The story goes that United Artists mainly signed the Beatles to this film because it would give them a soundtrack album, which they figured would sell well (as it did), but at the same time, they filmed it in black and white instead of color to save money (pretty cheap of them, eh?). Of course, the follow-up film, Help!, was filmed in color (and had a lot more location shooting).
I didn't get to see A Hard Day's Night until sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, either on a videotape release rented from the local video store or when it was shown on VH1 (more likely the former, as I'd rent tapes pretty much every weekend back then). I'd had one opportunity previously to see the movie when it was shown in a limited engagement in Seattle, either in the late 1970s or early 1980s (more likely the latter this time), but it didn't happen... at the time, my family had relatives visiting from out of town, and they planned to go up to Seattle for the Underground Seattle tour. I'd asked if they could drop me at the theater so I could watch the movie while they did the tour, but my parents said if I wasn't going on the tour with them, I should stay home. So I stayed home (I never went on that tour until after I'd met my second wife, Jessi).
I'd heard the songs before seeing the movie, obviously, as I'd already picked up the CD release of the soundtrack (and probably the cassette version before that, I never owned the vinyl version). Of course, I had read about the movie in pretty much every Beatles biography I'd ever read (the only type of non-fiction books I'd read that outnumbered the history of comics books were probably Beatles books). Back in the 1970s, I recall that a cousin of mine, Lymon, had the paperback book based on the movie, and I read it during a visit one summer (this was the same cousin who introduced me to The Monster Times).
But like I said, until the videotape release, I never got to see it. I don't know why it didn't get the television airings that Help! managed, except that perhaps it was in black and white.
The movie clocks in a few minutes short of an hour and a half, pretty standard length for the day, if I recall directly. It opens with the Beatles running down a street, being pursued by their fans (both boys and girls). The Beatles don't appear worried about this, rather they seem to be enjoying themselves (that's acting, folks!). They dart into a train station, followed by their admirers, and duck into phone booths while their fans run past. Outside, we see a man getting a carton of milk from a vending machine and trying to open it (we'll later learn that this man is Shake, played by John Junkin). We also see the Beatles pass through a shoppe in the train station before they're spotted again. They climb over a short wall to get away from their fans, only to land on a baggage cart, and they run off again. Shake still can't get his milk opened... but when he does, it spills on him.
We see John, George and Ringo running past some benches, including one which has two men sitting on it, one an older gentleman reading what appears to be a girlie magazine (Paul's grandfather, played by Wilfrid Brambell, his most famous role was playing Albert Steptoe on Steptoe and Son, which was later adapted for American television and reworked as Sanford and Son), the other reading a newspaper, holding it up so we can't see who it is. When he flips the top of the paper down briefly, we see it's Paul, wearing a fake mustache and goatee. In a photo booth, the other Beatles had been hiding until they figured the coast was clear, and then they run for their train, outside of which Paul and Grandfather are already waiting. When they spot the fans rushing for them, Paul and Grandfather duck inside, followed by John, George and Ringo, just as the train starts to move.
Inside, the Beatles look for a place to sit and relax. They enter one compartment, and all four are there as well as Grandfather. George, Ringo and John exchange inquisitive glances at each other, and then John asks Paul who the “little old man” is. Paul tells him that's his grandfather, but George doesn't believe him, because he's seen Paul's grandfather. Paul insists this is his other grandfather, as everyone's entitled to two. Paul's mother figured the trip would do Grandfather good, as he's nursing a broken heart. John, of course, has to ask him if that's the case, but Grandfather doesn't respond. When John tells Paul Grandfather is a nice old man, Paul notes that he's very clean (this will be a running gag). John sits next to Grandfather, who finally speaks (John: “He can talk then, can he?” Paul: “Of course he can talk, he's a human being!” Ringo: “Well, if he's your grandfather, who knows?” and laughs.).
Grandfather insists that he'll look after himself, but Paul tells the lads that he's worried, because Grandfather is a bit of a troublemaker, and costs Paul a fortune in breach of promise cases. Shake arrives in the car, bearing Pepsi bottles and food. Shake says, “You got on all right then?” and John, deadpan, replies, “No.” John pretty much gets the best out of Shake through the entire movie. Shake asks about Grandfather, and in the conversation, it's once again noted that Grandfather is very clean. Shake is sort of the assistant to Norm (Norman Rossington, who'd appeared in The Longest Day two years previously), who arrives next. Norm acts as the road manager in this movie, or perhaps the manager (making him sort of this movie's version of Brian Epstein, although he seems less well-suited for the job than Brian was). Norm asks the Beatles to behave themselves, especially tomorrow in the TV studio (at this point, John takes his bottle of Pepsi and starts holding it to his nose, as if he were to snort it – I find it amazing that they got away with this drug gag in here). John tells Norm that he's a swine, which George agrees with. Norm then starts to ask about Grandfather, and the Beatles all chorus in, “Who's that little old man?” for him, before he's informed as to what's up. Norm announces he's going to get some coffee, and while the Beatles will follow him down later, Grandfather wants some coffee now, so he goes with Shake and Norm, Paul warning them to keep an eye on him.
The trio pass a businessman in the corridor, who enters the compartment the Beatles are in. He looks at them contemptuously, not even responding to their greeting. He closes the window of the compartment, even though the Beatles want it open, and he insists that since he travels on the week, he's got the right to keep the window closed. Ringo turns on his radio, and the businessman switches it off, and insists if they want to listen to it, to go into the corridor. John leans towards him and says, “Give us a kiss.” When the businessman says he fought the war for “your sort,” Ringo quips, “I bet you're sorry you won!” The Beatles leave the compartment to get coffee, but then engage in some antics to annoy him, such as running alongside the train outside (one of them riding a bike, no explanation as to how they got off and then back on again).
In the dining car, Norm is annoyed with Shake because Shake is taller than him. The Beatles join them, and they discover that the argument got started because of Grandfather's egging them on, because Norm wouldn't give him some Beatles publicity photos. The Beatles talk Norm into giving them to Grandfather, who asks Paul to sign one of them. Shake and Norm leave while the photo is signed. A couple of cute girls enter the dining car, and Paul goes over to them to flirt with them, and Grandfather tells the girls that they're his prisoners, and they leave.
Meanwhile, Shake and Norm are in a compartment of the train, Norm smoking a cigar while Shake reads Son of Mad. Norm notes that Grandfather has been missing for a bit, having gone to the bathroom. The Beatles meet up with Norm and Shake and learn that Grandfather has been lost, and they go off looking for him. Ringo and George stop to smoke a ciggy, and Ringo tells George that he's certain Grandfather doesn't like him. Paul and John search, as do George and Ringo. Ringo looks into one compartment, where a gorgeous woman smiles at him and beckons him in, but he decides not to, even though George thinks he should. Ringo figures she'll break his heart in the end.
Paul and John find a compartment with a bunch of teenage schoolgirls (well, they're at least late teens) and John clowns around a bit with them before Paul pulls him out. The next compartment they look into, they find Grandfather sitting with an older woman (well, older than the Beatles, but quite a bit younger than him), and Grandfather announces he's just become engaged! The next scene has Grandfather in a cage in the baggage compartment, and Paul insists this is the best way to keep an eye on him. The other Beatles join them, and John pulls out a deck of cards to play a game. Ringo deals the cards, and “I Should Have Known Better” starts to accompany the game. Outside of the cage, the schoolgirls watch. After some shenanigans with the card playing, we fade to the Beatles performing the song. It's noteworthy that Ringo is making an effort to play the drums like on the recording, while George is pretty much strumming his electric until it's time for his solo, when he takes his miming a bit more seriously here. He's playing a twelve-string electric, by the way. There's a pretty blonde girl in the cage with them – I don't know for sure who she is, but I know that Patti Boyd appeared in this movie, which is where George met her for the first time, and they later dated and got married.
