Hard Day's Shining Knight
An appreciation of Beatles' film producer Walter Shenson
If you've seen the re-released "A Hard Day's Night" in a movie theater - you'll know how marvelous the experience is. The prints from the restored negative are sharp and the refurbished audio is magnificent. And just seeing the film on the big screen with an audience is a whole different sensation to watching it on a TV.
To whom do we owe our thanks for this pleasure? One man - who sadly didn't live to see his vision of the reissue come to fruition. That man was the late Walter Shenson - who of course produced "A Hard Day's Night" (and subsequently produced "Help!") Walter passed on in late October at the age of 81 after suffering a stroke. But for the past few years he was a man with a mission. He knew instinctively that the film he produced in 1964 was such a timeless classic that it would play wonderfully as a film in movie theaters again.
Many Beatles fans got to see, hear and even meet Walter in recent years when he attended Beatlefests and other fan celebrations. Those of you who did, know what a vivacious and exuberant man he was. His perky personality and wry humor was clearly an asset in working with the Beatles - who placed laughter high above being hip or looking cool.
It is frightening to think what the Beatles first film might have been if Walter had NOT been involved. In 1963 when the film was commissioned - it was fairly commonplace for successful pop artists to become the stars of a movie. What was entirely the norm was that the films were usually formulaic pieces of fluff. An instant confection. As sweet and gratifying as cotton candy - and just as instantly forgotten. The sole object was to please fans - who (it was accurately reasoned) would like pretty much anything featuring their heroes.
As neophytes in the film world, the Beatles might easily have been swept up into such a sausage-machine type film. Perfect for Summer 1964. Redundant two months later. But the film they did star in is consistently hailed by film critics as one of the greatest films of all time. Ground-breaking, influential, exuberant fun - and utterly timeless.
How did that happen? Perhaps they had unlimited time and budget to get it right?
The film of A Hard Day's Night went from first script to world premiere in just five halcyon months in the spring of 1964. Made on a minimal budget of $300,000. The rush was essential. The very wise executives at United Artists (the film's distributors) were convinced that the Beatles craze wouldn't last beyond the Summer of 1964 - and they didn't want to miss out!
The reason that the film was so special was because manager Brian Epstein picked wisely in agreeing to work with Walter Shenson. Walter was an American film executive who had chosen to live in England in the late 50's. He had originally been a film publicist. Then he graduated to producing - specializing in witty comedies such as "The Mouse That Roared" (starring Peter Sellers) and its 1963 sequel "The Mouse In The Moon" (for which he hired future Beatles director Richard Lester.)
Walter COULD have gone the easy route and made a formula pop music movie. He could have hired a competent - but uninspired director. He could have hired a standard-issue TV sitcom writer to create the script. He could have pushed for the traditional storyline of rebellious kids fighting stuffy grown-ups and winning them over with winsome charm.
But Walter did none of that.
He selected fellow American-in exile Richard Lester to direct the film. As well as directing Shenson's previous film, Lester was a savvy, innovative director who had worked with two pioneers of contemporary British comedy Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan to create the landmark movie short "The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film" Lester immediately opted for a fresh neo-documentary style film. A quasi-reality look at what it what it was like to be inside the Beatles hurricane. And Lester and Shenson together selected award-winning Liverpool playwright Alun Owen to create the script - a wry, fast-paced, take on the trials of pop stardom.
They COULD have got away with anything in the film - just as long as it contained the Beatles on screen and a few new Beatles songs.
But this team toiled away to make the film unique. Of course a huge element in this was the incredible personalities and magnetic charisma of the four Beatles. They were complete naturals at being in front of the camera.
The result of this alchemy was cinematic magic. The Beatles were already incredibly famous by the time the film was premiered in July 1964. But the film instantly catapulted the Beatles into an astronomical orbit of popularity. And - in defiance of all the traditional rules of celebrity physics and gravity - the Beatles have been there ever since.
