Zoot Suit (1981)

R | 103 mins | Drama | 30 September 1981

Director:

Luis Valdez

Writer:

Luis Valdez

Producer:

Peter Burrell

Cinematographer:

David Myers

Production Designer:

Tom H. John

Production Company:

Universal Pictures
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HISTORY

The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and note were written by participant Anjuli M. Singh, an independent scholar.

Zoot Suit begins with a title card containing the following statement in English and Spanish: “The following film is based upon a true incident.” Appearing after the title card is the “mirrored ball” Universal Pictures logo from the 1940s, the time period in which the story is based. End credits include a “Special Thanks” to El Teatro Campesino, and the statements: "Zoot Suit was Originally Produced in Los Angeles by the Center Theatre Group and on Broadway by the Shubert Organization," and “Zoot Suit was filmed in its entirety at Center Theatre Group’s Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood, California.”
       Zoot Suit is based on a stage play of the same name by the film’s writer-director Luis Valdez. The play opened in 1978 to a warm reception in Los Angeles, California, but lasted only five weeks on Broadway in 1979.
       According to a 29 Jun 1979 DV article, Zoot Suit was originally set to be distributed by Paramount Pictures, but Paramount dropped out after Valdez fought for the director role. Although Jane Fonda and Anthony Quinn expressed interest in the project, they were not cast. As noted in the 2 Oct 1981 Evening Standard, several actors who appeared in the stage play reprised their roles in the film version, including: Luis Valdez’s younger brother, actor-composer Daniel Valdez, who reprised his role as “Hank”; Edward James Olmos, who performed in the Los Angeles debut and the ... More Less

The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and note were written by participant Anjuli M. Singh, an independent scholar.

