The Picture That Worked

1479841656763800973Forty years ago this week — Sunday, May 1, 1977, to be specific — George Lucas screened the premiere of Star Wars at the Northpoint Theater in San Francisco , the very same theater where he’d triumphantly (though not perfectly) debuted American Graffiti in 1973.  Lucas was bracing for the worst; previous showings of the film, even as a work-in-progress, had been met with indifference, confusion, and sometimes anger, even from some of his closest friends (“What’s all this Force shit?” Brian DePalma had thundered at Lucas after a private showing in February).

Just before the showing at the Northpoint, in fact, Lucas had pulled aside film editor Paul Hirsch — one of three editors on the film, a talented trio which also included Lucas’s wife, Marcia — and warned him that they’d likely be asked by 20th Century Fox to recut the entire film. Marcia, however, had given Lucas a gauge for the film’s success in its current state: “If the audience doesn’t cheer when Han Solo comes in at the last second in the Millennium Falcon to help Luke when he’s being chased by Vader,” she told him, “the picture doesn’t work.” As the lights went down, Lucas locked eyes momentarily with Alan Ladd, the one producer at Fox who had believed in him and whose reputation was as wrapped up in Star Wars as Lucas’s own.  The picture had to work.

It did.

The moment the enormous Star Destroyer rumbled overhead in the now-famous opening shot, the theater went mad with excitement — concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, in attendance that day, remembered lots of “hollering and cheering.” And sure enough, the place exploded with cheers and applause at this moment:

The applause didn’t end with the film. “It kept going on, it wasn’t stopping,” recalled Alan Ladd, “and I just never had experienced that kind of reaction to any movie ever.” Outside the theater, Lucas’s father, George Lucas Sr. (like Professor Henry Jones, Lucas, too, was a junior) was beaming as he shook hands with everyone who passed by. “Thank you,” he said proudly, “thank you very much for helping out George!”

As the crowd filtered out, editor Paul Hirsch sidled up to Lucas, trying to determine Lucas’s own reaction to the audience response.

“Well,” Lucas told Hirsch wryly, “I guess we won’t have to change anything after all.”

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