#475) American Graffiti (1973)

#475) American Graffiti (1973)

OR “Boomers in Cars Getting Comfy”

Directed by George Lucas

Written by Lucas and Gloria Katz & Willard Huyck

Class of 1995

The Plot: In 1962 Modesto, high school graduates Steve Bolander and Curt Henderson (Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss) have one last night of fun and cruising before leaving town and going to college. Steve gets in a fight with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams), who still has a year left of high school. Curt attempts to reconnect with a mysterious blonde woman (Suzanne Somers) in a Thunderbird. John Milner (Paul Le Mat) gets stuck cruising with obnoxious 12-year-old Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) and ends up in a drag race with local hot-rodder Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford). Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith) gets Steve’s car and picks up Connie Francis lookalike Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark). It’s a love letter to the early 1960s, with a soundtrack courtesy of Wolfman Jack!

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a rundown of the film’s production and legacy, praising Lucas, the script, the film’s “ironic candor”, and visual consultant Haskell Wexler.

But Does It Really?: “American Graffiti” is definitely in the “minor classic” category. Its nostalgic value may be reserved solely for those who were actually there, but the film is still an enjoyable coming-of-age tale that comes straight from the heart. To call this movie George Lucas’ stepping stone to “Star Wars” is to deny this film its own important place in ’70s filmdom as one of the decade’s biggest hits, the epicenter of ’50s nostalgia, and the launching pad for many promising careers. No argument here for “American Graffiti” making the NFR cut.

Shout Outs: John’s license plate reads “THX 138”. So close.

Everybody Gets One: “Graffiti” is the breakout film/sole NFR representation for pretty much every young ’70s actor who wasn’t in “The Last Picture Show”. Among them: Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Suzanne Somers, and Lynne Marie Stewart, aka Miss Yvonne from “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”!

Wow, That’s Dated: The opening credits say it all: “Ronnie” Howard gets top billing, while Harrison Ford is tenth!

Title Track: No one has ever been able to explain this title to me. Apparently Universal execs didn’t get it either, and alternates like “Rock Around the Block” and “Another Quiet Night in Modesto” were considered before Lucas finally won out.

Seriously, Oscars?: An unexpected hit for Universal, “American Graffiti” received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay. Unfortunately “Graffiti” was the only Best Picture nominee to go home empty-handed that year, losing in four categories to Universal’s other big contender, “The Sting”.

Other notes 

  • After making the feature film version of “THX 1138”, George Lucas was challenged by his friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola to write a movie that would appeal to mainstream audiences. Lucas turned to his own teen years for inspiration. Like the characters in “Graffiti”, George was a high school senior in 1962 Modesto who spent his nights cruising the main streets.
  • Although set in Modesto, Lucas felt that the town had changed too much in the previous decade to play itself. “Graffti” began production in San Rafael, California, but the city withdrew their support after two nights of filming. The rest of the shoot was covered in nearby Petaluma. The Mel’s Drive-In featured throughout the film was the original diner on South Van Ness Street in San Francisco. Sadly, it was demolished a few years later and is now condos.
  • That’s two NFR movies that open with “Rock Around the Clock”. Any teen-induced riots during screenings of this one?
  • It should be noted that while Ron Howard the actor is on the NFR (this and “The Music Man“), Ron Howard the director is conspicuously absent. Where’s “Apollo 13”? “Splash”? “The Grinch”?
  • This entire post could be me dissecting the film’s soundtrack, one of the first to consist solely of preexisting hits. Each one is expertly chosen to comment on or underscore the scene it’s featured in. Shoutout to attorney Tom Pollack for his Herculean achievement with rights clearance, and sound editor Walter Murch for weaving it all together. Where’s his Oscar nod?
  • The sock-hop is one of the movie’s highlights, with the snowball dance between Steve and Laurie a particularly great moment. I’ve always felt an inexplicable connection to Cindy Williams, probably because we share a birthday. Regardless, she’s the emotional core of the movie, and conveys the intelligence and awkwardness of being 17 perfectly.
  • A big ensemble, interweaving storylines, a radio voice as the linchpin. This movie is “Nashville” if Altman knew how to mike properly.
  • The other nice thing about this movie is its affection for the era before ’50s nostalgia had been done to death. The movie feels fresher and more personal than later, more commercial fare like “Grease”.
  • Hey, that’s the same cop car stunt from “Airport 1975”! Where’s Sid Caesar?
  • Harrison Ford singing “Some Enchanted Evening” should be included in every “Greatest Movie Moments” clip package ever. This scene was one of three that Universal initially cut from the film against Lucas’ wishes. Once “Star Wars” was a hit, Lucas persuaded Universal to reinstate the scenes, and they’ve been in the film ever since.
  • Wolfman Jack: If Harvey Fierstein was straight.
  • Compared to the rest of film’s fun atmosphere, the drag race ending seems surprisingly intense, but if anyone’s qualified to chronicle a near-fatal car crash, it’s George Lucas. This is followed by an epilogue detailing the downer fates of the four male leads.

Legacy 

  • “American Graffiti” was the third highest-grossing film of 1973, and everyone’s career benefited from its success. The cast spent the rest of the decade as in-demand young talent, and George Lucas used the film’s success to convince 20th Century Fox to finance his long-gestating space opera screenplay “The Star Wars”.
  • Although “Graffiti” is set in 1962, it helped kick off a decade long nostalgia for the 1950s. Remembering a rejected pilot set in the ’50s that Ron Howard had starred in a few years earlier, ABC quickly greenlit the show to series, added a greaser character based on Paul Le Mat’s John, and called it “Happy Days”. Aaaaaaay.
  • The 1979 sequel “More American Graffiti” saw most of the cast returning (recent Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss was the main holdout) and chronicled what happened to everyone throughout the 1960s and the counterculture movement. Compared to the original, “More” is less.
  • Despite the loss of the original Mel’s, the chain still operates to this day, and leans heavily on its “American Graffiti” connection. I’m a sucker for their shakes.

Please give me free shakes.

Listen to This: Among the dozens of artists featured on the “American Graffiti” soundtrack are National Recording Registry inductees Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Bill Haley, and The Beach Boys. All this and more on two CDs or two cassettes!

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