Film history isn’t a highlight reel of universally agreed-upon classics. It’s an epic story. But some chapters of the story draw more attention than others. Secret Cinema is a column dedicated to shining a light on compelling, little-noticed, overlooked, or faded-from-memory movies from years past. Let’s talk about the films nobody’s talking about.
“I want you to be prepared for excessive screaming, hysteria, hyperventilation, fainting, fits, seizures, spasmodic convulsion, even attempted suicides. All perfectly normal. It only means that these youngsters are enjoying themselves.” —Ed Sullivan, I Wanna Hold Your Hand
It’s the curse of any generation to believe they grew up just missing the best of times. When people who write books defining demographic groups turned to defining Generation X—my g-g-g-generation—in the early ’90s, we were portrayed as being united by our resentment of baby boomers’ cultural dominance. We were, collectively, supposed to be sick of hearing about all the great music we missed and the wars we weren’t around to end and every checklist item of boomer exceptionalism (parodied brilliantly on a recent Community episode) and ready to take the stage ourselves. Like most broad generalizations made about diverse groups of people, there was some truth to that, but also a much bigger story that no generalization could capture. Quite often resentment and jealousy go hand in hand. We might have been sick of hearing stories about all the great stuff we weren’t around for—and saw those stories told and retold via everything from lists of the greatest albums ever made to nostalgic shows like The Wonder Years—but part of us believed them, too. No matter what we’d get, we’d never, to choose one example, get The Beatles.
But really, boomers were just doing what every generation does: recreating the past as a more innocent and, by extension, better time. (Even those generations characterized by contempt for rosy-eyed views of the past do it. Let me say “thank you,” on behalf of pop-culture writers everywhere, to all the younger readers who found themselves dying to know more about the importance of Nirvana before this 20th-anniversary year began.) It’s a natural tendency, but the best films about the past don’t indulge it, or at least find ways to subvert it. “Where were you in ’62?” the posters for American Graffiti asked in 1973. But for all the film’s obvious fondness for the early ’60s, American Graffiti captures the anxieties just beneath the surface of its characters’ radio- and hot-rod-fixated existences, and its written epilogue reveals how those same anxieties will come to plague their adult lives (those who would make it to adulthood, anyway).
With one eye on American Graffiti, co-writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale opted for a similarly nuanced approach for Zemeckis’ 1978 directorial debut, I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Set around the Beatles’ Feb. 9, 1964, appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the film follows four teenage girls from New Jersey as they travel to New York to try to meet, or at least be near, the Fab Four. Nancy Allen plays Pam, a girl on the verge of eloping with her boyfriend when she agrees to go along for the ride at the insistence of Grace (Theresa Saldana), a budding photographer sure that the right shot will make her career, and Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber), a true believer in the grips of Beatlemania. Also tagging along: Janis (Susan Kendall Newman, daughter of Paul Newman), a fan of protest music planning to throw a wrench into the works of the English lightweights distracting everyone from Bob Dylan, Peter Paul & Mary, and other important artists.
They’re joined, at different points, by various boys. Bobby Di Cicco plays Tony, a greaser annoyed that The Beatles have usurped the Four Seasons on the radio. Others don’t mind The Beatles, including the girls’ meek accidental chauffeur Larry (played by future Jimmie Olsen Marc McClure) and go-to late-’70s/early-’80s movie nerd Eddie Deezen, who steals scenes as a Beatles obsessive who’s renamed himself Ringo and turned a hotel room into a makeshift shrine to The Beatles and Beatles merchandise, including a supply of official Beatles talcum powder (which was, apparently, a real thing). The guys have their roles to play, but this is really the story of a moment when a bunch of screaming girls pointed the way to the future.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand’s producers include Steven Spielberg, who would soon film the Gale/Zemeckis-scripted 1941, which would feature four of Hand’s stars—Deezen, Sperber, Allen, Di Cicco—but would lose its lightness and sense of purpose. In 1941, the past is little more than a staging ground for big gags. Here, Zemeckis displays a developing talent for visual comedy and an already strong talent for anchoring even his films’ most manic moments to resonant themes. Somehow stumbling into The Beatles’ vacated suite, Pam finds herself driven mad with desire, crawling around the floor and committing an almost pornographic act on one of Paul’s basses (after taking a moment to first hide her engagement ring in her shoe). A boring life settling down with her high-school sweetheart awaits her at the end of the weekend, a life she walks away from without much thought at the film’s end. The Beatles aren’t just a bunch of cute boys with catchy songs for her; they’re the world of possibilities she’d never let herself imagine before.
