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The Dawning of A Hard Day's Night 

Wednesday, Apr 21 1999
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It's triply fitting that what Andrew Sarris called "The Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals" will play the San Francisco Film Festival. (Miramax will re-release the film this fall.) The director of A Hard Day's Night, Richard Lester, has said that the San Francisco Film Festival transformed him from a TV director to a moviemaker when it showcased a 1960 short he'd done as a lark with Peter Sellers: The Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film. The producer of A Hard Day's Night, Walter Shenson, was raised in San Francisco and schooled at Stanford -- and his brother-in-law, Irving "Bud" Levin, was the founder of the Festival.

Not that anyone ever needs an excuse to screen A Hard Day's Night -- it remains the most cheerful and uplifting chapter in the entire Beatles saga. When in the fall of 1963 United Artists approached producer Shenson about making a movie with the moptops who were sweeping the United Kingdom and the Continent, the group had yet to cross the Atlantic. By the time the Beatles exploded here, Shenson had already signed them to make a low-budget black-and-white film. United Artists thought the movie would be little more than a promotional tool for the soundtrack album, but Shenson guessed better: He persuaded the studio to allow the copyright to revert to him after 15 years.

UA never expected its musical novelty item to play in more theaters simultaneously than any other film of its time, or to win terrific reviews, or to return $13.5 million on a $560,000 investment. Shenson, though, had foresight, and loved the finished picture. And still does: Over the last six years, he's invested in the restoration of A Hard Day's Night; the results will be on display at the Castro. According to the man who handled the restoration, Paul Rutan, this makes Shenson a pioneer twice over: for encouraging director Lester and the Beatles to blaze new trails in mainstream moviemaking, and for becoming one of the first independent producers to put his own money into restoration.

In the midst of the frenzy surrounding the filming of A Hard Day's Night, a reporter on the set described Shenson as "miraculously relaxed." That's how he was when I interviewed him at his Beverly Hills office in March. To Shenson, who moved to England in the mid-'50s to coordinate advertising and publicity for Columbia Pictures in Europe, the story of A Hard Day's Night began when he segued into producing with the hit screwball satire of American foreign relations, The Mouse That Roared: "I fought to get Peter Sellers into The Mouse That Roared, and it became his greatest success up to that time. When I was preparing the sequel, The Mouse on the Moon, Peter had already gotten too big for me to use. But he asked, 'Is there anything I can do for you? Do you need a director? What about Dick Lester?' Lester had directed Sellers and the Goons (the stars of British TV's Goon Show), and I set up a screening of a quickie musical he'd made (It's Trad, Dad). I could see he knew how to cut a film and make it move. He directed The Mouse on the Moon; the year it came out UA asked me to produce the Beatles film.

"When I told Dick about it, he got very excited -- he knew more about the Beatles than I did. He said, 'I'll do it for nothing.' I said, 'We'll all do it for nothing -- it's a very low-budget film.' The Beatles knew that I'd produced comedies and had worked with Peter Sellers. They wanted to know what Dick Lester had done. I told them that he worked with the Goons and they said, 'Yeah -- get Lester.' The Goons, you see, were as important to young people as Monty Python would be a generation or two later."

Landing the writer, Alun Owen, was to Shenson "a stroke of luck. We interviewed dozens of other writers; they all had terrible, trendy ideas, like having the Beatles travel around in a trailer full of gadgets. Alun Owen, a TV writer who came from Liverpool, was a kitchen-sink TV dramatist -- he'd never done comedy before -- but he was a brilliant writer, and Brian Epstein and the Beatles thought he would be a good choice. At first, we couldn't get him; he was tied up working on a musical with the man who wrote Oliver (Lionel Bart). Then Alun's show was postponed; I called him, his agent called me, and Brian Epstein called a press conference to announce the film. I told Alun that Dick and I were thinking of making an exaggerated day in the life of the Beatles. He astutely asked, 'What's that?' I said, 'They're going to be performing in Dublin next weekend. You go up there, move in with them, and then, when you come back, you tell us.' And he did. He said, 'Actually, the Beatles are prisoners of their success. They get off the plane, they go to the hotel, they go to the concert hall, they get back on a plane -- they don't know whether they're in Dublin or San Francisco.' And they traveled in a 'cocoon of Liverpool.' There would be the road manager, the publicity man, the guys who carry the equipment, and all of them were chums from home. The Beatles didn't know where they were half the time. That was the essence of Alun Owen's screenplay." The company began shooting in March, 1964. The film premiered in London on July 7, and opened in New York five weeks later. To Shenson, "The reason the picture was so successful is that we captured the Beatles -- that, and the genius of Dick Lester."

