American Graffiti (1973)

PG | 109-110 mins | Comedy | August 1973

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HISTORY

According to a written postscript at the end of the film, “John Milner” was killed by a drunk driver in 1964; “Terry Fields” was reported missing in action in Vietnam in 1965; “Steve Bolander” became an insurance agent in Modesto, California; and “Curt Henderson” moved to Canada and became a writer. Along with these statements are the fictitious senior class photographs of each character. Onscreen credits stated that radio commercials appearing in the film were selected from Radio Advertisers Bureau.
       The film was conceived, directed and co-written by Lucas, who, like his main characters, graduated from high school in 1962. According to a Feb 1974 SatRev article, Lucas spent his high school years “`cruising’ the main streets of Modesto, California, with his car radio on full blast.” In a 12 Aug 1973 LAT article, Lucas stated that American Graffiti reflected memories of his adolescence, which he “compressed” into one fictional night. Many events in the picture were based on real events, he said, such as the sequence in which Curt disables the police car. This was something Lucas recalled that a friend did one Halloween night, although he admitted that the film’s depiction is a fantasized version. In a Sep 1973 NYT article, Lucas stated that Terry, John and Curt were aspects of himself and "his high school buddies," while Steve “was totally fictitious.” He reported that he had a serious interest in drag racing as a youth, but lost his enthusiasm after an automobile accident. Lucas attended Modesto’s local junior college and later enrolled at University of Southern California’s film school, where he made ... More Less

