SUSPENDED ANIMATION #244
Yellow Submarine was an innovative animated feature film released in 1968 that was produced by King Features Syndicate that had produced the Saturday morning ABC animated series The Beatles under the supervision of Al Brodax and United Artists who had released two previous live action films with the Fab Four.
The plot had the animated Beatles saving the residents of Pepperland from the evil Blue Meanies with the underlying message that all you needed was love for good to defeat evil.
The film captured for all time the optimistic, successful, fun-loving singing group even as in real life they battled each other, faced business problems with their Apple company and struggled with a new direction for their music, wanting to go off to India for awhile.
Even before Help! (1965) was released, it was announced that the Beatles would do a third film as part of their United Artists’ contract but they kept rejecting all the proposed scripts.
The urban myth is that UA would not accept Yellow Submarine as the third film in their contract and so The Beatles had to produce the live action Let It Be to fulfill their commitment. Documentation shows that Let It Be was under a separate and later contract.
Yellow Submarine was a huge international smash and so UA had no complaints. However, they did insist on The Beatles appearing briefly live so there was one day of shooting on January 25th, 1968 with them standing in front of a black screen (which was supposed to feature animation but time and budget had run out) at the end of the film.
In June 1967, it was announced that The Beatles’ next film would be an animated feature based on the song Yellow Submarine sung by Ringo Starr on the 1966 Revolver album.The idea for the film had come from producer Brodax who said, “Their manager, Brian Epstein who was a very difficult person had promised that if the television series was successful, I would be allowed to do a short feature.”
There would be less than eleven months to make the film on a budget of roughly one million dollars. To meet that deadline, production had to start without a final script or storyboard in place. That’s one of the reasons the narrative is actually a series of shorts with the style varying every five minutes or so.
The deadline of premiering at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus on July 17th, 1968 had been set by King Features because of the fear that The Beatles’ popularity might not last and that the group was already showing warning signs of breaking up.
While The Beatles had disliked the television series and the fact that the same people who made the television series they disliked would be involved, they reluctantly embraced the idea because it would fulfill their contractual obligation, they would not have to arrange their schedules to appear together, travel to locations or even supply their own voices. In addition, the group was planning a trip to India and was eager to leave.
They did have to supply four new songs in addition to some of their previously recorded ones and informally meet with the creative team a couple of times. When they did visit the studio, the animators remember them being stand-offish and condescending.
“The Beatles were against the idea from the beginning,” remembered music producer George Martin. “The Beatles clearly thought it was going to be yet another rip-off (like the television series) and wanted nothing to do with it. They loathed the idea of the cartoon characters because they had visions of (Brodax’s) Popeye or this kind of quite crude animation.”
“The thing I like the most about the movie was that we didn’t really have anything to do with it,” said George Harrison.
When asked about the creative team behind the film, John Lennon responded, “Gross animals, apart from the guy who drew the painting (art director Heinz Edelmann), lifting all the ideas for the movie from out of our heads and not giving us any credit”. The artists would show up at rehearsals at the Abbey Road studio to observe The Beatles which also irritated Lennon in particular.
“Nothing’s too good got the film,” Lennon supposedly said. “So that’s what we’ll give them — nothing!”
It was Lennon who insisted that any song that was considered substandard would be given to the film. Only a Northern Song had been written by George Harrison for the Sgt. Pepper album and rejected. Harrison’s It’s All Too Much had been rejected for Magical Mystery Tour. McCartney’s All Together Now was a variation on a song he had created for his young relatives called Jumping Round the Room. Lennon’s Hey Bulldog started out as a throwaway called “Hey, Bullfrog” until Lennon liked McCartney’s barking like a dog and so the song was renamed. That musical segment was deleted for the U.S. prints.
Paul McCartney worried that the film might conflict with Magical Mystery Tour or prevent it from having a sequel. He was the one Beatle who showed up the most because of his interest in animation.
When Harrison showed up, he had no opinions. Lennon was remembered as always being arrogant and also taking credit for things like the Blue Meanies created by Heinz Edelmann. Ringo’s only comment was he felt his nose wasn’t long enough.
When they actually saw the film, they all liked it. Both John and Paul belatedly expressed disappointment that they hadn’t been more actively involved. There was only one issue. They all liked the voices that were done for the other Beatles caricatures but none of them cared for the one for their own.
Thirty years later in August 1999, The Beatles remembered the film a bit differently.
Paul McCartney stated, “You have to remember it wasn’t our film anyway. I wanted Yellow Submarine to be more of a classic cartoon. I love the Disney films so I thought this could have been the greatest cartoon ever – only with our music. They didn’t want that, though, and luckily it wasn’t my decision. They felt they ought to pick up on where we had been up to, which was Sgt. Pepper but a Bambi would have been better for me at the time.
“At the start, all four of us hoped for something more classic like Pinocchio or Snow White. I felt it lacked the ingenuity and the warmth and overall magic you associate with Disney. The end result was that the Yellow Submarine just didn’t draw me into it. Basically, I thought it was a lot of very clever sequences but nothing more.”
George Harrison recalled, “I liked the film. It’s usually been a film for kids, for four or five year olds. I think each generation of kids enjoys it. For some people of my age, it may be a classic. Maybe they just enjoy hearing the music again.”
Ringo Starr said, “I loved Yellow Submarine. I thought it was very innovative. The thing with the film that still blows me away is that in the first year it was out I had all these kids coming up to me saying, ‘Why did you press the button?’ In the film, I press a button and get shot out of the submarine and kids from all over the bloody world kept shouting, ‘Why did you press the button?’ at me as if it was real. They actually thought it was me.”