ANIMATION ANECDOTES
December 6, 2019 posted by Jim Korkis

Why the Beatles First Hated “Yellow Submarine”

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 Saturday morning BEATLES

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.”

27 Comments

  • A fab post about a one-of-a-kind landmark in animation history. I suppose one can’t blame the Beatles for being doubtful about “Yellow Submarine”; those Beatles TV cartoons were pretty terrible.

    Incidentally, is there any truth to the story that Heinz Edelmann designed the Blue Meanies’ hats after those of the Mouseketeers to express his contempt toward Walt Disney?

    • Yep, Edelmann designed the Blue Meanie hats as a jab towards the famous Disney Mouseketeer caps. I have an upcoming column just on Edlemann’s work on the film coming up in another two weeks or so and the controversy over who really created the chief Blue Meanie. And the fact that the comic book had to be drawn before the film was finished so includes things not in the film.

      Thanks for always commenting on all the columns that get posted at this site!

    • Thanks for confirming that story. So many rumours about Disney have sprung up that I imagine verifying, debunking and explaining them all must occupy a large portion of your time and energy. (Perhaps a future column on especially strange or persistent Disney myths might make for interesting reading.)

      I look forward to your upcoming post about Edelmann and his work.

  • Yellow Submarine succeeds in spite of Al Brodax. How, I don’t know. The Saturday morning Beatles were even crapper than his 60s Popeyes, which were a brutal death-blow to that classic franchise. Filler to stick in between toy-n-cereal ads.

    I shared the Beatles’ concerns, which did seem to publicly leak a little at the time, if memory serves. Or at least it was clear there was some distance between them and the film, for whatever reason.

    Imagine my surprise upon actually seeing the film. It’s a credit to the creative forces – designers, writers, stylists, voice artists – who seemingly told the suits to go cut deals or whatever, and leave the film to filmmakers. The animation, even if done to meet a budget, was very effective and served the movie well.

    Even the Beatles’ own early thoughts were off the mark. A Disney-fied Beatles movie would have been a fail. Fluid animation might have been compelling for the psychedelia (Pink Elephants, anyone?), but the warmth and sentimentality that makes a Disney classic work just doesn’t fit late-60s Beatles.

    But for all that – – – a resounding triumph!

  • Our family never saw “Yellow Submarine” in a theater when it was first released, for two reasons: (1) it was a cartoon, and my Mom was convinced that “cartoon” always equalled “For little kids only” and I was 13 at the time. (2) It was a Beatles picture with their music throughout, and my folks would have nothing to do with a film featuring “those long-haired creeps and all that dinga-dinga they call music”. I demand a theatrical re-release!

    • There was one a year or so ago. The print was hand washed and looked brand new.

  • I often worked with animator Malcolm Bourne at Playhouse Pictures. He did assistant animation on YELLOW SUBMARINE. He was in the “hot box” when John Lennon saw his first YS pencil test. Before the movieola sprung to life, John asked the director, “It isn’t gonna look like the fookin’ FLINTSTONES, is it?”

    • “Fookin’ Flinstones”? Animated porn was years away,but,once again,did the Beatles invent even that?

    • Get your mind out of the gutter there. You know what he meant.

  • My late father, Duane Crowther was a lead animator for this film and did a lot of the Blue Meanie sequences. I remember going to a special screening in Hollywood (I was 13) with the “Hey Bulldog” sequence still in the picture.

  • It’s important to consider that “The Beatles” cartoon series, though of course not defensible for being exemplary TV animation and not a show that “held up,” even when the Disney Channel revived it briefly, is far more important to the mammoth, sustained success than even The Beatles themselves would ever publicly acknowledge or perhaps truly realized.

    This article mentions that there was a concern that The Beatles might not have stayed popular and the film was hurried into theaters just in case. IN reality, there were millions of kids watching the TV cartoon, far from “art” as it was, and being groomed and encouraged as fans. Each show was establishing their characters every week in wacky adventures, in an era when movies could not do the same thing because there was no home video.

    Even more powerful was the fact that each episode contained two sing-alongs where the cartoon Beatles rather strongly requested that the kids at home sing along–to lyrics that they might not always understand but loved anyway, like Eleanor Rigby and such.

    Thus, the series, which was still doing quite well for ABC when Yellow Submarine premiered (when Michael Eisner took over ABC children’s programming he asked for a Jackson Five show because The Beatles was their biggest hit) was an ongoing booster for that new film.

    The Beatles may have disliked the cartoon, but they reaped the benefits of it and we perhaps did as well, because its success helped pave the way for their further success and our further enjoyment of their music.

    • That’s a compelling defence, Greg, and the high ratings for the cartoon series would seem to back you up; but I think you grossly exaggerate the role of those awful cartoons in the Beatles’ success. If the band’s management was worried about a possible decline in popularity, it was only because by the mid-sixties, the Beatles had nowhere to go but down. If any one of their releases had peaked at “only” #5 on the charts, this would have been seen as a sign of an inevitable downturn. But that never happened. The Beatles remained popular (and always have, and always will), and even if there wasn’t home video to bring their music into people’s homes, there was still radio. To give the cartoons credit for that requires a logical leap worthy of that celebrated acrobat Mr. Kite.

