The huge success, financially, critically, and personally, of the Beatles' first film A Hard Day's Night in 1964 made a follow-up film an inevitability. And everything pointed to this next film being superior to A Hard Day's Night. After all, the locations for this second film would be the Bahamas and the Austrian Alps.
The Beatles liked these locations because they wanted to have a fun holiday while filming (their manager, Brian Epstein, liked the tax breaks they would get in the Bahamas.) Richard Lester and Walter Shenson, the respective director and producer of A Hard Day's Night, would be returning too. The budget would be double that of A Hard Day's Night and this time the movie would be filmed in glorious Technicolor. But as they say, the best laid plans of mice and Beatles...
Filming began in the Bahamas on February 22, 1965. The film's ultra-flimsy plot was something about an Eastern cult losing a mystic sacrificial ring and Ringo somehow finding it. The Eastern villains chase Ringo around, trying to get their sacred ring back, and this leads to a combination James Bond-like spy film and a semi-merry chase romp as John, Paul and George try to save their drummer pal from the fiendish baddies.
From day one, it very quickly became apparent that the Beatles were, shall we say, indulging. John was to recall: “We were smoking marijuana for breakfast during this period. Nobody could communicate with us, it was all glazed eyes and giggling all the time.”
Ringo added: “If you look at pictures of us, you can see a lot of red-eyed shots. They were red from the dope we were smoking.”
The boys' beautiful female co-star, Eleanor Bron, remembered John (who she had an on-set affair with) offering her a joint one day and her timidly taking a quick puff.
George recalled the boys filming a rather innocuous scene where a pipe is dropped out the window of Buckingham Palace and several of the Army Guard dropping onto the ground, put to sleep by blue smoke emanating from the hose. George and his mates kept breaking up into fits of the giggles, ruining take after take, and the routine scene took up almost a full day to film. Poor director Lester, a very patient man, realized that if he didn't get a scene filmed by around noon, he may as well pack up for the day.
On another occasion, a scene was being filmed where a bomb goes off. After the bomb blast, Ringo and Paul started running away, as per the script. They ran and ran and ran and kept on running and running, until they were completely out of sight of the rest of the cast and crew. The two hooky-playng Beatles then happily lit up a joint together and smoked away.
Besides the all-too-obvious prevalence of marijuana, other problems arose. Early on in filming, Ringo is on a boat and is confronted by the film's villains. He has to jump out of the boat into the ocean. After a few takes, Dick Lester told Ringo they'd have to film the scene again.
Ringo politely asked if they could use the previous takes and not do any more. When Lester asked “Why?" Ringo timidly confessed that he couldn't swim. Lester's face blanched when he realized he had just risked drowning the world's most famous drummer.
Recalled John: "The movie was out of control. With A Hard Day's Night we had a lot of input, as it was semi-realistic.....but with Help! Dick Lester didn't tell us what it was all about.” Problems aside, the Help! shoot had its interesting moments.
Help! was to be a life-changing experience for George Harrison, the quiet Beatle. While filming an outdoor scene on bicycles one day, the Beatles stopped for a short break. A Krishna devotee walked up to each Beatle and handed them a book on Hare Krishna consciousness. In another scene inside an Indian restaurant, the house band played “A Hard Day's Night” on sitars. George was struck and fascinated by the Indian instruments. With these two events to kindle his interest, George was to gradually become "the religious Beatle" and spend the rest of his life worshipping both the Krishna religion and all things Indian.
Filming in the Austrian Alps involved one of the best scenes in Help!, as the Fab Four tried skiing for the very first time. Director Lester just told them to hit the slopes, put on their skis and try to ski as best they could. The results of the scene are both comical and endearing, as we watch John, Paul, George and Ringo falling down and trying to stay up, backed by the sounds of one of John's finest songs, “Ticket to Ride.”
Another fascinating scene in Help! comes as the Beatles don disguises to fool the villains so they can escape. This eerie scene gives us our first glimpse of John Lennon in his soon-to-be trademark granny glasses. John Lennon 1965 is amazingly transformed into the John Lennon of 1969 the world was to know, as he became the world's number one peacenik along with his future wife, Yoko Ono.
Not only John's future aspect is depicted in this scene, but both George and Ringo, both bearded, also look uncannily as they would in just a few short years in the future, George the devoted religious worshipper and Ringo the globe-trotting Monte Carlo resident.
One day, probably motivated by boredom, the Beatles rented out four colorful sports cars. They drove to a huge quarry and started driving around recklessly, doing donuts and bumping and crashing into each other. According to George, it was a shame these scenes weren't edited into the film, as they were better than anything in the actual finished product.
Other "must have been interesting" scenes were also edited out, including Ringo milking a cow in a back room and a scene where George impersonates Ringo while sitting in a treehouse.
The film's original working title had been Eight Arms to Hold You, but no one really cottoned to this clumsy monicker. It was John who wrote the film's unforgettably beautiful theme song Help!, an autobiographical song about his own personal cry for help. (John remembered this era as his unhappy "fat Elvis period.”)
The Help! shoot finally came to an end in May and everybody anxiously awaited the film's release. On July 29, 1965, the Fab Four attended the royal premiere of Help!, probably hopefully expecting an equal or possibly better film than A Hard Day's Night.
Unlike their first film, Help! came out uneven, unbalanced. The songs were great (the Beatles never let us down when it came to music) and there were a few genuinely funny moments. But there were some very flat gags and worse, a long dull period in the middle of the film. Reviews were decidedly mixed, with almost every reviewer dubbing Help! a comedown from their glittering debut.
John Lennon never really warmed up to Help!, saying, “It was like being a frog in a movie about clams.” He also said, “We felt like extras in our own film".
Reviews and John Lennon aside, Help!, like its predecessor, was a box office bonanza, raking in millions all over the world. Nonetheless, Help! left a bit if a sour taste in the Beatles' collective mouth and they never were to act or appear in another actual scripted theatrical motion picture. (The boys did make a brief 52-second live cameo appearance at the end of the animated film Yellow Submarine in 1968.)