The Donovan Affair (1929)

Film Review

THE DONOVAN AFFAIR

Release Date: 11 April, 1929

Studio: Columbia

Director: Frank Capra

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

Screenplay: Hoard Green, Dorothy Howell, based on the play by Owen Davis

Cinematography: Ted Tetzlaff

Related Discussion Topic

Read our discussion topic entry about the reconstruction of the soundtrack of The Donovan Affair.

Synopsis

Jack Donovan (Roche), a caddish playboy, attends a dinner party given at the home of Peter and Lydia Rankin (Ethier and Ayres). Several people at the party despise Donovan. During dinner the lights are turned off (to demonstrate the glow of Donovan’s ring). Donovan is stabbed to death in the darkness.

Inspector Killian (Holt) and his brainless assistant Carney (Kelsey) investigate the murder. After Killian questions the guests and the servants, everybody reassembles around the dinner table, and the lights are turned off to reenact the crime. Porter (Oakman) realizes he can identify the murderer but is stabbed before he can speak the name. Killian makes more attempts to force the murderer into revealing himself. The guests assemble around the table once again; the lights are turned off, and Cornish (Collier), fiancé of Jean Rankin (Revier), claims to know the murder’s identity. When the murderer tries to stab Cornish, Killian captures him. The murderer turns out to be the Nelson, the butler (Hearn) madly jealous of Donovan’s attentions to Mary, the maid (Faire)

Discussion

Frank Capra’s first talkie, 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), 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.

After entering films in 1914 at age 26, Jack Holt’s first significant part was as co-star to Mary Pickford in The Little American (1917). Holt starred in numerous silent and talkie westerns, including an extensive series based on the novels of Zane Grey. He made four films with Frank Capra, three of them (Submarine, 1928, Flight, 1929, and Dirigible, 1931) co-starring Ralph Graves in stories about buddies who serve on a military vehicle and love the same woman. Invariably, Holt loses the woman but, nevertheless, saves Graves after the vehicle crashes.

Holt’s appearance was distinctive; everything about him was square, from his upright stance with straight back and squared shoulders to his granite jaw. His sober demeanor and deep, gravelly voice contributed greatly to the sense of single-minded purpose conveyed by his screen persona.

William (Buster) Collier Jr entered films, age 12, in The Bugle Calls (1914) starring William Collier Sr. During the 20s, Buster, a youthful romantic actor, starred in numerous films. Although short, slightly slouchy, weak voiced, and lacking a forceful screen presence, Collier continued in leading roles through the first half of the thirties, his films gradually declining to programmers. He made his final film in 1935. He remained in the movie business as an agent with the Wm. Morris Agency and was an executive producer for several television series, including Mr. & Mrs. North (1953) and The Adventures of the Falcon (1954-1956).

A star in the late teens and early twenties, Agnes Ayres is mostly remembered for her role as the kidnapped Englishwoman in The Sheik (1921), the film responsible for Rudolph Valentino’s status as the screen’s greatest lover. Ayres’ career was fading by the late twenties; she continued in small roles until 1936 and retired at age 38.

During his long career (478 acting credits, 1911-1961), Fred Kelsey specialized in dumb cops. His face and build typecast him as a policeman even in the silent era when his raspy voice could not be heard. "Carney" in The Donovan Affair is basically the same character as "Dickens" in The Lone Wolf series (starring Warren William, 1940-1943).

Although The Donovan Affair exists on film, the soundtrack, recorded on discs, has been lost. Bruce Goldstein, repertory director at Film Forum in New York, has reconstructed the dialogue and sound effects for the film. Goldstein’s restored version has been presented using live voice actors and sound effects at the Turner Classic Movies Festival (2013) and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (2015).