In 1973 the following movie industry names were virtually unknown: George Lucas, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Mackenzie Phillips, Bo Hopkins, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford, Candy Clark, Kathleen Quinlan, and Susan Somers. Lucas was a 28 year-old aspiring director with one mediocre film - THX-1138 - on his resume. He had been thinking for some time about a coming-of-age film based on his personal experience growing up in Modesto, California around 1960. The film, American Graffiti, featuring the actors in the list above reached American theaters on this day in 1973. Aside from its themes the only recognizable aspects of the film were its soundtrack filled with 41 hit songs and Wolfman Jack, a legendary deejay who had previously been known to his vast audience almost exclusively through his unforgettable radio persona.
Production struggled from the start and the studio that thought so little of the final product recommended it as a television movie. Only the enthusiastic conversations of studio employees overheard by the execs saved the film from the mediocrity of television. Perhaps the product was a poor fit for management but it was a blockbuster hit with audiences. To date the film and its associated products have earned over half a billion 2015 dollars for its owners.
Earning were only a part of the story. All of the unknowns on our earlier list became household names in the entertainment industry. The film also launched a huge wave of interest in nostalgia for the "good old days" of the 1950's. Ron Howard in particular rode that wave through its full cycle to directorial success and beyond.
Matt Singer writing at thedissolve.com helps us understand American Graffiti's appeal:
[What] is the secret to American Graffiti’s success, the reason it resonated so strongly with viewers in 1973 and every generation since: It isn’t simply a nostalgic movie, it’s a nostalgic movie about nostalgia. Lucas could have set the film in 1959, when Steve, Curt, and John were still in high school and still cruising night after endless night. Instead,Graffiti begins right as the fun is about to end, and gives its characters just enough self-awareness to recognize that this is last call at the party. George Lucas isn’t the only one mourning for this magical lost era; the characters onscreen mourn right along with him.
1962 was a fortuitous year for a young American like Lucas to lose his innocence. Soon, the entire country faced similar disillusionment. A year after Lucas’ (and American Graffiti’s) accident, President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The Vietnam War quickly escalated, claiming tens of thousands of American lives. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated in 1968. By the timeAmerican Graffiti was released in August 1973, the Watergate scandal was in full, ignominious swing. Like Lucas’ Star Wars, a futuristic movie anachronistically set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,”American Graffiti is a chronicle of a simpler time that has since vanished from the universe as if it never existed. And like Star Wars, it follows a teen as he contemplates leaving behind his provincial hometown for an exciting destiny elsewhere.
American Graffiti ranks #62 on the American Film Institute's list of greatest films. In a decade I would not be surprised to see it move into the top 50. It's not quite a masterpiece but it is an innovative and beautifully executed piece of art that foreshadowed the genius of its creator and impacted much of the nation's popular culture for a generation and beyond.