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Building my Movie Posters Puzzle: American Graffiti

In late June of last year I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.

Funny how powerful nostalgia can be, even when it’s not for something that’s directly your own. In the case of George Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the characters themselves are pretty darned sentimental to begin with. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) are recent high school graduates on their last night at home before they’re supposed to fly away to college and the film as a whole serves as an inspection of transitions personally and societally. Set in 1962, this is a movie full of people who have not yet heard of The Beatles and are still playing out the routines and styles that had been established in the late 1950s. Enough so, that if you ask a bunch of people who haven’t seen the movie for a while, they probably think it’s set earlier than it is. Let’s investigate the unique sentimentality and nostalgia of a movie that was actually pretty revolutionary for its time.

Director and co-writer George Lucas had come up with the idea for American Graffiti before his debut film THX 1138 had even screened at the Cannes Film Festival in France. That movie didn’t appear to be going anywhere, but Lucas claims he spent the remainder of his savings to travel to France for the express purpose of selling the idea for this next film about one night in the life of high school kids in the sock hop and hot rod era. He got $10,000 in exchange for a full script, but when the writer he hired turned in something completely different from his concept, he found himself back at square one with no script and no money. When it came down to it he had to sit down and write the script himself in a very short period of time.

What he produced was roundly rejected by every studio in town for a few reasons, the first being that it genuinely wasn’t in the shape he wished it was yet. Lucas didn’t feel like the scenes between Steve and Laurie were fully formed because he just didn’t relate as well with Steve as he did with some of the other characters. He would eventually bring old friends Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck on board expressly for that purpose. The pair may have also lent a hand in shaping the dialogue, something Lucas has a history of difficulty with. Harrison Ford notoriously complained about the dialogue on the original Star Wars script, exclaiming “…you can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it.”

Another source of the reticence the studios were showing was Lucas’ basing each scene on tracks from his own record collection, with the titles of certain songs directly written into the script. Not only did this promise to be expensive and complicated when acquiring the rights for these songs, but this was a time when the use of popular songs to score a film was still pretty unusual. Easy Rider had done it a few years previously, but despite that film’s place in cultural and film history it was not seen as a model to be copied. One studio derided the American Graffiti script as being “a musical montage with no characters.” Eventually the record labels generally agreed to allow the production to use all of the needed songs for one large flat fee. All except for RCA, which resulted in the complete absence of any songs by Elvis Presley in the movie. The licensing deals ended up costing about $90,000 dollars total, more than ten percent of the entire production budget and precluding the use of any other music on the soundtrack.

As it turns out, the soundtrack not only became one of the reasons for the enthusiastic popular reaction to the film as a whole, but became a hit in its own right, eventually being certified as a triple platinum-selling record. The success of the American Graffiti soundtrack, along with others such as the Bee Gees’ for Saturday Night Fever helped create a long-lasting trend toward creating film soundtracks centered around popular songs. Why just sell a movie when you can also sell the music from it? Traditional score albums sure weren’t selling like that. Lucas’ next movie would continue to teach the studios about the value of different revenue streams.

Studio readers also objected to the structure of the script, which intercuts between multiple, only tangentially related stories. The fear was that audiences would grow frustrated leaving one character or set of characters in order to rejoin a story they had to abandon a few minutes before. This objection might seem odd from a current point of view because we have seen so many other movies and television shows using a similar approach.

Because of the production’s relatively low budget, even with Francis Ford Coppola brought on as a producer, the cast was to be filled primarily with unknown performers. At the time, Ron Howard was probably the biggest name in the cast, and that was due to his long career as a child actor in things like The Andy Griffith Show and the movie version of The Music Man. Most audiences would have been forgiven if they didn’t know what the grown up Ron Howard looked like. For his part, Howard was headed to film school at USC and the similarly themed hit television show Happy Days. (I must admit that when I saw American Graffiti on TV as a kid, I mistook it as a movie version of the show). He is currently better known as a well-respected Oscar-winning director.

Richard Dreyfuss had been working in guest roles on television shows and small parts in films before being cast as Curt in American Graffiti, despite being at least eight years older than the character. His star would rise rather quickly, as he appeared in iconic hits like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and won the Best Actor Oscar for The Goodbye Girl all within the next six years. Although he couldn’t keep up that meteoric level of success past the 1970s, Dreyfuss would maintain a strong presence in films through the end of the century, including another Oscar nomination for Mr Holland’s Opus in 1996. Recent years have seen him picking up multiple “lifetime achievement” style awards while still appearing consistently in television and film roles.

Perhaps even less predictably, the actor playing a countrified hot rod driver would become one of the most famous and successful film actors in the history of movies. Harrison Ford was putting food on the table for his small family at the time as a carpenter, but casting director Fred Roos kept him close, employing him around the house and then championing him to Lucas, who would eventually cast him in both American Graffiti and a little thing called Star Wars. Obviously, a nice thick book could be written about Ford’s career and how it reflects the trends in film overall, but I won’t do that here.

The embarrassment of riches in young actors appearing in American Graffiti stretches on, with longtime television actresses such as Cindy Williams (Laverne & Shirley), Mackenzie Phillips (One Day at a Time), and Suzanne Somers (Three’s Company and Step by Step), and Oscar nominee Kathleen Quinlan (Apollo 13, The Doors). Lebeau might be interested to know that Johnny Weissmuller Jr also shows up as “Bad Ass #1.”

To the everlasting shame of all of the studio big wigs who passed on it at several stages along the way, American Graffiti became one of the most profitable films ever made, raking in an impressive $200 million plus in box office and home video compared to a production budget of just $777,000. The film made Lucas a millionaire even prior to his merchandising deal on Star Wars and he was nominated for the Best Director Oscar, with four more Oscar nods going to the original screenplay, Best Film Editing, Candy Clark for Best Supporting Actress, and Best Picture. The film would also show up on both the original 1998 American Film Institute “100 Movies…100 Years” list and the 2007 follow-up list, rising from #77 spot to #62.

While both of my parents were already in college by the time this movie is set, it’s hard not to imagine them both as inhabiting the world of the movie that does feature plenty of music from their own high school years. Could life have possibly been this different just eight years prior to my birth? I kind of regret missing it.

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Posted on August 4, 2017, in 1970s, Awards, Movies, Music, Nostalgia, Oscars, reviews, Star Wars and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. LOL. Zing! You got me.

    American Graffiti is one of those movies that I think I have seen all the way through, but never from start to finish. I have tried a couple of times, but I don’t think I have ever lasted from starting credits to closing credits. Maybe it’s my complete lack of interest in the car culture? Whatever the reason, I really have to work at it to make through more than 20 minutes of American Graffiti at a time and typically I’m just not up to the task.

    Like

    • I’m not really into the car stuff, but the soundtrack and the period visuals just keep me engaged. I also appreciate that the stories are simple and subtle, while feeding into the overall theme of the movie as a whole.

      Like

    • jeffthewildman

      I like it overall. Sure, there are later movies that are edgier and better (Dazed And Confused, Diner). But on the whole it’s pretty good. The prime difference between Graffiti and many later films is that it’s more nostalgic. Dazed is anti-nostalgic and Diner is a film that just happens to be a period film. It’s not driven by nostalgia, even if the main characters do have some growing up to do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t dislike American Graffiti. It just doesn’t hold my interest. I’d much rather watch Dazed and Confused or Diner. But that’s probably a matter of personal taste more than a quality judgement.

        Liked by 1 person

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