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A Hard Day's Night: "Aliens from another planet"
Turner Classic Movies recently aired the Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night. It got me thinking about the incalculable importance of that movie in cementing the Beatles’ hold over popular culture, particularly in the United States.
Let’s let Alice Cooper kick this one off:
A Hard Day’s Night was released in the U.S. during the summer of 1964, just six months after the Beatles performed in front of 220 million people over three consecutive Ed Sullivan Shows. Beatlemania was at its height. In some ways the movie was simply an extension of the Sullivan appearances: black and white scenes of a young and exciting new rock and roll group, speaking with English accents, wearing suits and long hair, exuding good humor, and making everyone around them look old and square. Kind of a big-screen, long-form version of what had been a tantalizing few minutes on the nation’s TV sets. In that sense, A Hard Day’s Night seemed to embody everything about the Beatles that fans had already fallen in love with (only with more dialogue and slapstick).
But a close look at the public and critical response to A Hard Day’s Night reveals that the movie achieved something else: while thrilling its intended audience of those who were already fans, it also made new fans, including adults — especially film critics and young professional musicians. This was almost unheard of for anything connected to rock and roll and went a long way in assuring the permanence of the Beatles phenomenon — even if that permanence was still largely unrecognized at the time.
In the last post we examined (with utter incredulity) the revelatory reactions many future musicians had to a record as seemingly banal as Love Me Do. This should have provided a clue that the Beatles had qualities, musical and otherwise, that for whatever reasons (and it turns out there were many) reached people. It also spoke volumes about the pre-Beatles cultural landscape. Just knowing, for example, that Love Me Do was capable of stopping young listeners in their tracks should make us cringe at what must have passed for pop music in 1962 England — and, even more profoundly, help us appreciate the impact of the Beatles’ next releases, each of which made Love Me Do sound tamer and tamer, catapulting the Fab Four into a national obsession.
Cut to America in summer 1964. What had developed in Britain over a period of nearly two years had consumed the United States in barely six months. Like an avalanche, Beatlemania spread across the country almost overnight: in just a fourteen week period, starting with the day in late December of 1963 when “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was first played on American radio, the momentum of the group’s popularity — assisted by an aggressive PR campaign launched in January — led to virtually every song the Beatles had ever recorded being released on a variety of competing record labels. (The Ed Sullivan shows straddled the exact mid-point of this stretch.) And virtually everything sold: by April, one out of every 7 songs in the Top 100 was by the Beatles.
As summer progressed, there was no indication that what most assumed to be a fad was losing steam.* The British Invasion was in full swing and the Beatles remained inescapable. Teen magazines, a tsunami of Beatles merchandise, and the band’s omnipresent records and radio play dominated youth culture.
*Richard Lester, the director of A Hard Day’s Night, recalled decades later that his marching orders from the film’s producers were based on those assumptions: “United Artists wanted to make a very low budget black and white film, to start shooting in March [of 1964], but it would have to be in cinemas in July because they felt that by the end of the summer The Beatles would be a spent force.”
Beatlemania in Great Britain and America were mirror images of each other in many ways, but not all. One crucial difference had to do with personal appearances. In the U.K., the Beatles appeared live constantly — on television, on radio and in concerts throughout the country. America, by contrast, had seen hardly anything of the Beatles since the group’s three February appearances on Ed Sullivan.
Another difference was the generation gap. In England, for a variety of reasons including national pride and the apparent seal of approval from the Royal Family, the Beatles enjoyed near-fawning press coverage and a surprisingly tolerant (if largely bemused) attitude on the part of older Brits. In the States however, while The Ed Sullivan Show had made instant Beatlemaniacs of seemingly every young person in the country, there remained a gigantic divide — a chasm — between generations.*
*There were exceptions on both sides — holdouts among kids who preferred other music, and no small number of grown-ups who enjoyed the Fab Four — but these only proved the rule. The Beatles’ conquest over America’s youth was effectively universal, and most adults reacted with mockery if not contempt. In fact, a review of the comments by newspaper columnists, television hosts, socio-political commentators, and other old guardians circa 1964 makes for fabulous entertainment. It will have to be the subject of a future “Let Us Now (Not) Praise The Beatles” post.
