There was a time in American history where all the kids in town could be found at the sock hop or the local drive-up diner or simply driving down Main Street. Everyone was innocent and carefree, and the radio was playing constantly. The year is 1973, and “American Graffiti” was in theaters.
The time I’m actually describing is 1962, which George Lucas’s second film captures so beautifully. “American Graffiti” is a touching, heartfelt period piece and vignette, the kind of American film that simply doesn’t get made anymore. Perhaps Lucas’s own “Star Wars” had something to do with that.
There is not so much a story as the tiny little anecdotes of life about a group of teenagers in this small town, two of whom will be leaving for college the next day. These kids are innocent and happy, but there is truthfully a lot of drama going around. And because they express their thoughts and their problems so lovingly, we enjoy “American Graffiti” because we realize these are people we’d like to know and a time in which we’d like to escape to.
The film was a huge success, nominated for Best Picture for producer Francis Ford Coppola and Best Director Lucas. The film put Lucas on the map, allowing him the resources to actually go out and make “Star Wars,” but it also gave him and the rest of the ‘70s some valuable resources.
There are probably few films that started as many legendary careers as this one did. Richard Dreyfuss is top billed in the film, and he would go on to do “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” within just a couple of years. Ron Howard plays Dreyfuss’s best friend, and although he was already well-known for playing Opie Taylor on the Andy Griffith Show, he would be instantly read as a shoo-in for Richie Cunnigham on “Happy Days.”
Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith and Candy Clark may not be as recognizable names, but they too fostered successful careers after the film. And even Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Suzanne Somers and most notably Harrison Ford all got their starts in this small town.
Their stardom story today is almost a parable for the theme of the movie, which aims to capture the fleeting innocence of these kids in their last day together. Dreyfuss’s Curt spends the movie tracking down a gorgeous blonde in a T-Bird (Somers). She’s the symbol for the undeniable beauty that was always crawling around the center of town and around every corner.
In the end, Curt at least gets to talk to her and glimpse beauty one last time, but the last shot of the film is Curt on a plane looking out the window. There’s an odd fade to blue and we see the plane flying in the distance. “American Graffiti’s” famous ending is of a series of four “yearbook” captions over this image that accelerates these innocent lives into the dull moment of adulthood and the early ‘70s.
The abrupt finale is arguably what makes the film famous, but not what makes it great. So much of the film is rich with witty dialogue and charming performances. The soundtrack is a delicious throwback, and like the radios in every car, it plays throughout the entire film.
This is the kind of teen comedy I’d like to see made again, perhaps in a different time and different place, but what time or place is more picturesque than this? Something like “American Graffiti” wouldn’t even be made again in the ‘70s, with movies like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” parodying the film in its own raunchy, modern take on the genre.
But that moment in history will always be preserved. Critics suspected that back when it was released, there would come a time when the kids and even adults of the day would have no recollection of the time “American Graffiti” so lovingly describes.
That time has come, but that beauty is still around the corner and that radio is still playing.