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Ford, Give Me Strength: Watching and Reviewing American Graffiti

Come for the Ford, stay for the '60s nostalgia and the fantastic soundtrack.

Original artwork for this piece by Emilie Marjaran.

Original artwork for this piece by Emilie Marjaran.

Welcome to ‘Ford, Give Me Strength’, a series where we’ll be watching and reviewing Harrison Ford movies in celebration of this fantastic actor, pilot, and human being.

First of all, I know what you’re thinking (maybe): “Why Harrison Ford?”

And to that I answer, “Why not?”

Judith Hoag in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990).

While I grew up watching him in some of his more famous rolesthe Star Wars and the Indiana Jones trilogies saw their fair share of multiple viewings in my childhood homeI’ve realized recently that I haven’t had a chance to watch and appreciate his filmography as a whole. My initial reaction to watching him kick butt as Han and Indy may have been pure and innocent awe, but it wasn’t until years later that I began to come to terms with my feelings for this particular man. What are those feelings? Respect, mostly, bordered by a pretty epic shallow crush.

In short, I wanted to write this review series because I wanted a legitimate excuse to look at Harrison Ford’s face on the reg. (As if I need an excuse, right?)

I’ll be reviewing the films for which he’s well-known, but also some of the films you might have forgotten he was instarting with the oldest by release date and watching up to the present.

Admittedly, I haven’t actually seen every single title on his listed filmography, so consider this a chance for me to brush up on my favorites as well as watch those that are brand-new to me. I’ll be keeping these reviews confined to mostly those films in which he played a somewhat major roleand no TV films either, because those are a pain to track down even in the age of the Internet.

Let’s get started, shall we?

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American Graffiti (1973)

Granted, this isn’t Harrison Ford’s first filmbut it’s the one that certainly paved the way for him to read for bigger parts later on. He’d actually had several roles on-screen prior to being cast in this George Lucas film, but most of them had been bit parts or minor rolesand many of those were uncredited.

Just before getting an audition for this movie, Ford was working as a self-taught carpenter to support his family. (I’ll let you enjoy that visual for a moment.)

American Graffiti was really the one where it all began, and Ford’s part in this led to bigger parts in movies that will be covered in this series later onso it only makes sense to start here, right?

First, though, I have a confession to make: I’d never actually seen American Graffiti.

This is what I knew prior to watching: It’s about a group of teenagers in the ’60s and the wild and crazy times they have together over the course of one evening. I also knew that the film’s two main stars were Ron Howard (credited in this film as “Ronny Howard,” something I’m sure he’s never lived down) and Richard Dreyfuss, so that was also a little extra incentive. (In addition to Young Harrison Ford, Young Richard Dreyfuss has been on my crush list since I was a teenage girl watching Jaws for the first time.)

Going in, I had anticipated that I wasn’t going to be seeing that much of Ford. Technically, his name doesn’t even appear in the main credits. He doesn’t even get the coveted “and” designation. No, you can find his name in the middle of a couple other actors, under the “co-starring” header:

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But in spite of the Ford shortage, this was a very enjoyable experience for me. Right from the opening title sequence, when you hear Bill Haley & His Comets performing the classic “Rock Around The Clock,” it completely immerses you into the world of the ’60s.

This film makes you want to go to a drive-in and order fries and a giant milkshake and wait for someone to bring it out to you on roller skates. It makes you want to cruise the street with your windows rolled down and your radio blaring. And it brings back all kinds of fond memories of the last summer you had with your friends right before you left for college.

It’s easy to see how American Graffiti became the inspiration for other buddy summer comedy movies decades later. From films like Dazed and Confused to Superbad, they all have the common denominator of portraying the crazy adventures friends have that often lead to the best memories later on in life. Curt (Dreyfuss) and Steve (Howard) are the quintessential guy friends who have known each other for a long timeand at the beginning of the movie, Steve’s even trying to find a way to gently break ties with his girlfriend Laurie before he goes off to college, and Laurie… happens to be Curt’s sister. Doesn’t this all sound super familiar?

