Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Hard Day’s Night (Walter Shenson Productions, United Artists, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I repaired to his place and ran the tape I’d just made of A Hard Day’s Night preceded by an hour-long documentary on the making of A Hard Day’s Night. I hadn’t seen the film in several years (since the 50th anniversary John Lennon tribute in 1990) but it holds up absolutely brilliantly, by far the best non-documentary film ever made on a rock artist or band, full of the youth and cheekiness that endeared the Beatles to a generation of teenagers of all ages. The documentary makers argued, with justification, that it was the excellence of A Hard Day’s Night that made it respectable for people considerably older than their target audience to like the Beatles, too — and also that it was the film that gave individual personalities to the four, who before that had been seen as a virtually indistinguishable set of lovable mop-tops. (Even Timothy Leary, when he met them as late as 1966, said, “I had no idea they looked so much alike — just minor variations on a single theme.”) Again and again, the Beatles confounded expectations that teen-idol groups would be shoddy affairs whose products would be ephemeral distractions without any real quality — and for that we have to thank not only the Beatles themselves but also Brian Epstein, who (completely opposite to Colonel Tom Parker and his approach to managing Elvis Presley!) always insisted on giving the fans fair value for money. Epstein insisted that people who were licensed to manufacture Beatles merchandise guarantee to use quality materials and keep the costs reasonable, and it was the same mentality that led him to go for the Beatles’ inevitable first film not to the abundantly available hacks, but to people like producer Walter Shenson, director Richard Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen, people who’d actually shown some understanding of comedy and pop music.

For people whose idea of a rock ’n’ roll movie was an Elvis film or an Alan Freed “quickie” (with a silly plot and a few isolated musical numbers filmed against sets that looked like painted cardboard), A Hard Day’s Night was a revelation. Though it’s a little hard to take the comparisons with the Marx Brothers seriously (the whole point of the Marx Brothers was that they projected very different personalities as well as appearances), the fact remains that the Beatles scored big in films by putting the slashing wit of Liverpool on the screen and establishing themselves as first-rate comedians within Lester’s snappy, fast-paced world. A Hard Day’s Night presents the Beatles as mostly lovable, though there are hints of the generation gap to come in their confrontation on the train with the World War II veteran (“I fought a war for your kind,” he insists — to which Ringo fires back, “I’ll bet you say you won!”) and the later scene between George and the “professional trendsetters” (the never-seen character of “Susan” was a parody of Cathy MacGowan, the hostess of Britain’s most important rock ’n’ roll TV show in the 1960’s, Ready, Steady, Go!) — apparently Alun Owen had just heard one of the Beatles use the word “grotty” (slang shorthand for “grotesque”) and he decided to write in a scene where he could use that word! [More recently Owen claimed he had heard the term “grotty” used by young Liverpudlians and put it in his script, then found to his surprise that none of the Beatles had heard it before.] The whole thing has a tight-knit, almost fable-like quality, aided by the grainy black-and-white photography that makes it look like a documentary (on the “making of” show, Walter Shenson tried to convince us that it was an artistic decision to use black-and-white, though other sources have said that it was actually a desire to keep the film’s budget down lest the Beatles phenomenon disappear before the film could be completed and released) and the limited settings — Owen said he intended the first half of the film to reproduce the claustrophobic environment in which the Beatles lived and the extent to which their fame had turned them into prisoners, and he and Lester succeeded perfectly. Wilfred Brambell’s line, “I’ve been in a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room” might have been rewritten by Owen to be punchier, and been reassigned to one of the other actors in the film, but it originally came out of the mouth of a Beatle.

