Since the mid-Sixties, film aficionados and Beatles fans have lauded the merits of The Beatles’ first film A Hard Day’s Night, and have summarily dismissed the value of their second United Artists movie Help! For years, leading the pack of naysayers were the film’s stars: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr.
Because The Beatles were never given a clear explanation of the film’s plot, the lads never understood the storyline. And because Help! was made in such a higgledy-piggledy fashion (the film’s closing Bahamian scenes were shot first; the Austrian scenes, next; the Salisbury Plain shots, third; and the London/studio shots, last) the plot seemed a jumbled mess.
1964’s “day in the life” storyline of A Hard Day’s Night was understandable to the four boys. But Help! was never, to paraphrase the film’s heroine, “what it seemed.” Help! is a James Bond spoof, a spy/action film with sequestered symbolic significance that would not have been apparent when the story wasn’t unfolded chronologically to the lads. Yet, despite the fact that The Beatles weren’t initially enamored with the film, it wasn’t a piece of fluff. Like all of Richard Lester’s classic works (The Knack and How to Get It, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, How I Won the War, Superman 2, The Three Musketeers), it was well-made, artistic and replete with meaning.
Here are 9 aspects of the 1965 Beatles classic that, almost 60 years later, still allow it to “shine on.”
1) The Use of Technicolor
Looking back, the use of black-and-white for A Hard Day’s Night appears edgier and more avant-garde than the use of “living color” employed in Help! But the truth is, during the early 1960s, the decision to use color over black-and-white was a nod to the anticipated success of a film. Indeed, A Hard Day’s Night was shot in black-and-white not to be artsy, but to save money! The powers-that-be at United Artists assumed that the only money to be made off The Beatles’ initial offering would come from the sales of the soundtrack LP. No one expected the film itself to emerge as a success. However, once producer Walter Shenson and director Richard Lester realized that The Beatles’ droll humor, understated acting, and fan appeal made them just as powerful at the box office as they were on vinyl or in concert, the two executives committed big bucks to the boys’ second film, opting for the vibrance of color. They were, in essence, espousing their belief in The Beatles’ ability to fill theaters.
2) Symbolic Significance
It is rather amazing that Beatles experts who can so easily see the “imprisoned by fame” symbolism inherent in A Hard Day’s Night – cleverly relayed via scenes in tight train cars, locked luggage compartments, and close backstage dressing rooms – fail to grasp the symbolic significance of Help! Quite simply, in Help! The Beatles are being chased by a dangerous band of fanatics “of all stripes” (as Kenneth Womack drolly dubs the “baddies” in Vol. 1 of his biography of Sir George Martin, Maximum Volume). Think about that. In 1965, what was going on in the lives of The Beatles? Wherever they traveled – to the Bahamas, Austria, France, Spain, Italy, or the States – they had to be closely guarded and shuttled about in armored vans because (yes, you’ve got it!!) they were constantly being chased, surrounded, and hounded by dangerous bands of fanatics.
In Indianapolis, during the 1964 North American Tour, the fans had sat politely, listening to The Beatles perform and even singing along with their heroes. But Shea Stadium – The Beatles’ first concert on the 1965 North American Tour – was so loud and shrill that nothing (not even the overhead jets!) could be heard. Ringo has stated that many times in 1965, all four of The Beatles (realizing that no one could hear a thing) simply quit playing on stage…and no one noticed! Beatlemania – and the dangers therein – had escalated tremendously.
Just before The Beatles jogged out onto the field at Shea – as fans were hurling hundreds and hundreds of glass Coke bottles onto the field – John turned to Cousin Brucie (Morrow) and asked the DJ, “Is this dangerous?” Morrow vehemently denied the danger to Lennon, of course, but to Ed Sullivan, the famous Cousin Brucie quietly whispered, “Pray, Ed, pray.” By 1965, Beatles fans had become determined and aggressive. And Help! skillfully depicts this bizarre and perilous mania.
3) Special Effects
We’ve come so far in technology that one might not realize that a score of special effects was used in Help! In an in-depth study of the film entitled, “The Beatles’ Help! Movie is More Influential Than You Think,” author Tony Sokol says: “The director, crew, and editors pushed the shots through mirrors, refracted lights,” giving the scenes added vibrance. “Every frame in the beach scene,” Sokol adds, “had hand-crafted floor filters.” Additionally, “the editors played with jump frames. The crew was trying to push the look of the film. They played with camera angles, mirrored angles; they shot through objects, under people, they used geometry…” This was cutting-edge in 1965. Very little in Help! is mere happenstance. Well, except for the wonderful…
4) Extemporaneous Lines from John Lennon
Richard Lester had given Lennon full reign during the making of A Hard Day’s Night to extemporize “at will.” And the gifted author (who had captured the prestigious Foyles Literary Award in 1964 for his book of poetry and prose, In His Own Write) added such wry commentary to the Beatles’ first film that he was requested to do the same for the second. In fact, John kept a handy notebook in which he’d scribble lines that could be inserted into the script. And Lester didn’t hesitate to use them.
