The Beatles Cartoons

In September of 1965, the Beatles were the hottest act in the history of show business.

In addition to their millions of record and album sales and their sold out concerts all over the world, the Fab Four garnered record-high ratings on their TV appearances and had starred in two smash hit movies, A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Beatles T-shirts, posters, books, magazines, wigs, stockings, boots, guitars, bubble bath, trading cards, hats, and more were saturating the world market.

With all of the massive worldwide Beatles production machines churning away at full blast, what was left?

This question was answered on Saturday, September 25, 1965. On that date, at 10:30 a.m., The Beatles animated cartoon series aired on ABC.

Episode 1 of The Beatles cartoon

The Music

During season one, each show opened with a guitar riff from "A Hard Day's Night," then switched to the song "Can't Buy Me Love" as the foursome is seen being chased by a mob of crazed girl fans (a la the movie A Hard Day's Night). During season two, the theme from Help! was used. For season three, "And Your Bird Can Sing" was used over a different cartoon sequence.

Reality was often overlooked in the show, as sometimes John was shown singing lead on a Paul song, and vice versa. In one episode, during the song "I'll Be Back," left-handed drummer Ringo is seen playing a guitar right-handed.

Ringo receives a guitar in episode 9 around 1:12 and begins playing it right-handed shortly thereafter

The Episodes

Thirty-nine episodes of the series were to be aired over the next four years, each episode being divided into two separate segments (for 78 segments in all). Each segment told of the band's wacky adventures and featured a Beatles song.

To describe the segments as juvenile and puerile is possibly an understatement — in one, the boys encounter a lovesick octopus, in another they are upstaged by an intellectually gifted ape named "Mr. Marvelous," and in another they encounter a boxed-up elephant named "Beethoven" and try to get him released.

In between each set of two segments was a "sing-along" portion of the show, in which a Beatles song was played with its lyrics printed onscreen, encouraging the viewers to do just that: sing along.

In this clip from episode 22, George and Ringo introduce the sing-along to "Tell Me Why" (about 0:55 to 2:53)

The Characters

The Beatles characters on the show were based on the early "moptop" Beatles, an image that the band had already completely discarded early in the series' run. The John and Paul characters sported ties and collarless Beatles jackets, while the George and Ringo characters wore more casual turtleneck outfits.

One of the strange things about the series is the insistence on keeping the early "moptop" look for the Beatles, even though by the end of the show's run, they had all grown mustaches and beards, dropped their moptop haircuts, and dressed in psychedelic clothes. A brief nod is given in a later episode, as John is seen singing while wearing his trademark glasses, but this was the exception to the rule.

The early Beatles image and stereotypes can clearly be seen in the show, i.e. John, the brash and confident group leader; Paul, clearly second in command, the smooth and well-spoken one; George, rather less-defined than the others; and Ringo, the clown, the band's comic relief and foil.

In this episode from 1966, Ringo spills an entire vat of crushed grapes at a winery, and the boys have to refill it

The Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, is also glimpsed, albeit very briefly, in one of the series' later segments.

The Voices

John and George were both voiced by an American voice-over actor named Paul Frees, while a British voice-over actor named Lance Percival voiced Paul and Ringo. The voices of the animated band sounded not even remotely like the actual Beatles. (Paul Frees said he did John as "a Rex Harrison voice," which he thought was quite good.) Lance Percival recalled voicing Paul as "bright and cheerful" and Ringo as "the low-voiced fall guy for the humor." Jack Stokes, director for the series at TVC, says that the voices sounded nothing like the Beatles' own Liverpool accents, "just some daft idea of how we English sound to Americans."

"The Beatles hated them," he added.

The Band's Visit

A highlight of making the show for those who worked on it was the day the Beatles actually came to visit them at the show's New York studio and watch a few episodes of the series. For the visit, each of the Beatles was assigned his own personal bodyguard.

One of the members of the crew recalls the band was friendly and communicative, although George less so than the others. A strip club was located across the street from the animation studio, and another crew member recalls the strippers "hanging out the windows" trying to get a glimpse of the boys.

Ed Vane of ABC-TV remembers the reaction of the Beatles as being "very positive. They were extremely amused by it," he said, "Ringo especially. He was chuckling away and making little comments and joshing with the others."

"They liked it at first," says Lance Percival. "It was an ego thing, but then they got picky. Ringo was okay with it all, and he said to me, 'I see you made me the dumb-dumb.' I told him afterwards, 'No, that's just the way the scripts were written.'"

After the screening, there was a cocktail party and buffet. During the party, John crawled underneath the buffet table on all fours, where he asked for some wine. Interestingly, although there was a huge banquet of food at the gathering, when John looked out the window and saw a New York hot dog vendor, he immediately asked one of the Beatles aides to go down and buy him four or five hot dogs.

Reactions to the Show

The show was a smash hit in the ratings for season one, but the ratings slowly fell off in the intervening years. By the show's fourth—and final—season, it was switched from Saturday mornings to Sundays, and only reruns were shown. By September of 1969, when the show limped to a close, the episodes seemed hopelessly dated and irrelevant.

The Beatles' reported lack of initial interest in the animated film Yellow Submarine (1968) was mainly based on their less-than-positive memories of The Beatles cartoon series. (Both the film's director, George Dunning, and one of its animators, Al Brodax, worked on both projects.) After viewing Yellow Submarine, the Beatles were enthralled and agreed to film a brief 52-second cameo appearance at the film's conclusion.

Although there was definitely initial animosity toward the show, The Beatles cartoons seem to have grown on the boys as the years passed. In his later years in New York, John was to say, "You know, I still get a blast out of watching the Beatle cartoons on TV." Even George, often the surliest of the Beatles, was quoted as saying of the Beatles toons: "I always kind of liked them. They were so bad or silly they were good, if you know what I mean." Grinning, he added:

"And I think the passage of time might make them more fun now."

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.

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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