Review by KC Carlson
It’s hard to believe, almost 50 years on, but for a brief time in the mid-1960s, another moptop group from England — Herman’s Hermits — almost eclipsed the popularity of the Beatles, at least in the hearts of American pre-teen girls. (But then the Beatles put out their next album — whatever that was — and everything was back to normal in the pop music world.)
But in that brief sliver of time, the Hermits’ handlers did their best to capitalize on the cuddly, boyish good looks of Peter Noone, the lead singer and visual focus of the Hermits, pumping out as much “product” as humanly possible. Between 1965 and 1967, Herman’s Hermits placed 11 singles in the American Top 10, including two #1s (“Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” and “I’m Henry VIII, I Am”). If you’ve seen The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (and who hasn’t?), you know Herman’s Hermits music, as Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley famously frolic to the song “I’m Into Something Good”, the Hermits’ first American hit.
Herman’s Hermits were no strangers to film themselves. The band appeared in four films during their surge of popularity, although they only starred in two. Their first starring performance — Hold On! — was released in 1966, and it’s just now getting its very first American DVD release, courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection. Unfortunately, as jukebox musicals go, Hold On! is no A Hard Day’s Night. It’s not even a Help! or a Head. But if you love the era, it’s a something worth seeing at least once.
Hold On! is one of those movies that wears its cynicism on its sleeve. The filmmakers can barely keep their contempt for their product in check. The film supposedly stars Herman’s Hermits, but the band is basically a prop in the lame storyline, and Noone is the only group member allowed to speak more than one line at a time. I don’t think the rest of the band are even mentioned by name until Noone does it himself more than halfway through the film. The only other teenager in the film is Shelley Fabares (although it seems like she’s 30 years old in the role, as written), and the rest of the cast is made up of 60s-era character actors: Herbert Anderson (Mr. Mitchell on Dennis the Menace), Bernard Fox (Dr. Bombay on Bewitched), and Sue Ane Langdon (all over film, TV, and stage that decade — plus, she was a popular crossword puzzle answer due to the unusual spelling of her middle name). Anderson spends most of his time as a running joke where he constantly is getting splashed in the face with water. Laff riot!
A Thimble-Full of Plot
The script is bad, bad, bad, with jokes not even a six-year-old would laugh at. There are two cringeworthy “fantasy” scenes in the film, one with Noone as an armored knight on horseback (on the beach) rescuing Fabares (as a princess) from Fox (as the evil manager), and the other with the Hermits in outer space with “Herman” in a Gemini capsule singing, while the rest of the band is spacewalking. They’re all dressed in silvery jumpsuits and modified motorcycle helmets (open at the collar) rather than actual spacesuits, except for the drummer (Barry) who’s inexplicably dressed as an angel. He probably felt lucky to be dead.
The reason for the space daydream stems partially from the reason they’re in America in the first place. It seems that the children of American astronauts have chosen “Herman’s Hermits” as the “good luck” name for the next Gemini space capsule. So NASA sends out one of their scientists (?) (Anderson) to shadow the band to avoid a P.R. disaster. Apparently, NASA is concerned that the Russians might think that the U.S. is “still a colony of Great Britain”. (Yeah, I don’t get it either.)
Meanwhile, the reason the band is really in America is that they are playing some concerts in Los Angeles (where it’s cheaper to film), one of which is a charity benefit performance for a bunch of snooty society people and their children. The organizer’s daughter turns out to be Fabares, whom Noone instantly falls in love with, Davy Jones-style (before there even was a Davy Jones). But before they play the snooty concert, the band wants to sneak out and see and meet real American teenagers. Their manager (Fox) want to keep them locked up and safe in the hotel, so they don’t get ripped to shreds by the ferocious packs of teenage girls that roam the streets of LA looking for pop band members to ravage.
Of course, they do escape, wearing the worst bald caps in the history of film, and using what I thought was a brilliant piece of logic (“If we all split up, no one will recognize us!”), until I realized that this was just an excuse to get Noone and Fabares together at the Pacific Ocean Park, while the other band members virtually disappear from the film for about a half hour. (We see cutaways of them individually playing carnival games.) While Noone and Fabares ride, Noone actually falls out of a moving roller coaster, and yet the ride doesn’t stop at all. The NASA scientist has tagged along, and since there isn’t any water on the roller coaster, he gets pelted in the face with Noone and Fabares’ ice cream cones. Despite this, he rules that the Hermits are good wholesome lads and NASA would be proud to have them as spokeshermits (or whatever).
