The Beatles Cartoons

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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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April 1, 2012 - 8:48pm
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