1962 was the year the 1950’s ended. It would all begin to change in 1963 with the assassination for JFK, Martin Luther King delivering his ‘I Had A Dream’ speech, The Warren Commission, the murder of Medgar Evers and the British Invasion, all events along with the Vietnam war that would define a generation just coming on to the stage. George Lucas set his second feature film right at the closing door of America’s final days of innocence when we still thought anything was possible and it was all ours for the taking. Lucas sets the film in a teenage world still led by 1950’s and early 1960’s cultural icons like James Dean and Sandra Dee. It is a world where television still presents shows like “Father Knows Best” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” as the typical family norm. It is a world still innocent of the upheavals that it will be facing, yet the realization is there that the current stage is about to change.
In the course of one night in a small Northern California community, Modesto, where Lucas grew up, we watch a series of intertwining vignettes focusing on four friends Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss), John Milner (Paul LeMat) and Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith) on the night of their High School graduation dance. The next morning, Steve and Curt are uncomfortably preparing to leave their small town life behind and head off to a college in the Northeast. The center of their nightlife is the local Drive-In, Mel’s, a hangout for picking up girls and listening to rock and roll hits one after the other, songs like “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight,” “Heart and Soul,” “Surfin’ Safari,” played by the local DJ, one Wolfman Jack, grace the soundtrack. The continuous free flowing music Lucas gives us here is, like for many of us, a lifeline, a connection to the times, our youth and to each other.
Lucas gives us a snapshot of a teenage American ritual in this one night; cars, high school dances, cruising, drive-in’s, going steady where the most important thing in life is still the friends you grew up with. While the film is primarily about the four boys there are three female characters in the story who Pauline Kael correctly complained about in her review get the short end of the lollipop as they are treated as almost non-entities whose lives are only there for the boys and do not matter in any other respect.
While one wonders whether four guys like this would really be best friends, Lucas mostly manages to avoid clichés, making his characters real. John Milner is a drag racer and a couple of years older than the other guys, a leftover from the 1950’s dressing like a James Dean wannabe with his cigarette pack tucked up a short sleeve of his T-shirt. Easily Lucas could have made Milner the rebel without a cause we have seen so many times before. But here Lucas and his fellow screenwriters, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck make Milner, though tough and a protector of his friends, a much more vulnerable almost sweet guy, a softie who spends the entire evening riding around with Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), a thirteen year old nerdy, somewhat annoying young girl. Then there is Steve and Curt, both who see their lives still ahead of them as an adventure, Milner knows he is not going anyway, except another drag race and maybe an early trip to the graveyard.
Steve, for all his talk about leaving town, even telling his steady girl Laurie (Cindy Williams) that they should see other people while he’s away, is in the end the most conservative of the group, the nice straight laced kid next door who will always do the right thing, eventually. Portraying Ritchie Cunningham in “Happy Days” a few years later is an obvious natural extension of the same character. Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt is the intellectual of the group. He struggles with leaving, he wants to, yet he hesitant. During the evening he spots a mysterious blonde who seems to whisper “I love you” teasingly as she drives by time and again. He’s intrigued. Old friends, enigmatic girls, does he really want to leave this cocoon of joy? Yet Curt is the sixties, the rebellious future still gestating. Finally, there is the nerd, Terry “The Toad” a goofy kid, the dork of the group who spends the night with Carol, a kookie blonde tremendously portrayed by Candy Clark. Despite being a major smuck, as we use to say back then, the more catastrophes Terry seems to encounter the more she seems to enjoy his company. Terry is an unlikely companion to the others and his character does not ring true.
None of the four main characters know what the future holds, who does, the turmoil of the mid to late 1960’s would change them all as we discover in the written epilogue that ends the film. Steve remained in Modesto and became an insurance salesman, Curt is living in Canada, presumably to avoid the draft, Milner was killed in an auto accident by a drunken driver, and Terry “The Toad” was missing in Vietnam. What we don’t find out is what happened to the female characters. Though the film is essentially about the four boys, the female characters, Laurie (Cindy Williams), Steve girlfriend, is a tough young kid who does not want to sit back and wait for him to come back from an East coast college. Mackenzie Phillips’ annoying though entertaining Carol is a realistic shot in the arm, and the offbeat Debbie, who gave Terry an evening he probably never forgot in his short life, is like the other women her future left unknown. Pauline Kael was not a fan of this film rightly resenting the secondary treatment of the female characters, however she also notes that the male characters, (this is especially true of Ron Howard’s Steve) is a throwback to Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy and that Mel’s Drive In is just a replacement for the soda shop.
American Graffiti manages to be nostalgic without the weepy sentimentality. The characters face life changing decisions for the first time in their lives, at least Steve and Curt do. Lucas’ use of a soundtrack is perfectly in synch with the storyline. Like Scorsese his selection of songs is appropriate to what is happening in the scenes. The music adds flavor to the atmosphere and is not just background music.
At the times of its release, the now well known cast consisted of a whole group of newcomers. To tell you the truth, I cannot think of another film than had so many future stars in it. Best known was Ron Howard, already a TV star for his role as Opie in “The Andy Griffith Show.” Still, let’s face it; his name wasn’t exactly like saying Robert Redford. The rest of the cast were even lesser known but what a list it turned out to be; Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Harrison Ford, Suzanne Summers, Mackenzie Phillips, Paul LeMat, Kathleen Quinlan among some other actors who became known in supporting TV roles like Debralee Scott (Welcome Back, Kotter) and Joe Spano (currently on NCIS) . Dreyfuss, Clark and Cindy Williams are true standouts in their roles.