Apparently, the Lincoln Theater in Kearny, New Jersey has closed for good. This was one of those places that you don’t really miss until they’re gone, and I can’t honestly say its loss will leave a large empty space in my heart. It’s been almost 35 years since I saw a movie there (although I doubt that’s the reason it closed). When I was a boy, it had the one big screen that had been there since its opening in 1934. When my brother and I went there to see “E.T.” in the early 1980s, it had at least two screens, maybe three. When it closed a month or so ago, it had six.
It was always a second-run theater; if we wanted to see a movie as soon as it came out, we would go into New York or Newark. Even with the lights on before the movie started, it was cavernous and gloomy, and the floors were always sticky, and the seats weren’t the latest styles. But if you were willing to wait a few weeks to see a new movie, and you didn’t feel like driving into the city, it was there and it was convenient.
On Saturdays they had children’s matinees. We didn’t go every week, but once a month or so my mother would give my brother and me some money – probably twenty-five cents for admission and a dime for popcorn or candy – and he and I would walk over to the Lincoln (eight blocks – nowadays our parents would probably have been arrested for allowing a nine-year-old and a six-year-old to walk so far unescorted) to see whatever was playing. Sometimes it was whatever was playing at the regular showings – The Great Race, say, or My Fair Lady – but more often it was a “children’s” movie, the kind that appealed largely to children’s parents (because they were bland and inoffensive) and hardly at all to most kids. Frequently, about halfway through the feature, at least half the audience would be out of our seats, chasing one another around the theater, throwing popcorn all over the place and making more noise than whatever was coming from the screen.
I was nine years old in 1964. 1964 was not a bad year for movies, especially for a budding anglophile like myself. Goldfinger, Dr. Strangelove and Becket were all big hits, all of them made in England. Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady were both released that year – two big-budget Hollywood musicals, each one made entirely on Hollywood soundstages, each one set in a highly stylized version of Edwardian London. My dad took my younger brother and me (my mother didn’t go the movies) to the city to see Mary Poppins – it’s still one of my favorite films. My brother and I saw My Fair Lady at a children’s matinee at the Lincoln. Our parents had seen the original cast production on Broadway and subsequently bought the album, so he and I went into the theater knowing all the songs by heart. I remember keeping count of the number of times anyone in the film (usually Rex Harrison) said the word “damn.” (No one in my family swore – I was probably a teenager when I first heard my mother utter the word “damn”; she had just fallen down a flight of stairs – and even the mildest of curse words were rarely if ever heard on television in those days.) I think it came to about twenty.
1964 was also the year in which A Hard Day’s Night was released. The Beatles were already a part of our lives: we’d seen them on the Ed Sullivan show and we’d bought the 45rpm records of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You”. My dad, whose musical tastes were very eclectic, liked them; my mom, whose tolerance for pop music went no further than Perry Como, disliked them, although largely for the length of their hair. A Hard Day’s Night came to the Lincoln Theatre; what’s more, it was being shown at a children’s matinee, and they’d added another showing afterwards to handle the crowds.
I had to go. For some reason, my brother didn’t go with me. I went with my friend Bobby Colaneri, whose family lived down the street from us, a couple of dozen yards away from the Passaic River. He and I spent a lot of after-school time hanging out in his basement, which was set up as a kind of recreation room and had a color television set (his family was the only one we knew that owned one). We would start out watching something – a baseball game, say – and quickly move on to playing games and making noise. His mother, upstairs, was very tolerant.
The line to get into the theater that day was unusually long, and unusually full of adolescent and teenage girls. This worried us a little: we were still at the age when boys find girls to be strange and irritating creatures and want as little to do with them as possible. It was probably the only time I’d ever been to a children’s matinee when all the seats were filled.
At the Lincoln, whenever a Beatles song appeared on the soundtrack (which was very often), all the girls in the audience began screaming, making it impossible for them or anyone else actually to hear the songs that they had supposedly come to hear. Bobby and I ended up staying in the theater after the first showing and sitting through the film a second time with the hope of hearing the songs. It was a false hope. The house was full of girls for that showing too. Clearly, the boys in that theater were there for the songs; the girls were there for their hormones.
A Hard Day’s Night begins with the famous, dissonant chord that opens the song (according to one story, George thought the song was in the key of D, Paul thought it was in F, they inadvertently played the chords together, producer George Martin liked the sound it made and the rest was history) and, with the song playing on the soundtrack, we see the Beatles running down a street being chased by a crowd of screaming teenagers. There are quite a few scenes like this in the film, and the Fab Four always seem to be enjoying the chase immensely.
A Hard Day’s Night was intended by its producers to be an exploitation film to help sell the soundtrack album (it was originally going to be called Beatlemania). The idea was to show a “day in the life” of the Beatles, throw in a little frenetic humor to attract the teenagers, and make as much money as possible before the mania died down. They never planned to make a classic.
They hired Richard Lester to direct. Born in Philadelphia, Lester moved to England when he was 21 and became a prolific director of television commercials and low-budget series. In 1959, he directed Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan in a short film called The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, an exercise in controlled silliness which was one of the Beatles’ favorite movies. Five years later, they chose Lester to direct their first (and, for all they knew, only) film. Lester worked with screenwriter Alun Owen, a Welsh-born native of Liverpool whose work also appealed to the Beatles, to create a movie with more than mercenary ambitions.
Earlier films starring pop superstars of their day had gone astray by asking the superstars to portray characters other than themselves. (Elvis Presley was at least as big a star as the Beatles in his day, but none of the many films is particularly watchable today because they all asked him to play someone who looked and sounded like Elvis Presley but did something else for a living and got into adventures that Elvis never did, and Elvis wasn’t enough of an actor to do anything but read his lines and, as the films got increasingly worse, look increasingly uncomfortable.) The Beatles weren’t actors, and Lester and Owen wanted to capitalize on that fact. Owen spent a little over a week with the band, getting to know their personalities and their speech patterns, and wrote a script that required them to be lightly stylized versions of themselves. The life they led was fairly unreal in many respects – four young working-class men who became world-famous almost overnight – so the script could be fairly wacky, even absurd, without being too far from their reality.
What’s slightly unexpected about the film is the fact that Ringo ends up being the star. John is anarchically funny, especially in one scene in a bathtub and another in a conversation with a woman (Anna Quayle) who thinks she recognizes him but isn’t quite sure. George has a wonderfully satiric scene with an advertising executive (Kenneth Haigh) and a couple of funny lines. Paul is handsome and assured, but he doesn’t really have any scenes to himself – in fact, he’s almost a secondary character, having for no good reason brought along his grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), whose malice and deviousness provide the impetus for whatever plot the film has. Brambell, a thin, middle-aged man with bad teeth, shifty eyes and a thick Irish accent, is magnificent in the role. He was well-known in the UK for starring in a TV series called Steptoe and Son (an American version starring Redd Foxx was called Sanford and Son), in which he was constantly being called a “dirty old man”, which led to the recurring joke (partially inexplicable to American audiences) of practically everyone in the film describing the grandfather as “very clean”.
But, as far as the film is concerned, John, Paul and George have no depth, no dimensions other than how they look and how they speak. Ringo is the outsider, the short, homely, insecure drummer who’s easy prey to the grandfather’s malicious temptations and who runs away from the television studio in London an hour before they’re supposed to broadcast their concert.
Much of the slapstick of the last third of the film is straight out of Buster Keaton, particularly the sequence in which the Beatles are chased up and down a London street by an ever-growing number of policemen. Ringo in particular had a wonderful downtrodden deadpan that could have been directly copied from Keaton – watch his reaction as he tries to take an early selfie and accidentally knocks the camera into the water. (A couple of years later, incidentally, Buster Keaton made his last film appearance in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The director was Richard Lester.)
The visual style of the film was something of a revelation at the time. Most of its techniques – handheld cameras, rapid cutting – had been used often before, but usually in documentaries and solemn films from Italy, never in a popular film meant primarily for teenagers. A Hard Day’s Night is also credited with having invented the MTV-style music video twenty years early, by filming performances from many multiple angles and by including segments (like their frolic in a field) in which the song is played on the soundtrack while the performers are doing something completely different in front of the camera.
Mostly, though, the film’s great achievement is that it manages to be both of its era, a glimpse at a particular time in our culture, a film that couldn’t have been made the way it was made at any other time before or since – and timeless. You probably don’t even have to know who the Beatles were to enjoy the film. (One of the amazing things about the Beatles is that today, 45 years after they broke up, millions of young people are still discovering and loving their music, something that really can’t be said about any other band of the time.) The film’s energy and cheerfully rebellious spirit make it one of the most joyful experiences imaginable.
Last year, to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary, the Coolidge Corner Theatre here in Brookline, Massachusetts showed a newly restored print of A Hard Day’s Night for one night only. About half of the audience had seen, or at least were old enough to have seen, the film when it came out. The other half probably weren’t even alive when the Beatles broke up in 1970. It was a hit again and received a huge ovation at the end. The humor was intact, the songs were still brilliant, everyone left the theater smiling. Unlike the rest of us, the film hadn’t aged a day.