50 Years of Beatles: Winning over the nonbelievers

Penn State Laureate Kenneth Womack’s essay series, 50Years of Beatles,” continues with a look at the Fab Four's first feature film. 

In the wake of the Beatles’ triumphant appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Feb. 9, 1964, the band spent the next several months consolidating their fame, breaking sales records and gearing up for their first world tour. One of the key elements in their coming global onslaught was the production of their first feature film, "A Hard Day’s Night," which completed principal photography some 50 years ago on April 24, 1964.

When Beatles manager Brian Epstein negotiated their contract with United Artists for “A Hard Day’s Night” back in October 1963, the band mates wanted to make the movie “for the express purpose of having a soundtrack album,” according to the film’s producer Walter Shenson. In one instance, John Lennon even told Epstein that “We don’t fancy being Bill Haley and the Bellhops, Brian.” Yet by the end of February 1964, they came to envision the film as an opportunity for blazing trails into new marketing vistas well beyond the teenage demographic. For the Beatles, the world of film afforded them with a means for securing control of themselves as a commodity and for establishing the self-image that would fuel their marketing engine.

Indeed, “A Hard Day’s Night” capitalizes on each band member’s image as it had been established by their adeptly choreographed press conferences and their appearances on such popular fare as "Thank Your Lucky Stars" and "The Ed Sullivan Show." Perhaps even more significantly, the audience for the Beatles’ films would already have been well-schooled in the generic, myth-making conventions of the pop musical by such movies as "The Girl Can’t Help It" (1956) and "Rock Around the Clock" (1956), not to mention Elvis Presley’s various cinematic forays.

In addition to marketing the band as a happy-go-lucky group of unthreatening young men, "A Hard Day’s Night" concretized the Beatles’ individual images for the present generation and — thanks to videocassettes, DVDs, cable television and streaming video — generations to come. Henceforth, John became known for his sarcastic intelligence; Paul for his boyish charm and good looks; George for being the “quiet one”; and Ringo for his genial personality and good-natured humor. The movie underscores the very result of such myth-making opportunities in the concert scene, where “the camera moves rapidly between the faces of the Beatles and their audience,” Stephen Glynn writes. “Close-ups of the latter show girls in tears, in ecstasy, but clearly mouthing the name of their favorite Beatle.”

Robert Freeman’s famous cover photographs for “A Hard Day’s Night” offer a revealing study in identity creation. The album’s cover art features five playful shots of each Beatle mugging for the camera. Lennon can be seen striking slyly introspective poses, while Harrison’s various guises underscore his reputation as the quiet Beatle — one of his photographs even depicts him with his back to the camera in monochromatic silhouette. McCartney is portrayed in the act of pursuing innocent and unself-conscious antics, while Starr seems intentionally muted. His photos make him appear bland and unobtrusive, as if more palpable characteristics might shatter his good-natured image. Paramount to the construction of the Beatles’ media personalities was the notion that none of them be perceived as being romantically involved. As Richard Lester, the director behind “A Hard Day’s Night,” remembers, “It was an instinctive thing that fans would be quite happy with them as four available people as opposed to, I suppose, the Elvis Presley pictures, where there was always a love interest.”

Based on a screenplay by Alun Owen and produced on a budget of some $350,000, “A Hard Day’s Night” was filmed at London’s Paddington Station, Twickenham Film Studios and various other locations in March and April 1964. The film premiered on July 6 at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus, grossing $11 million worldwide and $1.3 million in the first week of its American release — both of which were astounding figures for that era.

As history well knows, the film succeeding in working its magic — and then some. After “A Hard Day’s Night,” John, Paul, George and Ringo became household words. As film critic Roger Ebert observed, “After that movie was released everybody knew the names of all four Beatles — everybody.” As Epstein and the Beatles had intended, “A Hard Day’s Night” allowed them to establish inroads into demographic bases well beyond the teenagers who worshipped them after "The Ed Sullivan Show." In short, the Beatles had won over, in the words of critic Bob Neaverson, the “non-believers.”

Kenneth Womack is the author of numerous works of nonfiction, including "Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles" (2007). He has also written three novels: "John Doe No. 2 and the Dreamland Motel" (2010), "The Restaurant at the End of the World" (2012) and "Playing the Angel" (2013). A professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona, Womack was selected in April 2013 to serve as the sixth Penn State University Laureate.

Last Updated May 13, 2014