According to a written postscript at the end of the film, “John Milner” was killed by a drunk driver in 1964; “Terry Fields” was reported missing in action in Vietnam in 1965; “Steve Bolander” became an insurance agent in Modesto, California; and “Curt Henderson” moved to Canada and became a writer. Along with these statements are the fictitious senior class photographs of each character. Onscreen credits stated that radio commercials appearing in the film were selected from Radio Advertisers Bureau.
       The film was conceived, directed and co-written by Lucas, who, like his main characters, graduated from high school in 1962. According to a Feb 1974 SatRev article, Lucas spent his high school years “`cruising’ the main streets of Modesto, California, with his car radio on full blast.” In a 12 Aug 1973 LAT article, Lucas stated that American Graffiti reflected memories of his adolescence, which he “compressed” into one fictional night. Many events in the picture were based on real events, he said, such as the sequence in which Curt disables the police car. This was something Lucas recalled that a friend did one Halloween night, although he admitted that the film’s depiction is a fantasized version. In a Sep 1973 NYT article, Lucas stated that Terry, John and Curt were aspects of himself and "his high school buddies," while Steve “was totally fictitious.” He reported that he had a serious interest in drag racing as a youth, but lost his enthusiasm after an automobile accident. Lucas attended Modesto’s local junior college and later enrolled at University of Southern California’s film school, where he made a short student film, THX-1138-4EB , that won him a six-month scholarship at Warner Bros. There, he was assigned to officially “observe” the making of Finian’s Rainbow (see below) and met director Francis Ford Coppola, who became a close friend and later executive-produced Lucas’ first feature-length, science fiction production, THX 1138 , an expanded version of his student film. (For more information about THX 1138 and Lucas, see the entry for the film below.) Afterward, according to a 7 Oct 1973 NYT article, Coppola suggested that Lucas next try to make a “warm and human” film.
       Many details about Lucas’ career and the making of American Graffiti can be found in modern books and articles. Most of the following was compiled from contemporary sources: A 24 Aug 1973 HR article stated that Lucas wrote the original treatment of American Graffiti with the married team of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, who were his contemporaries in age and cultural experience and who later rewrote the screenplay. According to 24 Aug 1973 HR and 12 Aug 1973 LAT articles, the film was developed at United Artists, but was then turned down, and several contemporary sources reported that other major studios declined the project. As noted in the 12 Aug 1973 LAT article, American International expressed an interest, but would not commit to the picture. According to an unsourced Sep 1972 article in the film’s file at the AMPAS Library, during this time of multiple rejections Lucas declined opportunities to direct other potentially lucrative projects in order to focus his efforts on selling American Graffiti and other projects in which he was interested. In a 24 Aug 1973 HR article, co-producer Gary Kurtz stated that Universal vice-president Ned Tanen was a “driving force” and championed the production at Universal, which eventually agreed to underwrite the film with the requirement that Coppola, who had had recent success with The Godfather (See Entry), become officially involved.
       A 24 Aug 1973 HR article reported that Lucas worked with a $780,000 budget, from which about ten percent was used to secure the rights to forty-two original rock and roll songs that were popular between 1955 and 1962, which he used to underscore almost every scene. The article noted that it took fourteen months for attorney Tom Pollock to negotiate the music rights. According to a 12 Aug 1973 LAT article, the copyright holders for many of the songs were hard to find and some wanted more money than the project could pay. A modern source reported that Kurtz, who was a friend of Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, secured rights to play two of the group's songs in the film for an affordable price. According to the 24 Aug 1973 HR article, Pollock was able to get permission to use the song “Chantilly Lace” from the mother of The Big Bopper, the seminal rock and roll musician who died in 1959, and he negotiated for the remaining songs.
       According to onscreen information, three songs performed by Flash Cadillac and The Continental Kids were recorded specifically for the film. The mix of other songs, which was regarded by many sources as one of the notable features of American Graffiti , was created at Coppola's San Francisco American Zoetrope Studios by sound man Walter Murch, Lucas and Kurtz. They recorded the songs five different ways to simulate the sound each would make on car radios in various situations, such as from inside a car or as two automobiles passed each other. Although this was a groundbreaking technique in soundtracks, according to modern sources, Universal studio heads were not initially comfortable with the idea.
