(Note: This is a newspaper column that I wrote last year, and which I had fully intended to post here earlier - but things happen, you know?)

I recently had the opportunity to re-watch one of my all-time favorite motion pictures, and was reminded yet again of just how great a film it is.

American Graffiti, George Lucas’ second theatrical film, was one of the first films of its era to prove the value in “word of mouth promotion.“ Dimly viewed by the studio execs at the time - who famously wanted to dump it as a made-for-TV movie and forget that it ever existed - this film that was produced on a shoestring budget of $777,000 ended its original theatrical run with one the the greatest profit-to-cost ratios in the history of Hollywood and remains one of the most profitable films ever made.

This is a matter of public record. But beyond all that, I have long maintained that American Graffiti, may in fact be the single most influential movie ever made. 

Consider the evidence:

• Had the film not been a success, it is likely that the original Star Wars would not have been made. 20th Century-Fox chief Alan Ladd Jr. made the deal for Star Wars because he’d seen Graffiti and liked it, recognizing Lucas’ talent as a filmmaker.

• Consequently, with no Star Wars there would have been no Industrial Light and Magic - the special effects company created by Lucas specifically for that film, and which went on to push the boundaries of both practical (I.e. model making and miniatures) and computer generated imagery (CGI) effects. The impact this one company has had on the film industry - ranging from the Star Wars, Jurassic Park and Pirates Of The Caribbean series and several of the Star Trek revivals to Forrest Gump, Titanic and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not to mention the creation of Pixar and such television ad icons as the Energizer Bunny - simply cannot be understated.

• Although he’d been a struggling actor on both the big and small screen for several years, it is American Graffiti that can be legitimately cited as the start of Harrison Ford’s real success. Had it not been for his small but pivotal role as Bob Falfa, Ford likely would have stuck with carpentry and Tom Selleck would have eventually worn Indiana Jones’ fedora. 

• Similarly, American Graffiti set the stage for Ron Howard’s transition from child actor to Academy Award-winning director. Interested in directing since his days as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, it was during the filming of Graffiti that Howard found both a friend and mentor in Lucas and the inspiration he needed to make his dream of directing a reality. If you’re a fan of such Howard-directed films as Backdraft, Apollo 13 or A Beautiful Mind, you have Lucas and “American Graffiti” to thank.

• Speaking of Ron Howard: although the original pilot (which aired as an episode of Love, American Style) predated Graffiti, the success of Lucas’ movie had a huge impact on ABC’s decision to develop Happy Days into a successful sitcom. With its similarly nostalgic setting and Howard in the lead role as Ritchie Cunningham - a character not all that far removed from his Graffiti role as Steve Bolander - Happy Days proved a hit in its own right and led to the equally successful spin-off Laverne and Shirley, which co-starred Howard’s Graffiti cast mate Cindy Williams.

• The significance of the Graffiti-Happy Days connection is further heightened by the fact that Lucas’ follow-up to Graffiti - the aforementioned Star Wars - led Happy Days producer Garry Marshall to create a Star Wars-inspired episode in which Ritchie Cunningham meets a space alien. That episode was such a hit that it led to another spin-off, Mork & Mindy, and made Robin Williams a star. 

• From a purely technical point of view, American Graffiti has been cited by many film historians as having launched a whole new way of cinematic storytelling. Its influence can be seen in a diverse range of films in the years since its release, ranging from Cooley High in 1975 to 1999’s Fight Club - whose director, David Fincher, has publicly credited Graffiti as a visual influence on his film - to the more recent Licorice Pizza. Although different from Graffiti in terms of setting and subject matter, such television series as The Wonder Years, Northern Exposure, Ed and even The West Wing also owe a certain stylistic debt to Lucas’ film.

Graffiti was also the primary instigator in igniting public interest in nostalgia for the 1950s and ‘60s. Aside from its obvious impact on the film and TV industry, the movie inspired a proliferation in retro diners and classic car shows that continues pretty much unabated to this day. Set as it is during that more-or-less innocent period in American history between the end of the Eisenhower Administration and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Graffiti became the lynchpin for that cultural longing America developed during the time for “way things used to be” before Vietnam and Watergate.

(In that sense, given that it is also a “coming of age” story set at the opposite end of the 1960s, The Wonder Years might almost be seen as a thematic sequel of sorts to Graffiti - a better one, in fact, than Lucas' own More American Graffiti, but I suppose that's a discussion best left to another time.)

It is my humble but heartfelt opinion that, even as successful as it proved to be, American Graffiti has never really gotten the credit it deserves for its cultural impact. 

On top of that, it’s just a darn good movie. 

If you've never seen it, what on earth are you waiting for?

(Copyright 2022 by John A. Small)