It’s easy to sneer at Grease and dismiss it as a relic of the ’70s like Space Dust and The Bay City Rollers. But while it may recall a time when John Travolta wasn’t shopping for elasticised trousers at Big and Tall, and Olivia Newton-John was famous outside of her own house, you have to remember that there was only one movie to see in 1978.
And no movie encouraged so many re-visits by pre-teen girls. It was quite common for many of them to have seen this movie more than 20 times and know the complete dialogue and dance movements.
This 1950s-set story of the summer love that blossoms at a Southern California high school between leather-jacket-clad Danny Zuko (Travolta) and Australian exchange student Sandy Olsson (guess who?) has captivated generations of moviegoers; the Rydell High gang, the cars, the chicks, the Brylcreem . . . and fresh from Saturday Night Fever (1977), this was the film that confirmed Travolta’s superstar status.
Travolta’s Danny is a member of the T-Birds, a juvenile gang of greaser hoods whose other members are Kenickie (Jeff Conaway), Doody (Barry Pearl), Sonny (Michael Tucci) and Putzie (Kelly Ward). Sandy, meanwhile, is ‘mentored’ by the all-female gang, The Pink Ladies, although she is never herself a member.
The Pink Ladies are led by Betty Rizzo (a fabulous performance by Stockard Channing) and include Frenchie (Didi Conn), Jan (Jamie Donnelly) and Marty Maraschino (Dinah Manoff).
By the film’s end, romance blossoms between the two groups with pairings between Rizzo and Kenickie and Frenchie and Sonny, respectively.
A number of actual stars from the 1950s featured in adult roles, including Eve Arden as Rydell’s Principal McGee; Sid Caesar as Coach Calhoun; Frankie Avalon as Teen Angel, and Joan Blondell as Vi, a server at the Frosty Palace (the kids’ favourite hang-out).
Not only is Grease the most successful film musical of all time, but the instantly recognisable songs are still heard in college campuses, karaoke bars and cheesy nightclubs more than 40 years on.
The soundtrack album topped the American charts for three months and repeated that feat in Britain. It contained the smash hit duets You’re The One That I Want and Summer Nights by Travolta and Newton-John (both selling over a million copies in the UK alone) and the chart-topping title song by Frankie Valli.
While Baz Luhrmann might like to think otherwise, there hasn’t been a musical to touch it since.
The movie made back its $6 million budget and more on its opening weekend and became the highest-grossing film of 1978, beating out Superman and Animal House. It eventually became the highest-grossing live-action movie musical of all time, knocking 1965’s The Sound of Music off the mantle. It held that title for 20 years until it was eclipsed by the ABBA pop musical Mamma Mia in 2008.
Grease was filmed in and around Los Angeles, from the opening scenes at Leo Carrillo Beach in Malibu to the iconic scenes at the school (three LA schools stood in for Rydell: Venice High School, Huntington Park High School, and John Marshall High School), the comedic scenes at the drive-in (filmed at the now-defunct Pickwick Drive-In in Burbank) and the centre-piece drag race at “Thunder Road”, filmed in the Los Angeles River between the 6th Street Bridge starting point and the turnaround mark of the 1st Street Bridge.
Paramount’s original first choice to play the role of Danny Zuko wasn’t John Travolta. It was Henry Winkler, at that time a big star on the studio lot for his performance as Fonzie in the hit TV show Happy Days. Winkler wasn’t interested, thinking the role would be too close to his TV character.
Travolta was anxious to be in the movie because he’d had a supporting role in Grease when it was on Broadway, but he had to convince the studio he was right for the role of Danny.
Travolta was not a major star at this point – despite his popularity in the TV series Welcome Back Kotter, in which he played slovenly high school student Vinnie Barbarino – so Paramount hedged its bets, locking him into a three-movie contract for a relatively modest sum of money.
Grease was one of those movies, but its release was delayed because a contractual arrangement blocked any release of the movie until the Broadway production had finished its run. In the interim, Paramount released the movie Travolta made after Grease; that was Saturday Night Fever which took America by storm.
By the time Grease was released, the studio found it had a superstar on its hands – but for a lot less than a superstar’s salary.
The Grease props department estimated that cast members chewed 100,000 pieces of bubble gum during the summer’s shooting (about 5,000 pieces a day).
The most uncomfortable day of shooting came when Travolta and fellow gang members sang and cavorted their way through the Summer Nights number. The sequence was filmed on the football bleachers at Venice High School in West Hollywood with temperatures in the very high 90s. John and his buddies were not allowed to remove their leather jackets.
Travolta and Olivia were not available for Grease 2 in 1982. They were happy that was the case when that movie proved to be a disaster.
Cha Cha DiGregorio