The supporting cast is also one element on which the producers of A Hard Day’s Night did not stint. Unlike the producer of Elvis’ film debut, David Weisbart — it’s hilarious to hear Elvis introduce “Love Me Tender” on the Ed Sullivan Show and hear him express his gratitude for being able to make his first film in the company of “major stars” (“Yeah, Richard Egan and Debra Paget — two legendary star names without which no history of Hollywood is complete,” I couldn’t help thinking when I heard that!) — Shenson did in fact put major actors into this film, including Brambell, who was a TV superstar in Britain at the time playing in the series Steptoe and Son. (It was later remade for U.S. TV as Sanford and Son, with Redd Foxx in Brambell’s role.) Playing Paul’s grandfather, Brambell is unforgettable, irascible yet charming, his querulousness brilliantly setting off the Beatles’ finely honed wit. Victor Spinetti is also marvelous as the TV director, wearing a ridiculous sweater that looks like he just stepped out of a Shakespearean rehearsal and is “taking five” before he returns to continue parsing out Hamlet’s soliloquies. His cool nervousness in a characterization — a director fretting over the fact that the stars of his live TV show are missing — that just about any American filmmaker of the time would have played as the kind of raving neurotic Douglas Fowley enacted as the put-upon film director in Singin’ in the Rain is a welcome switch (and no doubt landed Spinetti his big role in the Beatles’ next film, Help!, in which he was on screen about five times as long and was about one-fifth as funny). While I’m not sure I’d go so far as Roger Ebert, who said A Hard Day’s Night was his favorite musical of all time, it does work as a major classic — as well as an eternal tribute to the joys of Beatlemania, the nearly orgasmic looks on the faces of the teens in the concert sequence (screaming as hard at the Beatles lip-synching to their records as they would have if they’d actually been performing — and apparently teen audiences in the movie theatres screamed just as loudly at the photographic images of the Beatles as the film ran!) illustrating the words of the Newsweek interviewee who said, “Oh, dearie me — they just send the joy out to you.” The fact that A Hard Day’s Night still works on this marvelously innocent level, despite all that’s happened since — the disappearance of 1960’s idealism and the breakup of the Beatles as a band (and the subsequent murder of a key member) — indicates how strong the Beatles’ ongoing appeal still is and makes it seem not quite so bizarre that The Beatles, of all people, would become the biggest record-sellers of 1995! — 5/19/97


With Charles and I having an all too rare evening together and nothing much good on TV, we had the rare opportunity to watch a movie together and I wanted something relatively light. So I dragged out the 40th anniversary DVD of the Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night (I’ve had this sitting in the archives for so long there’s been a 50th anniversary DVD/Blu-Ray release since then!), and we screened it. First of all, the restoration looks excellent and our digital TV did full justice to it. Second, it remains one of the oddest films ever made, almost totally off the track of any previous movie featuring rock ’n’ roll performers — yet more evidence of how lucky the Beatles were that their support staff did not consist of people who knew the rock business before and therefore they were allowed to find their own ways of doing things instead of being pressed into the usual commercial modes. Before A Hard Day’s Night there were basically two kinds of rock movies: the ones Elvis Presley ground out, in which his singing and acting (such as it was) were shoe-horned into traditional Hollywood plots; and the ones all other rock musicians found themselves in, which were films with skeletal plots whose only functions were to plug the songs into some sort of dramatic structure, however lame. The Beatles — John Lennon in particular — were quite vocal that they didn’t want to make either of those sorts of movies, and they lucked out when their manager, Brian Epstein, cut a three-film contract with Walter Shenson, contract producer with United Artists. United Artists didn’t really care whether the film was going to be any good; what they wanted was a soundtrack album, since there was a loophole in the Beatles’ contract with EMI Records that allowed another company to release the soundtrack for a Beatles’ film. United Artists then owned a record company (ironically, when they exited the record business in 1979 they sold it to EMI, though their most popular rock act in 1979, the Electric Light Orchestra, had spun off their own label, Jet, and moved their distribution to Columbia) and they wanted the film produced cheaply in black-and-white and released quickly before the Beatles’ phenomenon faded.

