Archive for The Beatles

Woodery Pokery*

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2014 by dcairns

HELP!

*Woodery pokery = John Gielgud’s term for playwright Charles Wood’s verbal gymnastics.

HELP! had an unusual genesis. The Beatles had contracted to make three films, and the roaring success of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT made it inevitable that United Artists would take them up on the option.  Director Richard Lester has described how the film was defined by what it couldn’t be – it couldn’t revisit the Beatles working lives, because that had been done, and it couldn’t tackle their off-duty lives because those were x-rated. As it is, it’s surprising that we get to see the boys smoke (tobacco) and order (but not drink) “two lagers and lime and two lagers and lime.”

And also Lester felt the band were not ready to play anything other than themselves (D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers were mooted, but would have to wait until Lester was ready himself). There was not only the question of acting skill, there was the fact that these four men were famous AS THEMSELVES, and any Beatles movie was going to have them playing their hits, so how convincing would any impersonation of fictional characters be?

So the solution was unavoidable – the Beatles, playing cartoon versions of themselves, deposited in a fantasy plot in which they can be buffeted about. French writer Marc Behm sold the team on a storyline where Ringo, established in the first film as the most vulnerable Beatle, can’t take the pressure of fame and hires a stranger to kill him. He regrets it the next day, but teere’s no way to call the hitman off. This was agreed as the storyline, and then Jean-Paul Belmondo starred in LES TRIBULATIONS D’UN CHINOI EN CHINE with exactly the same story. Lester didn’t know until I told him that the plot stems from Jules Verne, and that Behm was thus offering them stolen goods.

Nevertheless, Behm got the job of coming up with a fresh plot, and the one he created, in which Ringo is pursued by an Indian death cult who want his ring, in perfectly serviceable. Since Behm couldn’t write scouse, Charles Wood, who had just adapted THE KNACK with Lester, got the job of taking the story to screenplay form.

“It was just an assignment,” Wood is quoted as saying in Andrew Yule’s patchy Lester bio, The Man Who “Framed” the Beatles, “I don’t think I did a particularly good job.”

I beg to differ: a very good job, and a very odd job too. One could wish it had a bit more resolution – even with almost nothing to resolve, it needs some comeuppance for baddies Leo McKern and Victor Spinetti, I feel. The “character arc” bit, in which Ringo is required to show courage, is slightly underdone – it reads fine in the published script, but doesn’t quite catch fire onscreen. Maybe because the Beatles made the film under the influence of wacky baccy, and so their performances aren’t quite as enthusiastic as before. Lester resorted to saying their lines ahead of them and getting them to copy his phrasing, just to get them through a take. Lennon claimed the best bits were all on the cutting room floor, with him and his mates falling about in hysterics.

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Ringo is kind of a great bad actor, or non-actor, or un-actor, entertaining in his failure to seem like he’s mentally present in a scene, but one of my fave exchanges in the script is utterly nailed by him. The team are speculating about how the unwanted ring can be detached from Ringo’s pinkie.

“The fire brigade got my head out of some railings once.”

“Did you want them to?”

“No. I used to leave it there when I wasn’t using it for school. You can see a lot of the world from railings.”

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The last sentence is delivered with just the perfect sort of faraway wisdom, with Richard Starkey OBE staring into the middle distance. I think Ringo succeeds so well here because he has the attractive quality of a child, unaware of saying something funny.

The script is full of abstract non-jokes – either Lester and Wood trusted the young audience to get them – to laugh at a non-joke you have to be smart enough to process the material and instantly realize that there’s nothing hidden there that you’re not getting – or they didn’t care, knowing that the audience would turn up for the Beatles alone and be happy as long as they got to look at them and hear them play, so why not just entertain yourself and the smartest person in the room? At any rate, it’s a wonderfully nonsensical thing, more Reeves & Mortimer than Monty Python, exulting in language. The weakest bits are the straight puns (“It’s the brain drain. His brain’s draining.) which aren’t in the original script anyway, or not in the form they wound up in. I prefer the odd constructions like “Jeweller, you’ve failed, jeweller.”

Anyway, Lester’s visuals are dazzling, but the words deserve appreciation too.

My latest film is a video essay for the Criterion Blu-Ray of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Pre-order it here: A Hard Day’s Night (Criterion Collection) (Blu-ray + DVD)

 

A Hard Day’s Thing

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , on March 18, 2014 by dcairns

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This. I have some involvement, I am delighted to report. I can say no more.

Pre-order: A Hard Day’s Night [Blu-ray]

The Sunday Intertitle: Late August, Early September

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2010 by dcairns

It seemed timely to feature this intertitle from the early Doug Fairbanks starrer FLIRTING WITH FATE, an uncredited adaptation of Jules Verne’s The Tribulations of a Chinese Man from China. (The title card refers to struggling artist Augie, played by Doug.) It’s an old story — a hapless loser hires an assassin (here, the artistically-monickered Automatic Joe) to end his misery, but then his luck changes, he wants to live, but he can’t find the gunman to call off the hit. Robert Siodmak made the story as LOOKING FOR HIS MURDERER in Germany from a Billy Wilder script, again without crediting the source, and Philippe de Broca adapted it with credit, and with the inevitable Jean-Paul Belmondo in the lead. The appearance of this movie put paid to Richard Lester’s plan to cast Ringo in the story and use it for the Beatles’ second film, and so we got HELP! instead.

Doug’s version starts slow and hammy, but proceeds to some fine silliness once paranoia and the plot kick in –

This may be my favourite intertitle of the year. It refers to the fantasy sequences of Automatic Joe snuffing a series of stand-ins in visions that pop up before Doug’s mind’s eye, and are shared by us. This seems like fairly advanced film narrative for the period. As a result of these fantasy murders, Doug spends the middle of the film fleeing in terror from anything that’s around, including the correspondence-school detective who’s trying to protect him. A long sequence of two characters in false beards taking fright at each other and at any other bearded men, has a real feel of vaudeville on acid.

Automatic Joe (George Beranger) is guilt-stricken because he has accepted fifty bucks to snuff a man, and the fellow still breathes. I am besotted with this image, especially the deeply-scored wallpaper in the background.

This might be the best approach to Verne’s story idea — it seems like a superb plot motor, but filmmakers often seem to have some trouble figuring out what to do with it. It can essentially lead anywhere. Fairbanks, with writers Robert M Baker and Christy Cabanne, who also directed, serve up plenty of impressive acrobatics for Doug, but actually concentrate more on the story’s psychological side, using it as a study in comic suspense rather than a cue for adventure. Fairbanks, rather too flamboyant in the early “straight” scenes, becomes very amusing when he can athletically portray a mind in collapse, as in this image, which almost seems to reference William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar ~

Doug attempts to be inconspicuous.

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