Filmsite Movie Review
American Graffiti (1973)
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Background

Young George Lucas' influential hallmark film American Graffiti (1973) recreates the feel, landscape, and sounds of early 60s, small-town America - an historical time period (of JFK's Presidency and the New Frontier before the jarring assassination of late 1963 and the rest of an unpredictable era) that has since been irretrievably lost. Advertising posters and theatrical trailers for the film asked: "Where were you in '62?", making viewers reflect back to the pre-Beatles era.

The film from Lucas (an ex-USC film student and intern at Warner Bros.) was almost not made when every studio in Hollywood refused it, except for Universal. With its great financial success, 28 year-old Lucas joined the ranks of a new breed of directors, including Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola. It was his second feature film, following THX 1138 (1971).

The film was Lucas' homage to the memories of his own teenage years in Modesto, California, remembered with vintage cars and dragsters, drive-ins (Mel's), an almost non-stop rock soundtrack, teenage activities (hot rod crusin' and makin' out), and characteristic hair and clothing styles. Creating a demand for other popular teen-oriented films, a less successful sequel was also produced - director Bill W. L. Norton's More American Graffiti (1979) that covered the years 1964-67.

The low-budget sleeper film, almost entirely composed of night scenes shot over less than a month of on-location shoots in San Rafael and Petaluma in the Greater Bay Area of Northern California (during overnight hours), nostalgically evokes a past time period like two other films of its time, Summer of 42 (1971) and The Last Picture Show (1971). [Another Slow Night in Modesto and Rock Around the Block were originally considered as alternative titles, but ultimately rejected.] Director Francis Ford Coppola, following his recent success with The Godfather (1972), joined Lucas in the effort as the film's producer. The film's screenplay was co-authored by Lucas with a USC friend Willard Huyck and his wife Gloria Katz. Because of its financial success (about $55 million in its first release), Lucas was able to carry out his next project - the production of the monumental film Star Wars (1977).

The plot of the unorthodox, unsophisticated coming of age film, orchestrated in a series of anecdotal vignettes from dusk to the morning of the following day, tracks multiple storylines, but mostly concentrates on four characters (with recognizable prototypes):

All of the major characters in the ensemble cast are recent or soon-to-be Dewey High School graduates aged seventeen to twenty, during one momentous, hot, late summer/early fall night in 1962. While cruisin' and hanging out at the local watering hole (Mel's Drive-In), the four weave in and out of each other's lives as they are on the brink of major decisions (about attending college or finding a job) and suffering from various traumas. Two of the high-school grads, Steve (Ron Howard) and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) were about to head off the college.

The film is seamlessly laced with a classic rock-n-roll soundtrack composed of over forty hits (often emanating from cruising car radios, or the school dance's record player). They frequently function as background music to define the emotions, dreams and frustrations of the group, ranging over almost a decade (from 1955-1962). Many of the songs are served up by legendary outlaw disk jockey Wolfman Jack who appears on the radio and as himself. Other later youth-oriented films imitated this film's use of a pop soundtrack.

Most people remember the film as the one with early acting appearances for unknown but up-and-coming actors, such as Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Ron Howard (best known as child actor Opie on TV's The Andy Griffith Show, and currently a film director), Harrison Ford, Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark, Charles Martin Smith, Mackenzie Phillips, Kathleen Quinlan, Suzanne Somers, Debralee Scott, Joe Spano, and Bo Hopkins. Many of these stars went on to further film and television careers, appearing in hit TV sitcoms such as Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, One Day at a Time, Three's Company, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and Hill Street Blues, or films such as The Lords of Flatbush (1974), The Conversation (1974), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), The Goodbye Girl (1977), Star Wars (1977), Melvin and Howard (1980), and Apollo 13 (1995).

Although the film was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (for 26 year old Candy Clark), Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing, it came away empty-handed. The film's talented, Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, credited as the film's "visual consultant," was un-nominated.

The Story

The trailer for the PG-rated film begins with the opening of a 1962 high school yearbook, accompanied by the voice of Wolfman Jack announcing: "American Graffiti. Where were you in '62?" and a view of a typical early 60s gym dance, with a live band playing "At the Hop." An announcer entices: "Grab that special one and jump into your candy-colored custom or your screamin' machine, cruise downtown, and catch American Graffiti." Various quick highlights of the film are covered in a montage during a review of the major characters, that are each presented with a cartoonish picture from the yearbook. A drawing of a wolf-headed student, Wolfman Jack, is described as "Finger Popping" from the class of '51. The voice-over of the narrator concludes: "It's one of those great old movies about romance, racin', and rock 'n' roll."