       Of the cast members in American Graffiti , probably the best known was Ron Howard, who is billed onscreen as Ronny. The future director had appeared regularly on television and in films since infancy and was best known for his role as “Opie Taylor” on the 1960s television series The Andy Griffith Show . Among the other young screen veterans were Bo Hopkins, who portrayed "Joe," the leader of the Pharoahs, and Richard Dreyfuss. However, the mostly youthful cast was largely made up of unknown actors, several of whom went on to successful careers. The film marked the first credited feature film appearance of Kathleen Quinlan ("Peg"). Making their feature film debuts in the picture were Kay Lenz ("Jane"), who is credited onscreen as Kay Ann Kemper, and MacKenzie Phillips ("Carol"), the thirteen-year-old daughter of John Phillips of the musical group The Mamas and the Papas.
       The role of “Bob Falfa” marked the first important role for Harrison Ford, who had done carpentry work for casting director Fred Roos, according to modern sources, but had appeared in small roles in many films, beginning with the 1966 release Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (see below). Cindy Williams ("Laurie Henderson"), Suzanne Somers ("Blonde in T-bird") and Charles Martin Smith had made appearances in several television episodes and smaller films, and Candy Clark’s ("Debbie") sole but significant film credit was in John Huston’s Fat City (See Entry). Paul Le Mat, whose portrayal of John Milner was an homage to actor James Dean, had been a boxer. According to a 24 Aug 1973 HR article, three hundred unpaid teenagers appearing in the sock hop sequence were induced to participate in a four-hour rehearsal of 1950s dances by the prospect of raffled door prizes of stereos and radios. A modern source adds Linda Christensen to the cast.
       Onscreen credits state that American Graffiti was shot in Marin and Sonoma Counties, CA and completed at American Zoetrope. According to the LAT review, portions of the film were shot in Petaluma and San Rafael, CA. The unsourced 1972 article reported that Lucas and Kurtz scouted several Bay Area towns for location sites and found in Berkeley a small FM radio station of the right age for the Wolfman Jack sequence. In the “heart” of San Francisco, they found the film’s centerpiece, Mel’s Drive-in Restaurant. According to the 1994 LAT obituary of the restaurant’s co-owner, Harold Dobbs, the drive-in was part of a chain established in 1947. Modern sources elaborate that Lucas had contracted to shoot the cruising scenes in San Rafael, but after the first night of production, a local bar owner complained of losing business and the agreement was revoked by the town, forcing the production to move to Petaluma, a town that had been rejected as a location site because Lucas feared it would be too dark for filming.
       Except for the drag race and airplane sequences, the film was shot entirely at night and, according to a 12 Aug 1973 LAT article, the cast and crew worked from 9 p.m. to sunrise for twenty-eight days. As noted in the 24 Aug 1973 HR article, Petaluma merchants assisted with the cost of shooting the film by leaving their store lights on throughout the night.
       As noted by the Var review, Lucas shot in a grainy, somewhat outdated Techniscope anamorphic process, which modern sources reason was necessary due to budget constraints. Lucas shot the film himself with two local cameramen, but was displeased with the results. According to the 24 Aug 1973 HR and the 7 Oct 1973 NYT articles, during the second week of production, Haskell Wexler agreed to assist as visual consultant, accepting deferred payment for his services, and commuted nightly from his day job in Los Angeles filming commercials, and as a result slept only three nights a week. Wexler resourcefully devised several ways to light the actors inside the cars and create the effects of headlights from passing cars and devised the “jukebox lighting” that Lucas was seeking.
       The film was edited by Verna Fields, Lucas' former teacher at USC, and his wife Marcia, a film editor and fellow USC graduate (to whom Lucas was married from 1969 until 1983). The editors assembled a 165-minute version that was trimmed and reworked over the next six months. Editing and often heated negotiations over cuts continued between Jan 1973 and the film’s release that summer, according to modern sources, and reportedly, there was some skepticism among studio heads about the film’s viability.
       Despite such doubts, American Graffiti received mostly glowing reviews and was an immediate success with its 1973 audience. The Newsweek review stated that the film “captured a moment recognizable to every generation" that occurs at a vulnerable time just before adulthood. Noting that Lucas and his collaborators were about the same age, the LAT review described the film as “a kind of collective spiritual autobiography.”
       Ads asked, “Where were you in ’62?” In the decade between 1962 and 1973, the country moved on to the Vietnam War, drugs and a more dissonant style of rock music; in retrospect, many people considered the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy the true end of the 1950s and a more innocent era. According to the 5 Aug 1973 NYT review, American Graffiti “freezes the last moment of American innocence.” The WSJ reviewer felt that the film was an “absolutely authentic picture of the car-centered lives of small-town American youth” of an earlier era.
       Because of the film’s popularity and respect, Lucas and his leading cast were boosted into recognition and stardom. American Graffiti is now considered to be one of the most influential films of the 1970s, and many of its innovative lighting and sound techniques, as well as its use of alternating narratives, are regularly employed in film and television.
