"Where were you in '62?"
And if you weren't around then, where were you in '73?
George Lucas followed up THX 1138 with American Graffiti, which many people consider his best film. Certainly, it's his most human, and its unexpected success changed the pop culture landscape. Without that success, Lucas never would have been able to make Star Wars. And while the stage version of Grease had already debuted and Sha Na Na were on tour, this film really kick-started the 1950s nostalgia craze. Its success made ABC take another look at the rejected pilot for Happy Days, which had a similar sensibility and one of the same actors.1 Graffiti also gave rise to the endless, aimless (and far grosser) teen comedies we've seen since, and to the wall-to-wall pop music soundtrack. It made stars of Ron Howard (who, granted, was already well-known as Opie Taylor), Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Suzanne Somers, and Mackenzie Phillips. The yellow deuce coupe driven in the film by Paul Le Mat helped revive interest in hot rodding2
Not bad for a film few people believed in.
Lucas had difficulty selling his concept, and network executives (who backed the low-budget project only when Francis Ford Coppola agreed to produce it) disliked the results. They weren't even certain they would release it theatrically. Largely at Coppola's prompting, they changed their minds. American Graffiti became one of the decade's biggest hits, garnered five Oscar nominations (including best picture, best screenplay, best director, and best supporting actress), and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for its screenplay.3
Set in Modesto, California on the final night of summer, 1962, filming principally took place in the town of Petaluma4, when nearby San Rafael canceled their agreement with the studio after a single night of shooting. Scenes at Mel's Diner took place in San Francisco, at a landmark restaurant which has since been demolished. We're in a composite small town, a neon-colored, mid-century America as mythic as the Shire. Four interconnected stories unfold over the course of one night, each fueled by the lead characters and their particular conflicts. The actors give performances so perfect I can overlook the fact that quite a few of them (most notably Dreyfuss and Williams) are clearly well beyond their teens.
Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) has won a scholarship, but isn't certain he wants to leave home for a college on the other side of the country. He spends his night trying to locate a mysterious blonde in a white T-bird, and becomes involved with a local gang of tough lowriders who more-or-less kidnap him for part of the evening because, well, they’ve got very little else to do. "He'll make a fine Moose," says a friend of his father's. He nevertheless finds himself on the wrong side of the law as the night unfolds, but he wins the Pharoahs' respect and arrives at a decision about his future.
Steve Bollander (Ronny Howard) wonders about his relationship with his girlfriend (Cindy Williams) and his desire to move on and out of Modesto. We get no major, earth-shattering drama here, but rather, the smaller and louder kind most of us remember from high school. We also get a glimpse of high school as it no longer exists, as Steve and Laurie visit the freshmen hop and Curt talks to a "cool" teacher whose relationship with his female students raises eyebrows.
Geeky Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith) finds himself in the most obviously comical plot, as he tries to impress his newfound girlfriend, Debbie (Candy Clark). Despite his clumsiness, exaggerated tales, and difficulty with liquor, Debbie concludes that she's had a really good time.
Perhaps the most engaging chemistry occurs between the oldest member of the gang, local mechanic and drag-race king John Milner (ex-boxer Paul Le Mat), and the youngest member of the cast, teenie bopper Carol (Mackenzie Phillips). Circumstances force the two together, and they develop an amusing, but never creepy, rapport. Despite his tough exterior, Milner obviously has genuine affection and concern for his motor-mouthed charge. Milner graduated two years before the others, but he continues to hold onto his youth, cruising the strip and taking on drag race challengers, including newcomer Falfa (Harrison Ford). As the night wears on, we realize that Milner has reservations about his lifestyle, ones he cannot clearly articulate. Although a very different, more realistic tough guy than Happy Days's Fonzie, he must have been one model for that character, who did not appear in the original pilot for the series.
The plots concern growing up, moving on, and losing innocence. We see this happen with some young people coming into adulthood, but also, to an America which was about to shed its postwar optimism and the ability to see itself as innocent. Micro- and macrocosm link in the "Where are they now?" finale-- a cinematic cliché that seemed fresh in 1973, and which Lucas used to good effect. It places the characters in history and gestures towards the nostalgic film's darker subtexts.5
Holding the adventures together we have the cars cruising our mythic strip, plots intersecting at key points, and Wolfman Jack spinning forty-one classic forty-fives. Lucas selected the songs and directed with them in mind; they were his score. He was able to play all of his choices, save for some Elvis Presley songs (Presley's people demanded more money). The film uses no incidental music, though other ambient sounds help create various effects.
