A Hard Day's Night Revisited:
The Space Between Before and After Page 2
by Candice Leonard
Age and Authority Are Meaningless
The Beatles were quite young when we met them, yet unlike previous rock and rollers, they had sufficient intelligence to take their interviews beyond "Yes, Ma'm" and "No, sir." In addition, they were writing and performing their own music, displaying genuine music talent far beyond that of other rock and roll performers. Their global fame and wealth continued to grow in an unprecedented way, making them powerful despite their youth. With the possible exception of princes and emperors, young men had never wielded such power—and that power never transcended national borders.
The Beatles "talked back" to adults, for all the world to see. Prior to this, the mass audience saw only troubled bad boys talking back to or arguing with adults, such as the Hollywoodized juvenile delinquents in Blackboard Jungle, James Dean's character in Rebel Without A Cause, and the Sharks and the Jets of West Side Story. Those boys had a menacing kind of power, and were alienated, misanthropic, and dark.
In contrast, the Beatles—the real people we knew through the media and the four young men performing in A Hard Day's Night challenged adults with the power of their intelligence, wit, and charm. Throughout the film, the Beatles behave more rationally than the adults and other authority figures with whom they come into contact. We see them settling disputes, responding rationally to the irrational, putting forth reasoned and principled arguments and reprimanding misbehaving adults. They subvert the rules and seek freedom, while displaying the wisdom and character necessary to be the rule makers. At no point do they seek legitimacy from adults, they just assume it attitudinally, and the adults fall into line. They use their unique formula of wit and charm to neutralize anyone or anything that gets in the way.
Commentary on Class
During a performance for the British royal family on November 4, 1963, John Lennon requested of the audience: "Those of you in the cheaper seats—clap your hands; and those of you in the more expensive seats—just rattle your jewelry." Lennon's comment has since become an important part of the Beatles' story. While this statement may have been more overtly political to young people in Britain than in America, it was a comment about wealth, class, and their symbols. This comment was repeated often in the early American press coverage, even though it was made
in London five months before they came to America. It was an example of the famous "cheekiness" and irreverence we were hearing so much about. That same playful attitude toward class permeates A Hard Day's Night.
The Beatles show a carefree disregard for the physical and social boundaries that class dictates, manipulating the symbols of class in a manner that reveals their arbitrariness and lack of fixed meaning. And as working class young men who
have gained entrée into the upper class, they reveal the contradictions inherent
in traditional notions of class—suggesting that perhaps the entire system is
obsolete, or at least in need of questioning. Questions about gender, authority,
and class—individually or in combination—are illustrated in several of the film's classic and much-loved scenes.
On The Train
In the opening scene, we see the Beatles settle into their train compartment
after fleeing from hordes of male and female fans at the station. To the surprise
of everyone except Paul, Paul's grandfather is part of their entourage. Everyone
asks, "Who's that little old man?" We learn that this old man, "clean" though he
may be, is nursing a broken heart and is something of a ladies" man—"a real mixer." In a generational and gender reversal, the Beatles are responsible for looking after this clean old man and keeping him out of mischief. Paul explains this to the others while primping in the small mirror above the seat in their train compartment.
Early on in the film, they are presented as responsible adults though somewhat feminized men.
In the next scene on the train, Paul's grandfather has gone down to the dining car with one of the managers, and "the boys" are sitting in their compartment. They
are joined by an older gentleman, wearing a Bowler hat and carrying The Financial Times. He is visibly uncomfortable having to be in such close proximity to four young people he clearly disdains, based on their appearance. They nod as he enters, and
say good morning. He snubs their efforts to be cordial, and pulls down the armrest
as though wishing it were a soundproof, vision-proof, and odor-proof wall. Without
a word, he gets up and closes the window. The Beatles want it open. They want the radio on, he turns it off.
