American Graffiti (1973)
Starring Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Paul LeMat, Charles Martin Smith, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Wolfman Jack, Harrison Ford, Bo Hopkins, Suzanne Somers, Joe Spano and Kathleen Quinlan. Directed by George Lucas. From Universal Pictures.
We have explored the plot and the cast of this delightful film (Part 1), looked at how and with whom Lucas got it made (Part 2) and the impact this movie had on the industry and the public (Part 3). Now comes the fun part. We’ve discussed the practical aspects surrounding the film, now let’s look at the intangibles; how society has embraced American Graffiti and how it makes you feel.
I was in my pre-teens and my step-father was disgusted that I had never seen American Graffiti. He always says that 1962 was his year and he, like many men of his generation, have a deep, intense love affair going with this film. So, I watched it and while I don’t remember loving it right away I immediately sensed the emotion of the piece. I soon bought the film – first on VHS, then on DVD on a set with it’s sequel and then on Blu-ray – and began to fall in love with it. I shared it with my two sons and it quickly became an “event movie” for us.
And it became a Labour Day tradition for us. Because that’s when it takes place. Doesn’t it? One of the many things my boys and I discussed was when does this film take place? The premise of the film is set in motion by the fact that – the next morning – Steve and Curt are leaving for college. I figured, then, that the guys had to be at the college for the day after Labour Day, when high school, at least, starts. But also near the beginning of the film, Steve, Laurie and Curt go to the hop. At the high school. According to The Complete American Graffiti: The Novel, the action of the first film takes place September 15th, 1962. So, the high school is a week or so in and they’re having their freshman hop. Thing is; what kind of schools are Steve and Curt going to that get started so late? And a side note on this interesting “complete novel” that novelizes the two films; the author puts forth the idea that the car that killed John Milner was the white ’56 Thunderbird driven by “Sheri”, the blonde. Also in the car was her date, Officer Holstein and Budda, the car hop from Mel’s, and her date, Bob Falfa. It’s as if this author just threw all remaining characters in this ludicrous scene.
Having said all that, while the film packs plenty of emotion on it’s own, when you watch the lives of these kids change so dramatically and you watch it on a Labour Day weekend, a weekend that marks the end of summer and will usher in changes in your own life, the feelings you get from the film are heightened. The major appeal for me of American Graffiti comes from the dramatic depiction of what I call the pivot point. I mean, it’s just life, right? Everybody goes through this. But something as simple as turning away from your youth and heading towards adult life is a very heavy thing. In addition, Lucas’ film takes place in the dying moments of a simpler time that was soon to be left behind beginning with a nation mourning a slain president and carrying on through discord in society, war, the generation gap, etc.
Lucas doesn’t hit you over the head with this emotion, though. It simply permeates the tale. Actually, as opposed to drama in the movie, you instead get quite a lot of good, old fashioned comedy. There are many scenes and lines that have become in-jokes in my family and probably in yours. Right from the get-go, Terry crashing his Vespa and the story behind that scene. John telling a girl “if the prize is you, honey, I’m a ready teddy” (I say that all the time). Curt “introducing” Bobbie to Kip. Vic (Joe Spano) showing up to talk to Debbie while she’s sitting in the Impala with Toad: “Listen, creep. You want a knuckle sandwich?” “Oh, no, thanks. I’m waiting for a Double Chubby Chuck”. The Pharaoh’s dealing with Curt: “Like every other guy in town you’ve got the same secret dream. You wanna be a Pharaoh”. “Gil Gonzalez? Yeah, we know him. We killed him last night. Tied him to the car and dragged him”. And I gotta say; just about every exchange between the unlikely pair of John and Carol is delightfully warm and filled with humour.
Amongst all this comedy, Lucas imparts something that is profound. The blonde in the T-Bird, played by Suzanne Somers, has often been discussed as a symbol, a metaphor that represents Curt’s youth. Curt is supposed to go off to school. He is supposed to leave his hometown, leave his friends, he is supposed to leave his youth, his old life behind. This, of course, is daunting and arouses emotions in Curt, fear, trepidation. A big part of him wants to hang on tightly to his childhood, his high school self and not go away and become an adult. This is something we can all relate to. When he sees the mysterious blonde, he is enchanted and he wants to pursue her, to find her and possess her. Something about the pursuit of her is comforting to him; he thinks if he can find her, she will love him and they will be together always. But she proves elusive. In fact, he cannot find her. He sees her passing but can’t get close. He’s trapped in the Pharaoh’s Merc and she goes by. Elusive. By the end of the film, Curt is able to talk to her on the phone. The phone is in itself an impersonal instrument; you can’t see or touch the person you’re talking to. Curt is almost frantic on the phone. He is desperate for some connection to this girl. When she suggests they meet that night, Curt is crestfallen, saying he will be gone. “Wait! Wait! Just tell me your name!”, he yells into the phone. Give me something! But all she says is “Bye, Curt”. The idea that she represents Curt’s youth is very moving to me. He wants to get a firm grip on his youth, to hold on to it. Like he did with the blonde, he begs for something, anything, from his youth. Please, let me hang on to you. But all his youth says is “Bye, Curt”. This is so poignant to me it’s painful. I’ve heard that Lucas had wanted to film an opening scene that would reveal that the blonde is not real – this would have driven the whole analogy home.
