Magical Mystery Tour: The Beatles' Biggest Flop

Did you know The Beatles made a TV movie? Magical Mystery Tour (1967) was their one and only attempt, but it holds another unique place in Beatles history—it was the first, and unequivocally the biggest, flop of their storied career.

The Idea

The genesis of the disaster known as Magical Mystery Tour was a flight Paul McCartney took from America to England in April 1967. At the time, "Mystery Tours" were all the rage in England—these being low-budget weekend getaways, groups of people riding overnight on a bus to a surprise destination. While on the plane, Paul took a big piece of paper and drew a pie chart, hoping to fill in the blank sections with entertaining ideas for a mystery tour.

The idea lay dormant until late August of 1967, when The Beatles' loyal and dedicated (and irreplaceable) manager Brian Epstein died of a drug overdose. A few days after Epstein's funeral, the boys gathered together and had a meeting. According to Ringo Starr: "Paul had a great piece of paper—just a blank piece of paper with a circle on it... We filled it in as we went along." So, with no script to speak of, the Fab Four rented a coach and hand-lettered it as the "Magical Mystery Tour," and off they went, with the hope that this mysterious scenario might somehow prove interesting and entertaining.

The Cast

An eclectic group of professional actors joined them for the fun, including Ringo's highly overweight "Aunt Jessie" (Jessie Robbins, center in the photo above), tour director "Jolly Jimmy Johnson" (Derek Royle), tour conductor "Buster Bloodvessel" (Ivor Cutler), and sexy blonde tour hostess "Wendy Winters" (Mandy Weet). The merry group also included a rubber-legged dancer named Nate "Happy Nat the Rubber Man" Jackley, a little girl named "Nichola," a stripper named Jan Carson, Shirley Evans the accordion player, a few assorted dwarves, Beatles assistant Mal Evans, and their friend "Magic Alex" Mardas.

Paul had wanted future guitar legend Jimi Hendrix to appear in the film, but unfortunately the great Jimi was slated to appear at the upcoming Monterey Pop Festival, which would prove to be his big breakthrough performance. (Ironically, Paul was the one who suggested Jimi be invited to perform at the festival.) One can only imagine what Jimi Hendrix's presence and genius would have done to salvage, at least to a degree, the ignominious Magical Mystery Tour.

In possibly the strangest directing credit in the history of filmdom, the Magical Mystery Tour was directed by five different people: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and the immortal Bernard Knowles.

The Production

The filming for this jolly adventure began on September 11, barely two weeks after Epstein's death, and lasted two weeks, ending for all intents and purposes on September 25. In all, 10 hours of film was shot and edited to just 52 minutes for the final movie.

While on the road in their colorfully lettered bus, a huge traffic jam resulted from all the onlookers wanting to catch a glimpse of the Fab Four. Furious, John jumped out of the bus and angrily ripped the lettering off the side.

The Shenanigans

A bizarre assortment of scenes resulted from the impromptu filmed madness. These included John and George ogling and leering at the stripper in a strip club, Paul wearing a military officer's uniform and listening to a zany soldier chatter on, Ringo and "Aunt Jessie" bickering, and John chatting with little "Nichola" and giving her a balloon.

An impromptu race was filmed, with some cast members running, some driving cars, and others pedaling on a long group bicycle. Ringo, driving the bus, won the race.

During filming, John told Paul about a strange dream he'd had in which he was a waiter and served spaghetti to a lady using a shovel. Paul told him they'd put the scene in their film, leading to possibly the single oddest scene in Magical Mystery Tour: John Lennon, decked out in waiter's garb (complete with a penciled-in mustache), shoveling—with a real shovel—huge portions of spaghetti onto Aunt Jessie's plate in a restaurant.

A scene with rubber-legged Nate Jackley chasing women, Benny Hill-style, around a swimming pool was edited out of the final film.

The Music

The movie wasn't all bad, though; The Beatles were too good to turn in anything without some great music. The music includes a very psychedelic version of George singing his droning song, "Blue Jay Way."