The budget was low and shooting was cheap. The filmmakers used a technique which develops a shot on half of each 35 mm frame, resulting in a slightly grainy image. Lights were placed wherever the crew could find room: on streetlamps and on the backs of cars. Businesses were contacted to see if they would leave shop lights on. The actors shared a dressing trailer and, since filming took place during the night and early morning, often napped on location. The final scenes, by and large, were filmed last, assuring that the actors were exhausted from weeks of a tight, all-night schedule. It gives them the look of kids who've been cruising around 'til morning.
Lucas filmed in a documentary style, rarely blocking actors and in some instances, not preparing them for where the camera would be. Charles Martin Smith crashes his Vespa when he enters the film; the actor (who'd had about one hour of prior experience with the scooter) was trying to be inelegant, but he wasn't trying to crash.6 Lucas kept the take, because it was funny and it clearly established Toad's awkwardness. Later, he made the same actor redo a scene where he catches a bottle of Old Harper. The results looked too perfect. After several takes, Smith fumbled and nearly dropped the bottle. That take appears in the film. Lucas also let actors improvise, in some cases changing lines or filling in small, deliberate holes in the script with in-character banter. The approach creates a realism of character missing from most of the film's imitators. Of course, it's not flawless. Location shooting and a tight schedule occasionally create problems. Terry and Debbie appear to wander into early morning, at one point, and then back into the darkness of night. Products and cars appear which miss their era by a year or two. Most famously, the theater marquee advertises Dementia 13, released in 1963. At least Lucas made this error on purpose; Dementia was producer/mentor Coppola's first feature.7
These are trivial matters. If you haven't seen American Graffiti, you really should. Despite its fleet of imitators, this quirky blend of drama, comedy, nostalgia, and lost teen culture remains a unique, unequaled model.
Directed by George Lucas
Written by George Lucas, Gloria Katz, and William Huyck
Produced by Francis Ford Coppola
Richard Dreyfuss as Curt Henderson
Ron Howard as Steve Bolander
Paul Le Mat as John Milner
Charles Martin Smith as Terry "The Toad" Fields
Cindy Williams as Laurie Henderson
Candy Clark as Debbie Dunham
Mackenzie Phillips as Carol
Wolfman Jack as Himself
Bo Hopkins as Joe Young
Harrison Ford as Bob Falfa
Manuel Padilla Jr. as Carlos
Beau Gentry as Ants
Jim Bohan as Officer Holstein
Jana Bellan as Budda
Deby Celiz as Wendy
Terence McGovern as Mr. Bill Wolfe
Kathleen Quinlan as Peg
Debralee Scott as Girl with Falfa
Johnny Weissmuller Jr. as Badass #1
Suzanne Somers as Blonde Woman in T-Bird
Herby and the Heartbeats as Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids
1. Happy Days' early seasons contain numerous echoes of the film. Arnold's obviously takes its inspiration from Mel's. The band that plays Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids appear as Johnny Fish and the Fins. In one episode, Richie and friends must deal with a tough gang led by a character not unlike Bo Hopkins' head Pharoah; Pharoah Manuel Padilla Jr. plays a member.
2. Famously, the custom coupe's license plate reads THX 138, a nod to Lucas’s first film.
3. Lucas won the Directors Guild Award that year. American Graffiti has also been identified as one of the great American movies by the American Film Institute (1998) and entered into the Library of Congress (1994). The most ironic accolade goes to Paul Le Mat, who won the 1973 Hollywood Foreign Press Association Award for Best New Star. He gives a standout performance but, unlike most of the film's other stars (and despite steady work as an actor), he's never repeated his success.
4. Petaluma, which preserves much of its classic America architecture, has served as a location for numerous Hollywood films.
5. Much has been made of the fact that the female characters do not receive a "Where are they now?" True enough—- but neither do the Pharoahs or the Wolfman. These four guys are the film's protagonists. The sequel devotes more attention to both Laurie and Debbie.
6. This and other behind-the-scenes references have been taken from interviews featured on the American Graffiti: Drive-In Double Feature DVD.
7. The film also leaves me wondering if quite that many businesses stayed open all night in small town California, 1962.