The Commentary Track: Lent in Casablanca, Night 35

Have you ever watched the Casablanca dvd while listening to the Commentary Track, “With Director Michael Curtiz, Producer Hal B. Wallace, and Actors Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Katherine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy”? It’s amazing to hear. They tell all the famous stories, about how the airplane was a cardboard model with midgets playing the ground crew. They discuss how tough it was handling the height difference between Bogie & Bergman and Bogie & Paul Henreid, and Bogie and Tracy joke about how uptight Henreid was on set.

This dvd commentary is available on the super-deluxe Criterion Collection Blu-Ray DVD, exclusively at Heaven’s Video Store.

This came to mind after I watched one of the best episodes of “The West Wing.” It’s the episode called “Bartlet for America,” and the commentary track features writer Aaron Sorkin, director Thomas Schlamme, and John Spencer, the actor who played Leo McGarry.

I usually enjoy the commentary tracks, as you’d expect for someone with my level of dorkiness.  If a film captivates me, I want to know as much as possible about it: how it was made, why they did things one way instead of another, what an actor thought about when the cameras rolled.

The most amazing commentary track I’ve heard for Casablanca was from Roger Ebert. Ebert loves the film, and he’s studied it closely with an expert eye. In his career, he’s interviewed a zillion movie people. He combines all these tools, plus a journalist’s eloquence, and provides an informative, engrossing narrative.

When I was watching The West Wing last night, relishing the insights, I couldn’t help but wish Bogie and friends had recorded a commentary track for Casablanca.  It dawned on me why they hadn’t: there was not even a thought in 1942 that dvd’s would have commentary tracks. This makes sense, since the dvd market was so small in 1942, that nobody bothered. 

In 1942, of course, the dvd wasn’t invented. TV was essentially a rumor–regular tv broadcasting in the US wasn’t till after WW2–and dvd’s took a few more years. Well, several decades, to be honest.

Bogie and friends never thought anyone would see Casablanca anywhere except in a theater. Today, dvd commentaries are often recorded before the film even premiers. For Love, Actually, the session where the actors and writer-director recorded their commentary was the first time the actors had seen the film.

I haven’t checked to see if my new dvd of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has a commentary track. It doesn’t matter to me, really. I think the film is really good, but I don’t have any desire to learn more than imdb can tell me. When I opened the dvd, two things literally popped out at me. One was a brochure offering all manner of overpriced HP memorabilia. Another glossy ad extolled the wonders of the HP park at Universal Orlando.

The thought of a Casablanca theme park (with Rick & Ilsa’s Hill of Beans™ Coffee Bar) is enough to nauseate me, and the mind reels at what sort of merchandise they’d come up with.

Ah, but the special dvd, featuring commentary with Curtiz, Wallis, Bogart, Bacall, Hepburn, and Tracy? For that, I’d pay a ton.

Of course, Spencer Tracy wasn’t in Casablanca, nor were Bacall or Hepburn. However, the four were frequent and enthusiastic drinking buddies. After Ebert’s commentary, imdb, all the crap I’ve read, and watching it every night during Lent, I know a gracious plenty about Casablanca. Hearing Bogart & Bacall, Hepburn & Tracy get schnockered and talk movies? That’s worth any numbers of bean hills.

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4 Responses to “The Commentary Track: Lent in Casablanca, Night 35”

  1. I almost never watch the commentary on a film — the lone exception that comes to mind is the LoTR trilogy, which I listened to Jackson’s and Walsh’s commentary, which was pretty enlightening.

  2. The only time I’ve ever listened to the commentary on a DVD was by accident, when my son clicked on the kid actors’ responses to “School of Rock.” It was just a series of “That was SOOO COOL!” “I really loved when Jack [Black] said that!” Not that you would expect anything more profound from a group of 12-year-olds, but I wondered why the DVD production company would waste their time on recording “Hahaha, that was AWESOME!”

    I will have to say listening to Roger Ebert or Bogie and Tracy talk about Casablanca would be the awesome. I’ll have to check out the Criterion edition of the movie. Criterion always does a great job with their DVDs, both in digitizing old films and providing interesting liner notes, though most of my experience with them has been with their series of classic Japanese films like Kurosawa’s and Ozu’s.

  3. I’ve probably listened to more commentary tracks on TV show DVDs than movies. I guess b/c it takes a much shorter attention span.

    Some actors should not do commentary tracks — they’re fine saying stuff other people have written, but not so good extempore.

  4. That is truly a party I’d love to attend. In wizard robes, of course.

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