The game ends, and the train pulls into a station. Norm shows up to give them instructions as to how to leave safely, saying to get into the big cab (of course, about five more show up). The doors open, and the Beatles rush out of the train and get into one cab and out the other side before entering the cab Norm wanted them into. That cab pulls away as Shake starts to get off the train, leaving him to collect the instruments. Inside the cab, the Beatles are still amused at their fans' antics.
Later, at a hotel room, the Beatles relax, John having some sandwiches, Paul noodling around on a piano, and Ringo and George arguing over whether or not Ringo snores. Paul jokes that with Ringo's nose, it'd be unusual if he didn't snore. Grandfather tells Paul not to make fun of the afflicted, and Paul insists it's just a joke. Grandfather mocks Ringo's nose, but in a way that makes him sound sympathetic to him. Norm shows up with a bunch of fan mail to be answered, and John starts sorting it out, with only one envelope going to Ringo... but then Shake comes in with a big pile for Ringo, including an invitation for Ringo to the gaming room of a casino. Norm takes the invite from him, and Grandfather takes it from Norm, pocketing it. Norm insists that the Beatles answer all their fan mail.
After Norm leaves, the Beatles sneak out, because they were told to stay, leaving Grandfather. A hotel waiter arrives at the room to clean up, and Grandfather eyes the waiter's uniform. We cut to the Beatles dancing at a nightclub (with “I Want to Be Your Man” playing) and generally having a good time. Actually, George and Ringo are doing the most dancing. Elsewhere, Grandfather, in the waiter's uniform, has arrived at the casino with Ringo's invitation, and is playing baccarat. A rather well-endowed woman is looking over his shoulder, and when Grandfather turns to look at her, he quips, “I bet you're a great swimmer.” Back at the nightclub, they're now listening to “Don't Bother Me” while the Beatles enjoy themselves.
At the casino, Grandfather's run out of money, so taking a small towel, he leaves the table, drapes the towel over one arm and takes a tray with a hand-written bill to another table, presenting it to a man who pays the bill with cash, then going back to the table to continue playing! At the nightclub, the Beatles are still enjoying themselves, and the song this time is “All My Loving.” None of these songs are playing in their entirety, save for the last one. By this time, only Ringo is dancing, while the others are sitting and chatting up women. Norm and Shake arrive to take the Beatles back to their hotel room.
Back at the room, the waiter is sitting in his underwear, and when he hears the Beatles, Norm and Shake approaching, he ducks into a closet. The Beatles enter and get to work writing responses, but Ringo discovers the waiter in the closet. George verifies this, and then Shake finds the waiter, too. The waiter informs them that Grandfather borrowed his uniform to go gambling, and Paul blames Ringo for receiving an invitation, thus causing the situation. They all head off to get Grandfather, who has apparently been doing better (the club owners are convinced he's a millionaire, one of them insists he's “filthy rich,” while the other says he looks very clean to him). The Beatles arrive with Norm and Shake, and they gain entry to the club, finding Grandfather. They haul him off, and discover that there's a bill to be paid, which fortunately is just covered by Grandfather's winnings.
Later, John is in the tub at the hotel, enjoying a bubble bath while playing with a submarine, and acting like a German sub commander. George and Shake enter, and Shake wants George to teach him how to shave with a safety razor. George puts shaving cream on Shake's reflection in the mirror and shows him how to shave, while John dunks himself underneath the bubbles in the tub. Norm enters and says the car has arrived to take them to the studio, and when John doesn't exit the tub, Norm drains it, and there's no sign of John in there when it's drained! Norm starts to panic, but then John enters the bathroom in a robe and tells Norm there's no time to play with a boat, there's a car waiting!
