20 June 2021

Grease (1978)

John Travolta had his breakthrough as disco dancer Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever (1977). He followed it up with the part of leather jacket wearing, hunky greaser Danny Zuko in the romantic film musical Grease (1978) opposite Olivia Newton-John as goody-goody Sandy. The film, an adaptation of the 1950s musical 'Grease' about the highs and lows of a group of teenagers at a California high school in 1958, was directed by Randal Kleiser. Its box-office success even surpassed Saturday Night Fever's and catapulted Travolta to international stardom.

John Travolta in Grease (1978)
German promotion card by Polydor, no. 118. John Travolta in Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978).

John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease (1978)
Dutch postcard, no. AG 1009. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978).

John Travolta and Olivia Newton John in Grease (1978)
Dutch postcard. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978).

John Travolta and Olivia Newton John in Grease (1978)
Dutch postcard. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978).

Sandy and Danny


Grease (1978) is an American musical romantic comedy film based on the 1971 musical of the same name by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Written by Bronte Woodard, the film depicts the summer romance of greaser Danny Zuko (John Travolta) and Australian transfer student Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John). In the fall, the first day of school arrives and little does Danny expect he and Sandy will be reunited. Sandy is shocked to find the nice guy she met at the beach is at school the leader of a greaser gang called 'The T'birds'. She joins the Pink Ladies, led by the sex-happy Rizzo (Stockard Channing) who acidly observes that virginal Sandy is "too pure to be Pink".

John Travolta, who had previously worked with producer Robert Stigwood on Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977), had recorded the top-10 hit 'Let Her In' in 1976, and had previously appeared as Doody in a touring production of the stage version of 'Grease'. He made a number of casting recommendations that Stigwood ultimately accepted, including suggesting Randall Kleiser as director. Kleiser had never directed a theatrical feature before this but had directed Travolta in the telefilm The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976).

Travolta also suggested Olivia Newton-John, then known almost exclusively as a multiple Grammy-winning pop and country singer, as Sandy. Newton-John had done little acting before this film, with only two film credits to her name up to that time: the Australian comedy  Funny Things Happen Down Under (Joe McCormick, 1965) and the little-seen space musical Toomorrow (Val Guest, 1970), which predated her singing breakthrough. Before accepting the role, Newton-John requested a screen test for Grease to avoid another career setback. The screen test was done with the drive-in movie scene. Newton-John, who was born in England and spent most of her childhood in Australia, was unable to perform with a convincing American accent, and thus her character was rewritten to be Australian.

Like Travolta, Jeff Conaway (as Danny's right hand Kenickie) had previously appeared in the stage version of Grease. He had played Danny Zuko during the show's run on Broadway. Jamie Donnelly reprised her role as Jan from the Broadway show, the only cast member to do so. Kelly Ward had previously appeared as a similar sarcastic supporting character in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble with Travolta under Kleiser. He was cast as Putzie, a mostly new character.

Lorenzo Lamas (Tom Chisum) was a last-minute replacement for Steven Ford, who developed stage fright shortly before filming and backed out. His role contained no spoken dialogue and required Lamas to dye his hair blond to avoid looking like one of the T-Birds. Adult film star Harry Reems was originally signed to play Coach Calhoun. However, executives at Paramount nixed the idea, concerned that his reputation as a porn star would hinder box office returns in the Southern United States, and producers cast Sid Caesar instead. Caesar was one of several veterans of 1950s television (Eve Arden as Principal McGee, Frankie Avalon, Joan Blondell, Edd Byrnes) to be cast in supporting roles.

Director Randal Kleiser took numerous liberties with the original source material, most notably moving the setting from an urban Chicago setting as the original musical had been to a more suburban locale, reflecting his own teenage years at Radnor High School in the suburbs of Philadelphia. However, the best part of the film is the music with such fun songs as 'Summer Nights', 'You're the One That I Want' and 'Greased Lightining'.

Grease (1978) was successful both critically and commercially, becoming the highest-grossing musical film ever at the time. David Abolafia at AllMovie: "One of the last of the big movie musicals, Grease succeeds in spite of itself, with singers who can't act, actors who can't sing, and a plot so corny it should have a husk. But this tale of true love and teen angst circa 1955 is sure to leave one's toes a-tapping, thanks to a dynamite soundtrack of golden oldies, plus original music". The film was nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Song, 'Hopelessly Devoted to You' by John Farrar. The soundtrack album ended in 1978 as the second-best-selling album of the year in the United States, behind the soundtrack of that other blockbuster Saturday Night Fever (1977).

Retrospective reviews have generally been positive. In 1998, Roger Ebert wrote: "It is now clear that, slumps or not, comebacks or not, Travolta is an important and enduring movie star whose presence can redeem even a compromised Grease. This is not one of his great films - it lacks the electricity of Saturday Night Fever or the quirky genius of Pulp Fiction - but it has charm." In 1982 a sequel was launched, Grease 2 (1982), produced by Allan Carr and Robert Stigwood and directed and choreographed by Patricia Birch, who also choreographed the first film and the Broadway musical. Maxwell Caulfield and Michelle Pfeiffer starred as a newer class of greasers. Didi Conn, Sid Caesar, and Eve Arden of the original cast reprised their roles. The film grossed a little over $15 million against a production budget of $11 million.

John Travolta in Grease
Dutch postcard, no. AX 7381. John Travolta in Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978).

John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease (1978)
Dutch postcard, no. AX 7377. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978).

John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease (1978)
Dutch postcard, no. AX 7377. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978).

John Travolta in Grease (1978)
Dutch postcard, no. AX 7375. John Travolta in Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978).

Sources: Roger Ebert, David Abolafia (AllMovie), Lucia Bozzola (AllMovie), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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