DISCUSSION TOPICS

Index of Discussion Topics

3D Films

1943 Home Front

Cornell Woolrich

The Donovan Affair: Reconstructing the Sound Track of Frank Capra's First Talkie

Jean Arthur

Motion Picture Production Code

Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

She Had to Say Yes, Before and After the Hays Code

3D FILMS

In the early 1950s movie attendance was declining because the public, especially families, stayed home watching their new television sets. To lure the audience from their TVs, film producers introduced impressive new film formats, such as widescreen processes CinemaScope and VistaVision, which could not be duplicated on the small screen of a television. The 3D (3-dimensional) format was another system used to attract the public to a film. 3D enhances the illusion of depth. In the system used in the 1950s, two cameras recorded the images from two slightly different perspectives, and two projectors were used simultaneously in the theater. Special glasses worn by the spectator united the images and produced the sensation of objects jumping off the screen. 3D films were popular for a brief time before declining in the mid-fifties.

THE 1943 HOME FRONT

The US was fighting on two fronts in 1943, and films set at home emphasized patriotism and the commitment of the population to the war effort. These films present situations in which some individuals are acting contrary to the interests of the country and use these transgressions to preach to the audience about their responsibilities as citizens.

CORNELL WOOLRICH (1903-1968)

Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich (1903-1968) was an American novelist and short story writer. He was born in New York, and as a child lived in South America with his father. In the late 1920's, he was in Hollywood and is credited with writing story lines and titles (under the pseudonym of William Irish) for several films. In 1930, Woolrich married but the couple separated after only 3 months, and the marriage was eventually annulled. In 1933, Woolrich returned to New York where he lived with his mother until her death in 1957. His life was reclusive, and he rarely left his hotel room. From an early age, he wrote continuously. His first published works were romance novels of the Jazz age (six novels 1926 -1932); however, most of his stories are mysteries of crime and detection. His first mystery story was published in 1934, and over the next 34 yrs, he wrote 200 short stories and 16 novels. Many radio and television plays and more than 25 films have been based on his work. In his stories everyday events often go terribly wrong, and bad things happen to ordinary people. Neither happiness nor justice may be the outcome. Woolrich's greatest strength is creating suspense that grips the reader even as the plot stretches credibility.

THE DONOVAN AFFAIR: RECONSTRUCTING THE SOUND TRACK OF FRANK CAPRA'S FIRST TALKIE

Frank Capra’s first talkie, The Donovan Affair, was based on a similarly named Owen Davis mystery play produced on Broadway in 1926. A playboy with multiple enemies attends a dinner party during which the lights are turned off (to demonstrate his glowing ring), and he is stabbed to death at the table. Enter the police, Detective Jack Holt and his brainless assistant Fred Kelsey (1884-1961). After a series of ridiculous attempts by Holt to identify the murderer, the guests reassemble around the table, and the lights are turned off to reenact the crime. One of the diners realizes he can identify the murderer but is stabbed before he can speak the name. Holt makes more ridiculous attempts to force the murderer into revealing himself. The guests reassemble around the table once again; the lights are turned off, and one of the diners claims to know who committed the murder. When the murderer tries to stab him, policeman Holt nabs the culprit. It turns out to be the Butler!

The film, a comic mystery, contains abundant clichés: wind, rain and lightning effects, murder in the dark, a dim-witted assistant detective, harebrained dinner guests, and re-enactments of the crime. The mildly, amusing scenario is replete with trite and inane elements such as a murder victim overplayed as a cad with a magic glowing ring that makes women fall for him, slow-witted police detectives, a preposterous method of solving the murder, and a murderous butler, instantly changing from quietly friendly to violently insane.

In 1929, Capra was at the beginning of 10 years of great filmmaking. The most important talent at the studio, Capra put himself and Columbia Pictures in the first rank of filmdom with Lady for a Day (1933), which was nominated for four Academy Awards. It Happened One Night (1934) won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and shot Capra to the heights, where he remained until his last film in 1961. The outstanding career of its director makes Capra’s first talkie an important film for studying his development.

The sound track (dialogue and background) for The Donovan Affair was recorded on discs, shaped and played like phonograph records. Each disc was played in conjunction with the projection of the film. The system was similar to playing a record on a phonograph, the 16” disc played at 33 1/3 rpm on a turntable mechanically linked to the film projector. A needle tracked from the center of the disc outward.

The only known copy of The Donovan Affair (in the Library of Congress) is visually intact, but the eight sound discs are lost. Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming for Film Forum of New York City, has spent over twenty years reconstructing the sound track (dialogue and background) of The Donovan Affair. His first task was retrieving the dialogue. Columbia Pictures, the production company, did not have a copy of the script. A copy of the play proved of little assistance as the film differs significantly. An extensive dialog list in the archives of the New York State Board of Film Censors provided about 60% of the dialogue, and lip reading from the film itself added more. Small pieces of dialogue were restored from a variety of other sources. Goldstein believes that the current version is nearly complete, although still a work in progress.

