Thanksgiving Tradition: ALICE’S RESTAURANT (United Artists 1969)

There’s another Thanksgiving tradition besides gorging on turkey’n’trimmings and watching football (which usually ends up with me crashed on the couch!), and that’s listening to Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 story/song “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”. Here in chilly Southern New England, I catch the annual broadcast on 94-HJY (Providence’s Home of Rock’N’Roll) at noontime, just before the yearly chow down. Arlo’s one of our own, though born in Brooklyn a long-time Massachusetts resident, and still frequently plays concerts around the state (catch him if he’s in your neck of the woods, he always puts on a good show).

Director Arthur Penn stretched Arlo’s 18-plus minute autobiographical tune into a 111 minute film back in 1969. ALICE’S RESTAURANT is not a great film, but it is a good one, with Penn and coscenarist Venable Herndon hitting all the touchstones of the counterculture movement: free love (read: sex), drug use, the Vietnam War, long-haired “freaks” vs establishment “straights”. Penn doesn’t gloss over or romanticize things either, instead giving the viewer a look at how these particular hippies live, work, and play without rose-colored glasses.  Despite any current nostalgia for the days of “peace’n’love, man”, we learn they are just as concerned with their place in society as the rest of us, with all of the same hopes and fears as the so-called squares.

The loosely constructed plot follows Arlo on a journey to self-discovery and his own place in the sun. Guthrie plays himself (or the fictionalized version of himself), and his pleasant personality carries him through whatever deficiencies he had as an actor. He’s especially good in the scenes where he visits with his father, folk legend Woody Guthrie, as the elder man lays dying in a hospital bed of the Huntington’s disease that killed him. The scenes are quite poignant, only brightened when another folk legend, Pete Seegar (playing himself), shows up and the two try to cheer Woody up by dueting on Woody’s “Riding in the Car Car”.

Arlo’s two friends, the grandiose man-child Ray Brock (James Broderick) and his wife Alice (Pat Quinn), are the hubs of this hippie universe, and both give good, nuanced performances. Another friend, Shelly, has a heroin addiction, and actor Michael McClanathan delivers a realistic performance as the gentle dope fiend. McClanathan, who only has six screen credits to his name, is alive and well and living in Phoenix as a professional bagpiper ( Visit his website here! ).

ALICE’S RESTAURANT also features the real-life Officer Obie (William Obanheim) and Judge James Hannon of “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” fame playing themselves, complete with the “8X10 color glossy photographs with the circles and the arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one” and a trial ending with “a clear case of blind justice”. The scene with Arlo at the draft board, forced to sit with the “mother rapers, father stabbers, father rapers” and all kinds of mean, nasty things on the Group W bench is revisited too, but this being Thanksgiving Eve, I think I’ll just step back and let Arlo himself tell you the story. Enjoy your bird, everyone!: