Great American Graffiti

Cindy Williams, who died last week at the age of  75, is remembered for her role in the “Laverne & Shirley” sitcom, on television from 1976 to 1983. Fans may be unaware that Williams also appeared on the big screen inAmerican Graffiti,” which turns 50 this year. This movie, directed by George Lucas, captures an era and its music like no other. 

The film fades in to “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley and His Comets. The year is 1962 and Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss), John Milner (Paul Le Mat) and Terry Fields (Charles Martin Smith) congregate outside Burger City, a drive-in joint in an unnamed California city, where the carhops glide around on roller skates. 

Bolander hands Henderson a scholarship check from the Moose Lodge for $2,000 but the recipient is unsure if he will be joining Steve in college back East. That raises an issue for Steve’s girlfriend Laurie Henderson, Curt’s sister, wonderfully played by Cindy Williams. Steve wants to “date other people” while they are apart, claiming it would “strengthen our relationship.” Laurie claims “I’m not upset” but she is. 

At the high school “hop,” they slow dance to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by the Platters, the most successful vocal group of the mid-1950s. As the great Tony Williams sings “I am without my love,” we see the tear in Laurie’s eye. Elsewhere in the film the Platters sing “Only You” and “The Great Pretender.” 

The dancers carry on to “The Stroll,” by the Diamonds who also perform their 1957 hit “Little Darlin’,” originally recorded by the Gladiolas. Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids, in period costume, play “At the Hop,” also recorded by Danny and the Juniors

Apprised that “college girls really put out,” Steve sticks to his decision to head east. He even lends his 1958 Chevrolet Impala to Terry, known as “Toad,” to drive while he is away. 

Terry duly picks up Debbie (Candy Clark) who looks like Connie Stevens and Sandra Dee, stars of the era. They encounter a fast 1955 Chevy driven by Bob Falfa, the first movie role for Harrison Ford, a carpenter who had done some work for George Lucas. 

Falfa is looking for “a piss-yellow deuce coupe, supposed to be hot stuff.” 

“That’s John Milner,” Terry says. “Nobody can beat him, man.” 

I ain’t nobody, dork,” replies Falfa, who later croons a verse from “Some Enchanted Evening” when the jilted Laurie winds up in his car. They are headed for a showdown with Milner and his 1932 Ford coupe. 

John Milner plans to stay in town, as he proclaims, “having fun as usual.” He winds up with the underage Carol (Mackenzie Phillips). They cruise the streets to tunes such as “Fanny Mae,” by Buster Brown, and the pair have fun deflating the tires of a 1959 Cadillac to the strains of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Teens also tool around to Berry’s “Almost Grown.” Steve, Curt, and Terry aren’t quite there. 

You’re Sixteen,” by Johnny Burnette, backdrops John’s adventures with Carol. When John finally drives her home we hear the Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You,” later covered by Chuck Jackson, better known for “Any Day Now.”  

Curt spots a blonde (Suzanne Somers) in a white 1956 Ford Thunderbird. At a stoplight she whispers “I love you” but Curt can’t seem to chase her down. Curt also encounters old flame Wendy (Deby Celiz), whose ex-boyfriend is now an aide to President Kennedy. Curt invites Wendy into the “aft chamber” of a friend’s car, a move also true to the period.  

Ejected from the car, Curt encounters the Pharaohs, a gang led by Joe (Bo Hopkins), who asks him where he’s going. “Nowhere,” Curt says. 

“You must be going somewhere,” Joe responds. “I mean, you left here didn’t ya?” In this film, most everybody gets some good lines. For example, after perpetrating some mayhem on the police, Joe tells Curt, “Rome wasn’t burned in a night.” 

Curt gets a taste of “Love Potion Number Nine,” by the Clovers, who also had a hit with “One Mint Julep” in the early 1950s. Ray Charles later put out an instrumental version

Curt’s pursuit of the blonde leads him to Wolfman Jack, the famous disc jockey, here played by his own self. The Wolfman is stunned that Curt can’t decide if he’s leaving town or not. After lecturing Henderson on the need to “get your ass in gear” and see the world, the DJ agrees to dedicate a tune and get it on the air that very night. The blonde is to meet Curt at Burger City, where the evening’s events began. 

In the meantime, the Wolfman spins tunes such as “You’re a Thousand Miles Away,” by the Heartbeats, and “Crying in the Chapel,” by Sonny Til and the Orioles, later covered by Elvis Presley. The film closes out with  “Goodnight Sweetheart” by the Spaniels. After all the fun, as they said, it was time to go. 

Wolfman Jack, also known as Robert Weston Smith, passed away in 1995. Bo Hopkins died last year, now joined by Cindy Williams. Most of the musical artists are long gone, but as the late Barrett Strong said, “songs outlive people.” So do movies. 

“American Graffiti” is the best replication of an era film fans are likely to find. To his great credit, George Lucas does not neglect the tragic downside just around the corner. For that, you’ll have to watch right to the end. Take a good look and listen, people. This era, and its music, are never going to happen again.

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About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

Photo: Universal Pictures/Getty Images