Most of all - this film defined the individual personalities of the Beatles - and their collective ethos for all time. Their self-effacing humor, their good-natured irreverence for the stuffy past, and their irrepressible exuberance. Basically - the Beatles engaged with the noblest part of the human spirit - and this film direct-injected that quality into the world's bloodstream. We've been gloriously, giddily infected ever since.
I had the good fortune to become friends with Walter over the past 14 years. He was a charming, humorous, mischievous imp. When he first expressed his desire to reissue the film in theaters in 1994 - he called me up to ask my opinion. Would the film find a new audience? I told him that his instincts were spot-on. The film he'd made 30 years earlier was as full of life-force as ever. To prove that theory I produced a special evening at the headquarters of the Motion Picture Academy in Hollywood (the organization that presents the Oscars.) We showed the film to a sell-out crowd of 1,200 fans in November 1995 - to coincide with the premiere of the "Anthology" TV series and the release of the first "Anthology" album. The film played wonderfully. And the evening was crowned by the wonderful Q & A starring Walter! For over 30 minutes he answered questions from me and the audience with his trademark wit and charm.
After that evening he asked my opinion about film distributors to reissue the film - which Walter had owned outright since 1980. In an earlier incarnation I had been a movie producer - and one of my earliest films was a movie starring Monty Python, Pete Townshend, Sting, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins etc. - called "The Secret Policeman's Other Ball." To release the film in America - I had placed the film with a tiny, brand-new film distributor called Miramax Films. Their biggest film to date incidentally had been with a live concert film called "Rockshow" - starring Paul McCartney.
"The Secret Policeman's Other Ball" was a massive success and became the first big hit for Miramax. In the following 18 years the company had become exceptionally successful. Especially because of the aggressive marketing techniques of its founders Bob & Harvey Weinstein. So I suggested that Walter call Harvey Weinstein. Harvey got the message and called Walter back immediately. Within hours a deal was struck.
The film was originally due for release in 1998. The reissue became delayed for various reasons (that don't belong in this column.) But eventually the release date was set for December of 2000.
Walter and I had had so much fun at the screening we'd done at the Motion Picture Academy in 1995 - that we decided to do another sneak preview of the reissue this summer. As a Board member of the American Cinematheque (the prestigious non-profit film organization based in Hollywood) I produce an annual film festival of 60's films called "Mods & Rockers" So I decided to arrange a screening of "A Hard Day's Night" as a highlight of this year's festival. It took place in early July - just a few days after Walter's 81st birthday. The film was magnificent as ever - and much to Walter's joy - there were hundreds of youngsters in the audience - proving again the timeless qualities of the film.
But once again - the highlight of the occasion was the presence of the film's producer - Walter Shenson. Walter was touched as the audience sang "Happy Birthday" to him. And then - impish as ever - he proceeded to entertain and enthrall the crowd with his memories of making that remarkable movie.
In the next couple of months Walter worked tirelessly to set up the reissue of the film. He called Miramax and insisted that I be engaged as marketing and publicity consultant on the film. He wanted to have someone he trusted working on the film.
I hope I have served him well. It is a profound sadness to me that the man I was proud to call my friend will not be at the two premieres we have arranged for the film - in New York and Los Angeles. In a way - that last screening in July served as the re-premiere of the film.
I shall always cherish the sight of Walter answering my questions that day - speaking to each member of the audience as though they were long-lost friends.
And in a way - that was true. Walter was a true friend to Beatles lovers everywhere. Because of his instincts, good taste, wit and a work ethic that strived to make the BEST (not the easiest) film - he set in motion the Beatles' film career and he ensured that the Beatles' first movie (and its worthy follow-up - "Help!") would be landmark movies every bit as good in the film world as the Beatles were in the music world.
A couple of weeks ago I had the solemn task of delivering a eulogy at Walter's funeral and memorial service. What I said there is what I say now. The millions of Beatles fans old and new around the world owe a huge debt to Walter Shenson. Bless you Walter. You were the Beatles knight in shining armor. Sir Walter - we'll miss you.