5) Talented Co-stars
The presence of superb actors such as Eleanor Bron, Leo McKern, Victor Spinetti (also in The Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night), Patrick Cargill, and Roy Kinnear made The Beatles feel insecure and inferior: “extras” in their own film, as John phrased it. But once the film was released, The Beatles could see that these respected stars played supporting roles. Talented actor Peter Copley, for example, who portrays a jeweler unable to free Ringo from a dreaded cult ring, is on screen less than 5 minutes. And Spinetti and Kinnear appear in only 4 short scenes. Gifted comedian Leo McKern, who stars as Clang, the film’s villain, does garner a primary role (as he should), but even then, McKern’s screen time is clearly secondary to that of the talented Liverpool band who not only acts but performs their original songs including “Ticket to Ride,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and “Help!” The interplay between Eleanor Bron and The Beatles adds to the film’s intrigue. And the one-eyed snarls of McKern contrast nicely with the winks, smiles, and witty quips of the Fab Four. The supporting roles are strong and superb, but they don’t outshine The Beatles. The film is well-balanced.
6) Clever Parodying of the Spy Genre – If one watches Help! for The Beatles alone, some of the tongue-in-cheek commentary on the James Bond genre might be missed. Instead of dwelling in glamorous villas, the heroes (The Beatles) are portrayed as living together in a single row home with four individual doors…a modest lodging in which Ringo sleeps on a narrow twin bed and John bunks in a sunken nook. Instead of lavish meals, the lads “dine” on pre-made, plastic-wrapped sandwiches from their in-house vending machine. And in lieu of driving hi-tech automobiles that fire rockets, shoot flames, and fly, the villains sport about London in a coin-operated Harrod’s van that spills upholstery nails onto the street as the only defense mechanism. The mad scientists – out to get the four lads – walk to their evil destinations, pushing a baby stroller with a record player hidden inside to simulate the wail of a baby crying. Funny stuff. When the film’s four jaunty heroes travel, they use bicycles. And when the villains want to direct The Beatles to a dangerous destination, they do so by suspending an evil lackey from a dirigible and forcing him to stamp red paint-soaked footprints onto a roadway, leading the boys to a trap.
7) Superb Writing
The script of Help! (originally entitled Eight Arms to Hold You) was given to two talented writers: New Jersey native, Marc Behm (who was also the screenwriter for Charade) and Englishman Charles Wood, who worked with Lester on The Knack and How to Get It. (You can see why John Lennon referred to the duo as “Wooden Beam.”) And they were brilliant. Once you see the film, you’ll find yourself quoting it constantly. Here are but a few of the ingenious lines tossed out recklessly in the smart script. I believe you; thousands wouldn’t.
Said of The Beatles:
“They all look the same in their similitude…”
Said by two women waving to The Beatles as the four boys enter their communal home:
Woman 1: Wave!
Woman 2: “I don’t like to…”
Woman 1: Go on, wave!
Woman 2: Shall I? They expect it, don’t they? (She waves warmly.)
Woman 1: Lovely lads…and so natural. I mean, adoration hasn’t gone to their heads one jot, has it? You know what I mean, success.
Woman 2: So natural and still the same as they was before they was!
The writing is subtle, almost a “murmured comedy,” as it were. For example, after an unknown fan mails a large, red ring to Ringo, he begins to attract the unwanted attention of a fanatic band of “Eastern villains” who seem intent upon sacrificing the drummer wearing their ritual ring. In alarm, The Beatles decide to visit an Indian restaurant (of all places!) in hopes of uncovering any information about the Eastern cult stalking their drummer. They engage the restaurant’s host who is wearing cultural attire, but almost immediately, The Beatles realize the man is not Indian!
Ringo: (standing by the restaurant host)) He’s from the west!
Host: Nah, east. Stepney.
Ringo: (holding the ring directly under the host’s nose) Does this ring mean anything to you?
Host: (shrugging…and speaking in a colloquial British accent) Freemason?
Ringo: (looking shocked) Y’ mean, you’re all English!
Host: Certainly, what are unions for?
However, (unbeknownst to The Beatles) the “all-English” staff is rapidly (and covertly) being replaced by the real villains who are “removing” the staff to “get at” Ringo and his mates. One of the “baddies,” in fact, drowns the restaurant’s cook in his own soup – littering the soup with the cook’s glasses and the miscellaneous contents of his pockets, including a set of tickets. When the unusual soup is served to George and John, this bit follows:
John: (dipping his spoon into the soup and retrieving a spoonful of spectacles) What’s this, glasses?