       The film was listed as #10 on box office charts for 1973. Lucas, Katz and Huyck were nominated by the Writers Guild of America for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen, and received awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. Lucas also won Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures from the Directors Guild of America. The film received Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical/Comedy (Dreyfuss) and Most Promising Male Newcomer (Le Mat). The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Supporting Actress (Clark). Williams was nominated for Best Supporting Actress by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
       In 1995, Library of Congress added the film to the National Film Registry of culturally, historically and aesthetically significant American films. In 2005, Lucas was awarded AFI’s Life Achievement Award, and in 2007, American Graffiti was ranked 62nd on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies—10th Anniversary Edition list of the greatest American films, moving up from the 77th position it held on AFI's 1997 list. Internationally, the film won the Bronze Leopard award from the Locarno Film Festival in Swizterland and first prize at the Cartagena Film Festival in Columbia. Production notes on the DVD version of the film report that American Graffiti was Universal’s second-largest revenue producer, second to the 1970 film Airport (See Entry).
       In 1978, Universal re-released American Graffiti with added footage, and in 1979, Howard, Le Mat, Smith, Williams and Clark reprised their roles in Universal’s sequel, More American Graffiti , which was directed by Bill L. Norton. Around this time, a May 1978 Village Voice article stated that American Graffiti “is a household word” and “synonymous with youth [and] nostalgia,” and that the film was “the second biggest sleeper after Rocky and the thirteenth largest American money-maker” to that date.
Two successful television series, Happy Days (1974--1984) and its spin-off, Laverne & Shirley (1976—1983), starring Howard and Williams, respectively, were created in the wake of the nostalgia for the 1950s and 1960s prompted by American Graffiti ’s success. The 1956 white Thunderbird driven by the mysterious blonde and John Milner’s yellow 1932 Ford coupe, which, incidentally, bore the license plate number THX 138, were honored along with the film by the Cruisin' Hall of Fame, according to a Sep 1998 Daily Breeze (San Bernardino) news item.
       At the time of the film's release, the LAHExam review stated that American Graffiti “celebrates a now-vanished lifestyle.” A 29 Mar 1990 LAT news item reported that the Modesto City Council, wishing to lose its reputation as the “Cruising Capitol” in the later era of traffic and gas shortages, approved strict ordinances to put an end to cruising on their streets. A 2 Dec 1973 NYT essay about the film claimed that within the film was “our own past, lost and gone.” More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
23 Jul 1973
4610.
Box Office
21 Jan 1974.
---
Box Office
28 Jan 1974.
---
Box Office
1 Apr 1974.
---
Box Office
29 May 1978.
---
Daily Breeze (San Bernardino, CA)
21 Sep 1998.
---
Daily Variety
17 Jun 1973.
---
Daily Variety
25 Jul 1973.
---
Daily Variety
15 Aug 1973.
---
Hollywood Reporter
19 Jun 1973
p. 3, 15.
Hollywood Reporter
24 Aug 1973
p. 3, 21.
Hollywood Reporter
15 May 1978.
---
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
1 Aug 1973.
---
Los Angeles Times
29 Jul 1973
Calendar, p. 1, 24, 26.
Los Angeles Times
12 Aug 1973
p. 1, 18.
Los Angeles Times
29 Mar 1990.
---
Los Angeles Times
22 Aug 1994.
---
New Republic
15 Sep 1973
p. 22.
New York Times
5 Aug 1973
Section II, p. 4.
New York Times
13 Aug 1973
p. 21.
New York Times
19 Sep 1973.
---
New York Times
7 Oct 1973.
---
New York Times
2 Dec 1973.
---
New York Times
7 Apr 1974.
---
New Yorker
13 Aug 1973
pp. 66-67.
Newsweek
13 Aug 1973
p. 93.
Rolling Stone
13 Sep 1973.
---
Saturday Review
23 Feb 1974
p. 40.
Time
20 Aug 1973
p. 58.
Variety
20 Jun 1973
p. 20.
Village Voice
29 May 1978.
---
Wall Street Journal
31 Aug 1973.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANIES
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Lucasfilm Ltd/Coppola Co. Production
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Co-prod
WRITERS
PHOTOGRAPHY
Visual consultant
Dir of photog
Dir of photog
Gaffer
Key grip
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Des consultant
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
Film ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Prop master
COSTUMES
MUSIC
Mus coord
SOUND
Sd mont and re-rec
Prod sd
Sd ed
VISUAL EFFECTS
Titles & optical eff
DANCE
Choreog
MAKEUP
Key hair stylist
Key hair stylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Casting
Asst to the prod
Prod mgr
Prod assoc
Prod assoc
Transportation supv
Dial coach
Loc equip
Attorney
SOURCES
SONGS
"At the Hop,” music and lyrics by John L. Medora, Arthur Singer and David White, produced by Kim Fowley, performed by Flash Cadillac and The Continental Kids
“She’s So Fine,” music and lyrics by Kris Moe and Linn Phillips, produced by Kim Fowley, performed by Flash Cadillac and The Continental Kids
“Louie, Louie,” music and lyrics by Richard Berry, produced by Kim Fowley, performed by Flash Cadillac and The Continental Kids
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SONGS