This was the environment into which A Hard Day’s Night — intended by United Artists (and assumed by every reviewer) to be a cheap, quick cash-in on a silly teenage distraction — was released.
The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, one of the deans of American film critics (and also one of the harshest), typified the adult attitude going into the movie, and the metamorphosis many underwent watching it. He went in expecting trash and he came out bowled over. Crowther’s review of A Hard Day’s Night was a rave — itself almost unthinkable — and reading the review it’s interesting that right away he reveals the condescension he obviously assumes will be shared by his reading audience. First, in his opening line. . .
“THIS is going to surprise you—it may knock you right out of your chair…”
…and then in his conspiratorial assurance:
“I wouldn't believe it either, if I hadn't seen it with my own astonished eyes…”
A Hard Day’s Night won over most of the nation’s critics just as thoroughly as it did Crowther. And the film’s reputation has only grown since: today it holds a 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie review website which aggregates contemporary and historical film reviews to reach an algorithmic consensus. (Until very recently, A Hard Day’s Night’s approval rating was actually a rare 100%.)
We’ll get back to the question of A Hard Day’s Nights merits as a movie, but first let’s make a lateral move to a theme touched on in the previous two posts: that absurd but persistent idea that the early Beatles was a phenomenon that catered mostly to young girls and served as a prototype for modern “boy bands.”
As in all caricatures, there is some truth in this. The scenes at theaters showing A Hard Day’s Night were preposterous, and it was mostly teenage girls making them:
Nancy Wilson: When we went to see A Hard Day’s Night in our local town, there was a line around the theater twice. It was really a happening. People — mostly girls, but guys, too — were already screaming before they even opened the doors. We got in just under the wire for the first showing, and we had to sit up in the back in “the cry room,” behind the glass partition, where people take their young babies. Even in the cry room, people were screaming and crying [laughs]. But teenagers were really screaming and crying. And then of course we just stayed there for the second showing, ‘cause we had to see it all over again. Every teenager in the vicinity was there somehow. It was something in the culture that was just immediately new.
Tom Petty: They sold advance tickets, which was the only time I’d ever seen a movie with advance tickets, and they sold you a big souvenir ticket with a picture of the Beatles on it. We went, really excited, and then they came on the screen, and the girls screamed the entire movie — so loud that I couldn’t hear the dialogue of the film. So I went back later that night to a late-night show to see it without the screamers . . . but it was that exciting. People couldn’t contain themselves.
Carol Miller, legendary New York DJ: I saw A Hard Day’s Night at least 30 times in the movie theater. Sometimes it was playing with an Elvis Presley movie first, a double feature, and you’d have to sit through this Elvis Presley movie – Blue Hawaii or something like that. And then you’d kind of hide, and A Hard Day’s Night would come on. The first time I saw it there was a girl sitting in back of me pounding my shoulder, screaming “Paul!” At the movie theater! And then the girls rushed up and kissed the screen. And after that, as I said, I saw it at least 30 times.
Kevin Cronin: That movie was just amazing. I went to see it at The Woods theater in Chicago. The entire theater was full. It was a rock show in a movie theater; there were girls screaming, there were people absolutely losing their minds. . . basically every time Paul’s face came on the screen, all you could hear was girls screaming.
Bob Ley, longtime ESPN anchor: I could watch that movie once a week. I mean, what it brought to the culture; you never noticed it was black and white. First time I saw it, you couldn’t hear it, girls were screaming in the movies.
Richard Lester himself recalled that when he attended the premier at the London Pavilion, “We heard nothing during the film. There was wall to wall screaming for 90 minutes.”
Hearing all this, if one didn’t know any better, it might be excusable to think that maybe A Hard Day’s Night was the movie equivalent of bubblegum music. Maybe it would be torture to suffer through the entire thing, surrounded by squealing 13 year old girls.
Alright then. Time for a little exercise: Imagine a demographic of male musicians in their late teens and 20s who consider themselves on the cutting edge. Now imagine them voluntarily going to see a movie built around, say, Justin Bieber, or the Korean pop sensation BTS (or, some years ago, Backstreet Boys or One Direction, or ‘N Sync). Since this is about as likely as Democrats and Republicans voting for each other, it should already be the end of the exercise. But now imagine the same guys seeing Justin Bieber or BTS or Backstreet Boys and having their life changed. Imagine today’s twentysomething professional musicians beside themselves with excitement over the latest boy band, changing their entire style because of them, idolizing them.