In 1992 the film with the restored dialogue and background sounds (including the scratching of the stylus on the sound disc) was presented at the Film Forum. Live voice actors spoke the lines in synchrony with the lip movements of the actors on the screen. Background noises were recreated. In 2013 at the Turner Classic Movie Festival and in 2015 at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, The Donovan Affair was presented with live voice actors and sounds effects. The performers, The Gower Gulch Players, speak, as closely as possible, in the early 30s manner. Although the original performances cannot be recreated exactly and the live voices are not a perfect match, the restoration makes watchable an otherwise inaccessible film.

Film Forum, a non-profit cinema founded in New York in 1970, offers two distinct, but complementary, film programs. One program presents New York City premiers of American independent and foreign art films. The second program, directed by Bruce Goldstein, features repertory selections including American and foreign classics, genre works, festivals and director’s retrospectives.

References

The Donovan Affair. Bruce Goldstein. San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Booklet, 2015

The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931. Donald Crafton. Volume 4, History of American Cinema. University of California Press. 1997.

JEAN ARTHUR (1900-1991)

Jean Arthur was a unique screen personality: bubbly, effervescent, and smart. She used her unusual voice to her advantage, employing its squeaky sound to emphasize her statements. Her characters are warm, cuddly, cute and often slyly manipulative. Arthur started in films in 1923. After 12 years and more than 50 films (silents and talkies), she became a major star. Her roles in early talkies did not utilize her distinctive personality and comic ability. She had been rising for several years before director Frank Capra cast her in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and provided the star-making role. Although she is best known for comedy, she was equally effective in romantic drama.

THE MOTION PICTURE PRODUCTION CODE

The Motion Picture Production Code was a set of moral guidelines adopted in 1930 by the film industry association Motion Picture Producers and Distributers of America, Inc. The code listed acceptable and unacceptable content for motion pictures produced in the United States. Initially, motion picture producers followed the strictures of the code on a voluntary basis. In mid 1934, the Producers and Distributers of America established an enforcement office, the Production Code Administration, which issued certificates of approval. The period between establishment of the code in 1930 and enforcement of the code in 1934 is called the pre-code era. Many producers and directors during this period stretched or ignored the guidelines set out in the code. Pre-code films often contain sexual references, violent events, and levels of cynicism absent from films made after 1934.

NILES ESSANAY SILENT FILM MUSEUM

The Niles Film Museum is located in Niles, California where, in 1912, Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson set up the west coast branch of Essanay Studios. Anderson and his partner, George K. Spoor, had established the headquarters of their studio in Chicago in 1907. Anderson filmed westerns at the Niles studio and utilized the nearby Niles Canyon as a scenic location. In late 1914, Essanay signed Charlie Chaplin to a year-long contract. Chaplin filmed in the Niles studios and the picturesque canyon through 1915, before signing with Mutual Film Corporation in December, 1915.

The Film Museum is housed in the Edison Theater, an authentic storefront movie theater built in 1913. The members of the Essanay Company, including Anderson and Chaplin, may have attended the theater. The theater closed many years ago, and the building went through many subsequent uses. In 2001, The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum organization was formed and reestablished the historic use as a theater showing silent movies.

The Film Society has Saturday programs throughout the year and a Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival in June. Watching a silent film, accompanied by live music, in the old theater recreates the experience of early day moviegoers, including Charlie Chaplin and Broncho Billy.

SHE HAD TO SAY YES BEFORE AND AFTER THE HAYS CODE

She Wouldn't Say Yes (1945) makes an interesting contrast to She Had To Say Yes (1933) relative to pre-Code and post-Code romantic films. The male characters in the 1933 film are obviously pursuing the woman for sex, and distrust a woman who professes "innocence". In the 19445 film, the virginity and unavailability of the unmarried psychiatrist is not in question. The sexy character, played by blond beauty Adele Jergens, talks (and writes in a tell-all book) only about kissing the men she meets. The sexual innuendo, which pervades the pre-Code film, is subdued in the later film, which is forced to follow the restrictive Hays Code edicts.

In the 1945 film, bedroom encounters are mildly sexy, but suggestiveness is kept to a minimum. The cartoonist visits the bedroom of the psychiatrist after a wedding, which she believes is pretend. He even sits on her bed, but he soon leaves. In the 1934 film, Daniel believes that Florence is sexually experienced and comes close to rape before she challenges him and he changes his mind. The two film's endings further illustrate the differences between pre-Code and post-Code films. In She Wouldn't Say Yes, the husband gets no further than standing on the ladder to the upper berth where his wife is lying. A marriage acknowledged by both must be performed before he can enter. At the end of She Had to Say Yes, by contrast, the implication is that the couple will celebrate their wedding night on the night before their wedding.