Before the Force 2: George Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI (Universal 1973)

amer1After the box office failure of THX-1138, George Lucas had an idea for a different kind of film. A comedy-drama based on his experiences growing up in early 1960s Modesto, California. AMERICAN GRAFFITI was the first movie produced (by Lucas’ friend Francis Ford Coppola) under his Lucasfilms banner. The new project was rejected by all the major Hollywood studios, until Universal decided to take a chance and green light the production. A wise choice, for AMERICAN GRAFFITI was one of 1973’s biggest hits, garnering Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing, and Supporting Actress (Candy Clark), and putting George Lucas on the map as a “Force” to be reckoned with.

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The story follows four friends on the last day of summer 1962. Steve (Ron Howard) is heading east to college, much to the displeasure of high-school sweetheart Laurie (Cindy Williams). When he tells her they should see other people while he’s away, they break up and make up and break up again. It’s a typical teen romance, done realistically, and the duo make you actually care if they’ll stay together.

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Laurie’s brother and Steve’s best friend Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is supposed to accompany him east, but is having doubts about leaving. He spots a beautiful blonde in a white T-Bird (Suzanne Somers), and goes on a quest to find her. When he runs afoul of local gang the Pharaohs (led by Bo Hopkins, channeling Brando), he gets involved with a prank on the local law (“Holsteins”) by chaining their axel to post in an iconic scene that’s been duplicated but never topped.

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John Milner (Paul LeMat) is the town’s King of the Hot-Rodders, who’s never lost a race. While cruising the strip, he ends up getting stuck with a pre-teen named Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) who drives him crazy. Milner and Carol make an odd couple indeed, but they have great chemistry together. Meanwhile, there’s an out of town greaser named Falfa (Harrison Ford) in a ’55 Chevy looking to take him down as racing champ. (BTW, there’s a couple of in-jokes in AMERICAN GRAFFITI. One is Milner’s license plate number…THX 138! The other is the movie playing at the local cinema. You’ll have to try and spot it for yourselves.)

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Then there’s Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith), everyone’s nerdy pal, who’s given the honor of using Steve’s car while he’s away. Terry tries to be cool, and picks up a girl named Debbie (Clark) while cruising. Terry’s efforts to buy booze to impress the been-around Debbie are hilarious. The two end up parking down by the canal, and when things start to get hot and heavy, they grab a blanket and go outside, only to find the car’s been stolen when they return! Terry and Debbie’s story is probably my favorite, as everyone knew (or knows) a Terry.

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These four stories are woven together in separate scenes, culminating in the showdown race between Milner and Falfa at Paradise Road. The whole movie is held together by the vintage 50s-60s songs played throughout, with legendary DJ Wolfman Jack broadcasting from a radio station on the outskirts of town. Jack himself makes an appearance when Curt goes to the station to have a song dedicated to the Girl in the White T-Bird. The use of pop music as soundtrack was a first I believe, soon to become de rigueur in films. The soundtrack album was also a best seller, featuring all the original artists (and yes, I own the CD!).  

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AMERICAN GRAFFITI launched the careers of most of the young actors, and ushered in the 50s nostalgia boom in the 1970s. People were sick of Vietnam and Watergate, and eager to return to a simpler time. Soon movies like THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH and GREASE hit the screen, and television joined in with HAPPY DAYS (starring Howard) and LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY (with Williams). 50s cover band Sha Na Na got heir own show, and classic rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley released new albums. George Lucas had made his mark by affecting pop culture in a big way. Four years later, he’d affect it even bigger with the release of his third film, a little space opera called STAR WARS.

 

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