A Hard Day’s Night: The Beatles’ First Feature Film Where All They Had to Do Was Act Naturally
How a film developed only for its soundtrack with no plot and starring non-actors defied the odds to become a groundbreaking picture.
“Who are they?” Walter Shenson replied when he was asked if he would like to produce a film with The Beatles. Noel Rodgers, the British representative for United Artists Records, knew the UK’s Beatlemania was heading for the States and figured a way to cash in. He approached Bud Ornstein, the British production head of UA’s film division, with the idea of signing the Beatles to a three-picture deal.
Once Shenson, producer of The Mouse That Roared (1959) had been brought up to speed with the Beatle phenomena, he agreed to look into the prospect. UA assured him that if the film only made a profit in the UK, that would be good enough. The film would be made cheaply and knocked out quickly as the property they were really after was the soundtrack. United Artists had discovered late in 1963 that EMI’s contract with the Beatles did not cover film soundtracks.
The soundtrack allowed A Hard Day’s Night to be the first feature film in history to turn a profit while still in production. United Artists, not EMI, would release the record, and the two million advance orders allowed the film, made for $500,000, to bring in $5.8 million in six weeks.
First, though, the band had to be courted. Shenson met Brian Epstein initially, but when the time came to meet the Beatles the band didn’t turn up. Shenson, an American living in the UK, tracked the group down to their London hotel, “They all piled into my taxi and started talking a mile a minute,” Shenson told the Liverpool Echo in 1964. “I found myself in the middle of a scene from a Marx Brothers film. That was when I decided to make a comedy, not a pop musical.”
The band were asked who they would like to direct the film. Paul McCartney would recall, “The only person we could think of was, ‘Whoever made that Running Jumping and Standing Still Film? Who did that? ’Cause, it was brilliant . . . It was just what we liked; we could relate to the humour wholeheartedly.” The 1959 film was an 11 minute short made on Peter Sellers’ 16mm camera that featured Spike Milligan and a few friends doing just what the title suggested in a field. After screening in some festivals it found distribution and was nominated for an Academy Award. The Beatles were also familiar with Lester’s work on television with The Goons: The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d (1956), A Show Called Fred (1956) and Son of Fred (1956).
31-year-old American Lester had also directed It’s Trad, Dad! (1962), starring teenage pop star Helen Shapiro wandering through London’s jazz scene. Lester brought that film’s cinematographer Gilbert Taylor with him. Taylor had just finished work on Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and would move on to work on Gerry and the Pacemakers’ film Ferry Cross the Mersey (1965).
The director and the Beatles opted to forgo the stylings of other rock ’n’ roll musicals that went before them, such as Rock Around the Clock (1956), Don’t Knock the Rock (1956), Rock, Pretty Baby (1956) and The Tommy Steele Story (1957). The picture would be an exaggerated look at 36 hours in the life of the band.
Lester recalled his working process at the BFI in 2014 for a fiftieth-anniversary screening.
“Once I started to work on it, I determined very early on not to see what other people were doing or had done because I thought I had better just stumble along my own road and do it instinctively, based on the best way I could present four people who I liked, and whose qualities deserved to have a sympathetic showing.”
A supporting cast of dependable actors was assembled around the boys, including Wilfrid Brambell, Norman Rossington, John Junkin and Victor Spinetti. Lennon would later remark that the support was so good they felt like extras in their own film. Rossington incidentally was the only person to have appeared on film alongside both The Beatles and Elvis Presley, starring with Elvis in Double Trouble (1967).
Filming began on Monday, 2 March 1964, and lasted six weeks. A Hard Day’s Night premiered in July.
“They don’t need to act in this film,” Bramble told the Liverpool Echo on set. “They just play their own everyday selves as The Beatles, and they’re so natural that working with them is like working with long experienced actors.”
Paul was asked about acting in the film in a syndicated radio interview broadcast in July 1964.
“It was very hard to just learn a line and say it because we’ve never done that sort of thing before. We’ve always just thought of something and said it rather than actually read something on a piece of paper. But I think towards the end of making the film, we got the hang of it a little bit more. At first, it was very frightening, you know. It was nerve-wracking trying to say these things as though we meant them — ‘cuz that takes training as an actor, I reckon. So you know, we had to try and make it look convincing without having any experience.”
When the film opened, the praise in the British press was universal. “Palpitating cinema and gorgeous fun,” the Daily Express wrote. “Just as funny as [The Marx Brothers] said the Daily Mail. “Actors they may not be,” said the Daily Telegraph, “but personalities they certainly remain, engagingly provocative and wonderfully photogenic.” The Guardian noted that the film showed the Beatles being themselves. “On film, their directness comes across splendidly, as does their niceness and their nous.”
The completed film drew many comparisons with cinéma vérité and the French New Wave, as it featured a documentary-style married with techniques such as jump cuts, handheld cameras and speeded-up film. It was also noted that there was no plot, although most critics felt this wasn’t to the picture’s detriment.
Despite the movie’s success, the Beatles themselves didn’t wind up as lifelong fans.
John Lennon gave his thoughts on the film during a lengthy 1970 interview with Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, later collected in the book Lennon Remembers.
“I thought it wasn’t bad,” John said. “It could have been better. Another illusion was that we were just puppets and that these great people, like Brian Epstein and Dick Lester, created the situation and made this whole f****** thing, and precisely because we were what we were, realistic. We didn’t want to make a f****** shitty pop movie, we didn’t want to make a movie that was going to be bad, and we insisted on having a real writer to write it. Brian came up with Alun Owen, from Liverpool, who had written a play for TV called No Trams to Lime Street. Lime Street is a famous street in Liverpool where the whores used to be in the old days, and Owen was famous for writing Liverpool dialogue.”
Although that play was seen as a landmark in television drama Owen received some criticism. “The play was said to present a seamy, biased view of Merchant seamen,” he said to the Liverpool Echo in 1961. “But I was merely writing about certain seamen and their lives ashore; I was not writing a story about the whole Merchant Marine.”
Lennon continued, “We auditioned people to write for us, and they came up with this guy, and we knew his work, and we said all right. He was a bit phoney, like a professional Liverpool man — you know, like a professional American. He stayed with us two days and wrote the whole thing based on our characters then: me, witty; Ringo, dumb and cute; George this; and Paul that.”
Brought up in Liverpool but born in Menai Bridge, North Wales, to Welsh-speaking parents, the bilingual Owen was a writer who wrote by listening. He said of himself he was not an intellectual writer but an emotional one. “No one in Liverpool ever spoke as I made them speak… it’s just my idea of how ideally they should speak.”
Although John seemed to suggest Owen just happened to be in the right place at the right time, he was a highly sought after talent. A prodigious writer, alongside writing for theatre, he penned several plays for television in the early 60s, including Lena, Oh my Lena (1960), After the Funeral (1960), The Ways of Love (1961), You Can’t Win ’em All (1962) and A Local Boy (1963). The Television and Screenwriters Guild awarded him best television writer of the year in 1962 for his play The Rose Affair (1961).
Owen travelled to Dublin with the band in November 1963, spending three days with them during which they played the Adelphi Cinema. What he saw there made it into the film, including their escape from the back door of the cinema in a local newspaper’s van. A line Brambell utters in the movie, “So far I’ve been in a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room,” was based on something Owen observed Lennon say at a press conference.
“We were a bit infuriated by the glibness and shiftiness of the dialogue, and we were always trying to get it more realistic, but they wouldn’t have it,” Lennon said.
That’s not a criticism that would have sat well with Owen. He was very exact about the words he put on the page and how he wanted them spoken. He put a lot of himself into each work. “I dip my pen into my open wounds,” he once told The Stage.
“The original version of Alun Owen’s Oscar-nominated screenplay supplied [The Beatles] with short one-liners (in case they couldn’t act),” wrote Roger Ebert in 1996, “but they were naturals, and new material was written to exploit that. They were the real thing.”
“It was a good projection of one facade of us,” Lennon conceded to Wenner, “which was on tour, once in London and once in Dublin. It was of us in that situation together, in a hotel, having to perform before people. We were like that…Alun Owen saw the press conference, so he recreated it in the movie. He recreated it pretty well, but we thought it was phoney then, even. It wasn’t realistic enough.”
Less than a year after the film was released, Paul McCartney told Norman Jopling of Record Mirror about how the Beatles liked to relax by watching films.
“We’ve all bought 16mm film projectors with sound and everything,” Paul said. “And we hire loads of films. It’s surprising, but you can get some of the really latest top films. For example, I’ve got Topkapi and Tom Jones. So far, we haven’t got a copy of A Hard Day’s Night. Not that it bothers me. I didn’t like the film anyway. Seriously, I mean that. The original novelty of seeing yourself on screen wears off. You know, like home movies of yourself at the seaside. The good thing is that at least you can come out with anecdotes every ten seconds about what happened behind the scenes.”
Lester gave his opinion on the group’s acting skills in a conversation with Steven Soderbergh. Agreeing with his fellow director that George was the best actor of the four, Lester said, “I don’t think that there’s any question either, but I’m sure if you went around and asked people who saw the films that they would feel that necessarily. Ringo, because his was the showy part, he was always the odd one out, so he was given characteristics that were more sympathetic. John, I don’t think was interested and didn’t bother. Paul was too interested and tried too hard, and George was always the one that was forgotten. So he just did it and got on with it.”
Walter Shenson was on the set of the film every day. Back at home, his wife asked him one night if the Beatles could act. “I don’t know if they can act,” he replied, “but you can’t keep your eyes off them.”