It’s hard to come up with something new and original these days, but I think we’ve got something some of you might enjoy. Today I’d like to introduce “Bloody-Disgusting’s Commentary Track Reviews”, which classic horror reviewer Don Krouskop will be bringing to you on a weekly basis. We’ll find the best, the worst and the most hilarious of commentary tracks so you don’t have to sit through hours and hours to find them. Read on for volume #1, which features the track on Universal’s The Mummy Legacy Collection DVD set.
COMMENTARY TRACK: THE MUMMY (1931)
Universal Legacy Collection
After the obligatory scene selection menu and theatrical trailer, the audio commentary has become the most common bonus feature on home video releases in the DVD era. Fans and aspiring filmmakers alike enjoy listening to the insightful musings and humorous anecdotes of the key figures involved in the production of their favorite motion pictures. In the case of some older, classic films, none of the actors or crewmembers are still alive, leaving the task of providing entertaining, informative commentary to historians and critics who have a particular knowledge of or affinity for a specific cinematic work. In the case of Universal’s Legacy Collection release of the 1932 classic, THE MUMMY, the task fell to author Paul M. Jensen.
Jensen has written several books on classic horror and German expressionism in cinema, including THE CINEMA OF FRITZ LANG, BORIS KARLOFF AND HIS FILMS, and HITCHCOCK BECOMES HITCHCOCK: THE BRITISH YEARS. His commentary track for THE MUMMY is very well-researched and provides considerable insight into the origin of the film’s script and the careers of its key contributors. It also details the close ties between the film and the real-life discovery (and fabled “curse”) of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922, as well as the deliberate similarities between this work and Tod Browning’s DRACULA, released one year earlier.
The problems with Jensen’s commentary arise from his flat delivery and his decision to relate lengthy stories of related works which distract from his observations on THE MUMMY itself. The author is clearly reading his comments from a script, rather than simply watching the film and reflecting on the action as it plays out on screen. While much of what he says is quite fascinating for film lovers and would-be directors, the stiff, rehearsed manner in which he offers his observations undermines some of their appeal. It would be far more interesting to read much of this material in a book than to hear it read by an author who is not, by profession, a vocal talent.
Jensen also allows long moments of the film to pass as he explores the Nina Wilcox Putnam treatment CAGLIOSTRO which would be completely reworked to become John L. Balderston’s screenplay. Later, he repeats this error by discussing at length Balderston’s adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s SHE, which shared so many common elements with THE MUMMY that it was dropped by Universal and sold to RKO (where it was produced by Merian C. Cooper in 1935). While these stories are very interesting and provide a different perspective on the film, too many pivotal scenes pass by without comment while Jensen relates them. Again, this material seems better suited for a book about THE MUMMY than a commentary track designed to run alongside the movie.
When Jensen is discussing the cinematic technique of director Karl Freund and pointing out the effectiveness of shot composition, editing, and lighting, his commentary is truly engaging. When he’s delivering exposition intended only as a “play-by-play” commentary without any larger point to support, his emotionless reading becomes distracting and uninteresting. The contrast between his encyclopedic knowledge of the movie and its history and his inexperience as an audio commentator is stark, clearly illustrating why documentary filmmakers and audio book publishers often hire seasoned actors to narrate their works. Ultimately, Jensen’s commentary for THE MUMMY is a welcome extra for the horror fan with an insatiable thirst for trivia or the filmmaker interested in the techniques which make the film’s more iconic moments so powerful, but is not entertaining or focused enough to satisfy the less passionate viewer.