On this day in history, 1964, what would later be called one of the 100 greatest films of all time by Time Magazine, the Beatles “mockumentary”, A Hard Day’s Night, debuted in the United States. (Warning: There be spoilers in the A Hard Day’s Night facts ahead! So if you haven’t seen it, you might want to watch it before reading on.)
By 1964, putting a music star in a feature film was certainly nothing new, the roster of musicians doing so included such luminaries as Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Ricky Nelson, Fabian, and of course, that paradigm of the low-budget (and lousy) movie musicals, Elvis Presley himself. The problem was that with few exceptions, such films were nothing more than cheap fluff and little more than an excuse to make a few quick bucks and get some songs (usually very bad ones) on the screen and perhaps (as in Elvis’ case) to release an embarrassingly mediocre soundtrack album.
Song quality notwithstanding, this was United Artists’ idea when they signed a newly popular group called the Beatles to a three-picture deal late in 1963. Their basic plan was to put out a cheapie, hack film with the red-hot pop group, then clean up on the soundtrack album. The second half of the plan actually worked, but as for the first half of the plan, the Beatles had other ideas. “We didn’t want to make another shitty pop musical”, recalled John Lennon. As with just about everything they did at this time when it came to entertainment, they succeeded at this goal.
The Beatles chose 32-year-old director Richard Lester to guide them after seeing, and loving, a black & white comedy/avant-garde short he directed called The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film.
Instead of an actual movie with a typical plot, A Hard Day’s Night was a quasi-documentary, capturing a day in the life of the most popular band in the world. As screenwriter Alun Own said, “I had a couple of false starts trying to write a fantasy film, but quickly realized that nothing could compare with their own fantastic lives.” To get the flavor of the four individual Beatles and their lives, Owen lived with the fab four for two days. When he asked John what their life was like, John replied, “It’s a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room.”
It was Owen who wrote them as four clear and individual characters, giving life to the four classic Beatles’ stereotypes, which in popular opinion still holds to this very day (John- the witty one, the smart ass; Paul- the cute one, the romantic Beatle, the one the girls swooned over; George- the quiet one, the sullen Beatle; and Ringo- the dumb but cute “little fellow”.) Owen added: “There was never a question of writing equal shares for them- I wrote for the four of them, remembering each one as important as the others”.
A rock bottom budget of 200,000 pounds (around $500,000.00, or about $3,400,000 today) was allotted as the film’s budget, along with a 7-week shooting schedule (March 2- April 24, 1964.)
The film’s opening shot is of the four Beatles being chased (by actual fans) down the street. George accidentally tripped and fell down in this opening shot, tearing his pants, but somehow this glitch worked, and was left in the film as its initial scene.
The Beatles spend the first half of the film on a train. It was on the train that George, in real life, met knockout actress/model Pattie Boyd, who had a role as a girl traveling on the train and whom he almost instantly fell in love with (or perhaps when talking “instantly” we should say “enamored” or “in-lust” with). Whatever the case, things progressed from there and the two got married 18 months later.
Veteran British funnyman Wilfred Brambell was cast as “Paul’s grandfather”, who the boys have to “baby-sit” on the train. But the innocent looking grandfather is actually “a villain” and “a king mixer”, who delights in causing trouble for others (especially Ringo.) Norm Rossington and John Junkin were cast as “norm” and “shake”, the boys’ road managers. (These two characters were based on the Beatles’ two real life road managers Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans.)
Often using a hand-held camera for spontaneous shots, director Lester created new film styles with his innovative cinematography. The film’s threadbare plot has them rushing around, trying to find Ringo who has disappeared, in time to make a television appearance.
The Beatles enjoyed the film-making experience, although after being up drinking at clubs until 2 or 3 in the morning, this made their 6:00 a.m. calls to the set a tad wearisome. The four would be driven to the film set, looking over their scripts and learning their lines on the drive. In fact, Ringo’s big scene in the movie, where he walks along the seaside, chatting with a ten-year-old boy, was filmed while Ringo admittedly had a huge hangover from the previous night.
The film’s big finale has the three Beatles finding Ringo, who has been arrested by the police, and making it to La Scala Theater in time for the big show. The concert at La Scala ends the film, with the Beatles belting out half a dozen songs. As the film ends, the boys run for a waiting helicopter to whisk them away to a late night concert. Alas, poor George- another unplanned glitch, during the film’s final scene, he loses his shoe running for the chopper.
A few days before the film shoot ended, producer Walter Shenson was desperate for a title song. He had already decided A Hard Day’s Night was a perfect title and knew the film was to open with the boys being chased to the train, but had no music to overlap the scene. Shenson kept bugging John to write a song based on the film’s title. Finally, John agreed, saying “You’ve given me food for thought.” John then scribbled some lyrics on a handy matchbook cover in the car as he was being driven home. The next day, John and Paul played the song John had hastily composed the previous night for Shenson and a hit was born.
A Hard Day’s Night premiered on July 6, 1964 in London, with the Queen in attendance. It further went on to debut in the United States on August 11th of the same year. It was a surprise smash hit at the box office, while garnering rave reviews from all quarters. Notably, Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice dubbed it “The Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals.”
Beatles biographer Julius fast summed up A Hard Day’s Night, “The picture took everyone, critics and fans alike, by surprise. The boys clowned their way through it, and brought to the film their own particular brand of insanity and mockery… In the end, the picture became a means of projecting their own image, four boys in adult bodies thumbing their noses at the world.”
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Bonus Beatles Facts:
- The film’s title A Hard Day’s Night is usually attributed to a malapropism by Ringo (after a late night recording session as the Beatles were leaving the studio, Ringo quipped, “It’s been a hard day’s… night”.)
- Pattie Boyd was actually engaged to another fellow when she met George Harrison, but heck, what guy could compete with a Beatle? A general rule every guy should follow is “never let your significant other near professional pop/rock stars.” Women love them, and they usually love women.
- A Hard Day’s Night is credited with inspiring The Monkees TV show, several spy films of the ’60’s, as well as the music video itself later made popular by MTV.
- All four of the Beatles, when asked their favorite scene in A Hard Day’s Night, singled out “The Field Scene”. In an incredible and surrealistic romp, director Lester had the boys run around a big open field, Helter Skelter, in comedic fashion. This incredible and exhilarating scene seems to capture the freshness, the joy, the exuberance of early Beatlemania. (As an interesting sidebar, John Lennon is, in the main, absent from this scene. On the day of shooting (April 23, 1964) he was actually stuck making an appearance at a literary luncheon with his wife, Cynthia, and director Lester had to “shoot around him”. At one point in the field scene, the three other Beatles run around as we supposedly see “John” running with his coat held over his face. This was not John, but Dick Lester, holding his coat over himself, pretending to be John.)
- According to most sources, the Beatles ad-libbed frequently, although Owen disagrees, maintaining that it was only John who actually did this much. Ringo agrees with this, stating that the percentage of ad-libs by them was only “about 2%”.
- Future pop star Phil Collins was in the crowd as a 12-year-old extra at the La Scala concert. Unfortunately for Phil, he was to end up on the cutting room floor. He was also an extra in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
- A Hard Day’s Night was nominated for two Academy Awards: George Martin was nominated for Best Film Score and Alun Owen got a nomination for Best Screenplay, but neither won.
- When asked to rate who was the best actor of the four Beatles, Dick Lester chose George. Lester said George never gave too much or too little, but was always right on the mark. He rated Paul’s performance as slightly too theatrical (at the time, Paul was living with his girlfriend Jane Asher, a distinguished stage, film and television actress. Lester thought perhaps Paul was trying a bit too hard.)