In 1973, as the Vietnam War wound down and the Watergate hearings fired up, it is no wonder that Americans were nostalgic for the simpler days. Filmmaker George Lucas certainly was, as he took us all on a virtual trip back to a small town in California, circa 1962, in his acclaimed film, American Graffiti. Filled with fast cars, angst-filled teens, sock hops, carhops, and a smorgasbord of classic rock and roll, American Graffiti won the hearts of anyone who happened to live through that bygone era, and many that didn’t.
The film follows the trials and tribulations of four teenagers as they contemplate their future on the final evening of their last summer vacation.
Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) is having misgiving about leaving his hometown to attend college. He spends his last night cruising and contemplating – and following obsessively after a mysterious blonde beauty (Suzanne Somers) who mouthed the words “I love you” to him from her white T-Bird. Curt’s best friend, Steve Bolander (Ron Howard,) has problems of his own, anxious to take his relationship with Curt’s sister, Laurie (Cindy Williams,) to the next level or, failing that, simply move on to better things.
Then there is John Milner, the town rebel with a love for fast cars and drag racing. He would like to venture from his hometown but fears the inevitable change – not only within himself, but also of the town he contemplates leaving behind. When he unwittingly picks up an underage girl named Carol (Mackenzie Phillips,) he first finds her to be a bratty nuisance but eventually forms a brotherly bond with her, thanks, in part, to their shared loved of rock and roll. Finally, there is the uber-nerdy Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith,) a Moped-riding misfit who, when asked to car-sit, gets a golden opportunity to drive one of those classic cars (thanks to Steve’s generosity) while trying to land a beautiful girl, which he eventually finds in Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark.)
Filmed entirely at night, mostly around Petaluma, California, American Graffiti was the brainchild of George Lucas, who would go on to treat the world to the Star Wars saga, as well as the Indiana Jones series. Finding the perfect location for filming in Petaluma (which reminded him of his youth in Modesto, CA), he proceeded to fill the town with every classic car he could find. Convincing young townsfolk to cut their hair back to 1962 lengths proved more difficult, so he recruited a number of military men who already had the right buzz-cut. Even one of the cast members had a problem with wearing an appropriate hairdo, an up-and-coming actor named Harrison Ford – who was afraid that short hair would affect his ability to get future roles. Finally, he offered a compromise to Lucas; he would wear a cowboy hat throughout the film.
One of the biggest stars of the film was the musical soundtrack, offering up tunes by The Platters, Bill Haley and the Comets and Fats Domino, to name a few. They graced the airwaves, via the car radios in town that all seemed to be tuned to the same station, hosted by real-life iconic 50s disc jockey, Wolfman Jack (who played himself in the film). Lucas had originally intended to use more than 80 songs in the movie but it became a licensing nightmare for the film studio and, in the end, 45 were used, sans any Elvis Presley songs – which are noticeably absent from the film, considering the era.
For a film that wasn’t originally received very well by the studio that financed it, American Graffiti proved its critics wrong. Audiences were so caught up in a nostalgic whirlwind that they forgave the lackluster plot. The film’s success would lead to one of the most popular television series of the 70s, Happy Days (which also starred Ron Howard) as well as an eventual onslaught of “coming of age” films. But much of American Graffiti’s success is also owed to the time period that was captured so perfectly. 1962 was a year that pretty much marked the end of America’s innocence. Soon, a president would be assassinated, a controversial war would begin, and the innocent days of, malt shops, carhops, and cruising the main drag in a ’57 Chevy, would exist only as distant memories. Luckily, this film, like no other before or since, captured in perfect detail what it must have been like to live during that colorful era – an innocent period where teenagers weren’t forced to grow up before their time.
If you have fond memories of watching American Graffiti, and especially if you lived in the era depicted by the film, we’d love to hear your thoughts and recollections in our comments section, as we tip our hats to George Lucas for this wonderful trip back in time.