Last week, Part I of this series discussed seeing The Great Gatsby on Friday night in the Spring of 1974. The next day was Saturday. My family spent the day looking at homes in Charleston to buy. The only thing I remember about the places we looked at is that none of them turned out to be the house we bought. After dinner, we decided to go to the movies again. This time, Dad would join us.
I don’t remember how we decided to see American Graffiti (1973). I suspect it was because our new favorite TV sitcom was Happy Days, an affectionate look back at the 1950s, and we thought Graffiti had been its inspiration. This turned out to be wrong but it’s easy to see why we thought so. Both starred Ron Howard. Both featured teenagers hanging at a drive in diner. And both had a streetwise tough: Fonzie in Happy Days/John Milner in Graffiti.
We drove downtown to the Plaza East twin screen theater. The first thing I remember about the theater was that we had a full house. Every seat taken. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with a full house. Graffiti was already a huge hit and some were seeing it again. The movie started and, just like Gatsby the night before, I found myself transported away but this time to a hot summer night in 1962 (and really was there much difference between the 1950s and 1962? The Beatles, JFK’s assassination, and Vietnam had yet to happen).
The first thing that jumped out at me was the soundtrack. It sounded as if we were listening to the greatest AM radio station ever. They even had the legendary disc jockey Wolfman Jack playing the tunes. This was the first time a movie used rock and roll tunes for the musical soundtrack and the choice of songs perfectly captured the mood of the scenes. I loved how the camera movement and the editing matched the rise and fall of the songs. The girls. The dancing. The humor. The fast cars. This was an exhilarating movie to watch.
Like any kid I loved the notion of staying out all night and these characters got to do that. Of the four male leads , I was most drawn to Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), the reserved and bookish grad heading off to college the next day. In my heart of hearts though I knew I was Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith), the geek (or baby brother) who is always hanging around the group. Never quite accepted but never quite rejected either.
As the film progressed I found myself connecting more and more with Curt. Like him, I was soon going to be uprooted and leave town. Leaving friends behind and starting over again in a new town and meeting new people. It was scary and I could understand why the characters would fear it.
I can’t say I related to the women characters. Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) was too young. Debbie (Candy Clark) was not my type (too Sandra Dee). Laurie (Cindy Williams) reminded me too much of my mother. She even had Mom’s haircut. And there was something in the way she and Steve talked that reminded me too much of my own (now divorced) parents. Having said that, their slow dance at the sock hop remains one of my favorite movie scenes. In less than a minute, we completely understand their relationship and it doesn’t hurt that they are dancing to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”.
I preferred Curt’s pursuit of the blonde in the T-bird (Suzanne Somers). His never say die efforts to find her brings him eventually to the local radio station and meeting Wolfman Jack for real. It made me wonder. Would I ever have a girlfriend? Would any girl ever be interested in guy like me? Especially the kind of girl who drove a T-bird?
And I really related to Wolfman’s advice to Curt about life. It seemed he was speaking to me. Life was about hanging on and letting go. It was about dreams and having the courage to keep reaching out for them whatever it takes. And realizing that, most often, those women in the T-Birds follow close behind.
I liked how the closing title cards let us know what happened to the guys and brought the audience back down to earth. (And even then I thought it odd not to learn what happened to the girls). The movie seemed to perfectly capture that moment before life changed for both the characters and the country. When the end credits rolled, the audience hooted and applauded.
American Graffiti forever changed the use of music in film. It changed how stories were told (multiple storylines happening at once). When I watch it, It still takes me back to 1962 and that night I first saw it in 1974.
Years later when I wrote my first good screenplay, I based it on a special time in my own life (summer job between high school and college). I used period pop and rock tunes just like Graffiti. And I even called it American Kids in honor of both Graffiti and the John Mellencamp song, “Jack & Diane” (which I used in the script). Like Jack & Diane, the kids in Graffiti are just “American kids doing the best that they can.”
For me, it remains the Citizen Kane of the coming of age genre, and one of the Movies That Changed My Life.
NEXT THURSDAY: MY GREATEST MOVIE WEEKEND CONCLUDES
WHY THIS SONG OF THE DAY?
"Class of `57" by The Statler Brothers
Because it reminds me of Graffiti. Because it takes me back to my own high school class.