The indisputable highlight of Magical Mystery Tour is the only filmed version of John singing his incredible "I Am the Walrus," complete with himself in a walrus mask, playing the piano, and the other three Beatles wearing their own animal masks. This incredibly beautiful and surreal scene alone makes Magical Mystery Tour worth seeing.

There's also a rare scene of the Fab Four dressed to the nines, in formal white tie and tails, singing "Your Mother Should Know" and doing a Fred Astaire-style ballroom dance routine.

Paul filmed a likable sequence of himself jumping around and cavorting alone in the hills of Nice, France. (This was done, in violation of union rules, after the actual shooting was over; Paul hopped a plane to France and brought a friend to operate the camera.) Paul's song "Fool on the Hill" is played over this uncharacteristically intimate scene in the otherwise diluted-with-too-many-characters Magical Mystery Tour.

The Reviews

The film premiered on BBC TV the day after Christmas in 1967. Reviews were scathing.

"Blatant rubbish," declared the Daily Express, "...The bigger they are, the harder they fall."

Word quickly traveled to the States where, 9,000 miles away in L.A., Daily Variety's headline declared, "BEATLES PRODUCE FIRST FLOP WITH YULE FILM." Even The Beatles' musical director and good friend George Martin recalled, "It looked awful and it was a disaster."

Ringo immediately called the BBC and complained that their "colorful film" had been shown in black and white. A few days later, BBC 2 showed the movie again, this time in color, but it made little difference.

The day after the initial broadcast, Paul, taking full responsibility, stepped up before the BBC cameras and issued an unofficial apology:

"We don't say it was a good film. It was our first attempt. If we goofed, then we goofed. It was a challenge and it didn't come off. We'll know better next time."

Despite Paul's humble apology, the die was cast: Magical Mystery Tour was indelibly marked in Beatles history as their biggest disappointment and probably the one time they let their expectant public down, at least artistically. John Lennon would come to refer to Magical Mystery Tour as "the most expensive home movie ever filmed."

In 1995's The Beatles Anthology, Paul, the eternal optimist, said of the movie: "Looking back on it, I thought it was alright. I think we were quite pleased with it." But later, he added revealingly: "I'm not sure whose idea it was. It could have been mine, but I'm not sure whether I want to take the blame for it."

Eddie Deezen has appeared in over 30 motion pictures, including Grease, WarGames, 1941, and The Polar Express. He's also been featured in several TV shows, including Magnum PI, The Facts of Life, and The Gong Show. And he's done thousands of voice-overs for radio and cartoons, such as Dexter's Laboratory and Family Guy.

Read all Eddie's mental_floss stories.


Shout! Factory
15 Things You Might Not Know About Mystery Science Theater 3000
Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

While the rest of America was slipping into a turkey coma on Thanksgiving Day in 1988, Minneapolis area residents lucky enough to get clear reception of local UHF channel KTMA were getting the first taste of what would soon become a Turkey Day tradition: Mystery Science Theater 3000, the classic cult television show which made a sport out of mocking schlocky movies of the past. The premise was simple: two mad scientists, Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Laurence Erhardt, launch a janitor (local comedian Joel Hodgson, as Joel Robinson) into space to study the effect bad movies have on the human mind in order to determine the single film that can help them in their efforts toward world domination.

But as it turns out, human beings can withstand a whole lot of bad acting, sloppy pacing, and ridiculous dialogue. Rather than drive them to the brink of insanity, Joel and the robot friends he built while orbiting Earth—Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, Gypsy, and Cambot—found a certain amount of pleasure in having to endure these B-movies, spending the bulk of the show offering their own bitingly funny analyses of the on-screen happenings. It didn’t take long for audiences to catch on, or for MST3K to migrate to a national stage.


After trying his luck on the grander Hollywood stage for a few years, comedian Joel Hodgson moved back to Minneapolis with the idea of launching his own television show. There was just one problem: he had no budget. “Basically, Mystery Science Theater came from me saying, ‘What’s the cheapest possible show I could create that would still be novel and bring something new, [and] kind of have a new angle of doing something funny?’” Hodgson told Flavorwire of the show’s origins. “It all just came together, basically, at that point when I realized it could be like hosting a movie show, and if I utilized the silhouette thing, the characters will kind of run not only through the host segments, but through the entire movie, and they’ll be, like, companions.” 