The Beatles use reason and appeals to basic fairness, to no avail. After several increasingly hostile exchanges (during which John rattles him further by getting, literally, in his face and saying, "Give us a kiss."), the older gentleman says, "Don't take that tone with me young man, I fought the war for your sort." Ringo responds, "I bet you're sorry you won" —an empathic, clever response that declares a battle between old and young. As the Beatles become even more assertive and "cheeky,"
he becomes even more uncomfortable and announces that he shall "call the guard." "Ah, but what?" Paul asks, "They don't take kindly to insults." Using word play to neutralize and confound the enemy is a frequently employed strategy, and one at which they are quite skilled. It is a battle of wits between the older and younger generation, and they are arguing about much more than an open window (signifying freedom) or whether the radio will be on or off. It's about who will prevail, which generation is in charge. He's grumpy and unreasonable; they're cool and levelheaded. Although they leave and he seems to get his way, they succeed, by the power of their intelligence and their numbers, in making him look foolish and irrelevant. We see
him in the final shot, alone with his newspaper, looking extremely distressed. But they're not finished yet. They taunt him from outside the compartment, and in a surreal moment, from outside the train. They emerge victorious from a fight with
A few minutes later down at the dining car, they're called upon to mediate a dispute between managers Norm and Shake who are squabbling like children over some photographs and their respective heights. Like experienced judges or skilled mediators, the Beatles ask for and listen to the facts of the situation and offer a fair solution that ends the conflict. In this scene, as in many others throughout the film, they are the parent figures or wise adults who calmly and rationally manage the children around them.
In The Hotel
Lounging around their hotel suite, the roles are reversed again as Norm and
Shake demand that the boys answer piles of fan mail. Ringo gets an invitation to
a gambling casino, which includes "a champagne buff-it." Their ambiguous class status is expressed by Paul's inability to read the word "buffet." They are warned about such places by Paul's grandfather, and forbidden to go by their managers. Paul's grandfather surreptitiously slides the invitation into his pocket. Norm and Shake leave them to their fan mail, and tell them to stay put. In an instant, John heads for the door. "Where are you going, then?" George asks. John replies, "Well,
he told us to stay didn't he? Come on, men." John's response suggests an imperative to disobey, as though it is natural, expected—and earned.
They head to a nightclub in the hotel, where we see them having fun and freely socializing rather than sitting in their hotel room answering fan mail. But alas, their disobedience is discovered by their taskmaster managers, who corral them back to the room to attend to the mail. They were the wise adults earlier and will be called
on to play that role again, but in this scene they are disobedient children, breaking the rules and seeking freedom. In the world created by this film, authority is neither fixed nor constant and is not a function of age. The roles of the children and the adults are also ambiguous.
The symbols of class are blurred as Paul's grandfather transforms a butler's
uniform into formal evening attire appropriate for a posh casino. When he runs out
of gambling money, he easily transforms his outfit back into a service uniform simply by placing a towel over his forearm. Now a waiter, he collects money from some
rich people at a nearby table. He then discards the towel, takes his place again at
the baccarat table, and continues playing. Soon the Beatles and their entourage head down to the casino to retrieve Paul's grandfather, who has successfully presented himself as "filthy rich" Lord John McCartney, "millionaire Irish peer." The standard comedic formula of mistaken identity becomes a comment on symbols of class and takes a poke at upper class conventions—displaying an iconoclastic spirit reminiscent of--- John's famous comment at the Royal Command performance.
The Press Conference
This classic scene shows the Beatles at their "we don't suffer fools gladly" best.
Their uncooperativeness and sarcastic responses to questions they believe to be inane are not unlike responses they gave at actual press conferences. We see them refusing to allow themselves to be understood or known, answering every question but saying nothing meaningful. They playfully disregard the conventions for how celebrities deal with journalists, while seducing each and every one of them. Without missing a beat, they respond to dull, hackneyed, questions with riddles, word play and sexual innuendo:
Q: "How did you find America?"
A: "Turn left at Greenland."
Q: "Has success changed your life?"
When John is asked, "Have you any hobbies?"he responds by grabbing the pen
and pad, writing something so shocking he couldn't actually say it.
Q: "Do you think these haircuts have come to stay?"
A: "Well this one has, y'know, it's stuck on good and proper now."
Q: "What would you call that hairstyle you're wearing?"
Q: "What do you call that collar?"
A: "A collar."
Q: "How do you like your girlfriends to dress?"
A: Broad smile and suggestive giggle.
The Beatles handily throw their questioners off-balance while enhancing their own prestige and enigmatic power. Of particular note is Ringo's response to the question, "Are you a Mod or a Rocker?" The interviewer is referring to rival British youth subcultures whose fighting at seaside resorts made headlines in 1963 and 1964. Refusing to be categorized as part of either group, Ringo declares himself a "mocker" —a truthful answer that blurs categories, rejects dichotomies, and effectively ends an era. And in a comment on the ironies of fame, they repeatedly try, unsuccessfully,
to get something to eat at an event being thrown in their honor.