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by William H. Benson

August 18, 2011

     George Lucas had by 1972 directed only one full-length feature film THX 1138, a science-fiction film that failed, but he had ideas for two other films. The first was autobiographical, of his final days in Modesto, California, after he and his friends had graduated from high school, when they spent their nights cruising up and down the street, listening to the car radio and looking for love. The second film was a space opera in which the forces of good confront and vanquish the forces of evil.

     Lucas pitched the first film, American Graffiti to the major film studios, and each turned him down until United Artists finally advanced him $10,000 to write the script. The studio officials insisted though that Lucas work with a low budget, only $600,000, which was increased by another $175,000 when Francis Ford Coppola signed on as the producer.

     Lucas began filming on June 26, 1972 and ended on August 4, 1972. Except for Ron Howard, known as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, Lucas cast unknowns: Richard Dreyfus, Cindy Williams, Paul LeMat, Charles Martin Smith, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Harrison Ford, Suzanne Sommers, and Wolfman Jack, as himself. Lucas picked Harrison Ford, who was then working as a carpenter, because he arrived at Lucas’ home to build cabinets.

     Lucas ended up editing most of the film himself. The backbone to the film’s scenes was Wolfman Jack’s radio show, for Lucas had written each scene with the idea that audiences would listen to a series of  songs supposedly being played over the car radio throughout the film. The music was all late fifties, very early sixties, except for Elvis Presley because RCA would not sign a release of his songs.  

     United Artists’ officials had little expectations for the film. They thought the title silly, and the film more suitable as a television movie. But Lucas insisted upon his original vision, and so the studio gambled by spending another $500,000 on marketing and promotion. The movie, American Graffiti: Where were you in ’62? was released on August 1, 1973.

     Studio officials were astonished when it was nominated for Best Picture of the Year in 1973, and since then, thirty-eight years ago this month, American Graffiti has grossed an estimated $200 million, one of the most profitable movies ever made. Studio officials decided it was wise to listen to George Lucas, and so they bet heavily on Lucas’ second film, that of a space opera. It was released to wild acclaim in 1977 under the title Star Wars.

     What was it about American Graffiti that both audiences and critics loved? One critic wrote: “One of the most influential of all teen films, American Graffiti is a funny, nostalgic, and bittersweet look at a group of recent high school grads’ last days of innocence.” This was before Vietnam, before the British Invasion, and before hippies and flower power.

     The story is set in 1962 and revolves around four boys: Steve Bolander, Curt Henderson, John Milner, and Terry “the Toad” Fields. Two of them, Steve and Curt, intend on flying to the East Coast the next day. Curt, played by Richard Dreyfus, has doubts about leaving Modesto, and Steve, played by Ron Howard, lectures him, “We’re finally getting out of this turkey town and now you want to crawl back into your cell, right? You just can’t stay 16 forever! You’ve got to get that into your head!”

     Curt happens to see a beautiful girl, played by Suzanne Sommers, who is driving a white T-bird and spends the rest of the night trying to get a message to her, even driving out to the local radio station where he meets the legendary disc jockey Wolfman Jack. Curt listens as the Wolfman tells him, “There’s a great big beautiful world out there.”

     So it is Curt who flies out the next morning while Steve remains behind to sort things out with his girlfriend, played by Cindy Williams. College is not in the plans for John Milner, who drives and races his yellow Deuce coupe, nor for Toad Fields, the classic nerd.

     “Do we stay in our home town or do we leave?” is the question the film asks, and each character answers that question as best they can for themselves.

     The dorms open up this week; for some it is today, and last May’s high school graduates will move into a college dorm room and begin classes next week. Do we leave our home town, or do we stay? And if we leave, might we return? Seeking an education is always the right choice. Staying behind to cruise and party all night long and get into trouble with the law is not normally the best of choices. For some students, a lot of growing up is accomplished in those first few months in those dorm rooms.

     A version of American Graffiti is played out each year in mid-August in most towns across America, and it was George Lucas’ insight to put that version into a dramatic form and onto a screen with music rumbling in the background.