A little later, the car arrives at the TV studio, and the Beatles, Norm and Shake enter, using a repairman's tent to help get past the crowd. Inside, there's a press conference arranged, but the Beatles first sit down in the lobby before being led to it. There's booze galore, but there's no time for a drink as the Beatles are led to the throng of the press. Likewise, as trays of hors d'oveurs are passed around, none of the Beatles can get a single bite. A series of questions are asked, among which are some of my favorite lines:
Reporter: Tell me, how did you find America?
John: Turn left at Greenland.
Reporter: Has success changed your life?
Reporter: Are you a mod or a rocker?
Ringo: I'm a mocker.
Reporter: Have you got any hobbies?
John writes something down on her pad, and hands it back. Her eyebrows rise.
Reporter: What would you call that hairstyle you're wearing?
Paul's answers often include the line, “We're just good friends.”
As things progress, the Beatles signal silently to each other and escape the press conference, heading to the theater, where Grandfather and Shake are having a snack. Grandfather asks George to sign his picture. Paul looks down at the stage and realizes it's their set, and they decide to check it out. They get to the stage and Ringo knocks one of his drumsticks down, and a stage hand helps him pick them up, but he hits a cymbal in the progress, making Ringo upset. Ringo starts sulking about this, and John starts playing “If I Fell” while Ringo gets his drums arranged properly, finishing up in time for his cue. Shake helps get the amps set up properly while the song goes on.
Ringo appears cheered up by this, although John and Paul both start providing some feedback to him about how the drums should be in the song. The director (payed by Victor Spinetti, he would later play Foot in Help!) comes on stage, demanding that if they think he's unsuitable to let him know immediately, because the musical arranger is telling him how to direct it. We discover the “musical arranger” is really Grandfather, starting things up again. Norm shows up to discover that things are tense, and promises to lock the Beatles up in their dressing room. The director is clearly paranoid.
The Beatles follow Norm away, passing Leslie Jackson and his 10 Disappearing Doves, and Grandfather pats him on the sleeve, resulting in the apparent death of one dove! They also pass others on the way to the dressing room, including a few dancing girls that John tries to flirt with. Then, one of the Beatles notice they're passing a fire exit, and they escape, Ringo crying, “We're out!” And then comes another of my favorite sequences, as the Beatles frolic in a field to “Can't Buy Me Love” (That Thing You Do pays tribute to this scene). Trying to describe their antics during this would not do justice to it, so I won't. This sequence in particular had a heavy influence on The Monkees' romps in their later TV show. Watching this, you can see that the Fab Four were really still boys in a lot of ways, most of them not that far out of their teens, and they were clearly having fun in this sequence, as well as others.
The fun ends when the Beatles are told to get off the field by the owner of the property. Meanwhile, Shake and Norm are searching for the Beatles (we don't know where Grandfather is at this time). Norm is certain that it's a battle of nerves between him and John, but Shake says John doesn't have any nerves.
As the Beatles re-enter the studio and head to their dressing room, John is stopped by Millie (Anna Quayle in her big-screen debut, she'd later guest on an episode of The Avengers and also appear in Casino Royale and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). This is the famous scene where Millie is telling John he looks like “him” (“him” being never identified by name, so we're assuming she's convinced John is John, but he's playing like he isn't), and at the end, she decides he isn't John, John later saying, “She looks like him more than I do.”
George is wandering around backstage when he wanders into the canteen, and takes a wrong turn, and walks into an office, where a blonde woman thinks that he's there for another TV program. She calls her boss, insisting that he should see George. She brings him back to an office for a TV show, and they are pleased with him, although George has no idea what's going on. They want George to give them opinions on clothes for teenagers, but not his real opinions – the opinions he's given. They show him some shirts, and although he's told he'll like them, he says he wouldn't be seen dead in them, and that they're “grotty.” The director wants the word given to “Susan,” and can't understand why George isn't impressed. George learns that Susan is a teenage girl who appears on TV and “gets everything wrong” about everything. Apparently the Beatles watch her and laugh at her, and that they turn the sound down on her and say rude things. They get George out of the room, and are concerned that he might be part of a trend, but conferring with a calendar, they decide not to extend Susan's contract any further.
