January 12, 2023

(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)



November 4, 2022

While having dinner out this past Saturday night with my family, I happened to run into my old friend Julian Frye for the first time in what seemed like forever. 

He looked a little green around the gills and wasn’t acting like his usual flamboyant, “I’m the world’s last authentic playboy” self - and as anyone who has known Julian for as long as I have will almost certainly quickly attest, such behavior on his part is always cause for alarm.

“Why so glum, chum?” I asked him. �...

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August 31, 2022

Today would have been Mom and Dad’s 60th wedding anniversary. They were together just short of 55 years when Mom passed away in 2017; Dad joined her a little over a year later, just a few weeks short of their 56th anniversary.

Theirs was a union that weathered many storms - too many of them, I’m afraid, the result of three thoughtless young sons who hadn’t quite figured out yet just what kind of sacrifices their parents were willing to make for them. I would be an adult myself before I ...

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation, 2022 Edition...

August 17, 2022

Lighthouse At Casco Bay, Portland, Maine (Photo by Yours Truly)

I wanted to. I really did.

There I was, driving along U.S. Highway 22 west on the evening of Aug. 5, through the most torrential downpours that I had seen in many a moon. It was the longest single day we would spend on the road during this year’s summer vacation - a 12-hour, 682-mile trek that began that morning in Maine and would ultimately end at the Doubletree Convention Center in Cranberry, Penn., that night - and to be h...

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July 28, 2022

If there is one thing that each new generation has in common with the one that immediately preceded it, it is the tendency for members of the older generation to rant and rave about how easy the current crop of youngsters has it compared to the days of their own youth. 

We all grew up with the stories about how our fathers had to travel for miles in the snow to get to school and back - walking uphill both directions, naturally. 

Or how their favorite toy one Christmas was a stick that had f...

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July 27, 2022
(Editor's Note: Upon learning that today happens to be the subject's birthday, Mr. Small thought it might be appropriate to once again share the following newspaper column that he originally wrote back in 1997.)

He is many things to many people, a figure for all seasons. Dadaist, wizard, entertainer, revolutionary, ecologist - the definitive pre-post-modern futurist. One part superhero, one part scheming criminal genius. Cultured yet unpretentious, he is at once the Ultimate Everyman and the e...

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May 18, 2022

Recently I was invited to review an advance reader’s copy of a new novel scheduled for release later this year. 

This isn’t the first time I’d been afforded this honor; one of my favorite perks that comes with being a newspaper columnist has been the number of books, fiction and non-fiction alike, that I’ve received over the years from both authors and publishers. 

In this particular instance, however, the invitation held special meaning for Yours Truly, and - being an unapologetic book...

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April 28, 2022

Today's TV History lesson, prompted by a discussion I saw on a Facebook page this morning:

No, Mary Tyler Moore on The Dick Van Dyke Show was not the first woman to wear pants on TV. Yes, Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance both wore them on I Love Lucy. I'm pretty sure you can find some other examples of pre-Petrie panted pulchritude as well, if one wishes to take the time to investigate. Yet it was very much Mary's pants which DID become an issue with some sponsors and network execs.

The reason...

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April 15, 2022

..So I've been reading about this made-for-streaming series reportedly in the works that is a sequel to the George Lucas-Ron Howard film Willow, and I keep wondering if it will make references to the Lucas-Chris Claremont trilogy of follow-up novels. I personally liked those books a great deal, but I suspect they're now going to be shunted off into non-canon like the Star Wars Legends material.

In any event, an online conversation I started on the subject earlier today brought this response ...

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March 17, 2022

Today, March 17, is Saint Patrick's Day. Which means that it is once agan time for my annual holiday-themed public service announcement:

REAL Irish folks don’t care whether or not you wear green on Saint Patrick’s Day, and they don’t go around pinching those who don’t. So stop it!

I don’t have to wear green every year on March 17, or eat a bowl of corned beef and cabbage, to prove that I’m Irish. My maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Murphy; you just don’t get any more Irish...

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About Me

John Allen Small John A. Small is an award-winning newspaper journalist, columnist and broadcaster whose work has been honored by the Oklahoma Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Press, the National Newspaper Association, and the Oklahoma Education Association. He and his wife Melissa were married in 1986; they have two sons, Joshua Orrin (born 1991) and William Ian (born 1996). Mr. Small is the News Editor and columnist for the Johnston County Capital-Democrat, a weekly newspaper headquartered in Tishomingo, OK. He obtained his nickname, "Bard of the Lesser Boulevards," from a journalism colleague - the late Phil Byrum - in recognition of the success of his popular newspaper column, "Small Talk." (In addition to the many awards the column itself has received over the years, a radio version of "Small Talk" earned an award for "Best Small Market Commentary" from the Society of Professional Journalists in 1998.) John was born in Oklahoma City in 1963; lived in the Bradley-Bourbonnais-Kankakee area of Illinois for most of the next 28 years (with brief sojourns in Texas and Athens, Greece, thrown in to break up the monotony); then returned to his native state in 1991, where he currently resides in the Tishomingo/Ravia area. He graduated from Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in 1981, and received his bachelor's degree in journalism from Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais in 1991. The years between high school and college were a period frought with numerous exploits and misadventures, some of which have become the stuff of legend; nobody was hurt along the way, however, which should count for something. In addition to his professional career as a journalist he has published two short story collections: "Days Gone By: Legends And Tales Of Sipokni West" (2007), a collection of western stories; and "Something In The Air" (2011), a more eclectic collection. He was also a contributor to the 2005 Locus Award-nominated science fiction anthology "Myths For The Modern Age: Philip Jose Farmer's Wold Newton Universe," edited by Win Scott Eckert. In additon he has written a stage play and a self-published cookbook; served as project editor for a book about the JFK assassination entitled "The Men On The Sixth Floor"; and has either published or posted on the Internet a number of essays, stories and poems. He has also won writing awards from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the National Library of Poetry. He is a past president of the Johnston County Chamber of Commerce in Tishomingo; was a charter member and past president of the Johnston County Reading Council, the local literacy advocacy and "friends of the library" organization; served as Johnston County's first-ever Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator in 1994-95; served two terms as chairman of the Johnston County (OK) Democratic Party; and has taught journalism classes for local Boy Scout Merit Badge Fairs. He is a member of the New Wold Newton Meteorics Society.


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