Below is just such a cross-section of musicians and artists testifying to what happened to them when they saw the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. If you ever need to set someone straight about the early Beatles being a bubblegum pop group strictly for young girls, this might be a helpful arrow in your quiver (ages as of summer 1964).
Roger McGuinn (age 22): When we went to see the Hard Day’s Night movie, it was a life-changing event. We took notes on what instruments they were playing and what they were wearing and tried to emulate them as closely as we could.
Jerry Garcia (age 22): I’m a cinephile, and I remember going to see a Richard Lester film one night—A Hard Day’s Night—and being blown away by the Beatles. They took rock music into a new realm and raised it to an art form.
David Crosby (age 23): A Hard Day’s Night was a turning point in my life. I wanted to have that much fun; we all did. We all went to see it together — Roger and I, and Gene (Clark), and I think by that time Chris Hillman was with us, and maybe Michael Clarke too — but I know that I came out of there and swung around a post at arm’s length, going “YES!” We all knew one thing: that we wanted to be them. They changed everything. I went into that movie and came out knowing what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Stephen Stills (age 19): I wanted to be the Beatles. When I saw A Hard Day's Night at the Waverly Theater in 1965, I immediately thought, "Yeah!"
Cheech Marin (age 18): I have to tell you, A Hard Day’s Night is still my favorite movie of all time. I’ve seen it 50, 60 times, something like that, I watch it all the time. They were the best comic actors. I mean, they had musicians’ timing, they knew when to come in. . . they were teamed with a very good director, Richard Lester, and he picked up on the rhythm of what they were doing and designed shots to highlight that.
Randy Bachman (age 20): When A Hard Day’s Night opened in Winnipeg at the Garrick Theatre in the summer of 1964, I was right there on opening day. I went with a few friends for the matinee, and in those days you didn't have to leave the theatre between shows. My friends went home but I stayed, mesmerized, memorizing everything. I completely lost track of time. Sitting in that darkened theatre, I decided that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I must have seen the movie five or six times when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Phil Brown, the chief of police in West Kildonan, and my dad, who was an alderman in West Kildonan. They'd been out looking for me after the other boys had returned home and I hadn't. My dad had phoned the hospitals and the police were looking for me. They decided to go check the theatre, and there I was, immersed in Beatlemania.
Bob Weir (age 16): The Beatles were why we [the Grateful Dead] turned from a jug band into a rock ‘n’ roll band. What we saw them doing [in A Hard Day’s Night] was impossibly attractive. I couldn’t think of anything else more worth doing.
And this is only a sampling. Denny Doherty of The Mamas and The Papas, for example, has said that he and Cass Elliott saw A Hard Day’s Night at a time when both were folk singers in Greenwich Village (Doherty was 23 and Elliot 22). According to Doherty, when they came out of the movie Cass decided it was time for a change. “She said, ‘That's what we have to do!' ” Doherty recalled. “We bought electric instruments and dressed up in suits with no lapels.” Al Kooper, age 20, thought the movie was “amazing.” Chris Hillman, mentioned above by David Crosby, says he owes “a tremendous debt” to the Beatles because it was seeing A Hard Day’s Night at age 19 “that took me from bluegrass and mandolin playing” to rock music. And on and on.
The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night was a cultural phenomenon which reached into multiple strata of society. In an extremely rare trifecta, we have not only the expected young fans of the latest pop craze, but hipsters and professionals normally contemptuous of pop crazes, and nearly the entire critical establishment of the country — each as different from the others as it is possible to be, and yet each united in their reaction to the movie.
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The more one thinks about the natural biases against teenage fads among anyone other than young teenagers, the more surprising this cross-demographic conquest becomes. Obviously A Hard Day’s Night was different from the usual quick-buck exploitation movie, something other than the latest assembly-line pop film. But how, and why?
To hear film professionals tell it, there was a variety of reasons. Energy. Attitude. Quality. Intelligence. Empowerment. Humor.
