Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The 50th Anniversary of Yellow Submarine

On July 5 1974 CBS aired the animated feature film Yellow Submarine (1968) on The CBS Friday Night Movies. Even at eleven years old I was a huge Beatles fan, and so I was naturally looking forward to the movie. And even though it was the American version of the film (more on that later), Yellow Submarine did not disappoint me. Not only did it feature some of my favourite Beatles songs, but the animation was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was a far cry from the Warner Bros. theatrical cartoons and Disney animated features I had seen throughout my childhood. It became my favourite animated feature film of all time and it remains so to this day. It was fifty years ago today that Yellow Submarine premiered at the London Pavilion. 

As odd as it might sound, Yellow Submarine emerged from an American Saturday morning cartoon, namely The Beatles. It was in 1965 that King Features Syndicate obtained the rights to produce a cartoon based on The Beatles for American television. The Beatles proved to be a hit and aired on ABC from 1965 to 1969. Despite the cartoon's popularity with the younger set, The Beatles themselves were not initially pleased with it. John Lennon in particular complained that it made them look like "the bloody Flintstones."

It was Al Brodax, the head of King Features' motion picture and television development at the time, who proposed making an animated feature film based on The Beatles' songs. He suggested to Brian Epstein, The Beatles' manager, that such a film could satisfy The Beatles' agreement with United Artists for a third film after A Hard Days Night and Help!. Having gotten the go-ahead to make the film, Mr. Brodax turned to TVC London to produce the movie itself. TVC London was founded in 1957 as TV Cartoons by animator George Dunning. Initially TVC London produced commercials for British television, although they eventually expanded into producing such animated shorts as "The Wardroble" and "The Apple". The success of TVC London led King Features Syndicate to contract TVC London to make the Saturday morning cartoon The Beatles in 1965. George Dunning himself would direct Yellow Submarine, while Jack Stokes of TVC served as the film's animation director.

Al Broadax would have been happy with a feature film that simply expanded on The Beatles Saturday morning cartoon, but TVC London had something different in mind.  The Beatles animated TV series utilised the extremely limited animation common to Saturday morning cartoons of the time. On the other hand, Yellow Submarine utilised what can best be described as stylised full animation. Yellow Submarine even departed from earlier animated feature films, particularly those produced by Disney. It was the first animated feature to draw upon the Pop Art of the day, psychedelia, Op Art, and many other modern artistic styles. It was also the first animated film with a rock soundtrack and the first animated feature with characters based upon real people (The Beatles).

While Yellow Submarine turned out to be something very different from The Beatles TV series, it may have owed something to the Saturday morning cartoon. The episode "Strawberry Fields Forever", produced for the cartoon's third and final season, featured a plot superficially similar to Yellow Submarine. Quite simply, The Beatles used the song "Strawberry Fields Forever" to make a drab orphanage a happier and more colourful place for the children there. What is more, it included some psychedelic imagery. In the end the episode is more than a little reminiscent of the sequence in which The Beatles bring colour back to Pepperland through use of their songs.

The original story for Yellow Submarine was written by Lee Minoff. The screenplay itself would ultimately be the product of multiple writers, including Jack Mendolsohn (who had worked for King Features on their "Krazy Kat" and "Beetle Bailey" television shorts, as well as The Beatles cartoon) and Eric Segal (who later wrote the novel Love Story, upon which the 1970 movie was based).  Reportedly, the screenplay for Yellow Submarine went through 14 drafts. The plot for the movie that ultimately involved The Beatles being recruited by Old Fred (voiced by Lance Percival) to save Pepperland ("an unearthly paradise 80,000 leagues under the sea...") from the Blue Meanies, who hate anything happy and hate music more than anything else. The Blue Meanies not only rob Pepperland of any of its colour, but all of its music as well.

