But, oh, those summer nights…
June 16, 2020
On June 16, 1978, this iconic American film burst onto the scene and soon held the record – for the next 15 years – as the highest grossing film of all time. It hearkened back to a more youthful time of the 1950’s but with a 1970’s twist: innocence was but an illusion and that inside every sweet girl was a naughty one wanting to break out. That movie was Grease which starred John Travolta as Danny Zuko, king of the greasers, and Olivia Newton-John as the naïve Sandy.
The movie was based on the 1971 Broadway musical of the same name and, as such, had a fantasy sort of feel to many of its scenes, especially the musical numbers Grease Lightning, Beauty School Dropout, and We Go Together. The thin plot line is held up by incredible music and the star performance of Travolta.
Review of the film from that time ranged from those who loved it to others who were not as impressed. From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“Gene Siskel gave the film three stars out of four, calling it ‘exciting only when John Travolta is on the screen’ but still recommending it to viewers, adding, ‘Four of its musical numbers are genuine showstoppers that should bring applause.’ Variety praised the ‘zesty choreography and very excellent new plus revived music’, and thought Travolta and Newton-John ‘play together quite well.’ Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times was negative, writing, ‘I didn’t see ‘Grease’ onstage, but on the testimony of this strident, cluttered, uninvolving and unattractive movie, it is the ’50s—maybe the last innocent decade allowed to us—played back through a grotesquely distorting ’70s consciousness.’ Gary Arnold of The Washington Post also panned the film, writing, ‘Despite the obvious attempts to recall bits from Stanley Donen musicals or Elvis Presley musicals or Frankie-and-Annette musicals, the spirit is closer to the New Tastelessness exemplified by Ken Russell, minus Russell’s slick visual style … I’ve never seen an uglier large-scale musical.’ David Ansen of Newsweek wrote, ‘Too often, ‘Grease’ is simply mediocre, full of broad high-school humor, flat dramatic scenes and lethargic pacing. Fortunately, there’s nothing flat about John Travolta … Travolta can’t dominate this movie as he did ‘Fever,’ but when he’s on screen you can’t watch anyone else.’”
Even now, 42 years after its release, Grease enjoys a true fan following. It’s been released in various home video formats over the years, the most recent in 2018 on Blu-Ray DVD for its 40th anniversary.
I’ve seen the movie a number of times but did not see it during its original release. I’m not quite sure what, exactly, I was doing in the summer of 1978 except that it was the year I turned 21 and, really, going to see a musical based on high school students in the 1950’s was not all that cool. Or so I thought. When I did finally see it I was sad I’d missed out that summer.
In thinking about the plot from a writer’s perspective, however, I’ve always had a problem with the final scene of the movie. Sandy’s character – as I wrote above – was of a naïve and innocent teenager. When she gets involved with the Pink Ladies – a group of young women of questionable characters – it doesn’t ring true. Where were Sandy’s parents to put the brakes on her going to a slumber party with these girls? And one look at Danny and her parents – based on her persona – would have been pulling her out of Rydell High.
Despite these obvious disconnects with real life, in the final scene of the end of the year school carnival, we see Danny has now toned down his greaser persona to try and prove to Sandy that he’s the guy for her. Throughout the movie, Danny’s character is portrayed as complex and we suspect that he became a greaser tough guy simply for social status and not because that’s who he truly is.
When Sandy emerges in the final scene, however, she’s suddenly become this black leather clad sexy siren that smokes and is aggressive and suggestive. There is nothing in her character development previously introduced which portends that she is capable of such a transformation.
In the world of a story-teller, this is a big no-no as the reader – or in this case the viewer – feels like they’ve been misled. These inconsistencies are often referred to as ‘plot holes’ and are similar to driving over a pothole on a road in that it can jar you out of the story. Such is the case for this – and several other – scenes in Grease.
With this musical, then, there really is only one thing to do. Ignore the plot and character problems and just enjoy the multitude of toe-tapping, memorable tunes. Think of Grease like a 1950’s root beer float: a fizzy mix of soda and ice cream, but the top two inches are all empty – but tasty – foam; a perfect treat for a summer’s night when you want to immerse yourself in something fun and frivolous.
A link or two:
I always felt the same way about Sandy’s transformation at the end of Grease. It just didn’t ring true.