Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 20: Help! (1965)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Help! (1965) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 152 of the first-edition hardback, Ebert praises a Chicagoan revival house cinema called The Clark Theater. He wrote, “It was there one Sunday, while sitting in the balcony watching Help! with The Beatles, that I saw a fan run down the aisle, cry out ‘I’m coming, John!’ and throw himself over the rail. Strangely, there were no serious injuries.”

What Ebert had to say in his review:  Unfortunately, if he ever officially reviewed the film, it’s not currently available on his website.

Richard Lester’s first collaboration with The Beatles, the classic 1964 boyband comedy pioneer A Hard Day’s Night, has a flippantly absurdist edge to it, but mostly remains grounded in reality as the Fab Four navigate a world where fans & the press are ravenous for more, more, more. Help! trades in that absurdist tinge for all-out surreality & psychedelia, mostly to the film’s detriment. It’s as if A Hard Day’s Night captured their boozy, pill-popping rock band phase & Help! happened to catch them just a year later after they had just smoked pot for the first time. Every half-baked highdea Lester & the boys had made it to the screen without filter and the results can include some great gags & striking imagery in the film’s long string of throwaway moments. However, as a whole Help! is messy in a druggy, pot-addled way that a lot of comedies would come to be in the decade that followed. Still, you could do much worse that watching the greatest band of all time get stoned off their asses & act like goofballs in-between tour dates for two hours & Help! remains consistently entertaining, even in its blasé, ramshackle state of dazed giddiness.

For the entirety of Help!’s opening scene, I thought for sure I had popped in the wrong DVD. A Hindu-adjacent Indian cult (ostensibly modeled after the Thugee) prepare a human sacrifice to their in the flesh god-king only to discover that *gasp* she’s not wearing the sacrificial ring necessary to complete the act. Smash cut to The Beatles performing a proto music video rendition of the song “Help!” where it’s revealed that, duh, Ringo is wearing the ring. Somehow catching that detail on their era’s version of MTV (a reel-to-reel projector), a group of higher-ups in the cult go on a mission to steal the ring back from the goofball drummer. The quest to reclaim Ringo’s ring (which seems to be magically stuck to his finger) beings in London, but follows his band all over Europe (presumably between a hectic schedule of tour dates). Magic, science, and high concept hijinks all fail to remove the ring from Ringo’s finger. The espionage-themed antics that ensue recall James Bond by way of Benny Hill and the movie constantly shifts gears as it sees fit, occasionally dropping the storyline in favor of allowing The Beatles to perform music video renditions of songs like “Lose that Girl” & “Ticket to Ride”, as well as to be cute & cheeky in their downtime. It’s in some ways more of the same after A Hard Day’s Night, except with a bigger budget & a more obvious attempt to shoehorn a plot into its very loose structure.

If I had to liken Help!’s comedy style to anything more specific, I guess I could see how it would’ve had an influence on its ZAZ-style comedies like Airplane! & Naked Gun that would follow over a decade after its premiere. In true ZAZ fashion the film throws so many gags at the wall that it doesn’t at all matter that they don’t all stick. If the film’s flamethrower umbrella doesn’t elicit a chuckle then maybe you’ll laugh at its killer hand drier or its ludicrous undercover espionage costumes (of which Ringo’s gradually would become true to life over time) or whatever else flies at the screen from moment to moment. Also true to ZAZ comedies, Help! has an obvious problem with cultural . . . insensitivity when it comes to othering its neighbors from the East for their kooky religious ways. The Beatles likely included the Indian cult in their film to acknowledge their growing interest in incorporating Eastern sounds into their music, but it’s hard to watch Help! & believe this was the most ethical way of going about that. The problem is especially noticeable in a repeated gag where John Lennon chides an Indian woman for her “filthy Eastern ways,” a running joke that only gets increasingly uncomfortable with each occurrence.

According to Richard Lester, Duck Soup was a huge inspiration for the making of Help!, but I can just barely see the connection myself. I guess The Beatles have always had a Marx Brothers style of rapid-fire banter & the film does devolve into the chaos of warfare in its final act the way Duck Soup does, but Help! is done no favors by being compared to, in my opinion, one of the greatest comedies of all time. Personally, I think the film is much more reminiscent of the down-the-line ZAZ comedy Top Secret!, except that it was pulling form contemporary James Bond titles like From Russia with Love (including that film’s cultural gawking) instead of Bond films of the 80s. There are some inspired moments in the whimsical set designs, especially in The Beatles’s color-coded flat & a scene where Paul McCartney is shrunken down to thumbsize among towering, oversized props. For the most part, though, Help! is a nonstop assault of Looney Tunes goofery run amok, a dedication to irreverence that can vary from moment to moment in terms of entertainment or annoyance.

According to my extensive online research (a quick Google search), The Beatles had indeed been introduced to the dysfunctional joys of marijuana by Bob Dylan in the year prior to writing & performing Help!. If anyone can get away with dicking around while stoned on camera & still make it charming, however, it might as well be The Beatles. Help! probably could’ve used a second draft & a editor, but it’s still a joy to watch due to the inherent charm of its blitzed moptops.