Walter Shenson hired an American-born but British-based director named Richard Lester who had cut his directorial teeth shooting TV commercials once the Independent Television Service (ITS) was established as Britain’s first private broadcasting company in the 1950’s. He had graduated to shooting the TV shows featuring The Goon Squad — a pre-Monty Python comedy troupe featuring Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe — and while none of the Goon Squad TV shows survive (ITS didn’t want to pay the extra 75 pounds per episode to preserve them), Sellers bought a movie camera and he and Lester made a short called The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film (its title accurately describes its contents — Peter Sellers running, jumping and standing still in a large field), and it was nominated for an Academy Award. Lester then got a chance to direct a feature film, It’s Trad, Dad!, in 1962, and when Turner Classic Movies revived it, it turned out to be a minor masterpieces, full of creatively filmed performances of pop music and wacky comedy scenes and an overall air of irreverence that made it the best rock movie produced to that time. It’s Trad, Dad! (the title comes from “trad,” short for “traditional,” which is what the British called Dixieland jazz when it briefly became the most popular sort of music in the U.K. in the early 1950’s) featured both British and American musicians — the Americans were filmed separately by a second unit directed by Peter Case — but the difference between Lester’s and Case’s footage is night and day. As I wrote in my blog post about It’s Trad, Dad!, “[T]he American numbers have the same dull head-on treatment as was common in pop musicals of the day, while Lester’s numbers feature overhead angles, instrument’s-eye views, proto-psychedelic effects (in one scene he zooms into the megaphone of the Temperance Seven’s singer and then starts spinning the camera until his mouth turns into a paisley pattern) and the kinds of split-screen effects that became common and, eventually, an oppressive cliché of their own in later 1960’s music films.” Lester then hooked up with producer Walter Shenson to make The Mouse on the Moon, an O.K. film of Leonard Wibberley’s sequel to his novel The Mouse That Roared, and so he was Shenson’s go-to guy for filming A Hard Day’s Night. The film had no title when it was made — Shenson hired Lester for what was then just called Beatles’ Project #1 and Lester in turn hired British playwright Alun Owen to do the script because Owen had lived in the Beatles’ home town, Liverpool, and knew its slang. Owen did such a convincing job that some of the lines he concocted for this film — especially such exchanges in the movie’s press conference scene as John Lennon’s comment on how they found America (“Turn left at Greenland”) and Ringo Starr’s name for the Beatles’ hair style (“Arthur”) — are still quoted as authentic Beatles utterances.

The crew lost half of the first day’s film when the clapper loader who was holding the film cans so they could be taken to the lab for developing was mobbed by screaming fans because he vaguely resembled one of the Beatles; running for his life, he dropped the film cans and half of them were ruined before they were recovered. Lester and his cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor, shot the film in a raw, nervy style, with odd angles that made it look as if they were just capturing the Beatles on the fly, taking a train from Liverpool to London for a major TV gig at the Scala Theatre (where Felix Weingartner had recorded five Beethoven symphonies for Columbia to celebrate the centennial of Beethoven’s death in 1927) and encountering Paul’s weirdo grandfather, John McCartney (Wilfred Brambell, a British comedian then known primarily as the star of the British TV series Steptoe and Son, in which he played a junk dealer — thus the repeated and, to modern audiences, confusing references to him as “a clean old man” since he’s playing a clean character here instead of a junkman; when Steptoe and Son was remade for the U.S. the title was changed to Sanford and Son, the characters became Black and Redd Foxx played Brambell’s role). In an early shot across the bow in the war between the generations that flared up and became open hostility later in the 1960’s, the Beatles also encounter an officious “Man on Train” (Richard Vernon) who insists, “I travel on this train regularlytwice a week,” and therefore he has the right to dictate how the Beatles behave in the compartment they’re sharing with him even though, as one of the Beatles says, “There are four of us. We’re more than you.” At one point Vernon says, “I fought a war for your kind,” and one of the Beatles ripostes, “I’ll bet you’re sorry you won” — at least that’s how imdb.com quotes the line; I’ve always heard it as, “I’ll bet you say you won!”

A Hard Day’s Night has the semblance of a plot, but it’s mostly the Beatles trying to escape the protective cocoon around them (Beatles biographer Philip Norman called 1963 “the year they conquered the world, but did not see it”) and get to their gigs without being mobbed by crazed fans, while also dealing with Paul’s grandfather, the rivalry between their road managers Norm (Norman Rossington) and Shake (John Junkin), and the hideous isolation their peculiar sort of fame had subjected them to: when Brambell as Paul’s grandfather complains that so far on his trip with them “I’ve been in a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room,” he was echoing a complaint from one of the Beatles Owen had heard and decided to include in his script. A Hard Day’s Night is shot in such high-contrast black-and-white, with oblique angles that make the film look as if Lester and his crew merely caught the action on the fly instead of staging it, it essentially comes off as a parody of all those serious Angry Young Man movies the British film industry was making in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s — and the connection between the proletarian world of the Angry Young Man movies and the proletarian world of Liverpool that produced the Mersey Beat scene which generated and “broke” the Beatles was made more recently in that fascinating 2014 British TV miniseries Cilla — about Cilla Black, who next to the Beatles had the longest and most successful ongoing career of any of the Liverpool scenesters of the period. At least twice in the film the Beatles make snippy remarks about “Southerners” — the Beatles came from the north of England at a time when the north was looked down on much the way the American South is, and they even flouted their northern origins by calling their music publishing company “Northern Songs.” They were clearly proud that they had had an international success that had eluded London-based British rock acts like Cliff Richard and the Shadows, and they weren’t about rubbing it in to the stuffy showbiz establishment in London. Alun Owen got most of his information about the Beatles and how they reacted both to the world and to each other by accompanying them on their tour of France just before they came to the U.S. in February 1964 for their explosive debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, and though his initial draft of the script was overlong, most of what got said in the movie originated on Owen’s pages — people who’ve read his script estimate that only about 5 to 10 percent of the Beatles’ dialogue was improvised on set.