Meanwhile, a German opera is rehearsing on stage, and Grandfather is lurking about, finding a basement. He's got the photos he was given earlier, and apparently got all the Beatles to sign the one. He sits down and starts counterfeiting their signatures, but when he hears sounds, he accidentally gets onto a rising platform and activates it, sending him up to the stage. The director gets upset at this, naturally!
At the dressing room, Shake and Norm hear noises, and hide. The Beatles enter, not surprised at their hiding. George starts putting makeup on Norm. Norm tells the Beatles that they're waiting for them on stage, and Ringo's up for it (Paul teases him, calling him “teacher's pet”). They leave the dressing room (John passes a tailor who had a tape up, measuring Paul for a new jacket, and holds up a pair of scissors, and in a mock impression of the Queen, says, “I now declare this bridge... open” and cuts the tape).
On stage, the director is impatiently waiting, although he's told they're coming. The Beatles saunter on-stage and get into place. The director goes to the control room, and the Beatles mock him and his sweater. The Beatles, on cue, and rehearse “And I Love Her.” We get an interesting set of shots here, as director Richard Lester doesn't spend much time with the camera directly on the Beatles, but often has them on the studio monitors!
The director tells Norm to bring the Beatles to makeup, where Grandfather and Shake are waiting. The Beatles play around a bit in the makeup chairs, John wearing a false beard. Grandfather starts complaining that all he's seen has been a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room (something one of the Beatles had said in an interview about touring). The Beatles are told to head back to the stage, where a dancing act is performing to a piano rendition of “I'm Happy Just to Dance With You,” and some of the Beatles pretend dance along with them as they cross the stage, and Ringo even joins in with his drums! John suggests they do the show right there, and start performing “I'm Happy Just to Dance With You” right there, giving George his solo spot, performance-wise. As the song goes on, some of the women who've gathered around are taken away by their supervisor.
Norm tells them they've got an hour until the final run through, and Grandfather wants a cup of tea, but everyone else leaves except for Ringo, who takes Grandfather to the canteen. Ringo reads a book, and Grandfather starts criticizing him for reading. He tells Ringo he can learn more by getting out there in the world! Grandfather convinces Ringo that he needs to go out “parading,” and that he's not appreciated by the other Beatles. So, Ringo puts his book down, and leaves the studio with his camera to go parading!
This sequence is Ringo's solo spot in the film, and brought him a lot of attention in reviews of the movie. Ringo passes George and the others on his way out. They decide to go after Ringo, but he's no where to be seen when they get out of the theater. Ringo starts walking about, taking pictures as an instrumental version of “Ringo's Theme” plays. A pair of girls recognize Ringo, and start chasing him, but don't last long. Ringo heads into a second hand store and buys a hat and trenchcoat, figuring it'll disguise him enough. To prove the disguise works, he approaches one girl and is rebuffed. Later, he's at a lakeside, and tries using a shutter release wire to take a self-portrait, but it falls in the water.
Ringo walks along a river, and meets up with a young boy of 10, and they start talking and comparing notes. They're both “deserters,” the boy playing hooky. His friends aren't with him, but he tells Ringo about them. Eventually, the boy's friends show up, and he goes off with them. Ringo wanders on his way alone again.
Back at the studio, Grandfather appears repentant, and the director is getting stressed out. Norm is convinced it'll be wine, women and song for Ringo when he's had a taste of it... but Ringo's just getting stale sandwiches at a pub, and generally getting himself in trouble with others accidentally. He decides to throw a few darts, but the first one he throws goes into a sandwich, and the second into the perch of a birdcage, causing the pub's owner to kick him out! Leaving, he kicks at a pile of rubbish, causing a policeman to take notice.
