#630) Grease (1978)

#630) Grease (1978)

OR “Fast Times at Rydell High”

Directed by Randal Kleiser

Written by Bronte Woodard. Adaptation by Allan Carr. Based on the stage musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Original songs by Jacobs and Casey. Additional songs by Barry Gibb, John Farrar, Louis St. Louis and Scott Simon.

Class of 2020 

The Plot: As the school-year commences at Rydell High in fall 1958, senior Danny Zuko (John Travolta) regales his greaser gang the T-Birds about an Australian girl named Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) that he had a summer fling with. Shortly thereafter Danny learns that Sandy has enrolled at Rydell and has been taken under the wing of the Pink Ladies, an all-female greaser gang led by Rizzo (Stockard Channing). What follows throughout the year is the hormone-fueled Will They/Won’t They world of teenagers, mixed with a nostalgic caricature of the 1950s and a whole lotta songs.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “tuneful, loving tribute to 1950s America – perhaps more romanticized than accurate”. Ah, there’s that backhanded praise I’ve missed from these write-ups. The “energetically directed” work of Randal Kleiser is highlighted, as is the film’s ongoing influence in pop culture.

But Does It Really?: Since this blog’s inception, “Grease” has been my Evelyn Beatrice Hall movie: I disapprove of what it says, but I will defend to the death its right to be in the National Film Registry. Admittedly the musical numbers are a lot of fun, and the movie does a good job of opening up the play, but this film’s pros are easily bogged down by its lethargic pacing and off-putting characterizations. Still, you can get away with a lot as long as the songs are catchy, and “Grease” can still smooth over the rough patches when it needs to. While I don’t have the nostalgic love for this movie most people have, I understand I am in the minority, and “Grease” continues to be a popular and iconic film over 40 years later. With its rightful (and long overdue) NFR induction, “Grease” is still the word – or at least a word.

Shout Outs: Among the plethora of ’50s pop culture referenced throughout are NFR films “From Here to Eternity“, “Rebel Without a Cause“, “The Ten Commandments“, and “Ben-Hur“.

Everybody Gets One: Born in England and raised in Australia, Olivia Newton-John found success as a singer in her teen years. By the early ’70s Olivia had found worldwide acclaim with her singles “I Honestly Love You” and “Have You Never Been Mellow”. Newton-John was cast as Sandy in “Grease” thanks to her manager Alan Carr, who happened to be co-producing the film. Uncertain of her acting talents, Olivia signed on after a successful screen test with John Travolta, and the Chicagoan Sandy Dumbrowski became the Australian Sandy Olsson. After a lifetime of music and humanitarian efforts, Olivia Newton-John died earlier this year at the age of 73.

Title Track: Director Randal Kleiser commissioned a title song that fit the ’50s pastiche, but it was vetoed by Allan Carr, who opted for Barry Gibb’s disco-infused composition with Frankie Valli on lead vocals. Kleiser hated this version, though it did become a chart-topper in its own right.

Seriously, Oscars?: The biggest hit of 1978, “Grease” only received one Oscar nomination: Best Original Song for “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, which lost to “Last Dance” from “Thank God It’s Friday”.

