History, Legacy & Showmanship
Sunday, 31 December 2023 12:05

Where Were You in ‘73?: Remembering “American Graffiti” on its 50th Anniversary

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American Graffiti is one of those films where a filmmaker brings his youth to the screen with such a sense of sweetness and genuine nostalgia, that his or her personal recollections somehow become universal for the audience.” – Gary Leva, director of Fog City Mavericks: The Filmmakers of San Francisco

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this longform retrospective commemorating the golden anniversary of the release of American Graffiti, George Lucas’s popular film that nostalgically asked, “Where were you in ‘62?”

American Graffiti starred Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Ronny Howard (The Andy Griffith Show, Happy Days), Paul Le Mat (Aloha, Bobby and Rose, Melvin and Howard), Charles Martin Smith (Never Cry Wolf, The Untouchables), Candy Clark (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Blue Thunder), Mackenzie Phillips (One Day at a Time), Cindy Williams (The Conversation, Laverne & Shirley) and Wolfman Jack (popular radio DJ), plus a small, early-career performance by Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark). The film was nominated for five Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Supporting Actress—Candy Clark, Screenplay, and Film Editing). In 1995 the Library of Congress selected American Graffiti for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Its most recent home media release, on 4K UHD, was in November of this year (but received less than high marks for A/V quality in most reviews).[Read on here...]

For the occasion of American Graffiti’s anniversary this year, The Bits features a multi-page article consisting of a 17-chapter oral history-style interview segment with a diverse group of pop culture authorities, film historians and filmmakers who reflect on the movie, plus box-office data and statistics, passages from a sampling of original reviews, and a reference listing of its North American first-run theatrical presentations.

Note this article is a revision and updating of our 40th anniversary coverage here on The Bits from ten years ago.

American Graffiti (1973)


  • 1 = Number of cinemas playing the film during its opening week
  • 1 = Number of sequels
  • 2 = Rank among Universal’s all-time top-earning movies at close of first run
  • 3 = Rank among top-earning films released in 1973 (lifetime/retroactive)
  • 5 = Academy Award nominations
  • 10 = Rank among top-earning films released in 1973 (calendar year)
  • 11 = Peak all-time box-office chart position
  • 16 = Box-office rank among movies released during the 1970s
  • 28 = Number of days of principal photography
  • 51 = Rank on current list of all-time box-office champs (adjusted for inflation)
  • 63 = Number of weeks longest-running engagement played
  • $35,000 = Opening week box-office gross (one theater)
  • $777,000 = Production cost
  • $5.7 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
  • $10.3 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1973)
  • $41.2 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1974)
  • $45.0 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1975)
  • $47.3 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1976)
  • $47.3 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1977)
  • $55.9 million = Domestic box-office rental (earnings through 12/31/1978)
  • $115.3 million = Domestic box-office gross (cumulative/lifetime)
  • $140.0 million = Worldwide box-office gross (cumulative/lifetime)
  • $762.3 million = Domestic box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
  • $935.2 million = Worldwide box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)


George Lucas on the set of American Graffiti (1973)“[American] Graffiti is one of those rare good movies that creates its own complete world. Lucas did something like that, on a fantastic level, in THX 1138. Here, however, he has populated it with a recognizably human group of people who are not only familiar but are also fun to be with on this long, symbolic early autumn night.” – Ted Mahar, The Oregonian (Portland)

“Lucas is scarcely the first person to realize how the automobile has influenced the American way of life and especially the dating habits of young people, but as far as I know, he’s the first director to put this common perception to expressive poetic use. The cruising sequences in American Graffiti are effective photogenically and emotionally: They’re a beautifully stylized reenactment of the real thing, suggesting a generation of ritual motion, joined in a Great American Mating Dance.” – Gary Arnold, The Washington Post

“The stars are nice clean-cut kids whose names probably will not be remembered.” – Fred Herman, The Modesto Bee

“[American Graffiti] is without a doubt the most tedious film I have ever seen. Whole new vistas of boredom wide-screen open to the imagination after this breakthrough. The excessive footage on the cars is wearisome in the extreme. Grand Prix it isn’t.” – Anitra Earle, San Francisco Chronicle

“Four stars. Highest rating! Warm, funny and poignant. It is a richly entertaining film guaranteed to please nearly everyone. By all means, go and enjoy it!” – Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News

“It may well turn out that American Graffiti will be the most ardently overpraised celluloid product of the year, a movie a quiet but steadily weakening charm that summons a nostalgic mood for the sometime-innocence of the early 1960s in a small California town. The mood itself is a hangover from the 50s when the teenage conscience had yet to be inflamed by Vietnam, when the most crucial matters at hand were the Sock Hop and hot-rodding down Main Street on a Saturday night. Of such stuff, with thick layers of sentimentality, is American Graffiti made. And if you, in your senescence, have visions of little old Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, you’re right on target. The movie is a pastiche looking for a legend.” – Kevin Kelly, The Boston Globe

“Midway through American Graffiti, the viewer realizes what a graceful, intelligent and important film he is watching. The picture is the freshest, most provocative piece of moviemaking to come along this year. It leaves you with a satisfying sense of unity all too rare in films these days.” – Philip Wuntch, The Dallas Morning News

