Richard Lester's solution is to treat them as if they were the Marx Brothers and give them silly things to say and do- But if the Beatles really are the Marx Brothers the question immediately arises, which one is Groucho?
It should have been Lennon, of course, because Lennon was Groucho in real life, but Lennon turns out to have a surprisingly weak screen presence. So does McCartney. Harrison does sardonic and silent but that's all. Lester has directed them once before and knows their limitations, so he gets them to deadpan in the hope that the lack of skill and experience will come off as dandified cool- which it mostly does.
Which leaves Ringo. Ringo actually has some natural acting talent. So Ringo is "the star". Sort of. It's an odd arrangement. A reversal of the natural pecking order.
So the film's a disaster? No, actually it's not. It's remarkably funny. It's a key work in the development of British comedy- coming midway between the Goons and Python. It's in the same vein of surreal silliness, displaying the same obsessions with race and class and uniforms and the end of Empire. Richard Lester had directed the Goons. George Harrison would go on to produce the Python movies. It's a marvel really that Spike Milligan doesn't turn up among the ageing, second division comics and thesps of the supporting cast.
It's too long of course. For all the inventiveness and brilliant one-liners, it's a half-hour TV special that's been stretched. But then there are the songs.
And they're the heart of the matter. We wouldn't tolerate the Beatles as actors and comedians if- well- if they weren't the Beatles. But here's an odd thing; the songs strain against the movie. The movie is stupid and the songs are not. The songs are about the things in a young man's life the movie refuses to countenance- like girls and relationships- and one of them is about a nervous breakdown. It's curious; as the Beatles' music becomes more serious and personal so the films become more cartoony. A Hard Day's Night is semi-documentary, this one is absurdist nonsense, the next one will be set in Pepperland. The best of the songs in the present set- the nervous breakdown song- even though it's also the title song- gets thrown away. Where all the others are treated as set pieces (the music vid is being invented before your very eyes) Help! gets to play as background music over the not very funny, climactic punch-up. You don't hear the lyrics because you're too busy watching people being biffed and bopped and falling in the water. And you don't need to hear them; they're too raw. There's real madness in the air- it's to do with wives and groupies and dealers and music industry sharks- and the merest tincture of it would muddy and destroy the fantasy madness on screen.