Love for Richard Lester

The amazing director Richard Lester (Richard Lester Liebman, b. 1932) is still with us, though he hasn’t directed for 30 years, and his career hasn’t been honestly vital for 40. The reason why he stepped away is tragic and understandable, but we wish there had been many more films from him all the same.

Lester was a brilliant Jewish kid from Philly, the son of Elliott Lester (1893-1951), who worked as a teacher, but had written several plays that had been turned into films. The Mud Turtle debuted on Broadway in 1925, directed by Willard Mack, and featured David Landau and Helen McKellar. It was adapted into F.W. Murnau’s film The City Girl in 1930. Oughtn’t this be the start to EVERY biography of Richard Lester? What the hell-? Seems kind of significant but it never gets mentioned. Elliott’s other Broadway play Two Seconds (1931), became the eponymous 1932 Mervyn Leroy film starring Edward G. Robinson and Guy Kibbee. Another of Elliott’s plays that hadn’t made it to Broadway was The Medicine Man, which became a 1930 film starring Jack Benny, Betty Bronson, and George E. Stone! The elder Liebman also contributed dialogue to South Sea Rose (1929), directed by Allan Dwan, Harmony at Home (1930) with Marguerite Churchill, Rex Bell, and Charlotte Henry, and wrote the scenario to Rough Romance (1930) with George O’Brien and Helen Chandler. Another play of his Take My Advice, or a Helping Hand (1928) was published and still gets produced by amateur groups. All this seems somewhat germane to the field his son went into.

The younger Lester attended the prestigious William Penn Charter School and was only 15 when he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. He started out on the ground floor of local television when still in his teens doing entry level work, and proved himself so useful he began directing within the year. His father passed away when he was 19.

For a time, Lester bummed around Europe busking as a musician (he played both guitar and piano) and wound up in London, where he began directing television again. He first made a name for himself directing Goon Show stars Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan TV specials in the mid ’50s, leading to his starring the pair in his influential and critically acclaimed 11 minute short The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film (1959). This experimental and surreal short was nominated for an Oscar and became a landmark in Britain’s equivalent to the French New Wave. His first feature It’s Trad, Dad! a.k.a Ring-a-Ding Rhythm (1962), showcased two seemingly incompatible musical styles. On the one hand , there were American rock acts like Gene Vincent, Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Gary U.S. Bonds, and the Phil Spector girl group The Paris Sisters. On the other hand, there were acts from the traditional (or “trad”) jazz revival that briefly had a vogue in the early ’60s, which I wrote about in my book No Applause, and in this Travalanche piece. One of those acts was The Temperance Seven, who were produced by George Martin. In 1963, he directed The Mouse on the Moon (1963), the much funnier sequel to The Mouse That Roared, a political satire which had starred Sellers.

History seldom behaves as logically or…mathematically as it did for the next phase of Lester’s career. Most of you are way, way ahead of me I imagine, but younger folks perhaps are not. If you put together the ingredients of rock and roll, the whimsical trad jazz sensibilities of George Martin, Goon Show style comedy, and the cinematic techniques of The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, you get-? The Beatles is correct, especially as exemplified by their first feature film A Hard Day’s Night (1964), which Lester directed and is probably his most revered film, by all sorts of people, for all sorts of reasons. The Beatles had requested Lester specifically based on his previous work, and he proved to be the right man for the job in every conceivable way. His playful mind, and his energetic staging, shooting and cutting proved to be the perfect visual complement to the Beatles music and personalities. Andrew Sarris called it “the Citizen Kane of juke box musicals”. It was a high point for all concerned. (Digression: I’ve read that Hitchcock wanted to make a follow-up to Psycho and The Birds about a gang of murdering street toughs that was inspired by the French New Wave, the working title of which was Frenzy, though quite a different film from the later one by that name. I’ve often pictured it looking something like A Hard Day’s Night and perhaps being inspired by it. Universal forced Hitchcock to make the fairly terrible Torn Curtain and Topaz instead. What a loss!) Lester and the Beatles followed up A Hard Day’s Night with the equally fun James Bond parody Help! (1965). Another international hit and artistic triumph. And in between the two he had directed another movie very much in the same spirit, The Knack…and How to Get To It (1965), set against the backdrop of Mod, Swinging London. (It stars Michael Crawford; I’d have liked it better if it had starred George Harrison!)