Zoot Suit begins with a title card containing the following statement in English and Spanish: “The following film is based upon a true incident.” Appearing after the title card is the “mirrored ball” Universal Pictures logo from the 1940s, the time period in which the story is based. End credits include a “Special Thanks” to El Teatro Campesino, and the statements: "Zoot Suit was Originally Produced in Los Angeles by the Center Theatre Group and on Broadway by the Shubert Organization," and “Zoot Suit was filmed in its entirety at Center Theatre Group’s Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood, California.”
       Zoot Suit is based on a stage play of the same name by the film’s writer-director Luis Valdez. The play opened in 1978 to a warm reception in Los Angeles, California, but lasted only five weeks on Broadway in 1979.
       According to a 29 Jun 1979 DV article, Zoot Suit was originally set to be distributed by Paramount Pictures, but Paramount dropped out after Valdez fought for the director role. Although Jane Fonda and Anthony Quinn expressed interest in the project, they were not cast. As noted in the 2 Oct 1981 Evening Standard, several actors who appeared in the stage play reprised their roles in the film version, including: Luis Valdez’s younger brother, actor-composer Daniel Valdez, who reprised his role as “Hank”; Edward James Olmos, who performed in the Los Angeles debut and the Broadway version as “El Pachuco”; and Rose Portillo, who reprised the role of “Della.”
       Principal photography began in Sep 1980, as stated in a 3 Jul 1980 HR news brief, and was completed within two weeks. Although the production budget was originally $2.5 million, the 28 Aug 1981 DV estimated the final cost as $2.7 million. According to the production notes in AMPAS library files, Zoot Suit was shot entirely in and around the Aquarius Theatre on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California, one of the venues where the play was originally performed. Throughout production, the film crew worked together with a stage crew.
       In order to capture the fluidity of the musical numbers, three cameras were used to photograph dance sequences. Dancers wore miniscule, unseen earphones so that production sound would not record the music to which they danced. In addition, a “Thumper Method” was used in which the performers danced to “a low-frequency musical beat” that would not be picked up by microphones, and for some dialogue scenes, “up to eight wireless transistor microphones were used.” The scenes featuring a live theater audience were shot over the course of one day, with audience members ranging from fans of the stage play to several “real-life counterparts” of Zoot Suit’s characters, which were based on specific individuals or composites of people who had been involved in the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial. The 11 Oct 1981 LAT noted that the character “George Shearer” is based on civil liberties lawyer George Shibley, and the 29 Nov 2009 LAT cited activist Alice McGrath as the basis for the character “Alice Bloomfield.”
       According to an article in the 2 Jul 1980 LAT, Universal conceived of Zoot Suit as the first in a series of films aimed at the Hispanic market, although the studio hoped it would have crossover potential. According to the 12 Apr 1981 LAT, the studio planned to release the film in “major Hispanic centers” and hire “Hispanic marketing experts and consultants” for the promotional campaign. A preview screening took place at Los Angeles’s Picwood Theatre on 26 Aug 1981, roughly one month before the 1 Oct 1981 premiere at the Pacific Cinerama Dome Theater, which benefited the Ruben Salazar Bicentennial Building of Plaza de la Raza cultural center in Los Angeles, according to a 22 Aug 1981 LAT item.
       Critical reception was mixed. A 30 Sep 1981 HR review described the film as “infectious, buoyant, offbeat, stylish, commanding and fresh as new paint,” and applauded the entire cast, while the 30 Sep 1981 Var review praised Valdez for “properly focus[ing] in at the heart of his strong story.” Both HR and Var disliked the presence of a theatrical audience in the film, but singled out Tyne Daly’s performance as exceptional. While the 22 Jan 1982 NYT review echoed HR and Var in commending Daly’s performance, it described Zoot Suit as “a holy mess of a movie” and denounced its stylistic attempts at merging theater and film.
       Zoot Suit was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Film, Musical or Comedy.
       The film earned $79,062 in its first week in Los Angeles, but a less impressive $31,500 in its first week in New York; ultimately, it took in $3,256,082 in box-office receipts.
       Zoot Suit generated a number of lawsuits. When the original stage play opened in 1978, four of the defendants in the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial sued Valdez and producers of the play for invasion of privacy, according to an 11 Oct 1981 LAT article. The case ended with an out-of-court financial settlement that included a deal for “1% of the net profits of the… film to be divided among them.” As noted in a 27 Jun 1979 DV article, Valdez’s original intention was to involve the surviving original defendants in the stage and film productions and make sure they were compensated.
       According to a 14 Feb 1982 LAT item, Bertha Aguilar, an alleged original participant in Sleepy Lagoon, claimed that a character was based on her and filed a $5 million lawsuit against Valdez, Universal, and the Pacific Cinerama Dome Theater, citing “invasion of privacy, infliction of emotional distress and libel.” The case was dismissed by both the Los Angeles Superior Court and the California Appeals Court, which cited “insufficient evidence,” according to a 22 Nov 1985 HR brief. Another lawsuit was filed against Universal by Sleepy Lagoon defendant Andrew Acosta, who also cited invasion of privacy, but Universal “received a summary judgment” in its favor, according to a 12 Oct 1983 DV item.
       Zoot Suit marked the feature film directorial debut for Luis Valdez, as well as the film debut of actor Robert Beltran. More Less

