In honor of back to school this month, AFI shines a spotlight on AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973), which follows a group of teenagers on their last night of summer vacation and celebrates its 50th release anniversary this August. Included on AFI’s 100 YEARS…100 MOVIES list of the greatest American films of all time, and AFI’s 100 YEARS…100 LAUGHS list of the funniest movies, AMERICAN GRAFFITI was conceived, directed and co-written by AFI Life Achievement Award recipient George Lucas as his second feature film, produced on a budget of roughly $770,000. With earnings of over $200 million today, AMERICAN GRAFFITI remains one of the most profitable movies in history, and unique in that it featured mainly unknown actors in an original screenplay. Taking place in 1962, AMERICAN GRAFFITI reflected not only the coming-of-age of its characters, but also a critical transition in American culture, from the relative credulous outlook of the 1950s to the onset of the grisly Vietnam War, which remained ongoing when the film was released. As the New York Times stated in its review, the picture “freezes the last moment of American innocence.”
George Lucas, himself, was only in his mid-20s when he started working on the follow-up projects to his first theatrically-released feature, THX 1138 (1971), an adaptation of his prize-winning science fiction student film at USC which won him a scholarship at Warner Bros. When THX 1138 did not perform well at the box office, Lucas was determined to make his next release a commercially viable product, but he wanted to work with original material, so he reflected on his childhood in small town Modesto, CA, where teen culture centered around cruising cars at night. At the same time, Lucas was developing what became STAR WARS—a production that would have been impossible to bring to fruition without the success of AMERICAN GRAFFITI. Similar to his main characters, Lucas graduated from high school in 1962, and many of the scenes in the film were reminiscent of his memories of actual events, as well as characters based on real people, including himself. Working together with the married team of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, Lucas wrote a treatment that was developed at United Artists, but the studio declined to back the production. After a series of rejections, AMERICAN GRAFFITI was championed by Universal’s then vice-president Ned Tanen; the studio agreed to underwrite the film on the condition that Lucas’ friend Francis Ford Coppola (who executive produced THX 1138 and recently had a colossal success with THE GODFATHER) would officially become involved as a producer. After THX 1138, Coppola had encouraged Lucas to write a more personal and commercial screenplay, providing early inspiration for AMERICAN GRAFFITI.
AMERICAN GRAFFITI was innovative in its use of popular music instead of a traditional score, and 10 percent of the budget went to securing the rights to 42 original rock and roll songs that were on the charts between 1955 and 1962, including hits by the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly and Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Lucas insisted on referring to the picture as a musical, despite the fact that the performers neither sang nor danced, and this confused actors and studio executives alike who were expecting a more traditional rendition. Furthermore, Lucas worked at American Zoetrope (a company established by himself and Coppola) with co-producer Gary Kurtz and sound man Walter Murch in a groundbreaking effort to mix the songs in different ways, simulating the sounds that the music would make on car radios in various situations, including being heard from both inside and outside of the vehicles. To keep the budget limited, Lucas hired mainly unknown actors with the exception of Ron Howard, Bo Hopkins and Richard Dreyfuss. The film marked the first significant role after a series of bit parts for Harrison Ford, who had done carpentry work for casting director Fred Roos and went on to super-stardom with Lucas, landing the role of “Han Solo” a few years later in STAR WARS. Among those appearing for the first time onscreen were Kay Lenz, Kathleen Quinlan and Mackenzie Phillips, the then 12-year-old daughter of The Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips. In addition, prior to filming AMERICAN GRAFFITI, Cindy Williams, Suzanne Somers and Charles Martin Smith had only appeared in smaller films, and Candy Clark had one significant film credit in John Huston’s FAT CITY (1972). Popular disc jockey Wolfman Jack was cast in only his second feature.
AMERICAN GRAFFITI is also notable because it was shot almost entirely at night, with the exception of the drag race and airplane scenes, and the cast and crew worked from 9:00 p.m. to sunrise for 28 days. Location filming took place in Petaluma and San Rafael, CA, as well as at Mel’s Drive-in Restaurant in San Francisco, and a radio station in Berkeley. Working with two local cameramen, Lucas used a grainy Techniscope anamorphic process which was somewhat outdated at the time. Two weeks into production, Lucas was dissatisfied with the results and brought on AFI Honorary Degree recipient Haskell Wexler as a visual consultant, who accepted deferred payment for his services and commuted nightly from his day job in Los Angeles. Wexler devised innovative ways to light actors inside cars and to create the effect of headlights from passing vehicles; he also fulfilled Lucas’ desire for the film to be lighted like a jukebox, with bright primary colors. As a requirement of his deal with Universal, Lucas agreed to give the studio editorial control; the film was edited by Verna Fields and Lucas’ then-wife Marcia Lucas, both nominated for Oscars® for their work, who trimmed the picture down from three hours to the contractually agreed upon 110 minutes.
Despite heated arguments with the studio over the final cut, and some of the executives’ skepticism about the film’s viability, AMERICAN GRAFFITI was released in August 1973 to mainly glowing reviews and was a hit with its audience. Newsweek stated that it “captured a moment recognizable to every generation” and the Los Angeles Times reflected that it was “a kind of collective spiritual autobiography.” Along with its five Academy Award® nominations and other honors from film institutions including the National Society of Film Critics, AMERICAN GRAFFITI was added to the National Film Registry in 1995 for its cultural, historical and aesthetic significance. It was followed by a re-released version in 1978 with additional footage as well as a sequel, MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI, in 1979, and helped pave the way for two blockbuster television series, HAPPY DAYS (1974-1984) and its spin-off, LAVERNE & SHIRLEY (1976-1983), starring Ron Howard and Cindy Williams respectively. AMERICAN GRAFFITI’s triple platinum soundtrack, multiple narratives and low budget – which saw successful box office returns—ushered in new approaches to filmmaking, as well as a general nostalgia for times past. U.S. audiences were keen to revisit the early 1960s as a means to escape the turmoil that ensued later in the decade, first with the Kennedy assassination (which took place in 1963, one year after the film takes place), then with the Vietnam War and the revolution of youth culture as reflected in its new dissonant and psychedelic music. All of these shared experiences contrasted with the relative innocuousness of the characters in AMERICAN GRAFFITI and their small-town adventures. George Lucas offered his audiences an opportunity to travel back in time with a sense of nostalgia for a simpler world which might never have been, but which they wished was possible.