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When It Was '64

Original publicist of 'A Hard Day's Night,' who is assisting in the re-release of the classic Beatles film, recalls heady days of working with the Fab Four.

November 30, 2000|JERRY PAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I am experiencing a case of deja vu with the re-release Friday of the 1964 Beatles' film "A Hard Day's Night." I have been asked to assist Miramax--the studio distributing the film--for the opening. How many Hollywood publicists can honestly claim to have handled the same film twice with such a lapse of time?

It was 37 years ago that I received a call from London asking if I had ever represented the publicity for a motion picture. The call was from ex-press agent-turned-producer Walter Shenson, who years earlier had used me, while I was entertainment editor of a local paper, to gain favor with his boss, Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures.

Here's the story: In my naivete, I had used in my paper a photograph of the famed beach scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr from the 1953 Columbia movie "From Here to Eternity," not knowing that the four downtown L.A. papers had rejected it as being too graphically sexual. Needless to say, I was almost terminated from my job, and a phone call of apology from Shenson resulted in a promise that one day he would try to make amends.

Ten years later came the phone call. He wanted to bring to Hollywood's attention the new film he was producing. I asked a few obvious questions, such as "What's the title?" and "Who's starring?" I was bemused to hear "We don't have a title, and we are using unknowns." I suggested that he save his hard-earned money, as I could see no way of publicizing a motion picture with such meager information.

Expanding somewhat, he told me he had signed a group called the Beatles, to which I replied that I had never heard of them. This was to be the start of a great adventure, because the following February the fabulous foursome appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and created a preview of the tidal wave that was to follow.

While the film was being shot, I organized stories to be sent to the media. All of them reflected the film's title, which at that time was "Beatles One." Several weeks into filming, a reporter asked the Beatles, "What's it like shooting your first movie?" Ringo, in his own inimitable way, uttered "It's been a hard day's night." Richard Lester, the director, liked the phrase and thought it would work well for the film's title; according to "A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song," by Steve Turner, Lester told Lennon about the new title and the next day John brought in a song to go along with it.

Welshman Alun Owen was signed to write the original screenplay, which became a documentary about a day in the life of the group. He practically lived with the foursome, traveling in limousines to and from recording sessions, restaurants and anywhere they decided to hang out. Lester, having played jazz piano, was able to rapidly understand the Beatles particular brand of music. During filming, the Beatles were often bored and tired of repeating their lines, but they had a respect and affinity with Lester, whom they called their "conductor."

"A Hard Day's Night" was a learning experience for me. With the approach of the 20th anniversary of John Lennon's death, I reflect on some of the important elements of my craft that I had learned from him. He was a man who understood not only the mood of his times but also the times to come, with the new paths of music and social poetry and the finer points of entertainment.

He also had an inherent sense of the machinations of publicity. All four Beatles shared these instincts to a degree, but Lennon was the one who most easily articulated them.

Each Beatle had his own distinctive style. Paul McCartney often composed songs that he knew would never be recorded, partly because they were so irreverent. One that I recall was called "Let's Bring Back Old Winnie," a tongue-in-cheek reference to Winston Churchill. George Harrison was always asking me about movies and vowed if he ever made a lot of money he would form a film company (which he later did, the stylish Handmade Films). As for Ringo, he was constantly shopping for rings of all sizes and shapes (which became a plot point in their second film, "Help!").

*

The uncertainty over the reception for the film, which had cost around $500,000 and was not expected to be any great money-earner, had created an ambivalence in the gang of four, so the film's pre-publicity was launched without them.

It was a course in publicity all by itself. United Artists (which released the film) knew it would make money on the soundtrack and that kids would want to see the movie. Adults were another story. In spite of the first fore-rumblings of Beatlemania, the film proved a tough fight for the Hollywood community. A screening at the Directors Guild attracted 12 patrons.

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