Labor Day Movies: The Best End-of-Summer Film EVER

By Phill Powell

If you’re looking for a movie to celebrate Labor Day weekend, you just can’t go wrong with George Lucas’ 1973 comedy, American Graffiti, the greatest end-of-summer film ever made.

Cheered as a modern classic when released, it still commands a 95 percent Freshness rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website.

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George Lucas’s American Graffiti follows four teenagers on the last night of summer in 1962. Mel’s Drive-In is the center of their universe. (© 1973 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.)

Star Wars fans are often surprised to learn that Lucas made this film classic (nominated for a “Best Picture” Oscar) earlier in his career.

And not only did American Graffiti put director/co-writer Lucas on the map, but it also relaunched the acting career of Harrison Ford and made other actors into huge stars.

Major Payoff
Of course, at first nobody wanted to even make the movie. Lucas shopped the script around to all the major studios (including United Artists, Columbia, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount and MGM) before finally getting a green light from Universal.

It was a move that paid off big. The film’s modest $777,000 budget would be repaid with more than $220 million in total revenues, making American Graffiti far and away one of the most profitable films of all time, especially when considering its amazing return on investment.

In a Hollywood Long, Long Ago
Once upon a time, there was an enterprising young film student named George Lucas and a red-hot director named Francis Ford Coppola. Both were eager to learn to make films and make their creative mark. They met in the 1960s and planned several film projects (including one that later become known as Apocalypse Now).

In 1973, they made American Graffiti – with Lucas directing and Coppola producing. The results were cinematic magic, as Lucas sketched a lasting portrait of the last night of Summer 1962.

The story is told through the eyes of four high school friends (and a massive cast of other unforgettable characters). See which stars you recognize in this trailer for American Graffiti:

In case you didn’t recognize the cast, it included:

  • Ron Howard Former TV star and now respected director of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind.
  • Suzanne Somers 70s/90s TV star of Three’s Company and Step by Step.
  • Harrison Ford Indiana Jones/Han Solo himself had a small but pivotal role in American Graffiti, playing a headstrong hot-rodder in a cowboy hat (which he wore to disguise his long hair). At one point, Ford even sings!
  • Cindy Williams 70s TV star of Laverne & Shirley.
  • Richard Dreyfuss Oscar-winning actor forever known as shark expert Matt Hooper in Jaws.

There’s a restless spirit in the air as the last long summer night unwinds and the streets are packed with lonely teenagers cruising in their hot rods. Looking for something…anything. Romance. Some signs of life.

The film tracks its characters as their paths intersect repeatedly during the night. But really, American Graffiti was a kind of autobiography of George Lucas and his teen years. Lucas grew up in Modesto, California during the 1950s; American Graffiti is set in 1962 Modesto.

The original working title was Another Quiet Night in Modesto. Made on a modest budget with many unknowns, the film became a surprise hit and its huge financial success gave Lucas the industry cred he needed to make Star Wars.

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Everybody – including a cop – thinks John Milner’s ’32 Deuce Coupe is the fastest car in the Valley… (© 1973 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.)

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…except this guy – hot-rodder Bob Falfa, played by Harrison Ford, who had sworn off acting and was working as a carpenter. Graffiti brought Ford back to movies. Within only four years, he would be internationally famous. (© 1973 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.)

Ever wonder what inspired the long-running TV series “Happy Days“ and kicked off a major 50s revival? This is it.

Now recognized as a national treasure, American Graffiti took the simple premise of four friends hanging out together on the last real night of summer and turned it into a masterpiece that still speaks to each new generation.

As long as there are teenagers with cars who are trying to find some action, there will always be an audience for American Graffiti.

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Before becoming an Oscar-winning director, “Ronny Howard” was one of the most successful child/teen actors of all time, who starred in two hit TV series. By the time he was 6 years old, he was receiving second billing on one of the 1960s’ most popular sitcoms: The Andy Griffith Show. (© 1973 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.).

Telling Your Story
If you have a passion for filmmaking, follow your dream like George Lucas did. There are plenty of ways to do that…like taking a course about moviemaking from professional filmmakers.

Online courses can be good sources of information, too, although you’ll get your best training one-on-one from a filmmaking pro who is passing their experience along firsthand.

In Digital Media Academy’s DMA Studios film production courses, students learn how to make digital movies from the pros. The program is taught by professional filmmakers, and daytime activities include real production meetings (just like Hollywood studios have) – and you’ll also make a movie.

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Graffiti put George Lucas on the map as a filmmaker. Are you ready to make your masterpiece?

See It Now!
American Graffiti is available for streaming on various services, such as Google Play, Amazon, VUDU, or you can watch American Graffiti on YouTube right now for $2.99. It’s also available for free streaming on Crackle.