As autumn gets underway, we’ll say a last goodbye to summer with this classic teen cruise.
The slogan for American Graffiti was “Where were you in ’62?” But since I was only 1 at the time, I don’t remember a thing, and the only ‘cruising’ I did then was along the living room furniture. So by the time AG came out in 1973, I desperately wanted to see it, but my mother denied me the chance, because she knew there was a naked butt somewhere in there. But I didn’t care about that; I just wanted to see Wolfman Jack, the poufy hairstyles and the cool cars. No dice; fuzzy or otherwise. I’d finally see it years later on TV, and it was worth the wait.
American Graffiti tells the tale of four California teens trying to make the best of their last night of summer.
High School graduates, Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) and Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) are both headed off for college the next day, and their pals John Milner, (Paul LeMat) and Terry “Toad” Fields (Charlie Martin Smith) are townies just looking for action. Steve decides that it’s best for he and his junior class girlfriend Laurie to ‘see other people’ while he’s at college, which is no picnic for Laurie (Cindy Williams), who is Curt’s sister. Curt, a writer and dreamer, is unsure about leaving for college, and spends the long night in conflict over college, while endlessly pursuing a mysterious blonde in a Thunderbird. John’s a hard ass racer, drifter, and likely dropout who’s spends nights cruising for dates. Toad is a sweet geek on a Vespa who just wants to get laid. Before the night ends, each has an epiphany about their lives, and it sets the course for their futures.
One mystique of AG is how it takes place mostly between dusk and dawn. As a pre-teen when this came out, I was curious about nightlife, wondering how it would be to just hang out, eating junk food and going to movies with
your pals and without any parents around. The character closest to my age at the time here is Carol, (MacKenzie Phillips) a simpering 14-year-old dropped into John’s unsuspecting car by her teenage sister. Carol has a whiny inferiority complex and won’t leave John’s car until she gets ‘a little action’. John becomes an unlikely companion to her, despite his initial embarrassment at having her in his car, and eventually protects her like a little sister. They bond over wrecks in a junkyard and vandalize the car of a snotty teen clique. The junkyard scene is one of several introspective moments in the film, sadly foreshadowing the future for one of the characters. Another is when Curt begs the local DJ to get a hold of “The Wolfman” to send a dedication to his mystery blond. The DJ advises Curt to get out-of-town and see the world like the Wolfman. When Curt leaves, he realizes that the DJ is the Wolfman, trapped in a hot little studio, trying to save all the melting Popsicles in the broken freezer. It’s beautifully bittersweet.
The best thing about American Graffiti is its realness. Unlike Happy Days, the nostalgic TV series that modeled itself after AG, Graffiti the characters aren’t 1962 dolls acting with 70’s attitude. It is wise not to let its style overcome its substance either, its production design is so accurate that one feels that they have truly been dropped into 1962, not a white-washed version. The characters aren’t stereotypes, but just kids trying to figure out what to do on the cusp of a generation that will define itself by breaking free of its
traditional roots. Youth doesn’t really know what it wants, but must face each new challenge as it comes. And there are challenges galore from romantic entanglements to gangs and rival racers. Toad finds a dream girl, Debbie (Candy Clark) and finds adventure with her, even if it wasn’t what he expected. He gets some of the funniest dialogue due to his ineptitude, which makes him all the more endearing. John’s angst speaks for the frustration of his generation, that wants to rebel but hasn’t a clue as to how. Curt wants to be lazy and hang onto small town life for another year, Steve wants to get out of this ‘turkey town ‘and make something of his life. By story’s end, Steve and Curt have reversed their feelings and course; with Curt getting what I suspect is a happier ending than Steve’s cookie-cutter existence.
“Wolfman” Jack plays music all night long, on every radio, in every diner, bringing a sense of community to the piece, recalling a time when everyone watched the same shows and read the same newspapers. The homogeneity betrays the little changes seeping into its world and not everything is as it seems. Carol mentions that her mom won’t let her listen to Wolfman Jack “because he’s a negro”, Curt is embarrassed when his on-and-off girlfriend mentions that his greatest ambition is to shake President Kennedy’s hand. The blond in the Thunderbird is either a rich salesman’s wife or a prostitute. Debbie may look like a perfect Barbie doll, but she’s really rebellious. They have no notion that in only a year or so, a cosmic shift will shatter attitudes about race, leadership, and respect for elders. But for tonight, it is just a few guys and girls looking for a good time.