“Haskell Wexler, responsible for the cinematography, has done a superb job in catching a summer night, without getting fancy or cute. Walter Murch has done a brilliant sound track and Lucas puts the entire thing together with class and deftness.” – Joe Pollack, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“All these little stories are expertly woven into what somebody wrote was a ‘bumper to bumper ballet.’ I wish I’d thought of that. Director Paul [sic] Lucas has captured a time of life when everything seems so serious. American Graffiti has it all. It’s a sensitive film about a difficult time. And it shouldn’t get lost in the wave of nostalgia movies, because it doesn’t belong on their category. They’re crass. This isn’t.” – Gregory James, The Atlanta Constitution

“The ideas, but not the techniques, set American Graffiti well above the nostalgia-juvenilia currently glutting the American marketplace. This is not a fad movie at all, though it is rough around the edges and misleadingly simple. It will make you laugh… and later, it will make you sad.” – John Huddy, The Miami Herald

American Graffiti is a splendid movie largely because it does not deal only with the 1960s; it treats of growing up in general. It is universal to an extent that few movies are, and it does better than most movies what it tries to do. What it tries to do is to set forth young people in the context of their times, without mawkishness, without sentimentality and largely without phoniness.” – Emerson Batdorff, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“The movie was made on location in two northern California towns, and there is no question that this movie is about the teen-age lives of white California kids. The lack of black faces and the emphasis on custom cars make that quite plain. And it also is a man’s movie, more precisely, a boy’s movie. The girls are there only because the boys want them there, and they are defined singularly by their desire for a steady boy friend. But this is no fault; this is the late’50s, early ‘60s. Rock ‘n’ roll music fills the sound track. There are more than 40 songs, each—with the exception of At the Hop—performed, as they say on the current TV commercials, by their original artists. Chances are, at least a couple of your favorites are included. But we have the problem of overkill. Forty plus songs is mucha music. That many songs turns the sound track into one of those golden-oldie TV blurbs. Overkill—that’s the disease that hobbles American Graffiti and prevents it from being the great motion picture some writers have called it.” – Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

“[American Graffiti is] not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

American Graffiti could turn out to be the best movie of 1973. It is surely the most accurate and poetic evocation of American life since The Last Picture Show—which it resembles in content if not in style—and it is the most completely realized new film I have seen so far this year…. American Graffiti is about 1962 and yet, with very few alterations, it could be about 1973. It has a quality of universality, underneath all of the nostalgia-evoking devices, that should make it a classic.” – John Hartl, The Seattle Times

“One of the top movies of 1973… funnier and more touching than Summer of ’42!” – Clyde Gilmour, Toronto Star

American Graffiti could just as well have been Canadian Graffiti and it could have taken place any time from the early 1950’s to the mid 1960’s. Even better than The Last Picture Show o[r] Summer of ’42 it demonstrates that kids today don’t have a corner on being screwed up.” – Mel Rothenburger, The Kamloops News

“A happy new movie… should brighten the lives of moviegoers… everything about American Graffiti is so good!” – George Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“[American Graffiti] is surely the most accurate and poetic evocation of American life since The Last Picture Show. It reminds us what fun filmmaking even with a serious purpose can be,” – Charles Brock, Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville)

American Graffiti is such a funny, accurate movie, so controlled and efficient in its narrative, that it stands to be overpraised to the point where seeing it will be an anticlimax.” – Vincent Canby, The New York Times

“Superb!” – Jay Cocks, Time

“For anyone who was growing up in the 1950s or as late as the assassination of President Kennedy which ended the era, American Graffiti is an enthralling movie, a deeply affecting experience. It will mean less to older and younger audiences, but it remains a masterful work of film art which distills adolescence, small town life, and 1950s America into one group of teen-aged friends’ final night together.” – Robert Taylor, Oakland Tribune

“A highly charged emotional experience. An absolute must for anyone who has nostalgia about growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A breathless, cat’s meow of a movie with enough energy and talent to get the next man to the moon and back. Magnificently acted, edited, directed, photographed and scored.” – Rex Reed, syndicated columnist

American Graffiti (1973)

“Brilliant, bittersweet memoir.” – Paul D. Zimmerman, Newsweek

“Some of the warmest, most human comedy which has happened in a long time… masterfully executed… profoundly affecting… sensationally funny. One of the most important American films of the year.” – Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times

“With American Graffiti, his second feature film, 29-year-old George Lucas demonstrates that commerce can, on rare occasion, prove to be a comfortable bedfellow for art.” – Susan Stark, Detroit Free Press

“[American Graffiti] fails to be anything more than a warm, nice, draggy comedy, because there’s nothing to back up the style. The images aren’t as visually striking as they would be if only there were a mind behind them; the movie has no resonance except from the jukebox sound and the eerie, nocturnal jukebox look.” – Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

“Without exception, all players fit perfectly into the concept and execution, and all the young principals and featured players have a bright and lengthy future. And so does Lucas.” – A.D. Murphy, Variety

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