I got Help! for Christmas. I've seen it before. In fact, I think I saw it in the cinemas in 1965. It's an interesting one to see again. Times have changed almost unimaginably since it was made and there are ways in which a teenager in 2008 probably can't follow what's going on, like me attempting to understand Shakespeare at school. Some of it is minor, like the giant telephones and the long drawn out deadpan joke about dialing a telephone – really dialing it, with a dial; and some of it is cultural. The movie premise is that Indians are unknowably foreign, and could have Thuggees killing for the Goddess Kali's sake. (George Harrison had a shrine to Kali within fifteen years of the film; I have a picture of her on my lunchbox today.)
It isn't that bad, of course. The movie knows full well that Indians are regular people, so much so that a couple of ROTFLAPIMP jokes are based on "foreign/other" tropes and "Indian" tropes being juxtaposed – but it is still a heavy-handed cultural appropriation in today's climate. I also found that watching turbaned men in dhotis carrying Lee Enfields and swarming through the streets of London a little difficult to take for other 21st Century reasons.
To recap the famous plot: A templegoer and Beatle fan in India has mailed her ring in a fan-letter to Ringo. This is the ring that marks her as today's sacrifice to the goddess Kali. If the ring is not returned, then the wearer will himself be the next sacrifice. The chief of the temple locates Ringo and sends Eleanor Bron, his right-hand woman (an immaculately-dressed Indian Emma Peel) to get the ring back. When that fails, he sends his mujaheddin - I'm sorry – did I say mujaheddin? I must be getting it mixed up with this century again – he sends his regiment (they're called the Kukhri Brigade, so I assume they're Gurkhas) to bring Ringo in for sacrifice. On the way the Fabs meet jewelers, mad scientists, a Bengal Tiger called Roger who loves to snooze to the sound of people whistling famous Beethoven's famous Ode to Joy (from the famous 9th), and on the way they visit Salisbury Plain, European ski slopes and the Bahamas. Hilarity, of course, consistently ensues.
Interspersed with the action are heart-achingly pretty Beatles songs, some filmed in sur/realistic ways (a recording session which has to take place on a freezing Salisbury Plain, ringed by British Army tanks providing protection from the Kukhris) and some of which simply occur in the plot (the Fabs singing to each other in their house):
I can never tell if these sound great because I first heard them when I was seven, or if they actually are great. Either way, they are a joy to hear. (Although I did think the rhythm guitar was out of tune in You're Gonna Lose That Girl. I must be wrong, though, as I'm sure someone would have brought it up in the intervening forty two years if it was.)
Most of the jokes are deadpan, requiring a bit of viewer effort to stay with and appreciate, interspersed with zany Goon-influenced humor and some amazing sight gags. Wrestling my hands away from simply printing all the jokes here (or finding them for you on YouTube), I'll confine myself to the one where the movie sends up its own "Easterners are weird" premise. The Beatles, hoping to find wisdom from an Oriental, go to an Indian restaurant. The man in a turban standing outside confirms that yes, he is an Easterner – he's from Stepney (East London). Not satisfied with this, the Beatles call for a real Easterner. The turbaned man shouts, "Abdul!" and another turbaned man appears from inside. They look at each other, and then after a pause for build up of the requisite number of Comedy Ions, calibrated down to the correct picosecond, Abdul says to the first man, "Yes, darlin'?" in the broadest London accent imaginable. The first man allows that yes, they "did have 'ave one 'ere, din't they, a lad from sunnier climes. East of Suez." "Very nice 'e woz," says Abdul, "I fink 'e's still dahn ver – in ver coal 'ole." And so he proves to be, meditating in the cellar.
Oh, just one more. After the mad scientist's assistant has plugged in a spectacular array of devices designed to remove stuck rings from Ringo's hand, someone asks him what his electricity bill is like. "It's sort of a long counterfoil thingy," he replies thoughtfully.
I loved Eleanor Bron's outfits – pink leather trouser suits, white plastic maxi coat, all the gear. The constant jokes about "I can say no more!" The exciting adventure of Paul on the floor (during which I'm pretty sure the soundtrack orchestra, which is playing drastically slowed down Beatles tunes, plays most of the riff from Smoke on the Water.) Paul on the beach singing Another Girl, with another girl in his arms. The tiger. The sacrificial girl's mother scrubbing the red dye from her and saying, "Yer as bad as yer sister, comin' 'ome from that temple all hours and all colors." She's wearing a nice sari as she says it, too.
And I've wanted a sunken pit-bed like John's from the very first day I ever saw it.
I've decided Paul really was the cutest Beatle. He's maximally cute here. George is pretty fetching too (and in Hard Day's Night we see that George knows how to cut a rug, as well). Ringo is his charming self, and certainly the best actor (though none of them can hold a candle to the Monkees). John, who I always used to prefer, now seems to me to be wearing big red biohazard signs all over him saying, 'Keep away – damaged from incorrect childhood handling'. Shame, as he's definitely the brightest. And good looking with it.
Nice movie to have on the shelf.