One Saturday while my mother was visiting her father in hospital, my Dad took myself and my siblings to see a performance of clowns which was to take place close to the hospitals. Being in the early 70’s it was kind of a hippy run performance. The storefront was colorful and the performers were very intent on being clowns. Out of the corner of my eye, in the midst of the doting parents and the exuberant children sat an older man with his son who appeared to be in his late 20’s. They were out of place. The man’s son was having the time of his life and the older man sat patiently giving his son joy by taking him to this children’s show. My attention turned away from the clowns and I watched the interaction between the man and his son. The room was pandemonium, but here sat a man who clearly loved his challenged son and abandoned his needs for the needs of his child.
The show came to an end and I quite frankly was one relieved 10 year old. The performers passed out a red balloon tied to a plastic rod to each child. Being a child I received one. I turned and looked at the man and his son. The son had pain etched on his face because he being a physical adult did not receive a balloon. The father seeing his son’s distress was in pain as well. My Dad witnessing this scene immediately turned to me and asked if he could give my balloon to the son. I readily agreed which provided immense relief…heaven help me if one of the guys saw me walking down the street carrying a red balloon.
My Dad took the balloon from my hand and walked over to where the man and the son were. The son saw my Dad approaching and his face exploded with joy. He was given my red balloon. He immediately asked my Dad was he the clown in the show. My Dad, a proud and educated man in an act of singular empathy for the father, said yes. The father looked and said thank you, the pain dissipating from his face. Now satisfied, the son and the father left, the son’s face still beaming and talking about the show and his now prized treasure, the red balloon. Joy and probably a bit of self esteem was created because he was treated equally and he received a red balloon. That kindness and compassion shown by my Dad haunts me still today. The gift was small but to the son and the father it was the world. His day was complete because he had been included. My Dad does not remember the event but it will be with me forever. Pain had turned to joy and I was taught probably one of the greatest lessons I would ever learn. It is in the small where real change exists, it is in the small where we can effect a lasting and permanent effect in a positive way, it is in the small where the foundation of any relationship or economy lives. It is in the simple and the small where true change occurs. As an aside it also showed me what true heroism was, and provided me with a hero who still endures to this day, my Dad.
In early 70’s Universal Ned Tanen inspired by the success of Easy Rider was tasked to create a stream of low budget films to directly appeal to the youth audience. Easy Rider was released by Columbia Pictures on July 14, 1969, grossing $60 million worldwide from a filming budget of no more than $400,000. Hollywood know that young audiences hungered for a new kind of cinematic experience, an experience that Ned Tanen was going to give them…..at a price.
Emerging director George Lucas, after a mis-step with his first film THX 1138 spent the rest of 1971 and early 1972 trying to raise financing for the American Graffiti script. During this time, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures all rejected American Graffiti , a tale of the Americana and the loss of innocence.
Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz took the script to American International Pictures, who expressed interest, but ultimately believed American Graffiti was not violent or sexual enough for the studio’s standards, hallmarks of that independent studio.. Lucas and Kurtz eventually found favor at Universal Pictures with Ned Tanen, who allowed Lucas total artistic control and the right of final cut privilege on the condition that he make American Graffiti on a strict, low budget. American Graffiti was a youth centered movie that Tanen was looking for dripping with Rock and Roll and innocence. Shooting began on June 26th, 1972 in San Rafael and Petaluma California.
Set in 1962, in an America still making a transition from Eisenhower to Kennedy. American Graffiti evokes that era of American history so effectively that one is filled with both nostalgia and a sometimes regret of the loss of what was. George Lucas and his co-writers crafted a movie so precise in its recreation of that time, but at the same time filled it with enough universal truths to make it accessible to all. The 60’s are distilled so perfectly into this movie, the language , the consuming car culture, the fads, the hoods, sock hops, burgers, rock ‘n’ roll and it ether based narrator, Wolfman Jack.
The film opens at Mel’s Drive-in – Burger City – where the four main characters gather to share this last night together. Steve, the clean cut Class President (played by Opie from the Andy Griffith Show, Ron Howard and now prolific director), is preparing to leave the next morning for a college in the east. His friend Curt ( played by Richard Dreyfuss), the group’s intellectual, whose greatest ambition is to shake President Kennedy’s hand, is scheduled to go with him. But, he’s uncertain if he wants to or should give up one perfectly good life for the unknown half a world away. Terry ( played by Charlie Martin Smith), their slightly younger, pimpled, Vespa riding cohort inherits responsibility for Steve’s magnificent ‘58 Chevrolet, Teryr is a cinematic surrogate for the director himself, and John Milner,(played by Paul Lemat) the high school dropout, drag-racing champ and local legend, stands to be left behind by yet another generation of friends.
Each one is then swept into the adventures of the night. Encounters with holdup men, cops, carhops, a local street gang called the Pharaohs and racing challenges await them together and separately. We are taken to a high school prom at which Herbie & the Heartbeats (played by Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids) play the hits of the day, to the local necking spot, up and down city streets and finally to the site of the near-tragic race. They are accompanied by girlfriends and a dream girl.