When the film begins, the credits play over a view of Mel's drive-in Restaurant late one summer afternoon as the sun is dropping. A blaring radio plays a familiar rock tune ["(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock," by Bill Haley and His Comets] as four friends convene there [The classic film The Blackboard Jungle (1955) also opened with "Rock Around the Clock."]:

Major Cast Characters
Description
Steve Bolander '62
(19 year old Ron Howard)
a conservative, clean-cut, short-sleeved, All-American type, university-bound high-school graduate who was Class President, and interested in English.
Terry Fields '63
(20 year old Charles Martin Smith)
a rising senior interested in business; a nerdy, bespectacled, duck-tailed kid known as "The Toad," with a pink and black shirt and white bucks. [The character represents the director, George Lucas]
Curtis Henderson '62
(26 year old Richard Dreyfuss in his first film)
another recent graduate interested in Science - an intelligent, plaid-shirted character. Curt is the recipient of the first scholarship, two thousand dollars, ever given out by the Moose Lodge to the top student. Restless and uncertain about leaving for college.
Laurie Henderson '63
(26 year old Cindy Williams)
Curt's slightly-younger sister and Steve's pretty, steady girlfriend with a short-bobbed hairdo. Another rising senior and the Head Cheer Leader, she wears Steve's oversized letterman sweater.

Steve leans on his white '58 Chevy Impala, Terry rides in on an uncontrollable white Vespa scooter, and Laurie drives in at the wheel of a '58 Edsel. In turmoil, Curt is uncertain about his future and anxious about the direction of his life. The next day is his departure for college - and he tells Steve about his inner conflict: "I don't think I'm gonna be going tomorrow." After all their hard work toward higher education, Steve is ready to get out of town. He is surprised by Curt's decision to remain in town, and insists that they both leave in the morning:

You chicken fink...After all we went through to get accepted? We're finally getting out of this turkey town and now you want to crawl back into your cell - right? You wanna end up like John? You just can't stay seventeen forever.

Another older character pulls up in a yellow, '32 Ford deuce coupe - John Milner '60 (21 year old Paul Le Mat), who has been out of high school since two years earlier and is an auto mechanic. He is a going-nowhere "Marlon Brando" type and an acknowledged, undisputed drag-racing idol - a James Dean-wannabe.

Later in the evening, the drive-in has come alive and is crowded with shiny chromed, hot-rod cars. ["Sixteen Candles" by The Crests.] Car-hop waitresses on roller skates circle around the restaurant delivering orders on window trays to parked cars. A '60 4-door Rambler passes with five girls in it - and honks, and a few of them call out to John. Unattached to anyone, Curt commiserates with his friend John about how times have changed:

Curt: Why is it every girl that comes around here is ugly? Or has a boyfriend? Where is the dazzling beauty I've been searching for all my life?
John: I know what you mean. The pickin's are really gettin' slim. The whole strip is shrinking. Ah, you know, I remember about five years ago, take you a couple of hours and a tank full of gas just to make one circuit. It was really somethin'.

After being served in their car, Steve and Laurie have an "adult" conversation about the future prospects for their relationship. He suggests having the freedom to date others and sleep around while away at college: "Maybe, before I leave, we could, ah, agree that, that seeing other people while I'm away can't possibly hurt, you know?...I think it would strengthen our relationship. Then we'd know for sure that we're really in love. Not that there's any doubt." Unexpectedly agreeing with him but devastated by the suggestion, Laurie removes the chain around her neck holding his class ring: "I can't expect you to be a monk or something while you're away."

Curt stands by Steve's Chevy and speaks to his sister, now traumatized and struggling to hold back her emotions about her boyfriend's imminent departure. Steve entrusts an awe-struck Terry with his car for safe-keeping until he returns at Christmas time - with only a few instructions: "Only 30 weight Castrol-R...Now I've written the tire pressure and stuff on a pad in the glove..." Overjoyed with tears, Terry blubbers: "I don't know what to say. I'll love and protect this car until death do us part. This is a superfine machine." As a prank, Terry's pants are pulled down from behind by John as he propositions one of the bellhops Budda Macrae (Jana Bellan) for a drive-in movie date in his new wheels. Steve, Laurie, and Curt have plans to go to the Freshman Hop "to remember all of the good times...for old time's sake." John has different objectives for his life - he lives in the present with his sleek hot-rod and he refuses to grow up: "I ain't goin' off to some god-damned fancy college. I'm stayin' right here. Havin' fun as usual."

["Runaway" by Del Shannon.] Everyone cruises in the one-way traffic on the main strip in their fancy automobiles - it is an endless parade of customized cars. Police cruisers are on the lookout from side streets. Couples neck close to each other in the front seats, and two guys squirt water from squirt guns across the gap of two cars pacing each other. An Italian guy named Jeff Pazzuto (Ron Vincent) informs John about a rumored drag challenger in town: "There's a very wicked '55 Chevy lookin' for you." While cruising the main drag in his newly-acquired Chevy vehicle, Terry is razzed by someone leaning out of another car: "Is that you in that beautiful car? Geez, what a waste of machinery." From the car cruising next to him, Terry is mooned by a bare-assed guy in the back seat who presses his cheeks against the car window.