"At the Hop,” music and lyrics by John L. Medora, Arthur Singer and David White, produced by Kim Fowley, performed by Flash Cadillac and The Continental Kids
“She’s So Fine,” music and lyrics by Kris Moe and Linn Phillips, produced by Kim Fowley, performed by Flash Cadillac and The Continental Kids
“Louie, Louie,” music and lyrics by Richard Berry, produced by Kim Fowley, performed by Flash Cadillac and The Continental Kids
courtesy of Roulette Records: “A Thousand Miles Away,” music and lyrics by William Henry Miller and James Sheppard, performed by The Heartbeats, “Barbara Anne,” music and lyrics by Freddy Fassert, performed by The Regents
“Fannie Mae,” music and lyrics by Buster Brown, Clarence L. Lewis and Morgan C. Robinson, performed by Buster Brown
“Gee,” music and lyrics by William Davis and Morris Levy, performed by The Crows
“Heart and Soul,” music by Hoagy Carmichael, lyrics by Frank Loesser, performed by The Cleftones
“I Only Have Eyes for You,” music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin, performed by The Flamingos
“Party Doll,” music and lyrics by Buddy Knox and James Bowen, performed by Buddy Knox
“Peppermint Twist,” music and lyrics by Joseph Di Nicola and Henry Glover, performed by Joey Dee & The Starlighters
“See You in September,” music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and Sid Wayne, performed by The Tempos
“Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” music and lyrics by Morris Levy and Frank Joseph Lymon, performed by Frankie Lymon
“Ya Ya,” music and lyrics by Morris Levy and Clarence L. Lewis, performed by Lee Dorsey
courtesy of Mercury Records: “Chantilly Lace,” music and lyrics by J. P. Richardson, performed by The Big Bopper
“The Great Pretender,” music and lyrics by Buck Ram, performed by The Platters
“Only You,” music and lyrics by Buck Ram and Ande Rand, performed by The Platters
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Otto A. Harbach, performed by The Platters
“Little Darlin’," music and lyrics by Maurice Williams, performed by The Diamonds
“The Stroll,” music and lyrics by Nancy Lee and Clyde Lovern Otis, performed by The Diamonds
courtesy of Chess/Janus division of GRT Corporation: “Almost Grown” and “Johnnie B. Goode,” music and lyrics by Chuck Berry, performed by Chuck Berry
“Book of Love,” music and lyrics by Warren Davis, George Walter Malone and Charles Patrick, performed by The Monotones
“Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight,” music and lyrics by Calvin Carter and James Hudson, performed by The Spaniels
courtesy of United Artists Records: “Ain’t that a Shame,” music and lyrics by Dave Bartholomew and Antoine Domino, performed by Fats Domino
“The Great Imposter,” music and lyrics by Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley, performed by The Fleetwoods
“Love Potion #9,” music and lyrics by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, performed by The Clovers
“You’re Sixteen,” music and lyrics by Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman, performed by Johnny Burnette
courtesy of Decca Records: “Maybe Baby,” music and lyrics by Buddy Holly and Norman Petty, performed by Buddy Holly
“That’ll Be the Day,” music and lyrics by Jerry I. Allison, Buddy Holly and Norman Petty, performed by Buddy Holly
“Rock Around the Clock,” music and lyrics by Max C. Freedman and James E. Myers, performed by Bill Haley & His Comets
courtesy of Capitol Records: “All Summer Long” and “Surfin’ Safari,” music and lyrics by Michael Edward Love and Brian Wilson, performed by The Beach Boys
courtesy of Bell Records: “Get a Job,” music and lyrics by Earl T. Beal, Raymond W. Edwards, William F. Horton and Richard Lewis, performed by The Silhouettes
“To the Aisle,” music and lyrics by Billy Dawn Smith and Stuart Wiener, performed by The Five Satins
courtesy of Sue-Ellen Productions: “Crying in the Chapel,” music and lyrics by Glenn Charles Artice, performed by Sonny Till & The Orioles
“Do You Wanna Dance,” music and lyrics by Bobby Freeman, performed by Bobby Freeman
courtesy of Atlantic Records: “Green Onions,” music and lyrics by Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Lewis Steinberg and Al Jackson, Jr., performed by Booker T & The MG’s
courtesy of Embee Productions: “Runaway,” music and lyrics by Max D. Crook and Del Shannon, performed by Del Shannon
courtesy of MGM Records, Inc.: “Teen Angel,” music and lyrics by Jean Dinning and Red Surrey, performed by Mark Dinning
courtesy of Original Sound Record Co., Inc.: “Since I Don’t Have You,” music and lyrics by James L. Beaumont, Walter P. Lester, Jr., Joseph V. Rock, John H. Taylor, Joseph W. Verscharen and Janet F. Vogel, performed by The Skyliners
courtesy of Paramount Records: “Come Go with Me,” music and lyrics by Clarence E. Quick, performed by The Del Vikings
courtesy of Post Records: “Sixteen Candles,” music and lyrics by Luther Dixon and Allyson R. Khent, performed by The Crests
“Some Enchanted Evening,” music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, use of the song courtesy Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
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DETAILS
Release Date:
August 1973
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles opening: 1 August 1973
New York opening: 12 August 1973
Production Date:
late June--August 1972
Copyright Claimant:
Universal Pictures
Copyright Date:
1 August 1973
Copyright Number:
LP43624
Physical Properties:
Sound
Dolby system
Color
Technicolor
Widescreen/ratio
Techniscope
Duration(in mins):
109-110
MPAA Rating:
PG
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