The characters on screen are each fully realized. Unlike most films attempting to touch on so many details of a particular period, one grows to accept and love each character. None is played too broadly for the sake of convenience. The audience can believe everyone; a beautiful accomplishment in itself in these days when technical gimmickry so often obliterates the essential human element in movies. It is the small in the development of the characters that rings so true.
American Graffiti is consistently brilliant throughout. Lucas’ directorial touch is incredibly light, yet loving, unlike the rather heavy handed posturing he brought to the second installment of the Star Wars saga.
American Graffiti reaches it’s height in the aftermath of the big drag race. John is challenged and wins by an almost fatal default (against Harrison Ford no less) but he realizes his time as champ is finally coming to an end. Steve decides to remain in town with Laurie never to reach his potential, Terry grows up a bit and Curt realizes he must go. All meet once again at the airport. Curt’s goodbyes poignant, saying good bye to his friends and to his innocence as he leaves his friends to their various fates and flies off into the blue sky.
It is simple, it is true and as a movie it is magnificent. For me American Graffiti is the best portrayal of what it was to be young and American, before the country lost itself in the mire of Vietnam and Watergate. At a January 1973 test screening attended by Universal executive Ned Tanen, the studio informed a stunned Lucas they wanted to re-edit his original cut of American Graffiti. A very angry Francis Ford Coppola sided with Lucas against Tanen and Universal, offering to “buy the film” from the studio and reimburse it for the $775,000 it had cost to make it.20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures stepped up and made similar offers to Universal. Universal categorically refused these offers and told Lucas they planned to have an editor of their choosing re-edit the film.
When American Graffiti Producer Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) won the Academy Award for Best Picture in March 1973, Universal decided to back down from it demands on Lucas in order to placate an increasingly angry Coppola, and finally agreed to cut only three scenes from George Lucas’ cut, an encounter between Terry The Toad and a fast-talking car salesman, an argument between Steve and his former teacher at the sock hop, and an effort by Bob Falfa (played by Harrison Ford) to serenade Laurie with “Some Enchanted Evening”. The rights to the Rogers and Hammerstein hits also proved to be expensive. Universal and Ned Tanen decided that the film was fit for release only as a television movie. They were so very wrong.
A series of movie screening of American Graffiti were held for younger studio employees They went nuts, secretary’s and clerks were dancing in the aisles to the rock and roll soaked soundtrack.. These Universal employees who had seen the movie and loved it began a word of mouth campaign on it’s behalf. This pressure forced Tanen to drop the TV movie idea. Grudgingly Universal began arranging for a limited release in selected theaters in Los Angeles and New York. Universal chiefs Sidney Sheinberg and Lew Wasserman heard nothing but positive feedback that the movie had earned in LA and New York. Wasserman threw another 500K to his marketing department and amped up its promotion strategy for it. The movie was released in the United States on August 11, 1973 and became a sleeper hit.. The movie had cost only $1.27 million (equivalent to $7,430,056 in 2017) to both produce and to market, but produced worldwide box office gross revenues of more than $55 million (equivalent to $303,200,900 in 2017) . The movie still has a huge following in both Sweden and France.,
Universal reissued Graffiti in 1978 and earned an additional $63 million (equivalent to $236,378,571 in 2017), which brought the total revenue for the two releases to $118 million (equivalent to $442,740,816 in 2017). At the end of its theatrical run, American Graffiti had one of the greatest cost-to-profit ratios of a movie ever. It was the 13th-highest-grossing film of all time in 1977, and with adjustments for inflation, is currently ranked the 43rd highest. By the 1990s, American Graffiti had earned more than $200 million (equivalent to $374,630,667 in 2017) in box office gross and home video sales.
Fast forward to 2018. In today’s world of movie going American Graffiti would be hard pressed to get a 100 screen release. It is unlikely that it would have ever been green lighted to go into production. If made it would be lost in the jungle that is video on demand. With the burden’s of studio overhead and agents packaging fees, the budget would probably be in the area of 40 million. Marketing would entail another $25 million. So a total of $65 million would have to be expended as opposed to the cost of production and marketing that in 2017 would represented a $7 million dollar investment. They back story of American Graffiti is a really a story of what is intrinsically wrong with Hollywood and in its distribution of movies. They have completely lost the ability to comprehend how to deal with a small story driven movie. They are solely geared to handling the mega movie, the engorged special effects laden juggernauts. They have lost the idea of what Hollywood truly was and because of their mismanagement of the American cinematic tradition they are in danger of losing a whole industry.
It is now imperative that they re-learn the power of small. Small actions, small changes and small movies. It is time to remember the power of taking a common storied experience and celebrate it on the big screen. We need not to think of spectacle and bravado, and begin to go back to celebrate our common humanity. Hollywood is flying too close to the sun with wings held together by wax, and like Icarus they are doomed to come crashing to the ground. Move to the simple….move to the true. Re-introduce yourself to loving movies and re-introduce yourself to the power of the small.