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
27 Jun 1979.
---
Daily Variety
28 Aug 1981.
---
Daily Variety
30 Sep 1981.
---
Daily Variety
12 Oct 1983.
---
Evening Outlook
2 Oct 1981.
---
Hollywood Reporter
15 Nov 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
3 Jul 1980
p. 1, 24.
Hollywood Reporter
30 Sep 1981
p. 3, 13.
Hollywood Reporter
16 May 1984.
---
Hollywood Reporter
22 Nov 1985.
---
LAHExam
2 Feb 1982.
---
LAHExam
10 Mar 1983.
---
Los Angeles Times
2 Jul 1980
Part VI, p. 2.
Los Angeles Times
4 Mar 1981
Part VI, p. 2.
Los Angeles Times
12 Apr 1981
Calendar, p. 4.
Los Angeles Times
22 Aug 1981.
---
Los Angeles Times
28 Sep 1981.
---
Los Angeles Times
30 Sep 1981
p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
11 Oct 1981.
---
Los Angeles Times
14 Feb 1982.
---
Los Angeles Times
29 Nov 2009.
---
New York Times
22 Jan 1982
p. 10.
Variety
16 Jul 1980.
---
Variety
4 Feb 1981.
---
Variety
30 Sep 1981
p. 22.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
A Luis Valdez film
A Center Theatre Group - Mark Taper Forum presentation
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
DGA trainee
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
Co-prod
Assoc prod
WRITER
Wrt for the screen by
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
Cam op
Cam op
Asst cam
Asst cam
Stills
Gaffer
Key grip
Best boy
Best boy
Best boy
Best boy
Dolly grip
Co-grip
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Asst art dir
FILM EDITORS
Supv ed
Asst film ed
Asst film ed
Asst film ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Prop master
Asst prop master
Leadman
COSTUMES
Cost supv
Cost supv
Cost supv
Cost supv
Cost originally des for the stage by
MUSIC
Orig mus and adpt
Addl mus and arrangements
Mus ed
Asst mus ed
SOUND
Sd re-rec
Sd re-rec
Sd re-rec
Sd re-rec
Sd eff ed
Sd eff ed
Loop dial ed
Loop dial ed
Boom man
Playback op
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
Titles & opt eff
DANCE
Choreog
Dance capt
Dance capt
MAKEUP
Hair stylist
Hair stylist
Make-up
PRODUCTION MISC
Tech adv
Casting
Casting
Casting
Prod liaison
Consultant
Consultant
Unit pub
Transportation capt
Craft service
Prod asst
Stage lighting des, Center Theatre Group/Mark Tape
Assoc stage lighting des, Center Theatre Group/Mar
Tech admin, Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum
Prod admin, Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum
Assoc prod admin, Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper
Aquarius Theatre admin, Center Theatre Group/Mark
Aquarius Theatre admin, Center Theatre Group/Mark
Facilities mgr, Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Fo
COLOR PERSONNEL
Col by
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the play Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez (Los Angeles, 17 Aug 1978).
AUTHOR
SONGS
"Los Chucos Suaves," music and Spanish lyrics by Lalo Guerrero
"Vamos A Bailar," music and Spanish lyrics by Lalo Guerrero
"Marijuana Boogie," music and Spanish lyrics by Lalo Guerrero
+
SONGS
"Los Chucos Suaves," music and Spanish lyrics by Lalo Guerrero
"Vamos A Bailar," music and Spanish lyrics by Lalo Guerrero
"Marijuana Boogie," music and Spanish lyrics by Lalo Guerrero
"Zoot Suit for My Sunday Gal," written by Ray Gilbert and Bob O'Brien, performed by The Andrews Sisters, courtesy of MCA Records
"Soldado Razo," written by Leal Felipe Valdez, performed by Pedro Infante, courtesy of Fabrica de Discos Peerless S.A.
"La Negra," performed by Mariachi Vargas, courtesy of RCA S.A. de CV of Mexico
"Muchacho Alegre," performed by Charro Avitia, courtesy of RCA S.A. de CV of Mexico.
+
DETAILS
Release Date:
30 September 1981
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles opening: week of 30 September 1981
New York opening: 22 January 1981
Production Date:
September 1980
Copyright Claimant:
Universal City Studios, Inc.
Copyright Date:
25 January 1982
Copyright Number:
PA126375
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Lenses
Panaflex® camera and lenses by Panavision®
Duration(in mins):
103
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
26313
SYNOPSIS

At the Zoot Suit nightclub, El Pachuco, the nightclub host, performs a musical number to a full house. After the number is over, he announces to the audience that the story they are about to see is a combination of fact and fantasy. Set in Los Angeles in 1942, the show begins with El Pachuco and Henry “Hank” Reyna, a leader of the 38th Street gang. El Pachuco explains to Hank that the commotion surrounding them is in response to the murder of Jose Sanchez at the Sleepy Lagoon, but Hank denies any involvement. Nearly three hundred young adults are taken to jail in connection with the incident, including Hank, who is beaten by police officers. Hank loses consciousness and dreams of El Pachuco, who leads him back in time to the night of the murder on 1 August 1942. That evening, Hank and his brother, Rudy, get ready to attend a dance with their sister, Lupe. Hank’s mother complains about her sons’ “zoot suits” and expresses concern for their safety. Hank almost leaves his switchblade knife at home, but accepts El Pachuco’s knife at the last minute. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, tensions mount between Rudy and his father, who expresses pride in Hank for enlisting in the Navy. El Pachuco snaps his fingers and transports Hank to the jail where he and three of his fellow gang members; Jose “Joey” Castro, Ishmael “Smiley” Torres, and Thomas Roberts; are being held. Defense attorney George Shearer arrives and tells the group he has been hired by their parents. Hank and his friends are initially wary of George, believing he might be an undercover police officer, but they accept his ... +


