The Beatles never claimed to be great actors, but it sure looked like they were having a ball whenever they appeared on the big screen. After the success of the cinema verité-style film A Hard Day’s Night in 1964, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr decided to go bigger and brighter for their second movie, Help! (quite literally: unlike its predecessor, Help! was in color). For their second go-round, The Beatles re-teamed with A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester for a madcap, globe-trotting romp that had them fighting off a kooky, Indian-esque (or “Eastern,” as they were called) cult determined to sacrifice a hapless Ringo to their deity, Kaili.
Its weak, politically incorrect plot aside, Help! is an iconic piece of 1960s moviemaking (a gushing Martin Scorsese even penned the introduction to the film’s 2007 DVD re-release). The movie further established Lester as one of the more daring directors of the period, and he helped (no pun intended) to usher in the music video format that would become standard over the next several decades. And let’s not forget that it starred The Beatles, who were at the height of their fame at the time. These guys probably could have gotten away with just lying on a Bahamian beach for the last 20 minutes of the movie and it still would have been a hit. But, fortunately for everyone who’s ever seen Help!, they opted instead to put their talents to good use, infusing the story with their trademark wit, charm, and—most importantly—seven quintessential Beatles tunes.
Help! premiered in London on July 29, 1965, and made its way stateside the following month. In celebration of the film's 50th anniversary, here are 15 things you might not have known about The Beatles’ second brush with Hollywood stardom.
WAS ALMOST CALLED
EIGHT ARMS TO HOLD YOU.
At first listen, “Eight Arms to Hold You” sounds like a nice idea: who wouldn’t want to be held by all four Beatles, right? But when Lester reveals that the Ringo Starr-suggested title was in fact a reference to the multi-armed statue of Kaili that appears in the film, and not a teenage girl’s fantasy of being cradled by The Fab Four, much of the romantic element fades away. In the book accompanying the film’s 2007 DVD re-release, Lester claims that he had wanted to call the movie Help from the get-go, but the title had already been registered. Luckily, thanks to The Beatles’ lack of enthusiasm to write a song called “Eight Arms to Hold You” and a legal loophole involving an exclamation point, the film was able to proceed as Help!
2. GEORGE HARRISON WAS FIRST TURNED ON TO SITAR MUSIC DURING THE FILM’S PRODUCTION.
In the months following the release of Help!, the sitar—an instrument synonymous with Indian music—began to pop up on several now-classic Beatles songs such as “Love You To,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “Within You Without You.” The origins of this new direction can be traced back to a single scene in Help!, which took place at an Indian restaurant and featured several musicians playing Beatles songs (like “A Hard Day’s Night”) on the sitar. Guitarist George Harrison admitted in 2000’s The Beatles Anthology that this piqued his interest in the instrument. By the end of 1965, he was playing the sitar on the Rubber Soul tune “Norwegian Wood.”
To that end, John Lennon believed that The Beatles’ general fascination with Indian culture—studying yoga, working with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Harrison’s passion for the music, etc.—was all a result of working on the movie: “All of the Indian involvement came out of the film Help!” said Lennon in the Anthology (culled from a 1972 interview).
3. THE MOVIE’S INTERNATIONAL LOCALES WERE REALLY JUST AN EXCUSE FOR THE BEATLES TO TRAVEL.
While A Hard Day’s Night stuck to the familiarity of London, Help! was a veritable travelogue, sending The Beatles to such far-flung destinations as the Bahamas and the Austrian Alps in their attempts to evade the evil Clang (Leo McKern) and his cult of Eastern sycophants. But as Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr revealed in Anthology interviews, the film’s travel budget was increased mainly because they wanted to go to the aforementioned locales. McCartney recalled how they would say to the writers, “We’ve never been to the Bahamas—could you write that in?” and “I’ve never been skiing. I wonder if you could write in a scene with skiing?”
But The Beatles learned the consequences of their actions the hard way: the weather in the Bahamas was freezing at the time (“It was absolutely bloody cold,” said Starr), and their crash course in skiing consisted of, according to the drummer, little more than being “edged down the mountain.”