Curt rides in the back seat of the Edsel, with Steve driving and Laurie close to him in the front seat. On the radio, Wolfman Jack can be heard placing a crank phone call: "Listen, you got any more of those secret agent spy-scopes?...the secret agent spy-scope, man. That pulls in the moon, the sky and the planets...and the satellites and the little bitty space men." ["Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.] While stopped at a light, Curt is tantalized as he looks over at an adjacent car - a classic white '56 Thunderbird has a beautiful blonde inside who softly mouths the words to him behind the closed car window:

I love you.

As he struggles to roll down the window to hear her, she pulls away and turns the corner. Her smiling appearance is one more reason to stay in town. He pleads with Steve to trail after her and fulfill his romantic fantasies:

Quick! Hang a right...Cut over to G Street. I just saw a vision! I saw a goddess. Come on, you've got to catch up to her....This was the most perfect, dazzling creature I've ever seen...She spoke to me. She spoke to me right through the window. I think she said, 'I love you.' That means nothing to you people? You have no romance, no soul? She - someone wants me. Someone roaming the streets wants me! Will you turn the corner?

At a prime girl-watching spot in town next to the strip, John sits slouched in his yellow deuce coupe. When a group of laughing, flirtatious girls shoots by in a Studebaker, he pursues them and pulls alongside and propositions one of the cuties: "How'd you like to ride around with me for a while?" He is refused female companionship from the girl in the front seat (Jody Carlson) because she's going steady, but 'Judy's sister' Carol Morrison '65 (Mackenzie Phillips), a rising sophomore, is volunteered to ride with him. Even so, he persists with the first girl: "You ever get tired of goin' steady with somebody that ain't around - I'm up for grabs." ["That'll Be The Day," by Buddy Holly.] At the light, Carol eagerly jumps from her car to join him.

[Note the inside joke: John's license plate reads: "THX 138", similar to the title of the first feature-length film THX-1138 (1970) directed by newcomer George Lucas - with only three numerals on the plate because of California law restrictions.]

John realizes that he has inadvertently been saddled with a chatterbox, bratty thirteen year-old girl (who wears a T-shirt emblazoned with "Surf Boards by Dewey Weber") - the kid sister of a girl he doesn't even know: "This better be a joke, 'cause I'm not drivin' you around." Unwanted by anyone, Carol considers herself a discarded object: "What's the matter? Am I too ugly? Judy doesn't want me with her and now you don't want me with you. Nobody wants me - even my mother and father hate me. Everybody hates me." Embarrassed, he pushes her head down so that he can't be seen with her.

At a stop light, Terry guns his Chevy's engine to impress the driver of the '56 Ford next to him - shooting ahead into the intersection when the green left-turn arrow flashes. Sheepishly, he backs up to the start position. When the light turns green, he floors his gas pedal - but is stunned to realize that he is still in reverse gear. His car crashes backwards into the car behind him (with the sound of smashing glass):

Man: Excuse me, but I think we've had an accident.
Terry: Well, goddamnit, I won't report you this time, but next time just watch it, will ya?

Terry pulls away, appearing indignant, leaving the man standing puzzled in the middle of the street. [Continuity error: Notice that the man's headlights are on immediately after the crash, and are off when Terry guns away.] He pulls up in front of a used car lot. As he bends down and inspects possible damage to the car's rear fender, a ready-to-deal slick salesman approaches and attempts to sell him one of the sporty 'Vettes on the lot.

In the Dewey High School gymnasium where the Freshman "Welcome Back" hop is being held, red-blazered, thin-tied Herby and the Heartbeats (Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids) sing their rendition of "At the Hop." Blue and white, twisted crepe paper is draped from the center of the gymnasium, and the walls are decorated with pennant awards. Ponytails and mid-calf skirts are gyrating among the mass of stockinged dancers swinging to The Hop. Girls without dance partners sit on the raised wooden bleachers on the sides. In front of the mirror in the girls' lavatory (where some girls are smoking), Laurie is despondent and heartbroken over Steve's departure while she brushes her hair. Her cute cheerleader girlfriend Peggy (Kathleen Quinlan) advises: "You'll forget him in a week. After you're elected senior queen, you'll have so many boys after your bod." In a parallel scene in the boys' lavatory, groups of guys are primping in front of a mirror. With an assured voice of experience, Eddie (Tim Crowley) thinks Steve's decision to "date other people" at college is a good one: "I hear college girls really put out." Someone shouts "Cherry bomb" as one of the toilets explodes and pipes gush water.