The whole shoot was so free-wheeling that the Beatles’ real-life tailor played their tailor in the movie, and he’s the one who’s holding up the tape measure when John Lennon grabs a pair of scissors and, mimicking Queen Elizabeth II, says, “I now declare this bridge … open!” and cuts the tape measure in half. Apparently that’s the line Owen wrote, though Lennon improvised several other variations that weren’t used, including one which went, “I now declare this fish-and-chips shop … open!” Owen was one of the two people who got Academy Award nominations for their work on A Hard Day’s Night; the other was Beatles’ producer George Martin (who like Lester had worked with the Goon Squad before — they, and Peter Sellers as a solo artist, were actually the best sellers Martin had on the Parlophone label until he signed the Beatles) for the film’s music — though that mostly meant arranging Beatles’ songs for orchestra, including the marvelous version of “This Boy” that accompanies Ringo when he wanders off from the others and, influenced by Paul’s grandfather, goes “paradin’” around London when he’s supposed to be in the TV studio for the final dress rehearsal of their big show. (The bonus material on this DVD includes an interview with Martin in which he says screenwriter Owen’s Oscar nomination was “very much deserved” and his own was “very much undeserved.”) Amazingly — at least by modern standards — none of the Beatles’ original song for the film (including the title song, which John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote overnight after A Hard Day’s Night — based on a favorite malapropism of Ringo, who after one of the Beatles’ all-night recording sessions had said, “Well, that was sure a hard day’s night!” — was picked as the film’s title) received Academy Award nominations. The Academy was still in the 1950’s mindset that rock ’n’ roll wasn’t serious music and didn’t deserve to be honored, so none of the Beatles’ originals either for this film or their next one, Help!, got nominated — but how many times have you listened to the songs that won the Academy Awards for those years, “Call Me Irresponsible” and “Chim-Chim-Cheree,” versus how many times you’ve heard the songs from A Hard Day’s Night and Help!?

Of course it’s impossible to watch A Hard Day’s Night without thinking of the rest of the story, the further developments in the Beatles’ history (both as a band and after their breakup) and the fact that only two of them are left alive and Paul is the only one who’s remained an artistically and commercially important musician — but at the same time it’s also a flashback to 1964, when the Beatles were sensationally successful (but also literally imprisoned by their success in ways the film dramatizes all too well), when all the world seemed to be laid out before them — and when film critics, expecting A Hard Day’s Night to be just another quickie potboiler to exploit the fleeting fame of a flash-in-the-pan rock band, reviewed it and actually proclaimed it an excellent movie. Once again, Brian Epstein —who in most modern histories of the Beatles is written off as a borderline incompetent whose only interest in the Beatles was the drugs and rent boys his 25 percent share of them could pay for — triumphed in his insistence that every Beatles product be made to last; just as parents whose kids bought Beatles clothing were impressed that the goods were made of fine materials and carefully sewn, moviegoers who went to A Hard Day’s Night expecting yet another silly rock ’n’ roll movie were impressed at the craftsmanship with which it was made and the dazzling veins of mordant comedy Lester, Owen, Taylor and the film’s true unsung hero, editor John Jympson (who had the unenviable task of cutting together Lester’s mass of footage and making a coherent movie of it while retaining the anarchic devil-may-care energy of the piece) had struck. — 1/3/17