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American Graffiti (1973)

Where were you 50 years ago? If you were lucky, you were in a movie theater discovering a hot new director named George Lucas. While working on his first feature, the dystopian science fiction thriller THX 1138 (1971), Lucas was challenged by producer Francis Ford Coppola to come up with a more mainstream film. Drawing on his own memories of growing up in Modesto, California, he created a snapshot of 1962, with characters modeled on himself and his friends, set on the last night of summer before they started college. Universal gave him a tight shooting schedule and a small budget, and he gave them a hit that returned almost 200 percent of its cost. Audiences fell in love with the array of quirky characters: questioning intellectual Curt, high-school sweethearts Steve and Laurie, drag-racer John, and class nerd Terry “the Toad,” among others.

American Graffiti was one of the first films to use older pop music as its soundtrack and helped bring new popularity to such ‘60s hits as Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Buddy Holly and The Crickets’ “That’ll Be the Day.” Other producers were quick to copy its mix of nostalgia and comedy, most notably in the hit television series Happy Days. And it launched a slew of careers by prominently featuring young actors like Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Kathleen Quinlan, and Suzanne Somers. When the film won the favor of 20th Century-Fox head Alan Ladd, Jr., it opened the door for one of Lucas’s dream projects—Star Wars.

d. George Lucas, 113 minutes, DCP

Courtesy of Universal Pictures