On one of the last summer nights of 1962, teenagers cruise the main drag of their small California town as rock and roll music and the wry comments of disc jockey Wolfman Jack blare from their car radios. At Mel’s Drive-in, a favorite gathering place, waitresses on roller skates serve food to customers seated in their cars. For two recent high school graduates, popular senior class president Steve Bolander and his more studious friend, Curt Henderson, this is their last night in town, as they are flying east to a prestigious college in the morning. Steve, whose father is prominent in the Moose Lodge, delivers the organization’s scholarship check to Curt, but his friend is having second thoughts and confides that he may instead attend the local city college for a year. Ready for change, Steve is surprised by Curt’s revelation and suggests to his girl friend Laurie, who is Curt’s sister and the head cheerleader, that they should date other people while he is away. Presenting the keys of his Chevy to his gawky former classmate, Terry “the Toad” Fields, Steve asks him to take care of the car. Curt chats with their twenty-two-year-old friend, John Milner, an auto mechanic and amateur racer who has remained in perpetual adolescence and suppresses his feelings of being left behind. While looking at the young women around him, Curt longs for the “dazzling beauty” of his dreams and, while on his way to a school sock hop with Steve and Laurie, he spots a beautiful blonde driving a white Thunderbird automobile. When she mouths the words “I love you” and drives away, Curt wants ... +


