Last Saturday, I went to the San Francisco Silent Movie Festival to see The Donovan Affair, a 1929 movie that was both silent and not. “How is this possible?,” I hear you not asking. The answer is simple. The Donovan Affair was the first talking picture directed by Frank Capra (he of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life fame). While the film itself is intact (unlike so many movies from that period), the problem is that, in the 75 years since it was made, the soundtrack has vanished.
Considering it’s a movie about a murder investigation with an incredibly complicated plot (a ne’er-do-well is murdered when the lights are turned out during a birthday party – a stunt that is repeated twice, leading to both a second murder and the apprehension of the murderer), without dialogue, any viewer of the film is going to be stymied. Being that sound was recent to the movies in 1929, Capra and company packed it to the gills with talk, especially during the scenes where the lights are turned out and all the viewer sees is a black screen.
"The Donovan Affair"
Bruce Goldstein, the legendary programmer at New York’s Film Forum, wanted to show The Donovan Affair as part of a Capra retrospective and hit upon the idea of taking the script and having a cast live-dub the movie in real time. The problem was that, not only has the screenplay also been lost to the mists of time, so has the script to the stage play the movie was based on.
While some of the dialogue could be intuited though lip reading, there are plenty of scenes with off-stage characters, actors with their backs to the camera, and the aforementioned blacked-out scenes. After a long, long search, Goldstein located a transcript in the by-then-defunct New York State Film Censorship Board’s archives that, while incomplete and obviously wrong in some places, was complete enough to allow him to proceed. The film was presented to great acclaim, and Goldstein had repeated the stunt a few times (I saw it at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2013), the most recent being the screening at the Castro, where, once again, a cast of live actors, a sound-effects man, and a pianist did the work.
The whole experience is great fun. The actors are skilled enough to tread the fine line of playing things deadpan while simultaneously being just over the top enough to acknowledge both the absurdity of the plot and the peculiarities of early sound film acting. (There are few things on the planet with less animation to them than Wheeler Oakman in The Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature. Coincidentally, Oakman appears in Donovan.)
This isn't a still; it's Oakman's actual performance
And that, at long last, brings me to this week’s topic: the ways in which we’re influenced by the performances of actors who have preceded us. Now, as good as Donovan’s modern-day cast was (and they were very good, indeed), they had to approximate – if not outright duplicate -- the rhythms, cadences, and acting styles of their 1929 equivalents. If they did anything else – commenting on the performances, mocking them, sending them up – the whole thing would fall apart. The joke would be good for about 15 minutes before it stopped being funny. It’s the commitment of the voice actors to emulating the originals that makes it work at all.
All that said, it can’t help but be a little frustrating for those voice actors. Rather than having the freedom to pause a little here or emphasize or downplay something a little more, if they’re going to be faithful to the lip movements and actions of the original cast, they have to color within the lines, so to speak. There’s a certain creativity that is sparked for me (maybe even a freedom) when being restricted as to what I can do in a case like that. I don’t want to say I like directing with a small budget (because having an impressive physical production is nice), but when I’m forced to come up with a theatrical equivalent for something we just can’t afford, that’s when the creativity really starts.
I’m also reminded of this because of my current show, Grey Gardens, which I’ll mention again that you really should see (and that tickets are almost gone – even for our recently-announced extension). Anyone who is a fan of musical theatre has collected more than a few cast albums and listened to them over and over until the songs – and, more importantly, the performances of those songs – get locked into our brains. While this provides entertainment, it also provides a template that’s hard to break out of. Not that there’s only “one way” to perform a number (any more than there’s only “one way” to perform Hamlet or Hedda Gabler or Oscar Madison), but we get those voices and rhythms in our heads and it’s sometimes tough to break away. That said, anyone doing The Music Man, My Fair Lady, or Sweeney Todd is going to labor in the shadows of Robert Preston, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, and Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou or George Hearn.
Contrary to accusations, I do not have my lines written on my hand
I should note here that this is really a condition that’s more applicable to musicals than plays; the number of original casts of non-musical plays that have been immortalized on record (or even film) and listened to repeated times is miniscule. And the nature of musical theatre, with numbers written to be performed at certain tempos in more or less the same timespan as the originals kind of limits the options for later performers. I’m currently singing more or less the same notes John McMartin did in more or less the same tempos and times. I’m not duplicating what he did, but I’m working in a pretty tight structure.
Yes, we all want– and need – to bring our own unique qualities to the roles we play, but the originals are always lurking in the backs of our heads somewhere. Even if we specifically decide to not do what was done of the original cast album, that very reaction is a response. “I’m not going to sing ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right out of My Hair’ like Mary Martin; I’m just not.” That very denial of the template is an acknowledgment of it. Am I saying it’s impossible to bring fresh takes to old roles? Of course not. If that were the case, all you’d need to do is put a CD player on stage and save the expense of hiring actors. There are scores of brilliant Evitas and Roses and John Adamses every year doing things Patti LuPone and Ethel Merman and William Daniels never thought of. But, even if we’re working on original material, we’re either working within the frameworks that our predecessors have established or from the people and things we’re observed in our lives, and it’s that unique synthesis that brings new life to even the most tired and familiar material.