Growing Pains: YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW (Warner Brothers 1966)

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Francis Ford Coppola  was still a UCLA film student when he made YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, the 1966 coming of age comedy he used as his MFA thesis. The young Coppola was 27, and had gained experience working for Roger Corman ; indeed, Corman gave him his first break when he hired Coppola to write and direct the horror quickie DEMENTIA 13. But YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW was his first major studio release, and put him on the map as a talent to keep an eye on.

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Bernard Chanticleer is a 19 year old nerd with a way-overprotective mother and disinterested, authoritarian father. He works for Dad at a New York City library, and is constantly goofing up on the job. Dad thinks it’s time for Bernard to spread his wings and move on his own, much to Mom’s displeasure. She finds him a room at a house owned by Miss Thing, who’s tenants include conservative Patrolman Graf. The house comes complete with Miss Thing’s late brother’s chicken, who’ll peck at any females coming to Bernard’s floor, making Mom extremely happy.

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Co-worker Amy Partlett has a crush on Bernard, so man-of-the-world pal Raef tries to school Bernard in how to get in her pants. But Bernard only has eyes for Barbara Darling, a weirdo actress in an Off-Off-Off Broadway play. Barbara, who’s best friend is a dwarf writing her biography, reads Bernard’s gushing fan letter and decides to meet him. But little does he know his dreamgirl is a bipolar nightmare, having him move in, sexually teasing then degrading him to the point where he can’t get it up. Meanwhile, Amy’s frantic calls to the rooming house cause Miss Thing to pay a visit to Dad, winding up locked in a vault with his antique collection of erotica, and the craziness really escalates after Bernard steals Dad’s rare Gutterberg Bible and makes a mad dash through the streets of New York!

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There’s no doubt this was made in the swingin’ 60’s, from the frenetic jumps cuts to the drug references (Raef slips Bernard some LSD) to the soundtrack by John Sebastian and The Lovin’ Spoonful, including the hit single “Darlin’ Be Home Soon”. We even get treated to shots of Bernard touring Times Square in it’s mid-60’s sleazy Grindhouse heyday. Editor Aram Avakian does an outstanding job putting together Copploa’s scenes, incorporating footage from the director’s DEMENTIA 13 and Corman’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM  for good measure.

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The casting is an eclectic mix of newcomers and veterans. Canadian Peter Kastner plays Bernard as earnest yet endearingly goofy, conveying the youthful angst of a mama’s boy trying to break free. Karen Black makes her major film debut as Amy (she had a miniscule part in the 1960 exploitaioner THE PRIME TIME), and went on to a long career. Tony Bill (Raef) had been seen in COME BLOW YOUR HORN and SODLIER IN THE RAIN, later becoming a director (MY BODYGUARD, SIX WEEKS) and producer of note. Elizabeth Hartman (Barbara) had been Oscar nominated the previous year for her debut in A PATCH OF BLUE; at the time, she was the youngest (22) ever nominated for Best Actress.

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The vets include husband-and-wife team (at the time) Rip Torn and Geraldine Page as Bernard’s befuddled parents, Julie Harris as the prudish Miss Thing, Michael Dunn (THE WILD WILD WEST’s Dr. Miguelito Loveless) as Barbara’s confidant, and New York actor Dolph Sweet (later of the sitcom GIMME A BREAK) as the cop. YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW is no GODFATHER or APOCALYPSE NOW, but Coppola fans will want to check out this early work, when the young director was just finding his voice and vision.

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.

 

Before the Force: George Lucas’ THX-1138 (Warner Brothers 1971)

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George Lucas was a 23 year old film student at USC when he made the short ELECTRIC LABYRINTH: THX 1138 4EB. This 15 minute highly stylized film won first prize at the National Student Film Festival, and Lucas was given an apprenticeship at Warner Brothers. With the help of his friend and USC alumni Francis Ford Coppola, Lucas expanded his short into the feature film THX-1138.

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In the future, the masses are controlled by drugs that keep them in a state of sedation. No emotions allowed, especially sexual feelings. Everyone conforms to standard, with shaved heads and asexual jumpsuits. THX (Robert Duvall) works in a robot factory making android police, while his roommate LUH-3417 (Maggie McOmie) is a surveillance expert alongside SEN-5241 (Donald Pleasence). LUH begins switching THX’s meds, and the two discover the joy of sex. They’re found out and separated, and SEN tries to move in with THX, who reports him. Both men are sent to rehabilitation, and THX tries to find LUH and escape from his conformist life.

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I saw THX-1138 when it first came out (I was a young teen) and found it boring. Upon rewatching, I feel the same way. It just doesn’t grab me emotionally or draw me into its world at all. The film is technically brilliant, with Walter Murch’s sound work playing an important part, and the great Donald Pleasence is engaging as SEN, but as a whole I just don’t enjoy it. Don’t expect to see any Jedi Knights or cute whirring androids here; it’s not that kind of sci-fi. The closest it comes to STAR WARS is the opening sequence featuring clips of the 30s serial BUCK ROGERS, and the scrolling credits. For me, the film needed more Buck Rogers and less pretentious talk.

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THX-1138 didn’t do well at the box office, but it did show George Lucas as a filmmaker with a future. It’s too cold to be anything but a curio of Lucas’ early work, but his next film would show a different side of Lucas, one with more heart. Next time I’ll be looking at the smash 1973 hit AMERICAN GRAFFITI.

Meanwhile, for all you Lucasphiles out there, here’s the original 1967 short ELECTRIC LABYRINTH: THX 1138 4EB: