

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