      Speaking as a former member of the targeted demographic, I became acquainted with the Beatles’ music through friends who had older brothers and sisters — and we all HATED those cartoons! (This at an age when I loved practically all cartoons.) We used to mimic Cartoon Ringo’s stupid laugh — “huh-huh, huh-huh, yeah” — whenever someone made a bad joke. I still do, sometimes.

      I asked my wife (an ardent Beatles fan) if she remembered those cartoons, and she just groaned. Then she noticed me on the computer and said: “You are NOT ordering those!”

  • Hi Mathew Crowther! I remember when your dad was working on yellow submarine! All us kids in the crippen family were excited that our dad Fred had a good friend working on that iconic film!

  • If memory serves, Robert Zemeckis was slated to do a motion-capture remake/sequel/something of “Yellow Submarine”, which was cancelled when “Mars Needs Moms” tanked.

    And somewhere in Cartoon Research’s past was a thing about a “Yellow Submarine” theme park ride; basically a flight simulator with computer-animated Pepperland in the windows.

    I’d be very surprised if nobody has attempted a stage musical version. It would likely be closer to the Disney sentimentality Paul originally wanted.

    • Actually, Al Brodax announced he was going to do an animated feature sequel entitled “Strawberry Fields Forever” that never developed any further.

      Development Hell is littered with announced but unmade Robert Zemeckis projects. The Zemeckis “Yellow Submarine” was cancelled by Disney in March 2011 for several reasons including budgets and Zemeckis missing the December deadline for a presentation to the Beatles’ estates after having it previously being pushed back several times.

      Yes, it would have used motion capture and 16 Beatle songs (supposedly Zemeckis had secured the cooperation of Apple Corps. The group would have been Peter Serafinowicz (as Paul McCartney) Dean Lennox Kelly (as John Lennon) Cary Elwes (as George Harrison) and Adam Campbell (as Ringo Starr), and the music would be performed by Beatles tribute band The Fab Four. David Tennant was in talks to play the Chief Blue Meanie.

      Zemeckis was free to take the film to another studio but gave up in December 2012 saying “That would have been a great one to bring the Beatles back to life. But it’s probably better not to be remade – you’re always behind the 8-ball when do you a remake. It gets harder and harder [to make movies]. With the current state of the industry, it’s difficult to stay passionate about it.”

      If the film had been successful, Zemeckis announced he would translate it into a Broadway musical. There are a few very, very short animation tests and proposed early models on line at a few animators’ resume sites including Elwes in a motion capture suit, Blue Meanie animation, etc.

  • I love it. I only wish the Beatles had condescended to do their own voices (and match their facial hair in the live end clip). I also feel sorry for Edelman in that it had be frustrating for his work always being assumed to be by Peter Max.

  • I’m torn, here.

    While I liked some of the stylized animation of Al Brodax (“COOL McCOOL”), I’d felt in later years that the “BEATLES” cartoon show just doesn’t hold up. Yes, I would probably have felt differently if the Fab Four had somehow taken part; I actually thought they had taken part in “YELLOW SUBMARINE” because it seemed like the film was made to honor them and their music, not to make fun of rock music which is what so many cartoon adaptations of pop and rock were out to do…and believe me, I liked the mock-ups in most cases as much as I liked the real deal, but the “BEATLES” cartoons seemed to land more among the heap of cartoons that showed rock as this invading enemy force that was out to destroy popular music altogether, and I’d certainly heard far too much grumbling about “those hippie freaks” or whatever nay-sayers were calling the Beatles.

    Oddly, for a kids’ cartoon, “COOL McCOOL” would slip a little of the 1960’s in there with its bright color designs and nods to all the secret agent TV and movie versions, and I liked it more…and then “YELLOW SUBMARINE” came out. To me and many others, it seemed more like a film that embraced the music and the period instead of merely snubbing its nose at what was going on in music at that time. I unfortunately did not get the chance to see it in theaters, but I did catch it on TV and I enjoy running the DVD release of the film.

    As for Paul McCartney wanting the film to have been lavish, like a major Disney feature such as “FANTASIA” (which might be more like what he was referring to), well, hey, that would have been interesting, especially since the guys are pictured on the MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR album cover in animal disguise (“the walrus was Paul”?), and perhaps that is where the Monty Python type lunacy would have found a home, too, even though Graham Chapman also is said to have shown his disdain for the classic animated cartoon.

    After finding out about “NORMAN NORMAL”, a satirical cartoon short created for Warner Brothers, I again wondered why a new crop of younger animators never came forward to create some interesting cartoons that more accurately represent social and political satire of the day, sometimes embracing pop and rock music, not as destructive force but as fun and as diverse as we then young folks saw it. Thanks for this post and details of its creation. I still like the film despite the Beatles’ own dislike of it, and I still remain an admirer of all things classic animation. Hey, jazz found its way into the world of animation, despite the animation misrepresenting the music so many times. “YELLOW SUBMARINE” proved that there was indeed a way to play with the genre without insulting its audience.