What would the Beatles and Lester do together next? Well, they were indeed planning a third feature for 1966, and the world wanted one (see more on that topic in this earlier post of mine.). Sadly, the group finally opted not to do one, with the positive result of improved Beatles records like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, and the negative result of a premature end to the Beatles properly starring in movies as a group, a major loss judging by the first two films. There are consolation prizes. Michael Lindsey-Hogg (who directed Let It Be) directed them in promotional films for the songs “Rain”, “Paperback Writer”, “Penny Lane”, and “Strawberry Fields Forever” in 1966 and 1967. In 1967, Lester and the Beatles were in discussions to make a film being written specifically for them by Joe Orton called Up Against It. The existing draft is amazing, but then the writer was murdered, another lost opportunity. The group directed themselves in Magical Mystery Tour (1967) their ostensible next feature, with mixed results. And meantime, John Lennon appeared with Michael Crawford in Lester’s satirical anti-war film How I Won the War (1967), a kind of foreshadowing of Lennon’s even more overt anti-war statements of 1968-73. Paul McCartney would later work with Lester again as well, on the 1991 rockumentary Get Back, the director’s last official credit (obviously quite a different project from Peter Jackson’s recent project of the same name). How much better would have been if Lester had directed McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984), one of the most egregious vanity projects of all time! Anyway, I have long held that the magic of the Beatles was a group effort, dependent not only upon themselves, but the career guidance of Brian Epstein, the musical involvement of George Martin, and the films of Richard Lester, and as each of those contributions dropped away, so did the alchemy that made the enterprise special.

And Lester of course had his own voice, and his own thing going! In 1966 he directed the screen version of one of my favorite musicals A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, with Crawford, Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, Phil Silvers, and Buster Keaton. This musical will get its own post here someday — way overdue! But I’ve always felt that Lester’s frenetic style and that rim-shot style comedy of the musical were at cross-purposes in this adaptation. Someone should remake it!

In 1968, another tent pole (I think) of sixties film-making, and a very different kind of film for Lester, the drama Petulia, adapted from a John Haase novel. It was originally to have been directed by fellow TV directing vet Robert Altman, and has a couple of Altman actors (Roger Bowen and Rene Auberjonois) in smaller parts. The rest of the cast is pretty legendary: Julie Christie (another Altman, come to think of it!) and George C. Scott as a couple of having a doomed, somewhat depressing extra-marital affair, with Richard Chamberlain, Arthur Hill, Shirley Knight, Joseph Cotten, Richard Dysart, Ellen Geer, young Austin Pendleton, and Mel Stewart, et al. Best of all, it was shot in San Fransciso — in 1968. So it also has Janis Joplin (whose birthday is also today), the Grateful Dead, and the comedy troupes The Committee and Ace Trucking Company (whose members includes the likes of Howard Hesseman, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Bonerz, Richard Stahl, etc)

Petulia was followed by the first obscurity in the Lesterian canon, an absurdist comedy in the tradition of Samuel Beckett called The Bed Sitting Room (1969). This post-Apocalyptic, surreal curiosity, co-written by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus, has aspects in commons with Beckett’s plays, novels, and even Film, his screen collaboration with Buster Keaton, with its images of wandering around piles of rubble. Despite a cast that includes Milligan, Ralph Richardson, the team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Marty Feldman et al. There were also echoes of the nuclear themed comedies like The Mouse That Roared, and fellow American ex-pat Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (which had starred Petulia‘s George C. Scott). The original play the film was based on was written in 1963. It seems that by the end of the decade, this sort of thing, along with Lester’s patented mod style were seeming dated and behind the curve.

