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American Graffiti (1973)

August 5th, 2008 · 5 Comments

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In a small California town in the early 1960s, several stories unfold on the night of high school graduation: Terry “The Toad” (Charles Martin Smith) crashes his Vespa into Mel’s Drive-In. Class president Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) is ready to leave “this turkey town” in the morning, while Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) isn’t sure if he wants to go to college. John Milner (Paul LeMat) – a drag racer who cruises the strip in his yellow Ford Coupe – laments the local scene. “The whole strip is shrinkin’. You know, I remember about five years ago, take ya a couple of hours and a tank full of gas just to make one circuit. It was really somethin’.”

Steve is under the delusion that he wants to see other people and tries to convince his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) it would strengthen their relationship. She goes along at first, but cools to her boyfriend as the night goes on. Steve turns over the keys to his ’58 Chevy Impala to Terry to take care of while he’s at school and the geek hits the strip in his new wheels. While Steve, Laurie and Curt check in on the high school hop, Milner is stuck cruising around all night with “a grungy little twerp” (Mackenzie Phillips) that he can’t get rid of. Word reaches Milner that a stranger (Harrison Ford) in a ’55 Chevy is looking to race him.

Terry manages to pick up a car loving blonde named Debbie (Candy Clark) by telling her she looks like Connie Stevens. Terry’s savoir faire with Debbie is ruffled when he loses Steve’s car. Curt spends the evening searching for a blonde (Suzanne Somers) in a white Ford T-Bird. He gets sidetracked when a gang of greasers adopts him into their gang. With his time running out to find the dream woman, Curt seeks the help of Wolfman Jack, the mysterious rock ‘n roll deejay known to the kids only as the wild voice spinning platters over the airwaves.


Production history
George Lucas’ first feature film – a full length version of a short he’d made at USC titled THX-1138 – had been so poorly received by Warner Bros. in 1970 that the studio terminated its development deal with executive producer Francis Coppola, sending his Zoetrope Studios packing. Lucas was 27 years old and disillusioned that there seemed to be no audience for American art films. Coppola issued his protégé a challenge: “Don’t be so weird, try to do something that’s human. Don’t do these abstract things. All you do is science fiction. Everyone thinks you’re a cold fish, but you can be a warm and funny guy. Make a warm and funny movie.”

Lucas recalls, “Like most kids that grew up in the Valley, I had a strong interest in cruising. When I got to college and actually studied a lot of anthropology, I began to realize that was a uniquely American mating ritual involving automobiles. I came up with the idea of doing the movie. It was in the ‘60s. It was, you know, the hippie culture, drugs. Cruising was gone and I really felt compelled to sort of document the whole experience of cruising and what my generation used as a way of meeting girls and what we did in our spare time.” After THX-1138, Lucas swore he’d never write another screenplay. He drafted a treatment and hoped to raise money for his friends Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz to write a screenplay.

None of the studios Lucas approached were interested in giving him money. He sought out the president of United Artists – David Picker – at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971 and was given $10,000 to expand his treatment. By this time, Huyck & Katz were busy directing the horror flick Messiah of Evil and were unavailable. Lucas contacted USC alum Richard Walter to write a script, but was not happy with the results, which did not reflect his experiences growing up in Northern California. Walter’s response was, “I’m a Jew from New York. What do I know from Modesto? We didn’t have cars. We rode the subway, or bicycles.”


With no money and no usable script, Lucas broke his vow and in three weeks, banged out a screenplay for American Graffiti based on the treatment he’d developed with Huyck & Katz. United Artists hated it, telling Lucas, “It’s a musical montage. There’s no characters. There’s no story.” After a year of rewriting and pleading, Lucas got the attention of Universal vice president Ned Tanen, who’d grown up in Southern California’s cruising culture. To prevent a repeat of THX-1138, Tanen required Lucas get a big name involved. Handed a list of producers the studio was willing to work with, Lucas selected Francis Coppola.

Coppola had just finished shooting The Godfather and became intrigued with the idea of bankrolling American Graffiti himself. He secured a $700,000 bank loan against his cut of The Godfather. Coppola’s wife Ellie – who didn’t particularly like Lucas’ script – talked her husband out of it, convincing Coppola that the time to borrow against The Godfather would be on a project that the studios were unwilling to finance. Huyck recalls, “Francis got the movie made. George would be at the airport and he’d see two guys arguing and he’d say, ‘They’re the exact people I want for my movie,’ so he’d bring them in for a reading and Francis would say, ‘George, I think we need real actors.’”