Other notes 

  • Based on co-author Jim Jacobs’ teen years, the original “Grease” stage show premiered in Chicago in 1971. This version had a completely different score, and was far cruder and more vulgar. A revised version premiered off-Broadway in 1972 before quickly transferring to Broadway and playing over 3300 performances by decade’s end. The film rights were originally acquired by animator Ralph Bakshi (of “Fritz the Cat” fame) with the plan of making “Grease” an animated film. After Bakshi’s option lapsed in 1976, Robert Stigwood and Allan Carr snatched up the rights. To create a broader appeal, they moved the show’s setting from urban Chicago to a suburban anytown, toned down the overall raunchiness, and reshuffled the song list. They also hired John Travolta – star of TV’s “Welcome Back Kotter” and a replacement Doody on stage – to play Danny, who in turn recommended his “Boy in the Plastic Bubble” director Randal Kleiser to helm. (Side note: Kleiser had previously directed the wonderful NFR short “Peege“)
  • Shame on Fine Arts Films, which did the animated opening credits, not only for an unnecessarily salacious shot of Sandy in her nightgown, but also for the grotesquely inaccurate Stockard Channing caricature. This is not what I expect from the team that brought us the animated opening for “The Carol Burnett Show”.
Gah! Why would you do this to her? Did she lose a bet?
  • Much has been made about how no one playing a high-schooler in this movie is age-appropriate (the main cast ranged in age from 21 to 33!). Most of the female cast adhere to what I call the “Ponytail Stratagem”: Adult actors automatically look like teenagers if they put their hair up in a ponytail or pigtails. If it worked for Laurie’s friends in “Halloween” it can work here too.
  • “Summer Nights” is one of those songs that is lovely and infectious as long as you don’t pay attention to the lyrics or think about them too hard. “Did she put up a fight?” Do you hear what you’re saying?
  • Practically every adult actor in this movie has some sort of ’50s nostalgia attached to them. Eve Arden previously played a high school teacher on “Our Miss Brooks”, Dody Goodman was a regular on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show”, and Sid Caesar pioneered the sketch show format with “Your Show of Shows”.
  • Despite being a theater kid, I missed out on “Grease” (my drama teacher hated musicals), and never saw the film until I reached adulthood. I imagine “Grease” goes over best with younger kids who can imagine that this is what high school will be like. Although given some of the racier lyrics and subject matter, I don’t know why anyone would let their kids watch this.
  • There’s a surprising amount of shoutouts to Annette Funicello throughout this movie. I didn’t realize she went over so well with high-schoolers. This is especially weird considering that in 1958 she was still a Mouseketeer and her “Beach Party” teen movie era was still about five years away.
  • Shoutout to the Pink Ladies: Stockard Channing (future Oscar nominee and First Lady), Didi Conn (who I remember best from “Shining Time Station”), Dinah Manoff (future Tony winner and daughter of Lee Grant), and Jamie Donnelly (the only cast member from Broadway to reprise their role). They really hold this movie together, and offer a lot more than their hammy T-Bird counterparts.
  • “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was written specifically for Olivia Newton-John, who had it in her contract that she receive a solo number. The song was filmed at the end of production, which explains why Olivia is the only actor in the scene.
  • During my viewing, I noted myself having a similar experience to the one I had while watching “Saturday Night Fever” for this blog. Obvious Travolta connection aside, both movies are well shot, directed, choreographed, etc., but have a veneer of toxic masculinity that ultimately dampens my enjoyment. But of course, “Grease” is not a museum artifact to be dissected; it’s a piece of entertainment to be enjoyed. So I guess I’ll put the over-analysis on hold and just enjoy the singin’ and dancin’.
  • Speaking of enjoyable musical numbers, “Greased Lightnin'” is a lot of fun. The dancing is some of the best in the movie; I got exhausted just watching it. As for the rundown Ford Deluxe being worked on during the number: I’m convinced that Kenickie got it cheap because Phil Silvers almost drowned in it.
  • If something looks off at the Frosty Palace diner, you’re not seeing things. The set featured large advertisements for Coca-Cola, but the producers made an endorsement deal with Pepsi during post-production. Rather than reshoot the diner scenes, Randal Kleiser opted to blur out the Coke ads, which is pretty jarring to say the least. This blurriness was digitally replaced with a Pepsi ad for the film’s 2018 Blu-Ray.
  • I’m surprised Danny didn’t think to take Sandy to that other ’50s diner he likes going to. They have a twist contest every night and one of the waiters looks like Steve Buscemi!
  • The dance in the gym is the film’s highlight for me, maybe because everyone stops being horny jerks to each other and just starts dancing. Side note: No offense to Edd Byrnes, seen here as “National Bandstand” host Vince Fontaine, but he’s the only one of the film’s “Special Guest Stars” I didn’t recognize on sight. “77 Sunset Strip” never made the rerun rounds when I was growing up.
  • “Sandy” – Danny’s number at the drive-in – has the best ending, in which Danny sulks in front of a movie screen showcasing the “Variety Show” snipe with a hot dog jumping into a bun. I just love that a group of professionals had to time out the exact rhythm of the number to climax with a wiener joke. This almost makes the movie for me. Almost.
  • For some reason I thought Stockard Channing didn’t like being associated with “Grease”, but there are plenty of interviews where she speaks highly of the experience, and continues to be amazed by the film’s ongoing legacy. Side note: Channing successfully lobbied to keep Rizzo’s solo number, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”, in the film, and it’s a nice quiet moment in the midst of all this nonsense.
  • The original version of “Grease” was a parody of popular teen movie tropes. Case in point: Having the strait-laced good girl conform to her greaser boyfriend instead of the other way around, as seen in “You’re the One That I Want”. You can’t blame a modern audience for not getting the joke. But that’s what me and my chronic contextualizing are here for!
  • Despite only being 110 minutes, this movie seems to go on forever. At one point I thought I was experiencing this school year in real time! The last day of school carnival finale has two musical numbers, resolutions to every plot thread, and then the inexplicable final shot of the car flying off into the sky? I’m know I’m taking this all way too seriously, but what is happening?

Legacy 

  • Paramount originally planned to release “Grease” in a handful of theaters in Chicago before a gradual roll-out, but the success of “Saturday Night Fever” and Travolta’s subsequent rising star gave the studio more faith in the film. “Grease” would go on to become the highest-grossing film of 1978, and was the highest-grossing movie musical ever until being surpassed by “Beauty and the Beast” 13 years later.
  • Everyone’s career got a boost from “Grease”. Although John Travolta has continued his movie stardom for the last four decades, Olivia Newton-John’s film career more or less petered out with “Xanadu” (although she and Travolta did reunite for 1983’s “Two of a Kind”).
  • Plans for a sequel (at one point titled “Greasier”) began shortly after the first film’s release, and after a few false starts “Grease 2” hit theaters in 1982. Set four years after the first movie, “Grease 2” starred a young Michelle Pfeiffer and was a critical and financial failure.
  • The original stage version has had multiple revivals since 1978, including two on Broadway that have attempted to interlope songs written for the film into the show proper. In addition, “Grease” is a staple of regional and high school theaters (except mine). Somewhat ironically for a show about teenagers, the school version tones down the lewdness even further than the film did!
  • After a string of live musicals on NBC in the mid-2010s, Fox beat the Peacock network at its own game with 2016’s “Grease Live!” With an all-star roster of talent and a live studio audience to play off of, “Grease Live!” exceeded all expectations. Even I admit to enjoying it!
  • It’s hard to parody something that’s already a parody, but “Grease” has gotten its share of skewering over the years. I’m partial to this musical number from an early “Family Guy”.
  • And finally, we are apparently getting not one, but TWO prequel series to “Grease”. One focusing on Danny and Sandy’s summer together – “Summer Lovin'”- was announced in 2019 but seems to have stalled. The other – “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” – has been filmed and will premiere some time next year. WHO IS ASKING FOR THESE!?

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