As the rock group sings a slow number ["She's So Fine," performed by Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids - and written exclusively for the film], Steve invites Laurie to dance with him: "I thought that since this is our last night together for three months, you might want to dance with me." He is soundly denied as she pushes him away - deeply hurt by his earlier cold suggestion that they date others while he's away: "Get your cooties off me." He grabs her by both arms and she makes a scene: "Go ahead, slug me, scar my face. I wouldn't dance with you if you were the last guy left in this gym." To spite him, Laurie volunteers to dance with Eddie, Peg's boyfriend - Peg cruelly insults Steve for being so emotionally inept: "Joe College strikes out."

Down an empty hallway within a school corridor, Curt walks (with his hands in his pockets) one last time to a grey locker and dials the combination, but it doesn't open. [It may be assumed that this was his last year's locker - now reassigned to someone else.] He shrugs, turns away, and continues walking. The kids in the gym are dancing in lines ["The Stroll," by the Diamonds], as Curt enters and is summoned over to speak to a young teacher, Mr. Wolfe (Terence McGovern), one of the dance supervisors who is admired by a large group of teenage girls. ["See You in September," by The Tempos.] Outside, Mr. Wolfe remembers the experience of leaving for college in Vermont - the night before, he "got drunk as hell...blotto, exactly...barfed on the train all the next day... Middlebury, Vermont. Got a scholarship...One semester. And after all that, I came back here...Decided I wasn't the competitive type. I don't know, maybe I was scared." Curt assesses his own feelings about leaving for college, facing changes and new adult responsibilities:

I think I may find that I'm not the, uh, competitive type myself...well, I'm not really sure that I'm going.

As Curt walks back toward the gym, he spots a white T-bird in the parking lot with two people making out in the front seat. But when he is about to speak to them, thinking that he has located his dream girl, he realizes his awkward error in identification.

["Surfin' Safari," by The Beach Boys.] Back on the Main Street, John glides down the drag strip in his '32 Deuce Coupe, hassled when Carol (a "grungy little twerp") takes a pressurized can of shaving cream and squirts foam in his face: "Hey, drivin' is a serious business. I ain't havin' no accidents just because of you." He abruptly turns off the surfin' song on the radio: "I don't like that surfin' s--t. Rock 'n' Roll's been goin' downhill ever since Buddy Holly died." A police car with red bubble aglow stops his car, and as the cop approaches, Carol blackmails him into repeating the phrase: "I was a dirty bird, Carol's not grungy, she's bitchin'." ["The Great Imposter," by The Fleetwoods.] After questioning Milner about his whereabouts at about 8:30 pm (and if he was at the corner of 12th and G), the cop Holstein (Jim Bohan) cites him for a burned-out license plate light and for driving a low-rider ("the front end of this, this thing you're drivin' looks a little low"). John protests that his car's front end is actually at the legal height ("12 and a half inches regulation size"). The cop threatens to pull Milner in and 'catch him in the act'. John asks Carol to file the cop's ticket with other similar ones stuffed into his glove compartment under "C.S." - "Chicken S--t."

Terry, a wanna-be cruiser, pulls up next to a black '55 Chevy, driven by western-gear-wearing Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford), with his red-haired, gum-chewing girlfriend (Debralee Scott) next to him. He is intimidated by the roar of Falfa's car and sinks lower in his seat. Falfa leans over - searching to challenge Milner: "You know a guy around here with a piss yellow deuce coupe - supposed to be hot stuff?...You tell him I'm lookin' for him, huh? Tell him I aim to blow his ass right off the road." After being left in Falfa's wake, Terry passes by the town's storefronts and notices a girl walking all by herself on the sidewalk while swinging her white purse. She is being harrassed and whistled at by a group of guys getting off their motorcycles. Debbie is wearing a blue and white striped dress and white sweater. ["Almost Grown," by Chuck Berry.] He reacts:

What a babe...what a bitchin' babe.

Terry screeches around the block to approach by her one more time - he succeeds in impressing her with the line: "Hey, did anybody ever tell you that you look just like Connie Stevens? You do, I really mean it...Yeah, I met her once. At a Dick Clark road show...I mean that I'm not just feeding you a line. I really think you do. You look alot like Connie Stevens." Startled, she comes over and leans on his window, and explains how she is a Sandra Dee-wannabe:

I always thought I looked like Sandra Dee.

She is actually a peroxide-blonde graduate from the class of '61 named Debbie Medway (Candy Clark) [interested in Home Economics from the trailer]. Now more confident, Terry boasts that his nickname is Terry the Tiger. Elated, he entices her to get in his "327 Chevy...it's got six Strombergs" to feel the "tuck and roll upholstery." Sitting close to him in the driver's seat, she encourages him:

Peel out. I just love it when guys peel out.

Nodding, he accommodates her request.


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