Lester was at sea at this point, and it took him FIVE YEARS to come back again, though when he did it was in a major way. It was with his pair of films The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), which we wrote about here, that Lester returned to the world stage with major hits, indeed with any films at all. I wrote about those movies here; at a certain point they had been discussed as a possible vehicle for the Beatles. Lester’s style is less flashy in these new pictures, but it retains the familiar theme of romping bands of buddies, cavorting, cutting up, and having a great time. The lack of any but the mildest and most general social criticism seems indicative of the direction the culture was going in. They’re not often spoken of this way, but they seem of a piece of the sensibility that soon thereafter gave us things like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, a looking backward. Seen in this light, Lester’s films seem like a kind of way station between Tony Richardson’s groundbreaking Tom Jones and the classicism of Spielberg and Lucas. During this period, Lester also directed Flash Man (1975) , another period action film based on a novel by George MacDonald Fraser (who’d written the Musketeers films), with Oliver Reed, Malcolm McDowell and Alan Bates. Though this was a minor film, it was followed up by Robin and Marian (1976), a critically acclaimed drama about the mature Robin Hood and Maid Marian, played by Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, which we wrote about here.

In between came the somewhat less personal thriller Juggernaut (1974) starring Richard Harris. Apparently this film didn’t do well at the box office, but I remember the publicity campaign, and certainly saw it on television. It was a work for hire, not a personal project of Lester’s, but it is interesting from a historical point of view. Released during the heyday of disaster movies it was sort of marketed that way, but though it is set on a ship like The Poseidon Adventure and The Last Voyage, it’s more of a terrorist bomb defusion movie, along the lines of Ten Minute Warning.

In 1976, another interesting failure: a screen adaption of Terence McNally’s Broadway play The Ritz, which we wrote a little bit about here. A campy farce about a guy hiding out from gangsters in a gay bathhouse, it is oddly stage-bound, and would have benefitted mightily from Lester’s patented sixties style of shooting and editing, but his direction of this film seems kind of lackluster and perfunctory. But the funny cast includes Jack Weston, Rita Moreno, Jerry Stiller, Kaye Ballard, Treat Williams, F. Murray Abraham, and Hollywood veteran Bessie Love. It’s dated and not progressive by today’s standards, but an excellent time capsule that ought to be better known.

Lester’s last high profile project was his involvement with the Superman reboot starring Christopher Reeve. To me this speaks again to the increasing conservatism of Hollywood, and Lester’s own apparent necessity to divest himself of the qualities that had made him interesting in order to keep working. He worked as an uncredited producer on the original 1978 film, was the credited director of Superman II (though Richard Donner had directed a portion of it), and directed all of Superman III. The latter one was a silly comedy with Richard Pryor as the villain. The first time I watched it in a cinema, I really enjoyed the elaborate set piece that opens the film which reminded me a lot of silent comedy. But this installment in the Superman saga didn’t click with audiences and it wasn’t the same kind of hit as the first two were.

Lester worked with Connery again on Cuba (1979) which proved a critical and box office disappointment. In 1984 he made the heist comedy Finders Keepers, his last attempt to recapture the zany voice of the sixties. It had a (then) fairly hip ensemble of stars: Michael O’Keefe from Caddyshack, Beverly D’Angelo from National Lampoon’s Vacation, Lou Gossett Jr from An Officer and a Gentleman, along with Pamela Stephenson, Ed Lauter, David Wayne, Brian Dennehy, Jack Riley, John Schuck, and a young Jim Carrey! And a great sound-track of top 40 songs. For whatever reason though it tanked at the box office.

To me the lowest come down is of his having to resort to flogging very old horses for some of last films. There was Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979) starring, um, Tom Berrenger and William Katt. I’ve sat through it and this film is a serious come-down. And a decade later Lester’s last narrative film, The Return of the Musketeers (1989) with most of the cast from the original movies, and additional stars as well. One of the returning cast was British character actor Roy Kinnear, father of Rory Kinnear, and a close friend of Lester’s who had appeared in nearly all of his movies. He is also memorable in such films as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, as Veruka Salt’s father. While filming The Return of the Musketeers, the 54 year old Kinnear fell off a horse and fractured his pelvis. It caused massive internal bleeding and he died of a heart attack in the hospital the next day. Lester was not responsible for Kinnear’s death but it still bothered him a great deal, and though he was only 57 himself, he quit the game. He was beginning to lose interest in the way the industry was trending anyway.

Here’s an irony though. Lester has been called “the Father of MTV”. He could have made amazing and entertaining music videos in the ’80s and beyond, and it might have been an enriching experience that could have fed into features again. But he disliked the comparisons between his own work and what younger directors were doing in the medium for whatever reason. As we said earlier — history is seldom logical.

Love show business as much as I do? You might enjoy my books No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.