“The 3000 was a joke on all the people that were attaching the year 2000 to various programs,” said Hodgson in a 2011 interview with Art of the Title. “In the late ’80s it was everywhere: ‘America 2000’ was something that George Bush Sr. was talking about a lot so I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I name it 3000 just to confound people?’ But there was a lot of confusion about it. I never meant for the show to take place in the year 3000. That simply makes no sense! If it is the year 3000, then why are all the films and the references about the end of the 20th century? For the concept of the show, it’s just a series number like Galaxie 500 or HAL 9000. Fords aren’t from the year 500 and the HAL wasn’t from the year 9000. In hindsight, I think it’s likely that the Mads were trying to snazz up the name of the show by tacking on the 3000.” 


Even after its initial debut, the creators of MST3K had no idea whether the show had connected with audiences. So writer-producer Jim Mallon (who voiced Gypsy) suggested they set up a viewer hotline and run the number during the next airing. “When we checked the answering machine on Monday, it was full,” Hodgson told Flavorwire. “So people just reacted to it.” This led Hodgson and company to set up a local fan club for the show, which quickly acquired 1000 members.


As MST3K’s popularity was rising, the fortunes of its broadcaster—KTMA—were moving in the opposite direction, which led to the show’s (first) cancellation in May of 1989. As a thank you to the many local fans who had tuned in religiously, the cast put on a live version of the show at the Comedy Gallery, which attracted an audience of more than 600.

As MST3K neared the end of its run on KTMA, the producers put together a short “best of” reel in order to pitch it to other networks. The show caught the attention of executives at The Comedy Channel, a brand-new, 24-hour comedy network owned by HBO, which premiered on November 15, 1989. Three days later, Mystery Science Theater 3000 made its national debut as one of the channel’s anchor programs.


While the bulk of The Comedy Channel’s programming was produced on site in New York City, the channel agreed to let Hodgson and Mallon continue shooting in Minneapolis. They did, however, spruce up the look of the show with new sets, revamped robots, and a new opening title sequence. 


Shout! Factory

The early episodes of MST3K were ad-libbed, but in 1989, Hodgson decided that the show should take a turn for the scripted. As part of this change, Hodgson hired writer (and future host) Michael J. Nelson. “I hired Mike based on his act at an open mic and a recommendation from Josh [Weinstein],” Hodgson told Mental Floss. “Also writing the eps was my call.”


MST3K became Comedy Central’s signature series, with executives nearly doubling its run from 13 to 24 episodes per year in 1991. On Thanksgiving of the same year it launched what would become an annual event: a 30-hour MST3K marathon that came to be known as “Turkey Day,” featuring back-to-back episodes plus behind-the-scenes spots and interviews. In the four years it ran, several of the stars of the films the series mocked—including Adam West (star of Zombie Nightmare), Robert Vaughn (of Teenage Cave Man), and Mamie van Doren (of Untamed Youth and Girls Town)—hosted “Turkey Day.” In honor of the show’s 25th anniversary, Hodgson brought back “Turkey Day” in 2013. For 2017, the marathon will stream via Shout! Factory, beginning at 12 p.m. ET.


After sitting through his final test of cinematic endurance (Mitchell, starring Joe Don Baker—a skewering that led Baker to claim that if he ever met anyone from the show he would “kick their asses”), Joel managed to escape the Satellite of Love with the help of an office temp, Mike Nelson, who the Mads then captured in place of Joel. In a 1999 interview with The A.V. Club, Hodgson admitted that his decision to leave the show was because of disagreements with Jim Mallon. “You can't really be fighting with someone and doing all the stuff you have to do,” said Hodgson. “I think what made the show work for me was that I really loved it. I really liked the audience, and the whole process was ... I was really happy doing it, and I realized that I'd turn into Jerry Lewis or something if I started to kind of hate it. And that was starting to happen, just because of these conflicts I was having internally with Jim … The thing would have blown up if we both would have stayed there. I like to look at it like the story of King Solomon, when the baby was brought before him.”


