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Sean P. Means: ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ turns 50, but doesn’t show its age

By Sean P. Means

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Jul 03 2014 09:32 am • Last Updated Jul 03 2014 03:39 pm

Film lovers always debate what is the best movie ever made — usually with titles like "Citizen Kane," "Casablanca" and "The Godfather" thrown into the conversation.

If you want to talk about the most fun movie ever made — the movie most packed with joy, exuberance and happiness — I’ll nominate a movie that debuted 50 years ago this weekend: "A Hard Day’s Night."

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The cinematic debut of The Beatles — which premiered in the United Kingdom on July 6, 1964, and hit American theaters a few weeks later — will screen this week at the Tower Theatre, 876 E. 900 South, Salt Lake City.

"A Hard Day’s Night" is a gem that remains as carefree and delightful now as when the Beatlemania that it captures was in full flower. But it’s also so much more, encapsulating wry commentary about the mechanics of popular culture in general and The Beatles’ fame in particular.

The movie begins, after that striking guitar chord that launches the title song, with The Beatles — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — on the run from their screaming, adoring fans in a train station. They board the train, but hide out in the cargo hold, playing cards with some schoolgirls. Then, in London, they’re stuck in their hotel room until they escape to a night out at a casino.

All the while, the four lads are saddled with babysitting Paul’s grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell). Though everyone says "he’s very clean," Paul’s grandfather is a rake who causes trouble wherever he goes and tries to sell Beatles memorabilia on the side. (The "clean" joke is an inside reference to the "dirty old man" Brambell played on the British sitcom "Steptoe & Son," which was the source material for Redd Foxx’s series "Sanford & Son.")

Then the band arrives at a television studio, where it is set to perform that evening for a live broadcast in front of more screaming fans. There’s some tension when Ringo, egged on by Paul’s grandfather, goes missing — but all is resolved and the show goes on flawlessly.

What’s great about "A Hard Day’s Night" is how much is going on, even in a story where not much is going on.

The lads display their cheeky humor in every frame. One of the early scenes, a cocktail party, has them fielding reporters’ questions:

Reporter: "How did you find America?"

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John: "Turned left at Greenland."

Reporter: "What do you call that hairstyle you’re wearing?"

George: "Arthur."

Reporter: "Are you a Mod or a rocker?"

Ringo: "Uh, no, I’m a mocker."

Two of the funniest, sharpest moments happen backstage at the TV studio, as the band’s manager Norm (Norman Rossington) and the exasperated TV director (Victor Spinetti) try to rein in these rambunctious stars. They also are pointed barbs at the industry and the culture into which The Beatles were now dominating.

One has George walking into a meeting of advertising executives, who mistake "the Quiet Beatle" for a marketing guinea pig. George distresses the executives by belittling their "resident teenager," Susan, as "that posh bird who gets everything wrong."

"She’s a drag. A well-known drag," George continues. "We turn the sound down on her and say rude things."

The other has John running into a showgirl (Anna Quayle) who at first thinks she recognizes him. "You look just like him," she says at first — though after some arch banter, she finally concludes, "You don’t look like him at all." John goes away, muttering under his breath, "She looks more like him than I do."

"A Hard Day’s Night" was made for a modest amount (200,000 pounds, or about $500,000) on a short schedule. The American distributor, United Artists, considered it an exploitation film with a brief lifespan. (What UA really wanted was the money from releasing the soundtrack album.)

Its impact, though, was staggering.

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