Forgive me if this seems as though I’m reaching a bit. But two of my favorites in cinema animation are the Popeye cartoons and the Beatles-inspired feature film, Yellow Submarine (1968). With all of the grief that King Features Syndicate — the publishing company created by William Randolph Hearst, and owner of the print rights to Popeye — has gotten over the years, we should at least be grateful for these two landmarks in which KFS had at least a small hand.
The less-than-six-degrees of separation between Popeye and The Beatles can be traced to Al Brodax, who was the head of KFS’ motion picture and TV development division in the 1960’s. Among Brodax’s first accomplishments at KFS was the production of 220 Popeye shorts for television. When Beatlemania hit America in 1964, Brodax got the rights to do a Beatles cartoon series for the ABC Television Network, which ran the show from Sept. 25, 1965 to Sept. 7, 1969.
Although the Beatles were in no way involved in the creation of the show (other than the use of their music), and though John Lennon later complained that the cartoon series made his group look like “the bloody Flintstones,” it was a huge hit in its first season and went on to capture the attention and admiration of baby-boomers who still recall it fondly. (The rights to the cartoon were quietly bought by Apple Corps, the Beatles’ company, in the 1990’s, and the cartoon has been little seen since then.)
It was Brodax who initially came up with the idea of producing an animated feature based on Beatles songs, suggesting to Beatles manager Brian Epstein that this could satisfy The Beatles’ agreement with United Artists to do a third film (after A Hard Day’s Night and Help!).
(This would not be The Beatles’ first brush with feature-film animation. Disney Studio animator Floyd Norman has written that “We’re Your Friends,” sung by a quartet of vultures in The Jungle Book , was originally styled as a Beatles-type number owing to their then-current popularity. But Disney wanted to stick with a more timeless style of music and felt that The Beatles would be “forgotten in a few years.” For their part, The Beatles weren’t thrilled about the idea, either; a different source quotes John Lennon as having said, “There is no way The Beatles are writing music for Mickey f****n’ Mouse!”)
With the rights to do the film secured, Brodax then hired TVC — London’s Television Cartoons studio, which had directed the TV series — to produce the feature itself. Indeed, TVC’s Jack Stokes and George Dunning served as, respectively, the movie’s animation director and overall director. (Stokes had also designed the titles for The Beatles’ infamous TV-movie, Magical Mystery Tour.)
Unlike on the TV series, where Brodax did not want the Beatles’ cartoon voices to resemble the real ones, on Yellow Submarine, the actors mimicked The Beatles’ voices so successfully that to this day, many viewers do not realize that The Beatles did not provide their voices for the film. In fact — other than a legendary 3 a.m. phone call to Brodax in which Lennon suggested the plot of the film — the actual Beatles’ involvement was minimal, with them providing only four new songs (regarding by many listeners as throwaways) for the film. They might not have even appeared in the short sequence at film’s end, had they not seen a rough cut of the film and were pleased that it was of far better quality than the TV series.
Ever since its initial release in 1968, Yellow Submarine has been regarded as a landmark in animation, with its bright, splashy colors, pop-art references, and visual and verbal puns. The soundtrack of some of rock music’s most famous and memorable songs – many taken from The Beatles’ equally landmark Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released just a year before the movie — didn’t hurt its appeal either.
The connection between the one-eyed sailor and The Fab Four might be a bit tenuous, but I’m willing to give King Features Syndicate at least a smidgen of credit for helping to bring both parties to wonderfully animated life.
(Sources: The Creators of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine: Where Are They Now?, by Robert R. Hieronimus, Ph.D., Animation World Magazine, July 1998; A Shroud of Thoughts (blog), Dec. 9. 2006; and Toon Tuesday, by Floyd Norman, Sept. 26, 2006.)