Following the (warranted) hoopla in February over the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' arrival in the U.S., this week brings a less heralded – but equally significant – Beatle benchmark: the golden anniversary of the band’s first film, "A Hard Day's Night."
For any of the 73 million viewers who still didn't get all the fuss after watching John, Paul, George and Ringo’s first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," the rollicking movie comedy made it okay for everybody to like (or admit liking) the Beatles – setting stage for the group's enduring cross-generational appeal.
The Fab Four's smart, fast and funny spoof of their own phenomenon hits theaters across the country Friday in a restored 50th anniversary version, offering latter-day and original fans alike an opportunity to meet (or re-meet) the Beatles.
By 1964, Elvis Presley’s film career had settled into B-moviedom after a promising early start (“Jailhouse Rock,” “King Creole”). But “A Hard Day’s Night” threw out the formula and concocted a new kind of rock-and-roll movie, with a visually adventurous romp that served as a precursor to MTV (20 years later, the network would salute innovative director Richard Lester as “the father of the music video”). The Beatles did their part by proving natural performers – and handing Lester a soundtrack that included the title song, along with "I Should Have Known Better," "If I Fell" and "Can't Buy Me Love," among other future classics.
The film, perhaps more significantly, unveiled for a mass audience the Beatles’ humor as a weapon second only to their music. Fellow Liverpudlian Alun Owen borrowed exchanges from past news conferences for script fodder (Reporter: “Tell me, how did you find America.” John: "Turn left at Greenland”).
The Beatles’ individual personalities began to emerge from under the mop tops – if not in full, living color, then in glorious black and white. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr used their lively wit to entertain as much as to gird themselves against the nonstop demands, insanity and absurdity around them. (Reporter: “What would you call that hairstyle you’re wearing?” George: “Arthur”).
“A Hard Day’s Night” also pokes fun at the generation gap that the movie – and the Beatles’ music – eventually would help close (Cranky Old Businessman on Train: “I fought the war for your sort.” Ringo: “I bet you’re sorry you won!”).
New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther – then 59 and seven years older than Wilfred Brambell, the Irish character actor who played Paul's "very clean" grandfather in “A Hard Day’s Night” – famously likened the Beatles to the Marx Brothers as he declared the movie "has so much good humor going for it that it is awfully hard to resist."
The Marx Brother comparison is apt – not only for the winning blend of verbal and physical humor, but for the closeness of the performers. The film captures a moment in time at the height of Beatlemania when only four young men could understand what each was going through. As with the great stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera,” there’s a sense of claustrophobia throughout “A Hard Day’s Night,” as the Beatles grapple with being prisoners of their own success.
It’s no coincidence that some of the film’s strongest moments – the band bolting down a fire escape to flee a TV studio and goofily bounding about a field, Ringo disguising himself as a hobo and walking through London as a nobody, and the climatic, frenetic police chase – come when the Beatles break free.
“A Hard Day’s Night” offers 90 minutes of timeless escape and pure joy generated by an unmatched combination of rock and laughter. Check out the trailer below:
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.