At the Zoot Suit nightclub, El Pachuco, the nightclub host, performs a musical number to a full house. After the number is over, he announces to the audience that the story they are about to see is a combination of fact and fantasy. Set in Los Angeles in 1942, the show begins with El Pachuco and Henry “Hank” Reyna, a leader of the 38th Street gang. El Pachuco explains to Hank that the commotion surrounding them is in response to the murder of Jose Sanchez at the Sleepy Lagoon, but Hank denies any involvement. Nearly three hundred young adults are taken to jail in connection with the incident, including Hank, who is beaten by police officers. Hank loses consciousness and dreams of El Pachuco, who leads him back in time to the night of the murder on 1 August 1942. That evening, Hank and his brother, Rudy, get ready to attend a dance with their sister, Lupe. Hank’s mother complains about her sons’ “zoot suits” and expresses concern for their safety. Hank almost leaves his switchblade knife at home, but accepts El Pachuco’s knife at the last minute. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, tensions mount between Rudy and his father, who expresses pride in Hank for enlisting in the Navy. El Pachuco snaps his fingers and transports Hank to the jail where he and three of his fellow gang members; Jose “Joey” Castro, Ishmael “Smiley” Torres, and Thomas Roberts; are being held. Defense attorney George Shearer arrives and tells the group he has been hired by their parents. Hank and his friends are initially wary of George, believing he might be an undercover police officer, but they accept his help. When George asks what really happened, Hank explains that it started at the dance. El Pachuco snaps his fingers, transporting them back in time to the dance, where a fight breaks out between a rival gang and the 38th Street members. When the rival gang’s leader pushes Rudy, Hank intervenes and they face-off with switchblades. El Pachuco tells Hank not to do anything he will regret, and Hank allows his opponent to leave the dance hall. Back at the jail, Alice Bloomfield, a representative from the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations], visits Hank to offer the support of the “working people,” and George reveals that he is working with Alice on the Sleepy Lagoon case. Hank believes he can escape the murder charges, but El Pachuco is not optimistic. The next day in court, the prosecution makes prejudicial statements against the four defendants, blaming their violent natures on their Aztec ancestry. During testimony, Della recalls driving to Sleepy Lagoon with Hank on the night of the murder. As the couple kiss in Hank’s car, they are startled by a rival gang wielding baseball bats. The young men attack Hank’s car, beat Hank, and leave for a nearby party. Hank meets his fellow 38th Street gang members, and the group returns to Sleepy Lagoon in search of the attackers. In the courtroom, the judge tells each defendant to stand at the mention of his name. Although George argues that this will make his clients appear guilty of the accusations made against them, the judge disagrees. Della testifies that partygoers mistook the 38th Street gang for their rivals and attacked. She identifies Sanchez’s killer as a tall man with a stick, not Hank. The judge sends Della to a girl’s school for one year, where she is to be held as a juvenile ward of the state. The jury finds the four 38th Street gang members guilty, and they are sentenced to life in San Quentin State Prison, but George assures Hank he will appeal the verdict and win. Alice visits the four men regularly in jail, delivering care packages and news of the outside world. On one visit, Alice asks Hank to write an article about the event so she can publish it, but Hank wants to write her privately instead. Hank starts writing love letters, but Alice rejects his advances, saying she must focus on her work. When a prison guard tries to reassign the men’s workstations, Hank attacks him and is punished with ninety days in solitary confinement. El Pachuco visits Hank during his confinement, and tells the prisoner he will never be free, but Hank realizes that El Pachuco is part of him. El Pachuco gives Hank a glimpse of what is going on in the outside world, particularly the escalating violence of military personnel towards Latino Americans wearing zoot suits. When Della visits the jail a year later, Hank asks her to wait for him. On 8 November 1944, Hank, Joey, Smiley, and Thomas are freed on appeal. +

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

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