Casting director Fred Roos selected a number of actors to make their big screen debuts: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams and Harrison Ford. Huyck & Katz punched up the script at the last minute, adding the material concerning Howard & Williams’ characters. After working with a $1.2 million budget on THX, Lucas accepted $750,000 for Graffiti. Shooting commenced in June 1972 and did not proceed smoothly. On the first night, it took so long to get cameras mounted on the cars that filming didn’t start until 2 o’clock in the morning. The next day, the city of San Rafael threw the production out. Shooting resumed in nearby Petaluma, but a fire in town prevented any filming that night.


Lucas recalls, “American Graffiti was unpleasant because of the fact that there was no money, no time and I was compromising myself to death. But I could rationalize it because of the fact that, well, it is just a $700,000 picture. It’s Roger Corman, and what do you expect, you can’t expect everything to be right for making a little cheesy, low-budget movie.” Lucas wanted the film to look like a jukebox – strong, saturated colors – but feel like a documentary, with handheld cameras capturing action as it was happening. Difficulty keeping the actors in focus led to Lucas bringing in cinematographer Haskell Wexler to consult.

Walter Murch was hired to design the sound for American Graffiti. He recalls, “It was really the first film to have wall-to-wall classic rock soundtrack, something that has set a precedent and is fairly common today. Such that now you have a credit for somebody on films called ‘music supervisor’ and that’s their responsibility, choosing the song. Well, this position didn’t exist at that time and George really created it and he did it himself, so as he was writing the screenplay, he had his sister’s 45 rpm record player and this stack of rock ‘n roll 45 rpm records from the late 1950s early 1960s.”

Even after a boisterous January 1973 preview at the Northpoint Theater in San Francisco, Ned Tanen and Universal had low expectations for American Graffiti, which seemed to be just another youth picture like Two-Lane Blacktop or The Hired Hand that the studio had failed to sell to audiences. Lucas recalls, “It had become depressing to go to the movies. I decided it was time to make a movie where people felt better coming out of the theater than when they went in.” Opening August 1973, American Graffiti broke house records on its way to a whopping $55.1 million in the U.S., making it the third highest grossing film of the year.


Stephen Farber wrote in The New York Times “The nostalgia boom has finally produced a lasting work of art. Lucas has brought the past alive, with sympathy, affection and thorough understanding … at 28 he is already one of the world’s master directors.” Vincent Canby’s review later tempered the hype, but admitted “American Graffiti is such a funny, accurate movie, so controlled and efficient in its narrative, that it stands to be over praised to the point where seeing it will be an anticlimax.” Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert ranked it #8 on their lists of the year’s ten best films. The film industry responded with five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.

Though its success was indirectly responsible for Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and so much styrofoam packaging that littered the TV landscape in the ‘70s, American Graffiti is a minor masterpiece, American neo-realism breathlessly propelling its narrative forward with ‘50s bubblegum pop and vintage cars as opposed to a traditional plot. The result is a film of rhythms, moods and life. It remains continually amusing, not because of jokes, but for the fleeting moments it captures: Terry the Toad trying to score some beer, Milner trying to get the attention of a carload of cute girls, even Ronny Howard telling a teacher to “go kiss a duck, Marblehead.”

George Lucas isn’t interested much in character and probably won’t ever win an Oscar for writing, but his skills as a graphic designer, gearhead and mythmaker are on parade here as much as they were in Star Wars. The cast – notably Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Martin Smith, Candy Clark and Harrison Ford, who’s hilarious as a drag racing bumpkin – relate to each other and their surroundings with believability. The film bottles the spirit of the Baby Boomer generation without imposing a message on the audience, using the voice of Wolfman Jack as a sort of spirit guide through the sights and sounds. Dreyfuss’ enigmatic, face to face encounter with the deejay late in the film is magic and worth the price of rental alone.