Villainous Waiter: That’s right, sir, they’re glasses, sir.
John: (Now lifting out a soggy ticket with his fingers) What’s this?
Ringo: (without batting an eye) A season ticket. What d’ you think it is?
John: (nodding approval) Oh, I like a lot of seasonin’ in m’ soup. (Then, finding various other items floating in the bowl.) There’s somebody been in this soup!
There are so many droll one-liners in Help! and they’re tossed out so rapidly that I recommend engaging “Closed Captioning” to catch them all. Wood and Behm didn’t deal in “guffaws.” Help! is filled with observational humor at its very best.
8) Subtle Commentary on Relationships Within the Band and in Society at Large
Several scenes in the film, which are presented as light and humorous, give fans a glimpse inside the intense interplay of personalities in the famous group. Most fans know that Ringo Starr – The Beatles’ affable drummer – spent a great deal of his childhood in sanitariums, due to serious childhood illnesses. And this wistful scene from Help! reveals so much about his easy-going “live and let live” personality.
Ringo: The fire brigade once got my head out of some railings.
John: Did you want them to?
Ringo: (thoughtfully) No, I used to leave it there when I wasn’t usin’ it for school. Y’ can see a lot of the world from railings.
By 1965, the dynamics between songwriters Lennon and McCartney and aspiring composer, George Harrison, were beginning to become a bit strained. George was blossoming. (His “I Need You“ was featured in Help! and in the autumn of 1965, two Harrison songs – “Think for Yourself” and “If I Needed Someone” – appeared on Rubber Soul.) But persuading Lennon/McCartney to carve out studio time for George’s recordings was rather complicated. Perhaps a better word is difficult. And Harrison was beginning to resent his secondary role in the group. During one of Help!’s scenes inside Scotland Yard – where The Beatles have run for protection – the telephone rings. The Inspector (played by Patrick Cargill) answers the call and says…
Inspector: (Holding the receiver out to Ringo) It’s for you, the famous Ringo.
John: (horrified and realizing the call must be coming from the villains, who have sussed them out) Hold on , It’s them! ’Cause only me ’n Paul know we’re here!
George: (Quietly, but meaningfully) I know we’re here.
Subtle, yes, but a statement just the same.
And finally…although this doesn’t actually affect the quality of the film itself…
9) Life Altering Moments Occurring on Set
Several rather influential events in the lives of The Beatles transpired during the making of Help!, and watching the movie, we are privy to those important moments.
During The Beatles’ time in the Bahamas – in fact, on George Harrison’s birthday – a Swami rode up on a bicycle and presented the boys with four small books on yoga and meditation. The Beatles were polite but unimpressed. Only George took the gift seriously and read the book with interest. The message began to change the direction of his life and his songwriting. It was, as John Lennon was wont to say, “a red lettuce day.”
Similarly, during the film’s Indian restaurant scene, a group of professional musicians were hired to provide background music, and one of the instruments they played was the sitar. Intrigued, Harrison asked about it and ended up sending his friend and roadie Mal Evans to purchase one for him. A few months later, Harrison would showcase his ingenue sitar efforts in John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood.” And in the years to come, the instrument would comprise George’s signature sound.
For the group as a whole, there were several interesting foreshadowings in Help! For example, when the band performs at an Austrian ski championship ceremony, they are decked out in the apparel of a military band. Less than two years later, the cover of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band sees them adopt similar quirky costumes and personas. And when Help!’s endangered lads escape to the Bahamas, they arrive in the airport wearing disguises that closely emulate the way all four of them will actually look in mere months. The similarity to their future selves is uncanny.
A Hard Day’s Night demonstrated that The Beatles were superb in portraying themselves. Help! established the fact that several of them were talented actors. Richard Lester was persuaded to offer John Lennon a role in his film How I Won the War because of the singer/songwriter’s brilliant performance in Help! And Ringo Starr went on to very successful roles in The Magic Christian, Candy, and Caveman. Help! challenged the four boys to “act,” and despite their heavy use of marijuana in 1965, The Beatles did just that.
Today, there are still fans and critics who cling to the notion that A Hard Day’s Night was the only artistic film The Beatles ever made. But in the 1980 Rolling Stone Interview with David Sheff, John Lennon (who early on had been Help!’s most stringent critic) was beginning to comprehend the film’s real value. “I realize,” he said, “looking back, how advanced it was. It was a precursor to Batman. ‘Pow! Wow!’ on TV…that kind of stuff.” And 60 years on, a third (maybe fourth!) generation of Beatles fans is finding the 1965 film “a glass onion,” with layers upon layers of artistry, some yet to be uncovered.
-Jude Southerland Kessler
Photo: Getty Images