Magical Mystery Tour: The Beatles' Biggest Flop
Did you know The Beatles made a TV movie? Magical Mystery Tour (1967) was their one and only attempt, but it holds another unique place in Beatles history—it was the first, and unequivocally the biggest, flop of their storied career.
The genesis of the disaster known as Magical Mystery Tour was a flight Paul McCartney took from America to England in April 1967. At the time, "Mystery Tours" were all the rage in England—these being low-budget weekend getaways, groups of people riding overnight on a bus to a surprise destination. While on the plane, Paul took a big piece of paper and drew a pie chart, hoping to fill in the blank sections with entertaining ideas for a mystery tour.
The idea lay dormant until late August of 1967, when The Beatles' loyal and dedicated (and irreplaceable) manager Brian Epstein died of a drug overdose. A few days after Epstein's funeral, the boys gathered together and had a meeting. According to Ringo Starr: "Paul had a great piece of paper—just a blank piece of paper with a circle on it... We filled it in as we went along." So, with no script to speak of, the Fab Four rented a coach and hand-lettered it as the "Magical Mystery Tour," and off they went, with the hope that this mysterious scenario might somehow prove interesting and entertaining.
An eclectic group of professional actors joined them for the fun, including Ring's highly overweight "Aunt Jessie" (Jessie Robbins, center in the photo above), tour director "Jolly Jimmy Johnson" (Derek Royle), tour conductor "Buster Bloodvessel" (Ivor Cutler), and sexy blonde tour hostess "Wendy Winters" (Mandy Weet). The merry group also included a rubber-legged dancer named Nate "Happy Nat the Rubber Man" Jackley, a little girl named "Nichola," a stripper named Jan Carson, Shirley Evans the accordion player, a few assorted dwarves, Beatles assistant Mal Evans, and their friend "Magic Alex" Mardas.
Paul had wanted future guitar legend Jimi Hendrix to appear in the film, but unfortunately the great Jimi was slated to appear at the upcoming Monterey Pop Festival, which would prove to be his big breakthrough performance. (Ironically, Paul was the one who suggested Jimi be invited to perform at the festival.) One can only imagine what Jimi Hendrix's presence and genius would have done to salvage, at least to a degree, the ignominious Magical Mystery Tour.
In possibly the strangest directing credit in the history of filmdom, the Magical Mystery Tour was directed by five different people: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and the immortal Bernard Knowles.
The filming for this jolly adventure began on September 11, barely two weeks after Epstein's death, and lasted two weeks, ending for all intents and purposes on September 25. In all, 10 hours of film was shot and edited to just 52 minutes for the final movie.
While on the road in their colorfully lettered bus, a huge traffic jam resulted from all the onlookers wanting to catch a glimpse of the Fab Four. Furious, John jumped out of the bus and angrily ripped the lettering off the side.
A bizarre assortment of scenes resulted from the impromptu filmed madness. These included John and George ogling and leering at the stripper in a strip club, Paul wearing a military officer's uniform and listening to a zany soldier chatter on, Ringo and "Aunt Jessie" bickering, and John chatting with little "Nichola" and giving her a balloon.
An impromptu race was filmed, with some cast members running, some driving cars, and others peddling on a long group bicycle. Ringo, driving the bus, won the race.
During filming, John told Paul about a strange dream he'd had in which he was a waiter and served spaghetti to a lady using a shovel. Paul told him they'd put the scene in their film, leading to possibly the single oddest scene in Magical Mystery Tour: John Lennon, decked out in waiter's garb (complete with a penciled-in mustache), shoveling—with a real shovel—huge portions of spaghetti onto Aunt Jessie's plate in a restaurant.
A scene with rubber-legged Nate Jackley chasing women, Benny Hill-style, around a swimming pool was edited out of the final film.
The movie wasn't all bad, though; The Beatles were too good to turn in anything without some great music. The music includes a very psychedelic version of George singing his droning song, "Blue Jay way."
The indisputable highlight of Magical Mystery Tour is the only filmed version of John singing his incredible "I Am the Walrus," complete with himself in a walrus mask, playing the piano, and the other three Beatles wearing their own animal masks. This incredibly beautiful and surreal scene alone makes Magical Mystery Tour worth seeing.
There's also a rare scene of the Fab Four dressed to the nines, in formal white tie and tails, singing "Your Mother Should Know" and doing a Fred Astaire-style ballroom dance routine.
Paul filmed a likable sequence of himself jumping around and cavorting alone in the hills of Nice, France. (This was done, in violation of union rules, after the actual shooting was over; Paul hopped a plane to France and brought a friend to operate the camera.) Paul's song "Fool on the Hill" is played over this uncharacteristically intimate scene in the otherwise diluted-with-too-many-characters Magical Mystery Tour.
The film premiered on BBC TV the day after Christmas in 1967. Reviews were scathing.
"Blatant rubbish," declared the Daily Express, "...The bigger they are, the harder they fall."
Word quickly traveled to the States where, 9,000 miles away in L.A., Daily Variety's headline declared, "BEATLES PRODUCE FIRST FLOP WITH YULE FILM." Even The Beatles' musical director and good friend George Martin recalled, "It looked awful and it was a disaster."
Ringo immediately called the BBC and complained that their "colorful film" had been shown in black and white. A few days later, BBC 2 showed the movie again, this time in color, but it made little difference.
The day after the initial broadcast, Paul, taking full responsibility, stepped up before the BBC cameras and issued an unofficial apology:
"We don't say it was a good film. It was our first attempt. If we goofed, then we goofed. It was a challenge and it didn't come off. We'll know better next time."
Despite Paul's humble apology, the die was cast: Magical Mystery Tour was indelibly marked in Beatles history as their biggest disappointment and probably the one time they let their expectant public down, at least artistically. John Lennon would come to refer to Magical Mystery Tour as "the most expensive home movie ever filmed."
In 1995's The Beatles Anthology, Paul, the eternal optimist, said of the movie: "Looking back on it, I thought it was alright. I think we were quite pleased with it." But later, he added revealingly: "I'm not sure whose idea it was. It could have been mine, but I'm not sure whether I want to take the blame for it."
Eddie Deezen has appeared in over 30 motion pictures, including Grease, WarGames, 1941, and The Polar Express. He's also been featured in several TV shows, including Magnum PI, The Facts of Life, and The Gong Show. And he's done thousands of voice-overs for radio and cartoons, such as Dexter's Laboratory and Family Guy.
Read all Eddie's mental_floss stories.