“I’ll tell you, the very first time I ever experienced the phenomenon, the day (“Star Wars”) opened in 1977, a car came to pick me up and take me to see the 35-millimeter version. … I said to the driver, ‘Can you go by Grauman’s Chinese Theater, because I want to see what the marquee looks like.’ I could not believe my eyes – there were lines around the block. I thought it would be a hit, but I thought it would be by word of mouth. I didn’t expect it on the first day.”
This was the surprised reaction of Actor Mark Hamill to the phenomenal success of “Star Wars” which premiered on today’s date, May 25 in 1977.
“Star Wars” Pioneers Advance Marketing and Word-of-Mouth Publicity
The huge success of “Star Wars”, which won seven Oscars, and grossed over $461 million in U.S. ticket sales and nearly $800 million worldwide–began with an extensive, coordinated marketing push by Producer and creator George Lucas (pictured below with Joda – a character from the next Star Wars movie) and his studio, 20th Century Fox, months before the movie’s release date. The anticipation of a
revolutionary movie-watching experience spread like wildfire, causing long lines in front of movie theaters across the country and around the world. I can remember standing across the street from Western Hills High School one afternoon in that May of ’77. My friends Jon Jay Muth, Glenn Pepple and I were waiting for Glenn’s mother to come and give us a ride home, and Jay was reading the newspaper account of this upcoming movie to us. “ ’A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.’ Wow! This sounds like it’s going to be great! I’m not going to miss it!” Jay said, sounding quite fascinated. I was interested too, although I didn’t go and see it as soon as Jay did. But word-of-mouth and the media buzz was quite effective. I recall reading about it in the paper in an article where the writer was remarking that everyone was talking about it, and how she was feeling like she had to know “Star Wars – speak” in order to matter anymore.
A Full Symphonic Score and Dazzling Special Effects Make a Smash Hit
Well as soon as I got a chance – my friend Stacey Woolley’s brother Scot was going to see it – for the second time – and asked Stacey and I if we wanted to go – I certainly jumped at it. And both Stacey and I were completely blown away. The magnificent full symphonic score by John Williams was a major selling point for a pair of young musician/film score geeks like us. But I was amazed at the outstanding special effects which grabbed onto the viewer from the film’s very opening moment with the space ship coming in from the top of the screen for a wide-screen shot at the underside of the huge craft. By the middle of the film, we had come to expect such moments. I remember when the “Millenium Falcon” – the seemingly rusty bucket-of-bolts type craft which the character of Han Solo had put together was about to go into hyper-space drive, our friend Glenn whispered “I think we’re about to hit special effects pay-dirt!” And we did, not only that time, but throughout the movie.
An Untried Cast Adds to the Innovation
I can also remember being amazed that the film had worked so very well even though there were only two well-known actors in it. While the voice of the evil “Lord Darth Vader” was the clearly recognizable intonation of James Earl Jones, the only two other established faces (at least to Stacey and I) were those of Sir Alec Guiness, as “Ben Kenobi”, and Peter Cushing as the Death Star Commander “Grand Moff Tarkin” – the one to whom Carrie Fischer’s feisty character of “Princess Leia” says “I knew I detected your foul stench somewhere!!” All three of the main characters were played by newcomers. Mark Hamill (below, left) as mentioned above was clearly new as “Luke Skywalker.” Carrie
Fischer came from a well-known show business family of mother of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fischer, but was herself still an unknown, And most difficult of all for today’s fans of the series to grasp is the fact that the rakish and irreverent character of “Han Solo” was played by Harrison Ford (below,) who at that time, was totally unknown. Now some 30 years later, Ford is still amazed at the effect of “Star Wars”:
“I don’t know that I understood it very well. I’m not sure I understand it yet, but I think the invention of it is obvious. Albeit 30 years old, the originality of it was very striking for the time. I think the mythology of it is what makes it work as much as anything else, and I think George tapped into some psychic vein which made the whole thing work. That plus John Williams’ incredible music, it’s the glue of the piece, I think. What I noticed tonight as much as anything else is the contribution that sound made. The THX system that George innovated was remarkable at that time and really went a long way to creating that kind of energy that the film has.”
“Star Wars” Forever Raises the Bar
And Mr. Ford is quite right. Since “Star Wars”, the bar for Science Fiction/ Adventure has forever been set higher. The kind of special effects that George Lucas employed, and which have won Academy Awards for their crystal clarity, and the sense of massive size that they convey have become expected. No more can a film or even a Television show get by on the sort of shoe-string budget special effects that once characterized such programs as “Lost in Space” or even the original “Star Trek.” And characters as well as story-lines which lack the depth and the multi-layered prospective of “Solo”, “Skywalker”, and “Princess Leia”, are just not passable anymore. George Lucas and “Star Wars” became a true cultural phenomenon, and deserves to be remembered not just as a great adventure film series, but an important part of the milieu of the 70’s and the 80’s.
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“Star Wars, Epiosde IV: A New Hope” – Directed by George Lucas, 1977