On one of the last summer nights of 1962, teenagers cruise the main drag of their small California town as rock and roll music and the wry comments of disc jockey Wolfman Jack blare from their car radios. At Mel’s Drive-in, a favorite gathering place, waitresses on roller skates serve food to customers seated in their cars. For two recent high school graduates, popular senior class president Steve Bolander and his more studious friend, Curt Henderson, this is their last night in town, as they are flying east to a prestigious college in the morning. Steve, whose father is prominent in the Moose Lodge, delivers the organization’s scholarship check to Curt, but his friend is having second thoughts and confides that he may instead attend the local city college for a year. Ready for change, Steve is surprised by Curt’s revelation and suggests to his girl friend Laurie, who is Curt’s sister and the head cheerleader, that they should date other people while he is away. Presenting the keys of his Chevy to his gawky former classmate, Terry “the Toad” Fields, Steve asks him to take care of the car. Curt chats with their twenty-two-year-old friend, John Milner, an auto mechanic and amateur racer who has remained in perpetual adolescence and suppresses his feelings of being left behind. While looking at the young women around him, Curt longs for the “dazzling beauty” of his dreams and, while on his way to a school sock hop with Steve and Laurie, he spots a beautiful blonde driving a white Thunderbird automobile. When she mouths the words “I love you” and drives away, Curt wants to pursue her, but his companions refuse to change their course. John is cruising the streets in search of companionship when several people tell him that Bob Falfa, an out-of-towner driving a 1955 Chevy, wants to race him. While waiting at a red light, John flirts with the occupants of a car full of girls and one of them, Carol, agrees to join him. To his disappointment, Carol is only twelve years old, but having nowhere to leave her, he feels resigned to her company. At the dance, Laurie, feeling hurt and angry with Steve, provokes a quarrel on the dance floor, but when the emcee introduces Steve and Laurie to the crowd and asks them to lead off the slow dance, the couple feigns ardor. While dancing, Laurie reminds Steve of how they initially got together and when the music changes to a more lively number, they continue to cling to each other. Still undecided about his future, Curt roams the halls and confides in a young teacher, Mr. Wolfe, who urges Curt to experience life and relates his own experience of returning home after only one semester. Seeing a white car in the parking lot, Curt hopes to find his mysterious blonde, but finds instead a couple inside necking. However, later, while riding with his former girl friend Wendy and her friend, he sees the blonde drive past them. After Curt makes a a mischievous remark, the girls eject him from the car and as he wanders on foot, the blonde in the Thunderbird drives past him again, always elusive. Meanwhile, John feels burdened by Carol and, embarrassed when his friends see them together, says she is a cousin he is babysitting. Crushed, Carol leaves his car and runs down the street, but John drives over to her rescue when a car full of young men taunt her. Terry, whose usual transportation is a Vespa motor scooter, is thrilled with the status of driving Steve’s car. After a minor traffic accident, an encounter with a sleazy automobile salesman and various attempts to pick up a girl, he spots a poufy-haired blonde named Debbie, who he says looks like actress Connie Stevens. Pleased with the comparison, she gets in the car with him and asks for alcohol. Too young to buy whisky, Terry waits outside a liquor store for someone to purchase it for him. Although a drunk takes his money and sneaks away, another man agrees to help him and then holds up the store, throwing a bottle to Terry as he escapes from the storekeeper’s gunshots. Later, Terry and Debbie are necking on a blanket in a field when Steve’s car is stolen. Although Carol and John bicker a lot, they also play pranks on other drivers and he takes her to a car dump, where he points out different cars and tells her stories of the inevitability of collisions and death. Although John has never been beaten in a car race, he feels the pressure of defending his “number one” reputation. Consequently, when Falfa begins to follow him, John decides to take Carol home before facing off with him. When Carol refuses to divulge her address, John feigns uncontrollable passion for her, frightening her into telling him where she lives. After he takes her home, Carol asks for something to remember him by and John gives her a piece of his car as a token and a peck on the cheek. Meanwhile, Curt is approached by a gang of hoods, called the Pharaohs, who order him to accompany them or face bodily harm. Trapped inside their automobile, Curt again sees the blonde driving the Thunderbird, but is unable to take action. Needing gas money, the Pharaohs rob the arcade of a miniature golf park, as Curt nervously chats with the owner who is a member of the Moose Lodge. Afterward, their leader gives Curt a chance to “join” the Pharaohs and orders him to chain the axle of a policeman’s car to a post. Pleased with Curt’s work, the Pharaohs drop him off at Mel’s, where his car is parked. The blonde drives by, but Curt cannot get his car started in time to follow her. Elsewhere, Steve tries to convince Laurie to have sex with him, but she pushes him out of the car and drives away. Steve returns to Mel’s alone, where a waitress invites him home, and although he refuses her, Laurie sees them together and presumes that he is already dating others. Terry, after throwing up from the liquor and excitement, finds Steve’s car, but while he is hot-wiring the car, the thieves catch him and beat him up. While driving by, John sees the attack and fights off the thugs. Terry and Debbie then return to Mel’s to get ice for his bruised face, and Steve, who has realized he does not want to leave Laurie, learns from others that she is riding around with Falfa. Desperate to get her back, Steve takes possession of his car, forcing Terry to admit to Debbie that he does not own it. Debbie, unfazed by his confession, says she had fun and suggests they meet again the next day. Curt, desperate to reach the blonde, finds the radio station that broadcasts Wolfman Jack’s program to request that the Wolfman send a message over the air asking her to call him. When the disc jockey on duty claims that Wolfman’s shows are pre-recorded, Curt explains that it is urgent because he may be leaving town the next day. After Curt admits to indecision, the DJ tells him to “get his ass in gear,” and agrees to air the message. As Curt is leaving, the man broadcasts live on the air, and Curt realizes he has just met the mysterious Wolfman. Eventually Falfa, accompanied by Laurie, finds John and they agree to face off at dawn on an isolated road. Word spreads and a few spectators congregate to watch. As the sun is rising, the race begins and although Falfa is in the lead, he loses control. His car flips several times and catches fire, but miraculously neither he nor Laurie is injured. Although John retains his racing reputation, he senses the fickleness of fate. Steve and Laurie are reunited after he helps her out of the wreckage. After Wolfman reads Curt’s message on the radio, Curt receives a call from the blonde, who says she will be cruising Third Street that evening. However, Curt has come to a decision and knows he will not be in town at the end of the day. A few hours later, Curt’s family and Steve say goodbye as he boards the plane. After taking off, Curt sees the Thunderbird driving along a road below, while his plane flies out of range of the radio station. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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CITIZEN KANE

Seventy-year-old newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane dies in his palatial Florida home, Xanadu, after uttering the single word “Rosebud.” While watching a newsreel summarizing the years during which Kane ... >>

REAR WINDOW

Laid up with a broken leg during the height of summer, renowned New York magazine photographer L. B. “Jeff” Jeffries enters his last week of home confinement, bored and ... >>

RAGING BULL

In 1941, at a boxing match in Cleveland, Ohio, pandemonium breaks out when Jake La Motta, an up-and-coming young boxer, loses a decision to Jimmy Reeves, suffering his first ... >>

CITY LIGHTS

At an outdoor dedication ceremony, a tramp is discovered sleeping in the arms of a statue as it is being unveiled before a crowd. He is chased into ... >>

The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.