Robert Zemeckis is a filmmaker with very distinct markers in his filmography. He began his directorial career with “straight” comedies (Used Cars, 1980; Romancing the Stone, 1984) before shifting into the world of comedic blockbusters (Back to the Future, 1985; Who Framed Roger Rabbit, 1988). The funny faded away then as he discovered an interest in drama (Forrest Gump, 1994; Cast Away, 2000) and a taste for disturbingly animated movies for children (The Polar Express, 2004; A Christmas Carol, 2009). Finally, this current decade has seen him return to flexing his dramatic muscles with big assists from CG effects (The Walk, 2015; Welcome to Marwen, 2018).
A few exception aside, Zemeckis is at his best with comedies. We’ve watched and re-watched many of his greatest hits over the years — and will continue to do so — but now the Criterion Collection has done fans the long overdue service of releasing his very first feature to Blu-ray. I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) is a fun ensemble romp about a group of teens trying to attend the Ed Sullivan show where The Beatles are scheduled to appear, and it’s just a goofy good time.
The disc offers the the film in HD alongside Zemeckis’ two short films he made prior, a new interview featuring him, Bob Gale, and Steven Spielberg, and a commentary track recorded back in 2004. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…
I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)
Commentators: Robert Zemeckis (director/co-writer), Bob Gale (co-writer)
1. “None of this movie was actually shot in New York City,” says Gale, adding that they filmed on the “New York” street on Universal Studio’s back lot as well as various areas on the Warner Bros. lot.
2. The purpose of the opening scene showing Ed Sullivan (Will Jordan) preparing his CBS pages for the madness coming in the form of crazy young women ecstatic about The Beatles was to make it clear to viewers who might not remember the craziness of Beatlemania.
3. The film was initially developed at WB, but the studio wouldn’t agree to to move forward on the pitch until they locked in the music rights. It took several months, but eventually they were called back from Alabama where they were doing re-writes on Steven Spielberg‘s 1941 (1979).
4. They got push-back from a studio exec that the record shop owner was named Goldman. “Why does the merchant always have to be a Jew?” He threw the script at them in his office saying “I’ll be damned if I make an anti-Semitic film.”
5. Wendie Jo Sperber lied about her age to nab the role as she was actually seventeen. Nancy Allen was twenty-seven.
6. The early car interiors were shot in a blacked-out stage with a golf cart behind them simulating a car’s weaving headlights.
7. It was Spielberg’s suggestion that this be Zemeckis’ directorial debut.
8. The crowd signs showing their love for The Beatles were originally made by the studio’s prop department and came back looking far too professional, so they asked the head of the dept. to take supplies to his child’s school and have the kids make them instead.
9. The first A.D. was Newt Arnold, who came to this production for a break after working on films like The Godfather: Part II (1974) and Sorcerer (1977).
10. WB wouldn’t let Zemeckis direct as they had a policy in place forbidding them from using a first-time director — it was Brian De Palma‘s fault after his debut for them, Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), was a dud — and instead had eyes on Jonathan Demme. Instead, Spielberg pulled some strings and helped convince the studio to release the film to Universal where Zemeckis was given the green light.
11. De Palma visited the set as he was engaged to Allen at the time, and he suggested the joke where Tony (Bobby Di Cicco) says people mistake him for Paul Newman… who also visited as his daughter Susan Kendall Newman was among the cast.
12. Allen was upset about the hand insert at 38:30 saying “Who’s that chubby hand?!” It was a pick-up shot made later when she wasn’t available.
13. The bar interior at 1:02:50 is the standing Universal lot bar stage known as “the Kojak bar.”
14. The actor playing the barber never showed for his scene, so Arnold stepped up, pulled a SAG card from his wallet, and said “Every good first A.D. is also a member of SAG.” Arnold played the role.
15. Carrie Fisher was originally cast as Janis, but things didn’t work out.
16. The performer playing George Harrison on the Ed Sullivan stage is Bill Malone who went on to direct House on Haunted Hill for Zemeckis’ Dark Castle production company.
17. The stunt featuring a woman falling down the stairs at 1:34:38 was nixed due to the extra cost ($500), so Spielberg said the studio could bill him for it. They never did.
18. Gale comments at how short the end credits are, and Zemeckis suggests it’s because “there were no visual effects.” It’s been decades since he’s made a film with a short end credits.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Holy shit, you’re doing a dolly shot?”
“That shot of Wendie. I would never do that anymore.”
“One of the things that drove Steven Spielberg crazy was people were constantly asking him if he and Eddie Deezen were related.”
“We had this terrible, horrible crew.”
“There really was official Beatles talcum powder by the way.”
“I forgot how funny that Deezen stuff was.”
I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a perfect film for a first-time director as it’s a light and breezy affair built on young performers, sharp writing, and a shared enthusiasm for seeing our idols, and its DNA is evident in several of the comedies that Zemeckis directed after. The commentary reveals just how hard of a journey it was, though, while also showing the importance of coming out the other side with your head held high. Being friends with Spielberg doesn’t hurt either of course.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.