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Roger’s Rating: (N/A)

Brandon’s Rating: (3/5, 60%)

three star

Next Lesson: Bonnie & Clyde (1967)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 16: From Russia with Love (1963)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where From Russia with Love (1963) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 111 of the first edition hardback, Roger recounts watching the film at a theater in Cape Town, South Africa while studying abroad as a college student. At the box office he was informed that it was “not a theater for whites,” but he was permitted to enter anyway because he was American and “didn’t know any better.” His mistake was announced to the rest of the amused/bemused theater in Afrikaans & after the screening he was escorted back to his dormitory by local police.

What Ebert had to say in his review: Roger never officially reviewed the film, but he did write a piece titled “‘From Russia with Love’ and Its Place in the Bond Canon”. It begins, “‘From Russia with Love’ (1963) is one of the best James Bond movies and one of the first sequels to surpass the success of an original entry (‘Dr. No’). Its existence represents a crucial reason for the series having lasted until today. The picture is not be quite as good as ‘Goldfinger,’ but it provided a better influence on the following films of the series, with an ambience of suspense and danger that couldn’t be fully replicated until the recent arrival of the Daniel Craig Bonds.”

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As much as I love the stray dumb action movie or hard-edged cop drama, there are a few hyper-masculine film genres that I just fail miserably to connect with as an audience: Westerns, war movies, submarine-bound thrillers, etc. Voluntarily enrolling myself in the Roger Ebert Film School was bound to push me outside of my comfort zone at some point, though, so I’ve signed up to watch the occasional macho macho movie or two dozen as they pop up on the list of films Ebert happened to mention in his autobiography. Cool Hand Luke was a nice surprise in that way, proving to be much easier to connect with than I expected, given its external bravado was a front for something much more vulnerable & existential. I wasn’t quite so lucky with this go-round, though, as I encountered yet another man’s-man film genre I tend to ignore/avoid as much as possible: the James Bond picture. I could probably count on one hand the number of Bond movies I’ve seen in my life and there’s exactly one title from the never-ending series I can claim to have legitimately enjoyed: the delightfully campy Moonraker. From Russia with Love erased some of that lunar-bound goodwill & did little to turn me around on the idea of giving all two dozen Bond films a closer look, a task that seems more daunting & pointless as each year passes and yet another entry in the franchise gets queued up. If anything, the film solidified my prejudice & confirmed that the series would likely be of use to me only if I’m ever chronically having trouble falling asleep.

The second film in the ongoing James Bond series, From Russia with Love is a linear sequel to Dr. No, a film I never plan to see unless coerced. Secret agent James Bond goes on an undercover mission in Turkey where he is unknowingly being hunted by the Russian terrorist syndicate H.Y.D.R.A., I mean S.P.E.C.T.R.E. The evil S.P.E.C.T.R.E. plans to kill Bond in order to avenge the death of Dr. No or some such. Bond plans to use cool gadgets & seduce beautiful women. I’ll let you guess on your own which side of that coin prevails. I found it incredibly difficult to focus on this film, which played in my mind as the blandest of background noise movies with only the rarest glimpse of eye-catching camp to help keep me conscious. According to Ebert, From Russia with Love was an improvement upon the series’s debut, Dr. No, and the box office numbers agreed with that sentiment, racking up $79 million internationally off a $2 million budget. All I see here is another indistinct entry in an endless franchise, made memorable only by some Cold War jingoism & vaguely imperialistic tourist-gawking at Turkish customs, most notably belly dancing eroticism. Even after I watched the film in its entirety I felt like I hadn’t seen a single frame, as if my brain had filtered it for interesting content and held onto nothing. 1963 audiences & Bond enthusiasts alike have an entirely different experience with From Russia with Love that I’ll likely never understand. It’s a dog whistle situation in its purest form & I’m deaf to most of its charms.

I don’t mean to make From Russia with Love sound like an aggressively terrible film without a single redeeming quality. I found it to be bland, but competent. In order to play fair I guess I should point to a few campy touches I found amusing: an overwrought Cold War chess metaphor, a Dr. Claw prototype stroking his requisite white cat, an absurd Russian training facility not too dissimilar from the X-Men war room, a gratuitous cat fight, a shamelessly tawdry opening credits sequence projected onto naked flesh & bejeweled tits, an egregious example of Ebert’s Fallacy of the Talking Killer trope. I also never noticed before how surf rocky the Bond theme is and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Sean Connery so young & so dashing, even if his only decent line was [watching a man climb out of a billboard advertisement’s mouth] “She should have kept her mouth shut,” a quip that’s more than a little gross if you think about it for too long. I’m also glad to now fully understand the porno-within-the-show title From Russia with the Love Bone from Trailer Park Boys, though I’m not sure the two of hours of boredom required to get there was worth it. The simple truth is that I’m not equipped to enjoy this kind of thing & From Russia with Love wasn’t especially interested in grabbing attention outside its inherent Bond-genre reach. The film made no effort to meet me halfway. Any day of the week I’d rather watch films like this spoofed in works like Spy, Top Secret!, or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. than watch the real deal. I realize there’s a large audience for these kinds of films out there, given their incredible longevity, but I can’t yet count myself among them, nor am I sure that I ever will. Oh well. At least I’ll always have Moonraker.

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Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (2.5/5, 50%)

twohalfstar

Next Lesson: Lady Jane (1986)

-Brandon Ledet