In one of the film’s best scenes, Janis watches as love for The Beatles unites an unruly crowd, who turn on a bunch of billy-club-toting cops harassing a kid with long hair. The cops have their reasons, but that’s beside the point. For the first time, she sees that there are ways to change minds beyond righteous indignation, and that a chorus of “yeah yeah yeah” could send as strong a message as what one of her idols, Dylan, would come to call “finger-pointing songs.” The Beatles were the coming thing, and if you can’t fight the coming thing, you need to find a way to make it work for you.
The future, however, will always have its dissenters. Here they include a lot of marginal players either hostile to The Beatles—one snooty hotel guest from the Margaret Dumont school of easily offended upper-crust snobs can’t abide the screaming hordes—or dismissive of the group. In one scene, a prostitute asks her client if she can turn on Ed Sullivan during their “date” and he agrees, focusing on more urgent matters than the group’s first American television appearance. Throwing in characters not enamored of The Beatles is one of the film’s best and truest touches. Seventy-four million viewers saw The Beatles on Sullivan, but that doesn’t mean everyone liked what they saw. When I started to get interested in The Beatles in junior high, my mom, not really approving, told me the story of how she and my father called their friends in horror after the show, shocked that anything like that could be shown on television. (Years later, she’d admit that they probably had some pretty songs.)
Changes come in and sweep out the old. Those who wanted to treat The Beatles as a passing fad did so at their own peril. A few months after the Sullivan appearance, movie audiences would hear James Bond complain about The Beatles in Goldfinger, one of the paragon of cool’s least-cool moments. At the climax of I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Tony tries to prevent the Sullivan broadcast by taking an axe to a broadcast antenna. He’s stopped by a bolt of lightning, as if the universe itself were trying to point out its futility. The Beatles belonged to the past in 1978, when I Wanna Hold Your Hand was released (to curiously little interest for such a fun film packed with Beatles hits). Gale and Zemeckis don’t avoid nostalgia for the Beatlemania that gripped the world a mere 14 years earlier, but their film is more about how moments like Beatlemania change the world than a wish to return to that moment.
Years later, Zemeckis, working from another script he co-wrote with Gale, would end Back To The Future, another movie about the past, with a similarly well-timed bolt of lightning. Like Hand, Future captured what made the past appealing, but also what made it untouchable. The myth of the ’50s golden age loomed over ’80s America, but, as Noel Murray put in an Inventory about decade-defining films, “Back To The Future suggests that behind the white picket fences and carefully manicured lawns of Ronald Reagan’s ‘Morning In America’ lies all manner of Oedipal weirdness.” (And, you may have to squint, but one way of looking at Zemeckis’ boomer-nostalgia-rich Forrest Gump—regularly called a conservative film—is as a depiction of America as a place that rewards the dumb and compliant and punishes dissent, and of the boomers as a generation that traded the possibility of change for jogging suits and “Shit Happens” bumper stickers.) Like it or not, there’s no turning back to the clock, whether that’s to a smiling, Eisenhower America or the moment before a bunch of Brits with funny haircuts drove Frankie Valli off the airwaves. Time keeps pushing forward, our parents’ generation, our generation, and our children’s. No one can stop it. The smart and the lucky learn how to ride.
Next: The Story Of G.I. Joe (1945)