Raphael Pour-Hashemi at DVD Times writes, “Although American Graffiti is highly regarded as an American classic, it falls flat on a number of reasons. Firstly, the film relies too heavily on fifties nostalgia, and though this may have seemed a novelty in 1973, it has been severely worn out in 2001. Don’t forget, that this film was made a year before Happy Days and the numerous other rehashes. Secondly, because it relies so heavily on nostalgia, the film puts less stock in a properly structured screenplay, and American Graffiti lacks a strong enough thread to pull the audience through the film.”

“The most flippant place to start is with George Lucas – specifically, what happened to the George Lucas who made American Graffiti … For a film with [three] cinematographers listed in the end credits, American Graffiti is beautifully lighted. I first saw the film when I was in my early teens and to this day, all my memories of teenage late nights are in the film’s day-for-night lighting. The street scenes are amazing. The scene with the police car is fantastic, but Paul Le Mat and Mackenzie Phillips’s entire ride is probably the best. It’s all just so perfectly executed – and only made better by the exceptional editing,” writes Andrew Wickliffe at The Stop Button.

John Puccio at DVD Town writes, “Besides my very personal reasons for liking it, American Graffiti is a landmark film in several matter-of-fact ways. It was the first mega-hit for George Lucas, enabling him to go on to make Star Wars and the rest. It featured an astonishing array of young actors who basically got their start in this film … It was one of the first movies, maybe THE first, to involve a series of different, inter-cut stories shaped into one cohesive picture. It was the first film to use a continuous montage of classic rock and roll music from beginning to end to reinforce its plot. And it was made on a shoestring but became something like the second biggest-grossing film of 1973.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: 24 hour time frame · Coming of age · High school · Master and pupil · Music · Small town

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Aug 6, 2008 at 12:41 am

    Even though the time period was too early for me to relate to, the rest of it is so typical of what many teenagers went through right out of high school. The cruising, trying to hook up, trying to score some liquor, trying to decide to go or stay: all these things are great memories for millions of Americans. That’s what I love about this movie: it is soooo American. It’s fun and nostalgic and it’s one of a kind in so many ways.

  • 2 Joseph // Aug 6, 2008 at 7:16 am

    Great article. I’ve been wanting to pick up a copy of American Graffiti for a while now.

    Have you ever see Fellini’s “I Vitelloni”? If that wasn’t a huge inspiration for Lucas, I would be surprised.

  • 3 shahn // Aug 6, 2008 at 7:49 am

    I have to echo to commendations on the lighting in this film. I’m not so impressed with the plot(s) or the characters, but it’s so beautiful to watch. Lucas created such nice surroundings in which to get lost for a couple hours.

  • 4 Marilyn // Aug 7, 2008 at 8:50 am

    I’ve seen this films several times and will see it several more–it never gets old or tired. I like the randomness of the evening. Who needs a plot or well-developed characters when you can get a slice of life that’s so real, endearing, and humble. Yes, humble. This movie doesn’t scream at you about its ambitions or its ironies or anything else. It just lets these characters be themselves, and as you all say, that’s something everyone can identify with.

    Thanks for the great review and, as always, the very interesting background material.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Aug 7, 2008 at 6:02 pm

    Mrs. Thuro’s Mom: In spite of the music and the hairstyles being of another generation, Lucas made the film feel universal by documenting his teenage years with such honesty and detail. Audiences everywhere could relate to it, despite the fact that it’s really a West Coast story. The kids aren’t confined to a stoop watching the world go by them, they’re in cars, racing into the future.

    Joseph: Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment. Lucas actually did cite I vitelloni as an inspiration, but I haven’t seen the Fellini so I can’t comment as to their similarities. It makes you wonder why if Lucas had such a distaste for traditional narrative he ever sat down to try to write the Star Wars prequels himself.

    Shahn: The “making of” documentary on the DVD taught me about Techniscope, which were the lenses American Graffiti was shot with. Techniscope a sort of poor man’s anamorphic, giving the film a widescreen frame, but the grain you typically see in 16mm. The photography really looks different and I agree that Lucas makes you want to get lost in this town, at least for a couple of hours.

    Marilyn: I think if I were to try to emulate what Lucas did here – and Richard Linklater did with Dazed and Confused – I would take as much of a documentary approach as possible. The handheld cameras and grainy film stock really make you feel like you’re just following these people around, as does the wall to wall music.

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