The Beatles' Movie Yellow Submarine

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

In 1963, the Beatles, newly becoming famous and with their star obviously on the rise, signed a three-picture movie deal with United Artists. They made the first two films, as agreed upon, in quick, neat order.

The first film A Hard Day's Night, made in 1964, was loved by all, fans and critics alike. It made a huge profit and became an instant classic. Help!, the second Beatles movie, was made in 1965 and made a bundle too. But this time the reviews were much more mixed, with most critics finding many flaws and noting the lesser quality, humor, and originality of the second film.

Help!, although the higher-budgeted of the two films, was seen as a disappointment to many, the Beatles included. And most especially to the Beatles' unspoken leader, John Lennon. Lennon was to always cite Help! as being "crap" and other not-so-gracious epithets.

Several other movie projects were put forth, but a third, contract-fulfilling film, was never quite agreed-upon. And so it stood until 1967, when a solution was put forth.

Al Brodax was an American producer who created a Saturday morning Beatles cartoon series in 1965. The Beatles cartoons were a smash hit, generating huge ratings. Brodax was now in the process of creating a full-length animated feature film "starring" the Beatles themselves. It would feature Beatle songs with the Beatles doing voice-overs and playing themselves.

The Fab Four, unable to face actually "acting" and "going in front of the cameras" again, agreed to this fair compromise. And it appears that they were actually going to fill in the voices of themselves, but in the ever-busy world of Beatledom, things just kept coming up.

First and foremost was probably the sudden, unexpected death of Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, from a drug overdose in August of 1967. As it now appeared, the Beatle film would have to been recorded without the Beatles. Four actors were summarily signed up to supply the boy's voices.

But the Beatles did, at least, agree to supply four brand-new songs for the film's soundtrack. "That'll do for the film," Lennon would say sarcastically, whenever the Beatles had recorded a mediocre, lesser song. (The Beatles had already seen the 1965 "Beatles" cartoons and did not regard them very highly.)

The Beatles, after contributing the four so-so songs, thereby washed their hands of the project and thought that annoying 1963 contract had been fulfilled. But like so much of Beatle lore and legend, this too, may not be so true.

After it's completion, the Beatles were given a private screening of Yellow Submarine and were surprised and delighted with the results. They loved the movie and even agreed to personally film a one-minute cameo to be shown at the tail end of the film. John and Paul were both to later regret not having more to do with Yellow Submarine.

John was to claim, however, throughout the remainder of his life, that the Yellow Submarine people stole many of his ideas, without giving him any formal screen credit. According to John: "They used to come to the studio and and chat: 'Hi John, old bean, got any ideas for the film?' and I'd just spout out all this stuff, and they went off and did it." Lennon could exaggerate and "play the victim" in countless Beatle-related anecdotes over the years, but this claim does seem justified from available evidence.

The only publicly agreed-upon story is that one night at 3:00 in the morning, John called up the producer and said "Wouldn't it be great if Ringo was walking down the street being followed by a yellow submarine?" This exact scene is shown at the beginning of the film.

But John claimed over the years that he had given the producers and writers several other ideas used in the finished film, and the evidence seems to bear him out. "Brodax got half of Yellow Submarine out of my mouth", sputtered Lennon. (The truth seems to be that- yes, they did "borrow" some ideas from John. But John's claim of "half" appears to be Lennon hyperbole. This is just my own opinion.)

Lennon, a truly exceptional and brilliant musical genius was, however, definitely a man given to angry rages, name-calling, and the holding of grudges. Until his tragic death in 1980, John referred to the Yellow Submarine creators as "bloody animals" and other severe names, believing his ideas to have been "stolen."

However angry John was, he did like the film. In fact, his son, Sean, saw Yellow Submarine on TV in the late 1970's, and asked his dad, "Were you a Beatle?"

John patiently explained to his son that it was, indeed, a life he used to lead but he gave it up to live with Sean's mommy, Yoko Ono.

George seems to have disagreed with John's claims regarding involvement, stating unequivocally, "The best thing about Yellow Submarine was that we had nothing to do with it."

As a fascinating sidebar, Peter Batten, the man who did the voice for "George" in the film, was actually a deserter from the British Army at the time of the film's shoot. He was actually arrested for desertion during the shoot, and another voice-over actor, Paul Angelis, had to do the remainder of the film playing "George." Angelis also did the voice of "Ringo." Peter Batten remains unique in movie history as being the only actor ever arrested for desertion from the military while amidst filming.

All the Beatles loved Yellow Submarine and attended it's official premiere in July of 1968 (Lennon escorting his new live-in girlfriend, Yoko Ono, although he was still married to his wife, Cynthia, at the time).

George Harrison, always a man very hard to please, said: "I liked the film. I think it's a classic. The film works for every generation."

Ringo: "I loved Yellow Submarine. I thought it was really innovative, with great animation."

During the making of Yellow Submarine, the Beatles met the film's animator, Heinz Edelman, for one or two meetings. According to Edelman, Ringo was the only Beatle to make any requests of the animator. Ringo actually complained that "his nose should be bigger," said Edelman.

The film's soundtrack, like all Beatle albums, was great, albeit containing a majority of previously-released material. For some strange, inexplicable reason, John's superb song "Hey Bulldog" was edited out of the American version of the film. Fortunately, the "Hey Bulldog" song and animated sequence was restored for the film's recent video release.

Yellow Submarine, a quintessential "period piece" for the 1960's, has aged well and probably remains the most popular and well-known Beatles film.

(YouTube link)

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Eddie, your story was very very interesting! I always loved "A Hard Day's Night" because it reminded me so much of the time period and being young and having fun. Whenever I see it, it still makes me smile. It was a movie that had the feel of a documentary of the time.
When "Yellow Submarine" came out four years later in 1968, the Beatles and the world had gone through many transitions. I always liked everything the group did musically (even tho I prefer the earlier stuff), but the movie Yellow Submarine just didn't do it for me. I enjoyed SEEING the Beatles in human form rather than their images... somehow I connected their music and messages with their faces.
Now after all these years, I really learned a lot by reading your article Eddie! I think I'd like to get a copy of the movie and re-watch it again today. I'll bet it will mean so much more and entertain me all these years later knowing more about it's history!
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Although I prefer AHDN because it was more Beatlemania-ish, I will say I really think the HELP! soundtrack is outstanding and shows the Beatles maturity in only one year. Songs like Help, Ticket to Ride, The Night Before, I Need You and You've Got To Hide Your Love Away are are a great bridge from the Moptops to the studio gems of Rubber Soul and Revolver.
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I missed most of Beatlemania when it first hit - we had a small radio and I'd hear the occasional song or story about the boys, and for a short while we had a group that imitated them - not very well. Many years later I got to hear their music, some of which I liked. I also liked the movies, and the cartoon. As a skipper myself, I always liked this film the best of all their films - and Eddie is right - Hey bulldog is superb!
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I know I'm in the minority, but I've always preferred "Help!" to "A Hard Day's Night". I respect the earlier film's place in history, and it's unquestionably funny. But it doesn't play as well to a modern audience, I find, having programmed both in small local film festivals. The audience seemed to get lost and bored with AHDN, having difficulty following the very British dialog, and lacking the period context necessary to get the most out of the film. By contrast, they were mostly delighted with "Help!", finding the story and characters charming and the musical selections more to their liking. I feel pretty much the same way, even knowing how much the Beatles themselves disliked it. Of course there are those troubling ethnic stereotypes... but if we can praise Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards' "The Party" (a film I find very difficult to watch for that reason) we should be able to put this film in its proper cultural context as well.
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