One of the many things Universal objected to when they first saw George’s film was the fact that he tells four separate stories that don’t really intersect. Funny but that became how most television shows have worked for the last 40 years. Tarantino has used this technique throughout his career. This is one of the things that George Lucas talks about in the excellent documentary that accompanies American Graffiti on the DVD/Blu-ray. Most “Special Features” that come with movies are pointless and/or excessive to the point of tedium but this doc is almost as enjoyable as the film. Interesting that all the players are on hand to talk about their experiences making the film. Even old Silent Sam, Harrison Ford. The only person missing is Bo Hopkins and this lead me to believe that he was dead, but he’s not. Also missing is Wolfman Jack, who passed away in 1995. To hear George and Francis Coppola talk about the making of the film fascinating.
A final note on the music: nowadays there is a position on movies known as “Music Supervisor”; this is the person that chooses the songs that will be used in a film. Another way Lucas was a pioneer is in the fact that he basically created that position when he chose all the music for Graffiti.
George Lucas served as Executive Producer of the sequel, More American Graffiti (1979). He chose filmmaker B.W.L. Norton to write and direct; Norton is a flyer and has no other notable credits. Like most sequels of popular films, it is not great and maybe gets dismissed and it was certainly not necessary but it makes for fun viewing and, like I always say, it is nice to have more story to these characters. Ron Howard returns although he was a star on TV’s Happy Days and was beginning to turn toward directing. Paul LeMat and Candy Clark are featured in segments and Toad’s adventures in Vietnam show that he became “Missing in Action” because he faked his own death and took off into the jungle. Curt and Laurie apparently have a younger brother, Andy, who goes to Berkeley and Harrison Ford appears as Falfa who is now a motorcycle cop although you can hardly tell it’s him. Star Wars two years earlier had made him a star. Also seen in the sequel: Scott Glenn, Mary Kay Place, Rosanna Arquette, Naomi Judd and Delroy Lindo.
My regular readers have often heard me tell of how I will run to the internet after watching a movie to find out everything I can about it. Doing this with American Graffiti has provided me with hours of kicks. Take for example looking up Filming Locations at the film’s IMDb page. Curt goes to where he thinks the Wolfman is broadcasting from – Pharaoh Joe has mentioned there is a building just outside of town. Where they shot the exterior scenes is the KTOB transmitter site which is on a dirt road in Petaluma called Rovina Lane. Google Maps shows the current (2008) location looking like the photo below. Fascinating. Scenes inside the radio station were filmed at the KRE transmitter and studio site in Berkeley. This piece of information was supplied to me by David Jackson, curator of the Bay Area Radio Museum and for this I am grateful.
The Mel’s Drive-In where the film was shot has been demolished, if you can believe it, but the franchise still thrives and I follow them on Instagram. There are a few other places to go on the web that provide you with absolutely everything you could ever want to know about American Graffiti. “Kip’s ‘American Graffiti’ Blog” is ridiculously loaded with information. For example; wanna know what Lucas shot on Friday, July 7, 1972? Which was “Shoot Day 9”, by the way. Kip’s got the skinny.
But my favourite has got to be the city of Petaluma’s site “Cruisin’ the Boulevard” at AmericanGraffiti.net. Being the home of the film, the location where most of it was shot, gives the city a bit of a leg up on other sites and their’s is loaded with information and trivia and it’s really easy to navigate. I was overcome with joy the first time I found the map they offer, showing where many of the scenes were shot. Take a look for yourself here.
This site lists every one of the film’s locations complete with specific addresses so you can check them out on Google Maps. Their “Then and Now” page, though, is well set up to give you shots from the movie compared with pictures from the same places today. For example, Debbie waits in the car while Toad tries to score some Old Harper at 884 Bodega Ave. which used to be Gilardi’s Liquors but is now Fish Heads Bait and Tackle – but they also sell liquor, beer and probably beef jerky, ball point pens, combs… Actually, looking at their website, they seem to be out of business. And can you believe that the used car lot where Toad was accosted by a pushy salesman is still a used car lot? 320 Petaluma Blvd. N.
So you can see that George Lucas’ personal story has cut a wide swath through society. Even the title of his film. Everybody hated it and suggested others; Rock Around the Block (not bad) and Another Slow Night in Modesto. The studio was worried that people wouldn’t know what American Graffiti meant; some idiot thought people might think it was about feet. But Lucas was adamant. Think about it; if every country in the world was given a can of spray paint and a blank brick wall and they were told to “tag” their identity on this wall, America’s entry would likely look like George’s film. To this day, the term “Graffiti Night” is often used to reference an antique car show in the local Walmart parking lot.
American Graffiti made George Lucas a millionaire; his net worth after the film was $4 million. As payment, he had given Wolfman Jack a “fraction of a point” – a minute share of the profits – and this set the Wolfman up financially for life. Lucas also gave Haskell Wexler an amount of the profits for his help. From his windfall, Lucas put aside $300,000 towards work on his next project, his “space opera” that would become Star Wars. You know what that means? Because of American Graffiti, we have the vast cinematic universe that is the Star Wars franchise, a concern that has generated revenues in the neighbourhood of $7 billion dollars. That’s not counting the merchandise. The financial success of Graffiti enabled George to establish and develop Lucasfilm, Skywalker Sound and Industrial Light and Magic, companies utilized by countless filmmakers; George Lucas’ fingerprints are all over the industry. You know what the guy is worth today? Over $6.1 billion dollars. A lot of that started with a suggestion from Francis Ford Coppola and a little, warm personal film. A boy, his records and his car.
Of all the 23 movies I call my favourites, few have actually embedded themselves in the fabric of my life. Summer ending is a serious thing in many ways. When vacation living is over and school is back in session, it can mean major life changes. This is particularly heavy for me this year as my youngest son will go off and join his older brother at school on Labour Day, leaving my wife and I alone in the house. But my boy wanted to watch American Graffiti with me again this year before he left. So George Lucas’ immortal film has once again made an appearance at a significant time for me. And my life is all the better for it.