Shenson says that Lester's unconventional shooting choices elated him, even when they worried the studio. "He put the cameraman in a little swing chair that he hung from the ceiling of the sound stage and had him follow Paul's movements around for 360 degrees as Paul sang 'And I Love Her,' going right off the set. Dick also shot a lot of 'normal' coverage and when the film was put together, it was beautiful. But I did get a phone call from one of the executives saying, 'The picture's very good, but are you aware of the fact that in the scene where Paul McCartney's doing a solo, the camera shoots right into an arc lamp and shows one of the walls of the sound stage?' I said, 'Yeah, it took us a half-day to get that shot.'"

At the end of the new print, fans get to see "You Can't Do That" as performed and filmed for the climactic TV-concert scene (it was deleted during the film's original editing). But to restoration chief Rutan, the real thrill for movie-lovers and Beatles-lovers -- especially Americans -- will be its improved sound.

Of course, the visual aspect of the restoration was challenging: "I think someone had simply cut up the first and last reels for clips," Rutan says, "because I would find bits and pieces of the original negatives of those reels misidentified as dupes." He created new dupe negatives for reels 1 and 10, and then, frame by frame, went about cleaning up the whole picture, removing mylar gunk and chunks of dirt that had become embedded in the emulsion.

But it's the soundtrack that illustrates the art and archeology of restoration at its best. "Walter was making this film when the Beatles knocked 'em dead on The Ed Sullivan Show," Rutan explains. "So the UA executives got concerned that paying customers would not be able to hear the movie because of the Beatlemaniacs in the theaters. Walter pooh-poohed their fears, but when the studio supervised the sound for the American release they overmodulated it." Instead of putting across the music and the dialogue, the hyped-up audio nearly ruined it, because the optical soundtrack couldn't contain all the peaks and valleys. Luckily, Beatles archivist Ron Furmanek, who took charge of the sound for this re-release, had his own black-and-white print. It was English -- so it didn't have that overmodulation problem. In Rutan's opinion, with the British track as its base, the film's audio quality is "better than it ever has been in this country. The sound has been separated into six-channel digital, but it's still mono, and it's just magnificent. Nothing's fake and the music is spectacular. And you can understand everything the Beatles are saying, even with their English accents."

Back in 1964, Shenson never considered re-dubbing the dialogue for clarity. As he says, "When the manager is disciplining the boys in the dressing room and Ringo says he feels like doing a bit of work, Paul says, 'Oh, listen to teacher's pet,' George says, 'You crawler,' and John says, 'He's betrayed our class.' I don't think many Americans get 'you crawler,' which is their slang for a goodie-goodie, but the rhythms get them laughing anyway. When I first brought the film to L.A., my friends -- people like Eddie Anhalt (screenwriter of Becket) and Dan Taradash (screenwriter of From Here to Eternity), older writers and directors -- asked me to set up a screening. They didn't want to see it with all the screaming kids in the theater. Afterwards, people told me that they didn't understand a fucking word but the movie was hilarious anyway, because of the tone and the texture."

-- Michael Sragow

A Hard Day's Night screens Saturday, April 24, at 4 p.m. at the Castro Theater.

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Michael Sragow

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