In the studio, there's only two minutes until the runthrough, but Norm says it could be worse, they could miss the final show! The other three Beatles arrive back at the studio, without Ringo. Shake and Norm look for Ringo in the dressing room, and Paul asks where Grandfather is. Well, Grandfather's in front of the studio, hawking autographed photos of the Beatles! The police ask him to leave, and since he refuses to, he's escorted away.
Ringo, in the meantime, comes upon a muddy construction site, and gallantly puts his coat over a series of puddles so a woman can walk over them without getting herself muddy, but the last puddle turns out to be deep enough the woman falls entirely inside it! This is enough for the policeman who's been following Ringo since the pub to take him in.
At the police station, Ringo tries to convince them to let him go, but to no use. The desk sergeant gets the list of charges, and then Grandfather comes in. He starts fighting with the police, kicking shins, but they don't let him go. Ringo shakes his head as Grandfather rants. Grandfather is sat next to Ringo, and Grandfather warns Ringo of how rough the police will treat him. He tells Ringo he'll escape and get the other Beatles, but Ringo's not convinced that he's really in trouble. Grandfather runs out, and Ringo just looks at him.
At the studio, it's only half an hour till the show, and George starts to philosophize over the situation while drawing a mustache on a face on the monitor. At the studio, Grandfather tries to avoid the police, and tries to get back in the studio, but he's rebuffed. He gets a group of kids to distract the stage guard so he can get in, and Grandfather rushes to find the Beatles. He tells them that Ringo's at the police station, and the boys rush off to get him, against the director's wishes. “Can't Buy Me Love” plays again, and the Beatles romp some more, getting to the police station, then rushing out with a cop after them, followed by Ringo. As they rush down the street, a car thief tries to break into a parked car, and stops when they pass him. As the Beatles run up and down the street, more and more police start after them. They rush back into the station, and John catches his breath and is about to explain what's going on, but instead they rush out again. Ringo keeps finding himself behind the police! The car thief gets into a car, and a policeman gets in with him, telling the thief to follow the boys, who get back to the studio.
Back at the studio just in time, the Director is relieved. Paul starts to tell Grandfather off, but John points out that he just wants attention, and that he should've moved to America... but Grandfather points out that at least he's clean. Shake tells Norm that it's not his fault that he's taller, that Norm is just shorter than he is.
The show starts, the girls are screaming, and the Beatles perform a medley of “Tell Me Why,” “If I Fell,” and “I Should Have Known Better.” We see Grandfather in the crowd, handcuffed to Shake. The Beatles then go into “She Loves You,” and Shake realizes that Grandfather has escaped his cuffs! In the middle of the song, Grandfather pops through the stage again, and George pushes him off the stage. Richard Lester does a great job with the shots and editing here, taking a lot of shots one wouldn't have expected, such as shots from behind the boys.
The Beatles take a bow and leave the stage in a hurry, and Norm rushes them on to their next perforance, which they'll be going on via helicopter, and we get a reprise of the title song. Grandfather's handcuffed into the copter, and Paul tosses the fake autographs out the window of the copter, which is from British Empire Airlines (BEA), with “TLES” added next to the logo. As the closing credits appear, we get a series of closeup stills of the Beatles.
This is really a fun movie, and if you haven't seen it... well, why the hell not? It's a classic, the Beatles best movie (I'd put Yellow Submarine next, followed by Help!, Let it Be, and Magical Mystery Tour). In a lot of ways, it really introduced a lot of people to what the Beatles were really like. The whole movie rings true, thanks to writer Alun Owen's brilliant script. From what I've read, he basically hung out with the Beatles for a while to get a feel for their personalities, and copied bits of dialogue here and there to incorporate into the script. Director Richard Lester did a fantastic job directing this movie, and would go on to direct Help! as well, and even later John Lennon's solo film How I Won the War. Other movies he directed were The Mouse on the Moon, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, Superman II, and Superman III (well, they can't all be winners).
Speaking of Superman, next time around on “My Favorite Movies,” I'll be looking at Superman: The Movie!