The fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival got off to a rocking start tonight at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with a poolside screening of AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973). The historic pool and Tropicana bar, that was once the backdrop for an early Marilyn Monroe shoot, is a gorgeous setting anytime. It’s the picture of classic Hollywood elegance, an oasis complete with cabanas, palm trees and famed David Hockney mural. But TCM really upped the ambience tonight, creating a party atmosphere with pre-show music and sock hoppers. The dancers showed off their moves to tunes like “Let’s Go to the Hop.”
TCM host Ben Mankiewicz got the festivities underway. He welcomed the audience and the night’s special guests saying, “what a great movie to watch by the pool.” Joining Ben to introduce the film were three cast members: Candy Clark, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Debbie Dunham; Bo Hopkins, who played the leader of the Pharaohs; and Paul Le Mat, praised for his turn as the drag racing John Milner.
In a brief interview before the screening, they discussed the film’s tight shooting schedule—it was filmed in just 28 nights. Candy Clark stressed the “nights” part and how the crew would wait for it to get dark, then rush to get the filming in before dawn. Clark also revealed that she wore a wig for the film. And that on cold nights, her wig did double duty as a hat. Clark chatted about her Oscar nomination and joked about losing to a nine year old (Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon). The entire panel joined in telling one famous story from the set, where as Ben put it, “[Paul] nearly killed Richard Dreyfuss.” Apparently Paul Le Mat took Dreyfuss by the arms and legs and tossed him head first into the shallow end of the Holiday Inn pool. They joked this was the reason Dreyfuss (who will appear later this weekend at the festival) was not in attendance tonight. The combination of Paul and a pool, they teased, was too much for him.
Clark, Hopkins and Le Mat also discussed the amateur status of most of the cast. Richard Dreyfuss, for example, was still a relative newcomer to the acting world. AMERICAN GRAFFITI was his first lead role after landing smaller parts in several films, including a turn as Baby Face Nelson in Dillinger (1973) earlier that same year. Harrison Ford was, at the time, still alternating between bit acting parts and work as a carpenter. AMERICAN GRAFFITI would mark a major turning point for Ford, as connections made on this film would shape his career for years to come. The next year, in 1974, he would appear in GRAFFITI producer Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar nominated film The Conversation (1974). And three short years later, GRAFFITI director, George Lucas would call on Ford for a role that would propel him into superstardom – Han Solo in Star Wars (1977).
The one veteran in the cast was all of eighteen years old—Ron Howard, who had made his first film appearance at eighteen months in Frontier Woman (1954). Howard, of course, had a successful run as an adorable screen tot in films like The Music Man (1962) and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), before settling into the best known of his childhood roles, Sheriff Taylor’s son, Opie, on The Andy Griffith Show. But AMERICAN GRAFFITI provided Howard a new opportunity as well—the chance to escape his moppet typecasting and play a more adult role. Ironically, Howard was one of only two actual teenagers in the main cast of AMERICAN GRAFFITI. Charles Martin Smith, who played Terry “The Toad” was also eighteen. Most of the actors were in their twenties, except for Mackenzie Phillips, who played teenybopper Carol and was only twelve. The elder statesman of the bunch was Harrison Ford, who turned thirty during the production.
Like most of his cast, director George Lucas was just getting his feet wet professionally on AMERICAN GRAFFITI. It was only his second feature film. In what has to be one of filmmaking’s most storied rises, Lucas found success while still in graduate school at USC. His short Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967) won the National Student film festival, and Lucas was awarded a student scholarship by Warner Bros. He was allowed to choose a film in production to observe. Lucas went with Finian’s Rainbow (1968) directed by the hero of film school students of everywhere, Francis Ford Coppola.
Apparently it was a match made in moviemaking heaven. Lucas and Coppola formed a production company the next year called American Zoetrope. The company’s first film was a feature-length version of Lucas’ student project, THX 1138 (1971). The future dystopia film was not a financial success and was disappointing to Lucas. It was Coppola who challenged Lucas to write a script that would appeal more to mainstream audiences. The resulting story, which drew from Lucas’ own teen years, spent cruising in Modesto, California, would become AMERICAN GRAFFITI.
One cruising hotspot worth noting in AMERICAN GRAFFITI is Mel’s Drive-In. The original was bulldozed soon after the film’s production. But in the 1980s, the restaurant reopened as a small chain, with one location in San Francisco and two in Hollywood. Festivalgoers who want to keep the party going tonight could walk a few blocks to Mel’s Highland location, for some post-screening burgers and shakes.