Unusual Commentary Tracks

 

Terror of Frankenstein

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tim Kirk, producer of Room 237, The Nightmare, and other titles. We talked about commentary tracks because he is releasing something called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. The normal order of business would be to simply re-release Terror of Frankenstein (Calvin Floyd, 1977), and then add a commentary track as a bonus. Sadly, the only existing elements that remain for Terror of Frankenstein are sketchy at best and not worth revisiting in and of themselves. A serendipitous conversation, however, between Kirk and Terror of Frankenstein star Leon Vitali opened the door to a mysterious world behind Floyd’s surprisingly faithful adaption of Mary Shelley’s story. Given Vitali’s work with Stanley Kubrick, he is already the subject of a few conspiracy theories himself, but what Vitali reveals in his commentary track to Terror of Frankenstein suggests that method-acting can go too far. It might even lead to murder.

John Kurt Trey Matt

What it boils down to is this: sometimes things can get a bit raw in the recording studio when people are brought back together to provide a commentary track to a film they once worked on together. The film can become a kind of crime scene with actors, writers, directors being the unusual suspects subpoenaed by the court of public opinion to discuss who did what and when. Or maybe the commentary track goes off the rails in unexpected ways because the recording studio has a well-stocked bar. John Carpenter and Kurt Russell certainly seemed to hit the booze pretty hard while they were doing the commentary track for The Thing. Similarly, Trey Parker and Matt Stone get so pickled while discussing Cannibal, the Musical, that certain things are said that reveal Parker was still pretty sore about catching his fiance cheating on him with a ballet dancer – even though that was many years in the past.

With the aforementioned in mind, I asked Kirk if there were some commentary tracks that he wished existed for titles coming up on TCM this June. Below are his three picks:

hangman

Hangmen Also Die!  (1943) Commentary by director Fritz Lang and screenwriter Bertolt Brecht.  These two German exiles to Hollywood admired and despised each other in equal parts.  Lang was at the height of his Hollywood career while Brecht was basically a non-starter. Judging from this excerpt from Brecht’s diary about the writing process, I imagine the sparks will fly on this track.  July 27, 1942: “What an infinitely dismal fabrication this hostage film is that I have to occupy myself with these days. What a load of hackneyed situations, intrigues, false notes!”

Ice Station Zebra.  (1968) Commentary by millionaire recluse and super fan, Howard Hughes.  Hughes comments on the minutiae he has discovered from his multiple viewings of the film.  Some digressions on the matter of impure blood keep things interesting.  Extra value here, as the film plays in a loop 11 times with Hughes commenting the entire time.

Heaven Can Wait.  (1943) Commentary by director Ernst Lubitsch and director/actor Warren Beatty.  These auteurs discuss their different approaches to their respective versions of the film.  Things get a bit sticky when Gene Tierney joins the track and critiques Beatty’s wardrobe choices.

(With a big nod and thank you to Patton Oswalt and the epilogue of his awesome book Silver Screen Fiend where he imagines dream casts and directors for unmade films, like Terrance Mallick’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian with Marlon Brando in the role of the Judge.)

Boulder Weekly film critic Michael Casey looked at the June TCM lineup and put in his picks:

la bete face wings

La Bête Humaine (1938) – Truffaut sits down with Renoir to discuss life, love, Simon Simon and Antoine Doinel. The two hit it off beautifully and though the movie ends, a life long friendship begins.

A Face in the Crowd ( 1957) – Kazan and Scorsese discuss filmmaking and obsessions, but their conversation primarily consists of talking about who owned what shop on the corner of Elizabeth & Grand.
The Wings of Eagles (1957) – Poor Peter Bogdanovich once again tries to crack the hard shell of idol John Ford. He doesn’t get very far.

With tongue firmly in cheek, I take my turn:

greed lady brainstorm

Greed (1924). Commentary track by director Erich von Stroheim and MGM producer Irving Thalberg. Stroheim invites Thalberg to talk extensively about his decision to cut the director’s eight-hour-long masterpiece down to two-and-a-half-hours. Stroheim seems surprisingly generous in yielding so completely to Thalberg that it’s not a conversation at all. It becomes a monologue. Thalberg fills the entire two-and-a-half available hours with his version of events, or so he thinks. In actuality, the moment Thalberg leaves the recording studio Stroheim cuts down Thalberg’s monologue to 15 minutes of him complaining about communism and Norma Shearer.