The exotic nature of the Beatles was a huge draw. . . their manner was like an accessory to the whole experience. [Because] you didn’t know anybody like that. I’ve often asked actors to sit down and watch A Hard Day’s Night with me. Just to get an idea for energy and enthusiasm and a way to embrace life. I keep trying to rip off A Hard Day’s Night, frankly.
The really good ones—Casablanca, Citizen Kane—can hold up under repeated screenings. And this is one of those. I’ve seen A Hard Day’s Night at least 25 times and on at least 5 occasions I’ve taught it to film classes, one shot at a time. The more I look at it, the more I’m not bored by it, the more I’m exhilarated by it. If I were to sit down right now, and see the movie, I would enjoy it again.
[A Hard Day’s Night] was sort of happenstance, the planets lining up with the perfect filmmaker to capture it. That's really what's happening: [Lester]'s capturing something, as opposed to staging it.
Screenwriter and playwright Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, etc) was a boy when he saw A Hard Day’s Night and recalls the impact it had on him and others like him:
I remember going to see A Hard Day’s Night in the Bromley Odeon with my mum, and the other boys and their mums. And all the mothers stood up and put their hands over their ears and screamed.* And I was so amazed by this phenomenon, and what it was the Beatles were doing — and why they weren’t working in banks, which is what we were supposed to be doing. I suppose in a sense they sort of liberated us; they made you think you could get away from the suburbs in some way, you could get to London, which was in those days swinging . . . and lead a life which was quite different to the one that was expected of you.
*Again, fascinating for the demographic: “All the mothers stood up and put their hands over their ears and screamed.” And recall what Nancy Wilson of Heart said above — that “guys too” were screaming. This is slightly amazing, and it’s absolutely true, however at odds it may be with conventional wisdom. In future posts we’ll hear people like Joe Walsh, Rick Springfield and others unabashedly admit they screamed “along with all those chicks” when watching the Beatles.
Chris Columbus (Harry Potter, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Help, Pixels, etc) was asked in 2016 to name his five favorite films:
The thing I love about all these films is that they still feel extraordinarily fresh, as if they were made yesterday. There’s a timeless quality and a vibrancy and an energy to all of them, but particularly A Hard Day’s Night. It’s a film that really defies any sort of specific genre — it’s a rock and roll film, right? It’s also sort of like a documentary of the early years of Beatlemania, and it’s also comedically like a Marx Brothers film. I just love the combination of all of those things, which give it an intense vibrancy and charm. I watch [it] at least once a year. . . The Criterion Collection just restored it and it’s a marvel to see it restored and how beautiful a movie it is.
Five decades earlier, Woody Allen was making the transition from stand-up comedy to film. He was interviewed at length by Studs Terkel, America’s foremost cultural oral historian. Terkel asked Woody what kind of movies he was interested in making.
All I want to do is a comedy that is a heavyweight comedy. I mean, I want to do comedies that are more adult, certainly, than Jerry Lewis. I want to do comedies in the style and of the quality of the Marx Brothers and Chaplin, that kind of comedy — only, my contribution. I don’t think anyone is doing it in the United States. I think they’ve tried it in England, they’ve had a little more success.
Did you see A Hard Day’s Night?
I liked it. It was the best thing they did . . . that’s in the direction of a comedy that was funny and un-self-conscious, and wasn’t geared to the moron level.
A number of those involved in the making of A Hard Day’s Night identified a key ingredient that no one would have been surprised to find missing. The man who produced A Hard Day’s Night, Walter Shenson of United Artists, who had earlier been responsible for the hit Peter Sellers film The Mouse That Roared, begins:
I think that the Beatles’ performances are incredibly good, in that they were not trained as actors.* Any trained actor will tell you that the hardest thing to do is to be yourself, to stand there and let your own personality come through. This is what the Beatles have, and do, better than anybody I know. . . I remember when I got home [and] my wife asked me how the Beatles performed on the first day of shooting, and I said, “I really can’t tell. All I know is I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen.”