4. THE BEATLES’ CO-STAR, ELEANOR BRON, PARTIALLY INSPIRED THE SONG “ELEANOR RIGBY.”
Thirty years before she terrified millennial children as the cruel Miss Minchin in A Little Princess, English actress Eleanor Bron had the most coveted acting gig in the world—as the beautiful and exotic Ahme, the member of the Eastern cult secretly helping the lads. She obviously left a lasting impression on Paul McCartney, who confirmed in the Anthology that he did get the name for The Beatles’ 1966 tune “Eleanor Rigby” from his Help! co-star. “I liked the name Eleanor,” he said.
5. JOHN LENNON IS READING HIS OWN BOOK DURING THE “BEATLES AT HOME” SCENE.
Getting excited over a good book is one thing, but kissing it? I guess if you’re John Lennon, and the book you selected from your personal library happens to be your own 1965 collection of stories and drawings called A Spaniard in the Works, you’d be showering it with affection, too.
6. THE BEATLES’ MAIN FORM OF NOURISHMENT ON THE HELP! SET WAS MARIJUANA.
The film itself is peppered with sly drug references (“Boys, are you buzzing?” “No, thanks!”; Paul to Ahme about the injection she’s about to give Ringo: “You sure it’s not mainlining or habit-forming?”), which made a lot of sense considering the amount of pot being smoked throughout the shoot. Lester attributed the movie’s “mad quality” to the abundance of weed The Beatles were smoking, and John Lennon, in a 1980 Playboy interview (referenced in the Anthology), made no bones about it either: “By then we were smoking marijuana for breakfast … and nobody could communicate with us because it was just all glazed eyes giggling all the time, in their own world.”
The heavy marijuana presence in Help! also made for this great on-set Anthology anecdote from Ringo Starr: While shooting a scene in the Austrian Alps, The Beatles were supposed to run away after a bomb planted in a curling stone goes off. Starr, craving another toke, admitted that “Paul and I ran about seven miles ... we just ran and ran so we could stop and have a joint.”
7. THE CROSS-CHANNEL SWIMMER WHO POPS UP BENEATH THE ALPINE SNOW ISN’T REALLY A CROSS-CHANNEL SWIMMER.
After the aforementioned bomb-in-the-curling-stone goes off, a man pops up from beneath the icy water asking for the “White Cliffs of Dover.” The swimmer is played by Mal Evans, The Beatles’ road manager and confidant. Evans’ character appears one more time in the movie’s final scene, swimming up to The Beatles on the beach in the Bahamas. No dialogue is exchanged, but the four lads merely point him in the opposite direction (for the White Cliffs of Dover are nowhere near Paradise Island).
8. ELEANOR BRON REFUSED THE GIFT OF A BEATLE JOINT.
The actress committed a major faux pas during filming when she turned down John Lennon’s offer of some pot. Since Bron wasn’t a smoker, she figured that the drug would be wasted on her, so she returned the joint to her famous co-star. That and she assumed any marijuana purchased by a Beatle had to be expensive, so she didn’t feel right accepting such high-end product when she wasn’t into it. Watch Bron discuss her exchange with Lennon in the video below.
9. THE TRIPPIEST MOMENT IN HELP! WAS NOT INFLUENCED BY DRUGS.
Photographer Robert Freeman, who shot several of The Beatles’ album covers—including the one for Help!—designed the end title sequence for the movie (he also designed the end titles for A Hard Day’s Night). In his book, The Beatles: A Private View, he explained that the idea for the credits, in which The Beatles and their co-stars seem to appear in an incredibly vivid drug trip, actually came from the bright red ring Ringo Starr wears throughout the movie:
“Since Ringo’s ring was the centerpiece of the plot, I filmed The Beatles and supporting cast—Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron, Victor Spinetti—through prisms and pieces of faceted glass to create an impression of the characters being inside the ring. The sequence has been described as ‘psychedelic’ because of the kaleidoscopic coloring and imagery, but the inspiration came from a plot element and not from a drug-induced trance!”
