Oscar Vault Monday – American Graffiti, 1973 (dir. George Lucas)

My first memories of American Graffiti mostly revolve around my love of the film’s soundtrack. I remember watching it as a little kid and not really being able to follow the plot, but absolutely falling in love with the soundtrack. It’s perhaps the best soundtrack of all time. That may be debatable, but I’ll stick with my opinion there. Apparently George Lucas wrote the screenplay after being challenge on the set of THX-1138 by Francis Ford Coppola to write something that mainstream audiences would enjoy. Lucas then set the film in 1962 around the cruising culture he remembered as a teenager in Modesto. The result was a ridiculously successful film full of early-60s, pre-Vietnam-era nostalgia. The film had a $775,000 budget and wound up grossing $118 mil. It was also nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actress Candy Clark, Best Director and Best Picture. It was up against A Touch of Class, Cries and Whispers, The Exorcist and winner The Sting.

I’ve seen this film a few times now and it never gets old. It’s action packed from start to finish, the plot unfolds organically and it’s full of extremely likable characters brought to life by an amazing ensemble cast. The film has quite a legacy on Hollywood in general. It is most definitely an inspiration for the long running television show Happy Days, which also starred Ron Howard. It is often attributed as one of the first summer blockbusters. It also made George Lucas an instant millionaire. After the film Lucas’s net worth was $4 million, $300,000 of which he set aside as independent funds for his “space opera project”, which would eventually become the basis for Star Wars. The American Film Institute ranked this film #77 on its original 100 Years… 100 Movies list and #62 on its 10th Anniversary Edition. It also ranked it #43 on its 100 Years… 100 Laughs list.

I will always love this movie for bringing Mel’s diners back to existence. Apparently the one that was used during filming was closed, but re-opened for the film. It has subsequently been demolished. There are two different, but related, Mel’s chains operating in California – Mel’s Drive-In and Mel’s Original. The Mel’s Drive-In ones are the ones that are most directly related to the one used in this film. I used to live two blocks from one of the four Mel’s Drive-In restaurants located in San Francisco and I ate there A LOT. They had the best milkshakes. The whole diner was filled with American Graffiti memorabilia and it was difficult to have a meal there, or a milkshake even, without thinking about certain scenes in the film and how much I love it.

Ron Howard had been working in the industry for most of his life before this film came out and was very well-known as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. His turn as Steve in this film was his first big non-child star, starring role. He’s still pretty baby-faced in this film, but he shows a lot of promise and proved he could handle more grown-up roles. Of course, he would play teenager Richie Cunningham on Happy Days for another ten years after this film was released. Of course now Howard is more known for his directorial talent, helming such Oscar-nominated films such as Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon. He was nominated for directing and producing the latter two films, and won two Oscars for A Beautiful Mind.

Richard Dreyfuss is so wonderful as Curt. His search for the Blonde in the T-Bird is perhaps one of the most iconic searches for the one who got away in cinema history. Dreyfuss had been active in Hollywood for nearly ten years prior to securing this role, but this was definitely the film that launched him into the public’s eye. Two years later he would again appear in a major summer blockbuster – Jaws and in 1977 he had a veritable one-two-punch with a starring role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and his Oscar-winning turn in The Goodbye Girl. At 30, Dreyfuss was the youngest Best Actor winner to date, a title he would hold on to until Adrien Brody won for The Pianist in 2002.

Speaking of the Blonde in the T-Bird, Suzanne Somers’ cameo appearance as said blonde has got to be one of the sexiest characters every brought to life on the big screen. Somers would continue to be a sex symbol Chrissy Snow on Three’s Company for eight seasons in the late-70s/early-80s as well as hot 40-something mom on Step By Step for seven seasons in the 90s. However, I think her bit role in this film is her most iconic role and one of the most memorable aspects of this film.

Charles Martin Smith’s escapes as Toad with Candy Clark’s Debbie is maybe my favorite part of the film. He’s so painfully awkward and she is so bubbly and yet sincere. She had the time of her life with him, whether he realizes it or not.

Debbie: You know, I had a pretty good time tonight.
Toad: Oh come on, you’re just–
Debbie: No, no, really. I really had a good time. I mean, you picked me up and we got some hard stuff and saw a hold-up, and then we went to the Canal, you got your car stolen, and then I got to watch you gettin’ sick, and then you got in this really bitchin’ fight… I really had a good time.

It’s just so sweet. Clark got nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance and I’m so glad that she did. I love her in this film.

Like Suzanne Somers, Harrison Ford has a pretty small, but largely iconic role in the film as a drag race enthusiast. We don’t get much of him, but he steals the show every time he’s on the screen. He would, of course, work with Lucas again four years later on Stars Wars, creating one of the most iconic film roles of all time – Han Solo.

Lastly, I want to talk about Wolfman Jack, the un-named radio DJ responsible for playing all the timeless tunes featured on the film’s soundtrack. My parents grew up in Los Angeles, and they too listened to Wolfman Jack on the radio and I’ve heard time and time again how wonderful it was when he showed up on screen and it really was him. I read that Lucas gave some of his share of the profits of the film to the DJ because he had given Lucas so much inspiration for the film.

Apparently there’s a sequel to this film called More American Graffiti that came out in 1979 and features some of the original cast, most notably excluding Richard Dreyfuss. I hear it is not very good and I’ve avoided it because I don’t really want to soil my love of the original film.

If you’re interested in buying the film or the soundtracks, you can do so here.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on September 6, 2010, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Living in Modesto much of my life, I can tell you that there’s a special place for this film in the (now) city’s heart. We still have Graffiti Week here which features some old school cruising cars. It used to be bigger (like we had the Beach Boys here one year), but I think most people only care about the cars.

    Like you, I grew up on the soundtrack which I would hear in it’s entirety about once a month. My parents still have the vinyl. Although I was a bit young to understand everything when I first saw it, I sincerely have enjoyed AMERICAN GRAFFITI for as long as I can remember. You might have noticed that I rated it #1 on my high school age movie list. I loved the interaction John has with the much younger Carol and the race with Falfa; I loved Toad and Debbie,I love Curt’s quest for the Blonde as well as his encounter with the Pharaohs and his conversation with The Wolfman.

    In many ways, I can relate to Curt the most. In fact here’s a secret: the next Hall of Fame member on my blog is going to be him. He was just a young man looking for a reason to stay, he found it with the Blonde. That doesn’t pan out (thanks to The Wolfman talking some sense into him a bit), but he’ll always have that night to remember, which may or may not be better than if he actually won the Blonde in the end (which would have been huge cliche).

    Much of the setting that Lucas alludes to is still here, though looks very different than it did in his youth. His high school (Thomas Downey) is still there. The race is said to have occurred on Paradise Road (still here). I do believe that most of the filming took place in Merced, 25-30 minutes south from here, however. Same feel. And no, there’s no Mel’s here. 🙂 But there is a Lucas Square (a small bench more or less lol), that he failed to show up to. Think people were rather upset about that…I seem to remember he was kinda busy with the STAR WARS prequels.

    “Little kiss on your ear. Goodnight, sweetheart. I’ll see you later.”

  2. Wonderful review of a wonderful film. In some ways I look at American Graffiti and wonder why Lucas couldn’t produce something of a similar ilk again. Yes, he gave some of the finest science-fiction ever but this film seemed more personal and he’s appeared to shun that in his later work. Now, he reorts to over-use of special-effects and terrible dialogue. Perhaps the success and the money destroyed whatever innocence he had when making AG.

  3. I think More American Graffiti was excellent. It’s a completely different style of movie from the original, which may be why it’s so underrated. It’s largely an antiwar movie.

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