*An interesting side note about the filming of A Hard Day’s Night is that many of the outdoor scenes had to be shot in one take. Director Richard Lester: “We couldn’t control the crowd. It became impossible to shoot. Every day we got one take. We’d get police permission to shoot in whichever street, we’d do Take 1 and suddenly 2,000 kids would arrive from nowhere. I think we had a mole in our production department. The police would rip up the permit and we’d have to go off and find a street six blocks away and hope we could get another take in before they found us again. It was total guerrilla filmmaking.”
The featured role of Paul’s grandfather, the “clean old man,” was played by veteran British comic and TV star Wilfrid Brambell. He agreed with Shenson about how effective the inexperienced Beatles were in front of a camera.
They don’t need to act in this film. They just play their own everyday selves as The Beatles. But they’re so natural that working with them is like working with long experienced actors.
While A Hard Day’s Night revolves around the Beatles as a wise-cracking, music-making, interdependent band of brothers (in Mick Jagger’s words, a “four-headed monster”), there are several memorable scenes in which individual Beatles take solo turns. The following clip is now commonly cited as evidence of George Harrison’s on-camera instincts (Richard Lester said he was the most underrated of the four, as he “always hit it right in the center”). Enjoy also the pitch-perfect hilarity of Shakespearean actor Kenneth Haigh as the advertising executive.
Academy Award-winning Julie Harris was the costume designer.
Ringo got into disguise, and he bought an old coat and a hat off a barrow. And he put this on, and I thought he just looked amazing. Suddenly he had this cap, and he had those big eyes . . . and there was a tremendous pathos, which, you know, you felt it was Jackie Coogan . . . and maybe here, with this Beatle, there was some wonderful actor that was going to come from it.
Victor Spinetti, a 50-year veteran of stage and film, played the television director in A Hard Day’s Night.
The Beatles didn’t keep to the script and they cut out so many of the outtakes, isn’t that sad? I walked round the set in my furry sweater and I said, ‘You’re late for rehearsals. I’m the director.’ John replied, not in the script, ‘You’re not the director. You’re Victor Spinetti playing the part of the director.’ I said, [next line] ‘I am a director, I have an award in my office.’ John said, ‘Office? You haven’t even got a dressing room.’ I hit Ringo’s cymbals and Ringo leant across and said to John, ‘He’s fingering me cymbals.’ John said, ‘He must be a director as all directors are famous cymbal- fingerers.’
To American film-goers, the most surprising thing about the Beatles themselves in A Hard Day’s Night was how genuinely funny they were. As noted above, America, unlike Britain, had almost no exposure to the Beatles as personalities. The Fab Four’s February blitz provided some pretty spectacular evidence, but it had come in brief bites (mainly the press conference at JFK airport). The persistence of the Beatles’ insane popularity in America had recived little visual reinforcement — it was entirely a function of their records, the radio and the fallout from the Big Bang that was Ed Sullivan.
And then, into this already flammable mix, A Hard Day’s Night dropped a charisma bomb.
Mike Myers: They influenced everything that I’ve ever done. They made fun an art form. I always remember crying at the end of A Hard Day’s Night because I liked these guys so much I wanted to go have fun with them.
Steven Soderbergh: You don't just want to watch it; you want to be in it. You want to be one of them. You want to climb inside of it and be surrounded by that kind of energy. That specific kind of exuberance is very difficult, if not impossible, to fake.
Kevin Cronin: That movie just kinda changed everything. It brought the Beatles up close and personal. It showed their amazing music, but it also showed the chemistry between them, their senses of humor, their acting ability, just what a great foursome they were . . . it gave us all a little touch of what Beatlemania might have looked like over in England. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time, black and white and all.
Joe Perry: I think the Beatles were what made me want to be in a band. Everything changed when I went to see A Hard Day's Night. I wasn't into sports, I wasn't a great student, I didn't go out for school activities or anything — I was just kind of into my own little world. But seeing The Beatles on screen, running around and laughing, plus seeing them play all these incredible songs . . . It was like The Beatles were their own gang, and that seemed so cool to me.
Michael McKean: Amazing movie. It really changed everything. We wanted the world to be black and white. And full of Beatles. And for a while it was.
John Pizzarelli: It’s amazing how from generation to generation they get discovered. Whether it’s from listening to their songs or seeing their movies. There was this other connection that the Beatles had through their movies. They were funny, especially in A Hard Day’s Night. We thought, “Look how funny these guys are. And they make good music too, and it’s not cheap!” . . . There were ways that they got to people. The Beatles really seem to turn over with every generation; people keep discovering them and realize, wow, they are amazing.