10. THE MUSICAL NOTES IN THE “TICKET TO RIDE” SEQUENCE WERE PRODUCED OUT OF NECESSITY RATHER THAN CREATIVITY.
There’s a cute moment in the “Ticket to Ride” sequence where The Beatles are skiing in the Austrian Alps and they appear to ski right underneath part of the song’s musical score (it starts at around 1:27 in the above video). But as Lester explained in the 2007 documentary that accompanied the film’s DVD release, the decision to add musical notes came from the fact that the lads were skiing under some unsightly "telegraph wires” (Lester’s words; for all we know they could’ve been telephone wires). Since he couldn’t remove the wires digitally—this was the pre-CGI era, after all—he figured they’d make an ideal musical staff instead!
11. RICHARD LESTER’S WORK ON HELP! PIONEERED THE MUSIC VIDEO FORMAT.
It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that Lester and The Beatles were the first-ever recipients of the MTV Video Vanguard Award in 1984 (they shared the honor with David Bowie). The rompy musical numbers in both A Hard Day’s Night and Help! paved the way toward the MTV (and now, YouTube) age. The performances of all seven songs in Help!— the title track, “Another Girl,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “I Need You,” “Ticket to Ride,” “The Night Before,” and “You’re Going to Lose That Girl”—can each be considered early forms of what would eventually become the music video format. In the above clip, taken from the 2007 Help! documentary, Lester says that (in addition to the Video Vanguard Award) he was once “sent a parchment scroll declaring that I was the father of MTV.”
12. ELEANOR BRON HAS 14 COSTUME CHANGES THROUGHOUT THE FILM.
Ahme, as a member of the mysterious cult chasing Ringo, predominantly wears elaborate “Eastern” finery in all of her scenes, including a sequined cape when swimming. But there are a few instances where Ahme gets to embrace the burgeoning mod fashion movement of mid-1960s London, as in this head-to-toe pink leather ensemble, where the best part of her entire outfit has to be her matching pink gun.
13. THERE’S A GREAT HELP! INSIDE JOKE AT THE END OF A BOOK SPANNING THE BEATLES’ EARLY YEARS.
Spoiler alert! Upon reaching the end of Mark Lewisohn’s book The Beatles: All These Years, Tune in, Vol. 1, die-hard fans will get a kick out of how the author chose to close the first installment of his planned three-volume trilogy.
“End of Part One”
This is a reference to an absurd pause less than halfway through the movie, in which the “intermission” consists of The Beatles acting silly in a wooded area.
14. VICTOR SPINETTI, WHO PLAYED ONE OF THE BUMBLING SCIENTISTS, ALSO APPEARED IN TWO OTHER BEATLES FILMS.
It wasn’t just a freaky Eastern cult following Ringo around the world in Help! The Beatles’ drummer was also being pursued by the power-hungry scientist Tiberius Foot (Victor Spinetti) and his naive assistant, Algernon (Roy Kinnear, a.k.a. Veruca Salt’s dad in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). This was Welsh actor Spinetti’s second time playing opposite the Liverpudlian pop stars, having portrayed the uppity T.V. Director in A Hard Day’s Night the previous year. He was a personal favorite actor of The Beatles, who asked him to appear in A Hard Day’s Night after they saw one of his theater performances. (According to Spinetti, George Harrison told him, “You gotta be in all our films … if you’re not in them, me mum wouldn’t come and see them, because she fancies you.”) Two years after Help!, Spinetti showed up as an army sergeant in the band’s third movie, Magical Mystery Tour.
15. FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY, RICHARD LESTER GOT TO CALL HIMSELF “THE FIFTH BEATLE.”
During the Austrian Alps part of the shoot, there was a birthday party for assistant director Clive Reed held in the beer cellar of the resort where everyone was staying. Eventually The Beatles started up a jam session of all their old favorite 1950s tunes, and Lester joined in on the piano. As Lester tells it, he woke up the next morning with bleeding fingers: “My sheets were covered in blood, because I hadn’t played in so long.”
But it sounds like the pain was worth it, because the late Neil Aspinall (The Beatles’ onetime road manager), remarked to Lester around the time of the 2007 making-of documentary that he will forever be a member of a very elite club: “Do you realize that you’re probably one of the only musicians in the world that’s ever actually played a full set with The Beatles?”
2007 DVD Re-Release box set of Help! (retrospective book and documentary)
The Beatles Anthology (2000 book and 2003 DVD set)
The Beatles, by Bob Spitz
The Beatles: A Private View, by Robert Freeman