Given how The Beatles viewed the Saturday morning cartoon, it should come as no surprise that initially they were not enthusiastic about Yellow Submarine. Even if their busy schedules had permitted them to do so, The Beatles probably would not have provided their own voices for the film. It was actors John Clive who voiced John, Geoff Hughes who voiced Paul, Peter Batten who voiced George, and Paul Angelis who voiced Ringo. It was only after The Beatles saw the rushes for Yellow Submarine and saw that it was very different from the Saturday morning cartoon that they developed any enthusiasm for the project. Ultimately, they agreed to the live-action cameo that appears at the end of the film.

While George Dunning directed Yellow Submarine and Jack Stokes served as the film's animation director, the film's art director came from outside TVC London. For the art director on Yellow Submarine TVC London hired German illustrator Heinz Edelmann. At the time Mr. Edelmann was known for his work on theatrical posters and the youth magazine twen, using a psychedelic style similar to contemporary Milton Glaser (here it must be noted that artist Peter Max did not work on Yellow Submarine and in fact Mr. Edelmann was working in psychedelia before Mr. Max was). Originally Heinz Edelmann was only supposed to work eight weeks during which he would design the look of the movie. In the end Edelmann worked an entire year on Yellow Submarine, often sleeping only four hours a night to complete the project. He was in charge of over 200 artists. In the end, Yellow Submarine would take a toll on Edelmann's health. It took him two years to recover from working on the film.

Of course, at the core of Yellow Submarine are the songs of The Beatles. The film utilised eleven full-length Beatles songs, as well as shorter snatches of yet other songs. The vast majority of the full-length songs had been previously released, the oldest being "Nowhere Man" from the album Rubber Soul. The Beatles provided Yellow Submarine with four, never-before-released songs. "Only a Northern Song" was written by George Harrison and recorded during the sessions for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. "All Together Now" was written by Paul McCartney during the sessions for Magical Mystery Tour. "It's All Too Much" was written by George Harrison and had been considered for inclusion in the TV special Magical Mystery Tour. "Hey Bulldog" was written by John Lennon, and was the one song written specifically for the movie Yellow Submarine.

When Yellow Submarine was released in the United States on November 13 1968, it was a slightly shorter film than had been released in the UK and Europe. Al Brodax felt that the film ran too long and as a result the "Hey Bulldog" sequence was cut from the American release, as was a sequence in which The Beatles met their Pepperland doppelgängers Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Fortunately the original British release was restored for its 1999 release on DVD, so that Americans have been able to see the same movie that the British and Europeans had seen since the Sixties.

Sadly, Yellow Submarine did not initially do well at the British box office. In fact, according to an August 14 1968 article in Variety, the film had been dropped by several Rank Organisation theatres because of poor box office sales. Fortunately, it performed much better in the United States, where it became a box office hit. On both sides of the Pond Yellow Submarine received generally positive reviews, and has since come to be regarded as a classic. Time magazine included it in their list of "The 25 All-Time Best Animated Films". The film boasts an impressive a 96% percent rating on the web site Rotten Tomatoes.

Yellow Submarine would be briefly released on VHS and Laserdisc in the Eighties. As mentioned earlier, the British release would be restored and released on DVD. More recently, Yellow Submarine has been restored again and released on DVD and Blu-Ray for its fiftieth anniversary. It has also been re-released to theatres throughout the United States and Europe.

Ultimately, Yellow Submarine would prove to be a pioneering effort in animated films. It was the first animated feature film with a rock soundtrack, as well as one of the earliest animated films to break with the Disney's more naturalistic style of animation. A January 9 1974 article in Variety gave credit to Yellow Submarine for bringing about a "graphic revolution". In many respects Yellow Submarine was revolutionary. It was the first animated film to utilise a diverse array of styles, from Pop Art to psychedelia to Op Art and yet other styles. Yellow Submarine also used a number of different animation techniques, from the time honoured technique of rotoscoping to the incorporation of live action photographs. It was a far cry from the animated features of Disney or even the Fleischer Brothers.

Today, fifty years after its premiere, Yellow Submarine is considered a classic. It is often counted among the greatest animated films of all time. It revolutionised animation and paved the way for animated features that departed from the Disney model and that appealed to teens and adults as much as (if not more than) they do to children. In the end, animation would never be the same again.

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