  • Really interesting article! This film HAS to be seen in a theater with loud sound. I was 12 and I think I first saw it when it came out, my older sis took me to see all The Beatles films. “Let it Be” really made me fidgit – “Shhh! It’s like being at a recording session”, she whispered to me-which helped. Of course most people then & now still think it’s a “Peter Max” film. The “Blue to raise hell!” close up line really scared me as a kid! Of course George Martin composed some wonderful instrumental music for the film that was on side 2 of the soundtrack LP. It sure is a sign of the times – the film. Thank god that was it for animated Beatles. The earlier “cartoony” cartoon does have great caricatures of them. Yes Al Brodax “Popeye”‘s were atrocious! You really have to be in the mood for this film.

  • I saw The Yellow Submarine when I was starting art school. It was hugely influential. Heinz Edelmann get his deserved credit, but nowhere in the article is a mention of director George Dunning. He had a legacy of innovative films at The National Film Board of Canada and the UK, before working on the feature (even working with Richard Williams). He also was considered a reliable director for the TV series, which was extremely low budget because the Beatles music consumed much of the budget. Since there was no script for the feature and a tight deadline Dunning hand drew the striking Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds himself while waiting for an approved script.

    • Well, it appears that Jim Korkis will have more to say about Yellow Submarine in the near future; this first article was mainly about the Beatles’ reaction to the film. But you’re absolutely right that George Dunning deserves more recognition. The poor guy lost money on Yellow Submarine, because he worked at a flat rate which he put right back into the production; and despite the film’s success, he never got to direct another feature.

  • Not particularly enthusiastic about the first two seasons of Brodax’s Beatles cartoons, but the third and final season from 1967 contains some very striking design work and animation, undoubtedly preliminary exercises for Yellow Submarine. For years, I’d believed that the cartoons never dipped into the Beatles’ post-mop top material, but the last six episodes all feature songs from Revolver, including, incredibly, Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows”.

  • The Beatles were also disappointed in “Help” as they thought it wasn’t really a Beatles film. As a kid, I enjoyed it and even seeing it years later, it isn’t a bad film for the group. After the unrepeatable sort of perfection of “A Hard Day’s Night”, it would have probably been hard to make a film the Beatles would have been happy to get involved with from the start. It was probably a good thing that they weren’t involved with the “Yellow Submarine” as that left a very capable collection of talented people to make a better film. The “Yellow Submarine” is truly unique from it’s graphic design to the odd ball story to the quirky dialog.

    How the production was finally set-up is something I don’t have any knowledge of but I do know that Al Brodax was circumvented by Dunning overall. The one bone to Brodax and his animation company was the Hey Bulldog sequence which was clearly done in Brodax’s studio in the USA. It is the weakest part of the entire film, both in conception and in quality. You see the TV animation style coming thru unlike the rest of the film which inhabits it’s own world of style. It was removed after the London premier and the film is better without it.

    • I agree – the “Hey Bulldog” sequence is weak and am glad it was originally removed. That said, I’m strangely happy its been restored. The song has subsequently, over the years, become a Beatles classic. I don’t think ANY of the new “original” songs in the film were substandard by any stretch of the imagination.

      I also agree that it was a blessing the Beatles were not involved in making the film – if MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR is any indication of what they would have done with creative control! That said, I delighted that they themselves recognized that the film had some merit and agreed to do that end tag.

      I saw the film opening day in Times Square – at the now long-gone New Forum theatre (at Broadway and 47th Street) – where they gave the first 100 attendees a free “Blimpie” subway sandwich. I have such memories of seeing the film that day with a packed house of Beatle fans.

  • I read somewhere that Mark Kausler worked on Yellow Submarine. Is that true?

    I can confirm that the movie was a huge hit with kids in the USA. Everyone at my school was doodling drawings of Blue Meanies and submarines on their notebooks.

  • The only time I have seen the entire film (maybe) was sometime in the early 1970’s. I say “maybe” because I don’t know if anything was edited out, and it was a long time ago. I was a pre-teen, the age when a lot of kids-especially boys- start to avoid watching (or at least admitting to watching) cartoons, but I still did although I preferred early cartoons, 1930’s-50’s to what was being released then. I recall not being very impressed with the movie at the time and haven’t seen it other than snippets since. I didn’t know that it was available on LaserDisc in the 80’s because I probably would have bought it if only because there were so few titles on that format. I may have to give it another viewing.

  • I would have first saw Yellow Submarine on Tv, perhaps a Saturday network movie of the week in the early 70s. Today, as a young old man, I would say the overall visual design appeals to me over the animation and story. The ultimate reason I like YS is the visual interpretation of their music and The Beatles themselves, even though they’re cartoon characters interpreted by others. Superficially, the personalities are quite convincing, unlike the Saturday AM
    cartoon.

  • Any chance someone will get the idea to make a Rutles “Yellow Submarine Sandwich” movie?

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