Viewers put pen to paper and began a massive letter-writing campaign to save the series. The fan outburst didn’t change Comedy Central’s mind, but executives at the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy) understood their plight. And so on February 1, 1997, MST3K began its eighth season on its third network. The episode introduced audiences to Professor Bobo, an ape from the year 2525.

In 1999, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was cancelled again, and fans once again launched a campaign to see the show resurrected, with Entertainment Weekly reporting that “efforts to save the show include more than a dozen ‘Save MST3K’ websites, a letter-writing push, and a pledge drive for ‘Save MST3K’ print ads.” The campaign led to a full-page ad in Daily Variety, but Sci-Fi Channel decision-makers remained unmoved, with then-VP of programming Bonnie Hammer citing low ratings coupled with the rising costs of securing film rights (for movies to be ridiculed by the cast) as the problem. Sensing the end was truly near, Nelson admitted: “I'm hoping to find a rich guy to just keep me in his living room and heckle live.” 


In 1996, Jim Mallon and writers Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy released the ultimate fan guide, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide. In it, Murphy shares the story about meeting his literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and telling him about the show and its premise. Vonnegut was not impressed, telling Murphy that every artist deserves respect, even those who produce a bad movie. Still, Murphy couldn’t resist the opportunity to invite Vonnegut out to dinner, which the author politely declined, stating he had other plans. At dinner that night, Murphy and Vonnegut ended up dining at the same restaurant—except Vonnegut was alone, prompting Murphy to admit that he had been “faced ... but nicely faced.”


Frank Zappa was an admitted monster movie fanatic, and wasn’t shy about his love of Mystery Science Theater 3000 during its run. A 1997 article in Total TV Online noted: “MST3K … made the late Frank Zappa an instant convert when he channel surfed into ‘this guy wearing a clown nose and a beanie copter roasting a puppet over an open fire.’ The clown was now-departed (and much beloved) Founding Father Joel Hodgson; the roasted puppet was plucky Tom Servo; and Zappa was equally bemused by the cinematic turkeys being roasted for the main course. ‘He just loved crummy old science fiction movies,’ says writer and voice of Servo Kevin Murphy, who thought ‘Frank Zappa on line one’ was a joke until he picked up the phone.” The show’s producers and Zappa had even discussed plans to collaborate on a giant spider movie; episode 523 was dedicated to Zappa following his passing. 


On November 5, 2007, Mallon debuted an animated Web series, The Bots Are Back!, which followed Tom Servo, Crow and Gypsy’s adventures in space. Fan response was not positive, and only four episodes were ever released.


While not every filmmaker whose worked featured on the series was happy about the development, Hobgoblins director Rick Sloane came to see the positive side of the skewering. "I met Mary Jo Pehl a number of years later and she said I was the only director who ever liked the MST3K treatment of their own film," Sloane told Esquire. "They improved the film dramatically. It was barely watchable in its original version. While I enjoyed every joke that was at an actor's expense, I was seriously horrified when they did the fake interview with me over the end credits. It's become a fan-favorite joke and is constantly quoted on the Internet." But there was an upside to the notoriety: Hobgoblins became so widely known, that it led to the opportunity for a sequel. "I admitted from day one that Hobgoblins 2 was only possible because of the success of MST3K's revival of the original," said Sloane. "I submitted Hobgoblins 2 to both Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax, but they both thought it was too easy of a target."


MSTing” is a practice that exists in the fan fiction universe, typically written in a transcript format, in which the characters of one piece of fic (or MST3K’s own characters) commentate another piece of fic. The process is also referred to as sporking.


When new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 stopped being produced, the original cast kept riffing. In 2006, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett introduced a Web series called RiffTrax, which allows customers to download commentary tracks to sync with a movie. Throughout the year, the group also presents several RiffTrax Live performances at cinemas around the country. In 2007, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl launched Cinematic Titanic, offering a selection of riffed DVDs and a series of live events.

In 2017, a new generation of fans were introduced to Mystery Science Theater 3000 when—after a successful Kickstarter campaign to bring the series back—Netflix debuted Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, with Jonah Ray hosting.

An earlier version of this post originally appeared in 2013.

TAKWest, Youtube
Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]


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