Lady in the Lake (1947). Director Robert Montgomery, who also stars as Phillip Marlowe in this unique film noir that adopts the first-person subjective camera viewpoint, invites a dozen cast and crew members to share their experience of working on his ground-breaking film. Sadly, his experiment in the use of a subjective microphone in which only uncredited “party guest” Charles Bradstreet gets to be heard results in giving listeners some lame trivia about Abbott and Costello and leaves all other participants wondering why their microphones didn’t work.

Brainstorm (1983). Director Douglas Trumball revisits his science-fiction drama involving a machine that allows the user the record his experiences in such a full and complete manner that the next person using the device experiences the exact same thing. The hyper-reality experience of the Brainstorm machine was illustrated by sequences shot in Super Panavision 65mm with the picture widening substantially with roaring surround sound, while the majority of “reality” cuts back down to a thinner 35mm picture and no surround. Not surprisingly, Trumball feels it’s only appropriate that his commentary track should be done in full Quadrophonic surround-sound. Christopher Walken gets relegated to mono, and Louise Fletcher can faintly be heard through the subwoofer. The overall swirling auditory experience is confusing, but quite interesting, except during the sad parts whenever Natalie Wood is onscreen and everyone goes silent.

6 Responses Unusual Commentary Tracks
Posted By oystercrakker : May 31, 2015 6:37 pm

So far as actual extant commentaries are concerned, I just wanted to reiterate a mention I made just the other day in a different thread of the collaboration between Eddie Muller and author James Ellroy on the commentary track for the noir film “Crime Wave” … Ellroy goes typically way, way over the top in his outlandish, un-PC comments (& in his lustful enthusiasm for actress Phyllis Kirk!) — & Muller has an impossible task trying to tamp him down

By the way, I just listened to the (actual) commentary track for “Lady in the Lake” by noir mavens Silver & Ursini & it was quite good — though perhaps not as much so as your imagined one!

And vis-a-vis your first example, the (actual) commentary track for Hammer’s “Frankenstein & the Monster from Hell” is quite engaging & fun — with a saucy, sexy Madeline Smith recounting various petites scandales which perhaps she oughtn’t to mention! — coupled with David Prowse — if memory serves & unless I’m thinking of some other commmentary (I don’t actually have this disc on me presently for double-checking) — finding dubiously appropriate occasions here to grumble about his ongoing Darth Vader-related feuds with Lucas etc.

Posted By Emgee : May 31, 2015 6:55 pm

Shortest commentary track ever: Ernst Lubitsch asking Mel Brooks what possessed him to remake To Be or Not To Be. Since Brooks has no answer, the rest of the track is silence.

Posted By Tom S : May 31, 2015 7:36 pm

There are some pretty great strange commentaries on real discs, mostly from superfans- not counting the Wizard People, Dear Reader bonus on one of the Harry Potters, there are:

The RZA doing a (really well informed and engaging) commentary on the 36th Chamber of Shaolin

Guillermo del Toro doing a commentary on the Masters of Cinema release of Dreyer’s Vampyr

John Carpenter doing a commentary on the original The Thing From Another World

Steven Soderbergh showing up for commentaries The Third Man and Point Blank

With the exception of Carpenter, who runs out of things to say pretty quickly, these are all stellar and highly recommended

Posted By Walt : June 1, 2015 1:53 pm

Clever, but Beatty’s “Heaven Can Wait” is a remake of “Here Comes Mister Jordan”. It doesn’t have anything to do with Lubitsch’s “Heaven Can Wait” except using the same title.

Posted By swac44 : June 1, 2015 4:08 pm

I’d go for a John Huston commentary on just about anything, although mostly I’d like to hear him talk about how The Red Badge of Courage was cut to ribbons.

I recall some pretty ribald commentary from Russ Meyer on some laserdiscs of his films that wound up being omitted from their DVD counterparts, probably to spare certain parties some amount of embarrassment (the same reason the South Park creators had to make their first season commentaries available separately on CD, so as not to tick off Barbra Streisand even further).

Posted By george : June 1, 2015 9:11 pm

My favorite commentary track moment: during the AMERICAN SPLENDOR track, Harvey Pekar got a cell phone call — and took the call!

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