Cars define each character in the atmosphere in AG. John drives a ‘piss yellow’ 1932 Deuce Coupe, the fastest, bitchinest car on the strip; a toy for the rebel’s fast nights and aimless existence. Steven owns a prestigious white ’58 Impala, which puts Toad in near ecstasy when Steve loans it to him to tend while he’s away, hilariously vowing to love and protect the car until the day he dies. This is understandable since Toad owns a mere wimpy Vespa and he knows this will give him enough status to catch a date. John’s bad boy rival, Bob Falfa, (Harrison Ford, before Han Solo) appropriately drives an evil black ‘55 Chevy. The local gang, The Pharaohs, ride in a mean blood red slug of a’51 Mercury. Laurie’s car is a family-friendly aqua and white ‘58 Edsel,(probably her parents car), Curt drives a pathetic blue ’52 Citroen, could possibly fall apart with the slam of a door, and the mysterious blond drives an immaculate white ‘55 Ford Thunderbird, adding to her goddess mystique.
With only an inkling of what early 60’s life was like, American Graffiti was a movie that started the nostalgia trend toward the 1950’s in the seventies, and as a 12-year-old, I remember thinking how much pop culture had changed in the past 20 years and somehow I missed all the good stuff just because I was born 15 years too late, and it begat a fascination with the recent past I never shook off (hence, my love of Mad Men and TCM). But style and culture aside, AG’s coming-of-age premise is a story for every generation; whether they wore bell-bottoms or droopy drawers, and a story that even modern teens will identify with, assuming that you could get them to watch it. A must see, especially for a generation who can’t imagine living without their I-Phones.
Steve Bolander: (After giving Toad the keys to his car) Are you crying?
Terry Fields: I will love and protect this car until the day I die!
Steve Bolander: We’re finally getting out of this turkey town, and now you wanna crawl back into your cell, right? You wanna end up like John? You just can’t stay seventeen forever.
Guy on Street: “Hey Toad! Is that you in that beautiful car? What a waste of machinery!
Terry Fields: [to Debbie] Hey, did anybody ever tell you that you look just like Connie Stevens?
Debbie Dunham: If brains were dynamite you couldn’t blow your nose.
Carol: Hey, is this what they call “copping a feel”?
Debbie Dunham: Girls don’t pay – guys pay!
Carol: (to John) Don’t you think the Beach Boys are boss?
John Milner: I don’t like that surfin’ shit. Rock and roll’s been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died.
Curt: Hang a right, Steve! I’ve just seen a vision! A goddess!
Debbie Dunham: That’s bitchin’ tuck and roll! You know, I really love the feel of tuck and roll upholstery.
Terry Fields: You do?
Debbie Dunham: Yeah.
Terry Fields: Yeah? Well, get in and I’ll let you feel it… I mean, you know, you can touch it… uh… I’ll let you feel the upholstery.
Wolfman Jack: Have a Popsicle.
Debbie Dunham: Terry, I had a really good time tonight. You picked me up, we got some hard stuff then saw a hold up, went to the canal, got your call stolen, I got to watch you get sick, then we got into this bitchin’ fight, I really had a good time!
Terry Fields: I only have a Vespa.
Debbie Dunham: A Vespa? Well, that’s almost a motorcycle, and I love motorcycles!
- Richard Dreyfuss as Curt Henderson
- Ron Howard as Steve Bolander
- Paul Le Mat as John Milner
- Charles Martin Smith as Terry “The Toad” Fields
- Cindy Williams as Laurie Henderson
- Candy Clark as Debbie Dunham
- Mackenzie Phillips as Carol Morrison
- Harrison Ford as Bob Falfa
- Bo Hopkins as Joe Young
- Wolfman Jack as himself, an XERB Disc Jockey
- Kathleen Quinlan as Peg
- Manuel Padilla, Jr. and Beau Gentry as Carlos and Ants
- Jim Bohan as Officer Holstein
- Jana Bellan as Budda
- Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids as Herbie and the Heartbeats
- Deby Celiz as Wendy
- Suzanne Somers as Blonde in T-Bird
- Johnny Weissmuller, Jr. as Badass 1
- Kay Lenz as Jane
- Lynne Marie Stewart as Bobbie Tucker