Janis Ian: I grew up on classical and jazz and folk. Pop was really off my radar. . . [but] I came out of that film a convert. The energy when Lennon and McCartney joined voices and harmonized or sang in unison was astonishing.
Tom Bergeron: I remember going to A Hard Day’s Night at the Paramount theater in my hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts, and seeing this incredible comedic talent on top of their musical talent, on display. It was like a modern day Marx Brothers. I thought that was amazing.
Lenny Kaye: They’re the total rock and roll band. I mean, I think their four personalities interacting, as you can see in A Hard Day’s Night, were kind of four fingers of a hand. And the audience is the thumb.
Billy Idol: I was captivated [by] A Hard Day’s Night. The Beatles’ irreverent humor spoke to a generation of youth sick of being ground up and used for workplace fodder by the rich and powerful. It motivated us to believe that our destiny was in our hands, if we so chose.
Stephen Bishop: To tell you the truth, when A Hard Day’s Night came out, I was just blown away. I was like, oh my god these guys are so funny, and especially John Lennon. I just thought, I want to shape my personality after John Lennon. And so I did, for years . . . he was so funny and ahead of the time.
David Crosby: The thing that communicated to people was the joy. They were having fun. You know, human beings are very, very drawn to fun. When they see somebody obviously, really having a blast, singing music, they are very moved by it.
Crosby says that he came out of A Hard Day’s Night “just out-of-my-mind happy.” That little phrase is the best summation of the effect the movie had on people. Whoever you were — child, teen, adult, girl, boy, musician, actor, critic — it seems you had little defense against A Hard Day’s Night’s strain of Beatlemania.
What’s extraordinary is how powerful the contagion proved to be over time: thirty-five years after its original run, Miramax prepared an anniversary theater release and conducted audience tests and research. Mark Gill, Miramax president, marveled, “We got astonishingly high audience surveys—second only to the ones we got for ‘Good Will Hunting.’ It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll get as big an audience as we got for ‘Good Will Hunting,’ but it does mean that the people who come into the theater will walk out the door and tell other people that they love it. [And] not all of them identify themselves as Beatles fans. We’re also getting non-fans, or people who are not yet fans, and they love the movie too.”
Original producer Shenson, who was involved in the Miramax preparation, agreed: “Nothing has dated about it. I played it for film students and when I finished I asked, ‘How many of you have seen the film before?’ Maybe half a dozen hands go up out of an audience of 100. They'd never seen the picture before and they were flipping over it.”
The trailer for the Miramax re-release:
The success of A Hard Day’s Night is a manifestation of a perfect storm. Everything about its creation and the circumstances of its release seemed to be guided by an invisible hand. Like any cultural phenomenon, luck played a huge factor. If any ingredient had been altered — if the screenwriter had not been Alun Owen, if the director had not been Richard Lester, if United Artists had dubbed the voices as they initially insisted on doing (afraid that Americans would not understand the Liverpudlian accent), if Ringo had not uttered the malapropism which gave the movie its name and led to the writing of the magical title song, if the film had been released at a different time, even if the minuscule budget had been bigger — things would have been different. But the ingredients were what they were, including the most important ingredient of all: the Beatles. It’s interesting that some of the quotes above refer to the fact that A Hard Day’s Night was in black and white. It’s almost as if being in black and white served to heighten the contrast between the camaraderie of the glowing four Beatles and the dullness of the world around them. Again, timing: In Western societies suffocated by a variety of malaises — lingering post-war deprivation in Britain and Europe, the Cold War and the Kennedy assassination in the U.S. — the Beatles appeared as if an explosion of optimism and color in a world of grey.
We started with Alice Cooper talking about how A Hard Day’s Night’s combination of irresistible music and irresistible humor proved the Beatles were aliens from another planet. Roger Ebert, probably the most famous American film critic and the first to ever be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, essentially agreed. In calling A Hard Day’s Night one of his three favorite films of all time, Ebert gave it perhaps the ultimate compliment: “It is one of the great life-affirming landmarks of the movies.”