There’s a mysterious blonde who Curt sets off to find upon spotting her in a white T-Bird (Suzanne Somers in a glorious cameo), not to mention a scene where he manages to meet one of his heroes, a local disc jockey, without realizing it, and also gets into some shenanigans with a group of greasers called the Pharaohs (a pretty epic name for a gang, all things considered).

Watching a film like American Graffiti now was fascinating, because while I continued to try and draw comparisons between this and other coming-of-age movies I kept having to remind myself that Graffiti came long before any of them. And although it was made in 1973, it captures the mood of an earlier decade with a certain fondness that makes the whole thing feel pretty timeless. Themes like friendship, high school romance, summer adventures, uncertainty in life and putting off responsibility are common no matter what year you grew up in.

Okay, now on to the Harrison Ford-shaped part of this review.

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For the curious, he shows up almost exactly 30 minutes into the movie, when proto-nerd Toad foolishly tries to challenge him in a street race. In this film, he plays the gorgeously arrogant Bob Falfa, and his first appearancesitting in a car, wearing a cowboy hat, arm slung around a gum-chewing hanger-ontells you everything you need to know about him. He’s the good-looking guy who knows he’s good-looking and doesn’t hesitate to use it to his advantage. Oh, and also? He’s really good at racing cars.

It’s no surprise as to where this is leading, right? This film gave me everything I didn’t know I was missingand now I have a new memory to add involving Harrison Ford in a cowboy hat racing in a ’55 Chevrolet. He has a self-assuredness in his acting here that makes it plain to see why Lucas cast him in Star Wars less than five years later. As Han, though, he plays a more multi-dimensional rebel with a heart of gold. In Graffiti, he’s limited to the sparser role of the overly-confident asshole, the one you want to get beaten by the underdog.

As Bob, Ford serves the role of the casual antagonist; he’s not necessarily a bad guy, per se, or someone who’s so blatantly evil that he’s rendered unlikeable. There’s still something charming about him, something appealing even while he’s making life more complicated for our wayward teenagersSteve especially, once Bob picks up his girlfriend Laurie during one of their off-again moments.

(It also leads to a scene in which Ford does his best Rossano Brazzi, in a purely delightful performance of the chorus from South Pacific‘s “Some Enchanted Evening”. It only lasts a few seconds, but it’s endearing beyond what words can describe.)

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Long review short? Come for the Ford, stay for the ’60s nostalgia and the fantastic soundtrack.

And now, for my overall ratings:

Humor: Three-and-a-half out of five cowboy hats. While Ford may not be given many scenes in which to shine, the scenes that he’s in are more than memorable.
World-saving: Zero out of five skulls hanging from the rearview mirror. He’s not exactly stopping a terrorist threat or saving his family from imminent peril, unfortunately,
Swoonworthiness: Five out of five grins. See above, re: cowboy hat, cigarette and otherwise general swagger. There’s no missing that sex appeal even at this early stage in his career.
Overall “Ford-ness”: Otherwise known as that indescribable quality that contributes to his reputation as a lovable curmudgeon. He’s a little too young here in Graffiti, too much of a babyface to be in possession of it yet. But we’re only just getting started!

One down, several more Ford films to go. What are your thoughts on American Graffiti? How has it held up in the 42 years(!) since its original release? Is Milner’s paint job closer to piss yellow or puke green? Sound off in the comments!

(American Graffiti images via Universal Studios)

Carly Lane is a writer based in New York City who specializes in obscure pop culture references and miscellaneous geekery. Her work has been featured on HelloGiggles, Obvi We’re The Ladies, Femsplain and more. You can find her on Twitter at @equivocarly.

Emilie Majarian is a UK-based freelance digital artist & illustrator. Her interests include Robert Frost poems, survival horror videogames, existential nihilism, and smooth jazz. You can find her on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and deviantArt.

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