Encountering A Hard Day's Night for the first time is a little like George Martin's experience of meeting The Beatles themselves for the first time, in June of 1962: the charisma and comedy of The Beatles gets your attention just as much as (if not more than) the music.
My reaction to seeing this movie for the first time was that The Beatles were every bit as funny as Monty Python's Flying Circus, and I was already a big fan of the Circus. In later years, this comparison proved to have some historical foundation: The Beatles and Python both had the same comedic wet nurse in The Goon Show (produced on record by The Beatles' producer George Martin, and directed for television by Richard Lester, director of A Hard Day's Night).
Of course the comedy was good.
However, A Hard Day's Night was meant to capture The Beatles and their personalities "in the raw," which meant capturing their very British, very Liverpudlian style of banter and joke-cracking. Script writer Alun Owen (himself a Liverpudlian) spent some time observing and interacting with The Beatles during their stay at the George V hotel in Paris, where they were booked for some 18 days of concerts at Olympia Theatre. Owen wasn't inventing character types for the film, he was drawing from real life studies.
Which means, in the end, that a fair bit of the humor in A Hard Day's Night might go over the heads of those of us who aren't as familiar with Scouse culture, slang, and word-play. At the risk of violating the principle, "a joke isn't funny if you have to explain it," here are a few of my own "a-ha!" moments (and maybe a few misheard lines) while watching this great film over the years.
"He'll cost you a fortune ..."
In the opening train scene, as Paul introduces his grandfather to the other Beatles, he admits that he's concerned about having to keep an eye on ol' Granddad, saying, "he'll cost you a fortune in Breach of Promise cases."
Breach of Promise lawsuits mean next-to-nothing to us these days, but in Britain of the early 1960s, it was a different story. A Breach of Promise lawsuit was a means of defense for a woman who had accepted a marriage proposal, only to have her beau change his mind later and possibly leave her hung out to dry, financially speaking. The Breach of Promise lawsuit was a way for her to recover monetary damages.
Paul is telling us up-front: his grandfather is a womanizer, liable to make some nuptial promises he doesn't intend to keep. (And indeed, later in the film, he gleefully announces, "congratulate me boys, I'm engaged!")
Granddad's awful French
As the band decides leave a pile of unanswered fan mail at the hotel in favor of going to the club, Paul's grandfather steals Ringo's invitation card and sneaks out to go gambling at The Circle Club, where (as Paul read from the card earlier) the game is "Chemin de Fer Baccarat."
Without going into the nitty and gritty of the game, suffice it to say that it plays a bit like Blackjack, where players are adding up card points to get as close as possible to a total (in Blackjack, it's 21, in Baccarat, it's nine). One player in each round is designated as "Banker," or "Banco" in French, and this comes up later in the scene.
The gag all throughout The Circle Club scenes is that Paul's grandfather has zero command of the French language, and keeps embarrassing himself by trying to pretend he does. Early in the game, a fellow card player tells the dealer to "suivez" (a formal instruction in the game), and on his turn, Granddad announces "souffle!" A moment later, he shouts out "Bingo!", which is nearly -- but not quite -- the proper declaration, "Banco." (The dealer wearily explains this with the line, "Pas 'Bingo,' monsieur. 'Banco.'")
Just before The Beatles arrive to collect Paul's grandfather, a waiter approaches him with a tray of champagne and asks him, "Encore du champagne, monsieur?" (Which of course means, "more champagne, sir?") Clumsy as ever, Granddad responds, "Oh, yeah ... and I'll have some more champagne as well."
Now give me money ...
As Granddad's night of gambling and carousing ends abruptly (he is forcibly dragged off by The Beatles), their manager Norm attempts to settle the bill, and is shocked at how high it is: "A hundred-and-eighty pounds?!" He is quickly corrected by the proprietor, "I beg your pardon, guineas."
First, a bit of research: £180 in 1964 was worth about $600 USD, and adjusting for inflation, that $600 in 1964 would be worth roughly $4,700 today. Norm has good reason to be shocked at the bill Granddad has run up!
To make matters worse, it's not £180, it's 180 guineas. The guinea was an old form of British currency, and worth slightly more than the pound. One guinea is the equivalent to £1.05, and therein lies the joke: £180 is bad enough -- but wait! -- it gets worse! The bill is actually £189 after converting from guineas.
That sets us up for the next joke, where Paul's grandfather is given his winnings for the night, totaling £190 -- he's up on the night, if only by a single pound. But his winnings are quickly whisked away, and his complaint, "what about me change?!", is met with the response, "cloak-room charge."
(Am I the only one who for years heard this line as "Pilgrim charge"?)
The worst kind of demotion
At the end of the movie, as The Beatles rescue Ringo from the jail and barely make it to the television studio in time for the live show, Victor Spinetti's character as the producer says, "If you hadn't come back it would have meant ... The Epilogue ... or The News in Welsh ... for life."
For years, I thought he meant "the epilogue," as in, "the end" or "the afterword," the "last page of my career." It turns out that he's referring to two actual British television shows, The Epilogue and The News in Welsh. The first was a short program that ended the broadcast day, airing late at night. The BBC web site explains that the show "initially comprised themed Bible readings but over time hymns were added."
The second show is exactly what it sounds like: another short program where news headlines and major stories were briefly read out in the Welsh language, for the benefit of Welsh viewers.
Spinetti's line is a not-so-subtle dig at British television and its weird collection of one-off programs.
Odds, ends, and misheard lines
The train arrives at the station, and Norm comes rushing in to announce, "They've gone potty out there!" Yes, potty, not "party," as I always heard it. "Potty" is British slang for "crazy."
When Ringo fails to get any fan mail at the hotel, Paul's grandfather blames it on his big nose, saying "fans are funny that way -- they'll take a dislike to things, they'll pick on a nose." I always heard that line as "they'll take it in slighter things." Blame the accent, I guess.
While out parading, Ringo stops for a sandwich, but the bread is obviously hard and stale. The shop keeper insists, "that was fresh this morning -- two and nine." The "two and nine" is not, as I misunderstood it, a reference to a time or date. (Perhaps it was the time when the bread was baked?) She's stating the price of the sandwich in common British short-hand, "two (shillings) and nine (pence)." In other words, she's not having any of Ringo's whining, and in Americanese we might say: "that was fresh this morning -- that'll be five bucks."
As they prepare to go on-stage to rehearse "I'm Happy Just to Dance with You", John grabs one of the female dancers and says, "I say, did you go to Harrods? I was there in '58, you know." It sounds like he's referring to a university, but as any "Englander" could tell you, Harrods is a department store. Silly John.
And last, but certainly not least, throughout the film various characters blurt out an exclamation that sounds like either "Come, mad!" or "Come, lad!" At the hotel, for instance, after Norm and Shake leave the boys to answer fan mail, John gets up to leave, explaining, "Well he told us to stay, didn't he? Come, mad/lad!" This one's a Scouser-ism all the way: the phrase is "come ahead!" as in "come on!", but in Scouse shorthand it becomes "come 'ead!"
All this talk about the film ... am I the only one who needs to watch it again?