First, they have the snooty concert to play, which is private for society members only, so the hordes of screaming teenage girls are kept at bay by a high iron fence. Meanwhile, Langdon, playing a washed-up actress looking for publicity, puts out a story that “Herman” is very ill. She hires an ambulance to crash the party, which lets in the screaming hoards of teenage girls, now thinking that their idol is dying. Which leads to this all-time classic film dialogue:
Teen girl: (panicked) Please, please! Can I have an aspirin?
Society dame: What is it, child? Are you ill?
Teen girl: I want to save Herman’s life!
Society dame: (defiant) But I don’t!
Teen girl: (screaming) You want Herman to DIE!!!
The film rapidly goes downhill from there. (It amazed me that that was even possible.) A riot ensues, causing NASA to drop the boys from “sponsoring” the space launch. However, nationwide teen protests — including signs that read “Put Herman’s Hermits in Space!” (a subtle insult from the screenwriters?) — force NASA to relent. But there’s a new problem! The band is now expected to be at Cape Kennedy (Florida) for the launch — at the same time as their big concert at the Rose Bowl (in California)!! Oh, nos!
But wait, NASA has an answer. They just happen to have a hypersonic jet that can “fly over 3,000 miles per hour” (now they’re just making stuff up!), which will whisk the band coast to coast in the middle of their concert (which appears to begin at about 9 AM in LA). So the Hermits play one song (obviously against a green screen, with a full house audience — seemingly dressed for football — projected behind them, which earns Noone some acting chops by gamely waving and singing to nothing). Then they get on the plane, fly to Florida, wave to the astronauts from afar (they don’t even meet them!), and then hop back on the plane (which we never actually see), and fly back to conclude the concert. But the filmmakers have apparently run out of money to finish the film properly. The movie abruptly ends with Noone tepidly waving to Fabares from the stage. That’s right — the hero doesn’t even get the girl!
Why You Want to Watch This Movie
Which brings us to the best reason to watch this movie — the music! Although the soundtrack features almost a dozen songs, at least half of them are by-the-numbers tunes that sound like the secondary music for a lot of other teen formula films of the era. But the others were pure hits, including “A Must to Avoid”, “Leaning on a Lamppost”, “Where Were You When I Needed You” (a hit for The Grass Roots), and the title track — many of these written (or co-written) by P.F. Sloan, one of the most unheralded hitmakers of the era. Sloan (frequently with his partner Steve Barri) also wrote hits for The Turtles (“You Baby” and “Let Me Be”), Johnny Rivers (“Secret Agent Man”), and Barry McGuire (“Eve of Destruction”), among others. Sloan and Barri were both founding members of The Grass Roots and surf band The Fantastic Baggys. Unfortunately for Hold On!, the really great tunes are heard early in the film, meaning that the songs performed during the climatic Rose Bowl concert are kind of lackluster, adding to the overall feeling of the film just running out of gas at the end.
While plot-wise, Hold On! sounds like a train wreck of a movie, if you’re a fan of teen movies of the era (especially the Beach Party films, which this somewhat resembles), you need to see it. The music and performances are quite fun (and the Hermits were a great band with mostly excellent tunes, who haven’t really gotten their due do to their “teenybopper band” reputation). Despite the distinct lack of teenagers in the film (except for the screaming mobs of fans), there’s one brief moment of excitement for girl watchers when Fabares (who also had a hit song — “Johnny Angel” — in the 60s and sings early in the film) strips off her high-fashion party dress at the snooty society concert, revealing a demure bikini underneath, and starts frugging by the pool while the Hermits play on. Gotta love the 60s!
Hold On! runs 86 minutes, in full color, and has been completely remastered for this Warner Archive release. The letterboxed picture looks pristine, and the sound is also excellent, especially considering that it was originally recorded in the 1960s. The theatrical trailer (also pristine) is included as the only bonus feature. The soundtrack for Hold On! — along with the soundtrack for Herman’s Hermits’ other starring feature film, Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter, is being released on CD on May 17th on ABKCO Records. (The studio provided a review copy.)