Grease revels in the pure enjoyment of contrasting clean-cut and raunchy un-seriousness. It brings both into alignment and this is its enduring charm. Forty years after Grease debuted in movie theaters to major blockbuster success, the 1978 Allan Carr musical adaptation of the Broadway show deserves closer examination.
Opening with romantic pictures of oceanfront sunsets and sand castles and a handsome boy’s pledge to his pretty new girlfriend that “it’s only the beginning”, Grease gets going with an upswell of title music from the 1955 William Holden film Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. More than a melodramatic means of introducing a tale set in the 1950s, the song signals a stroke of unabashed romanticism, which director Randal Kleiser expertly captures and mixes with its blue origins.
As superficial as Grease is and continues to be, the opening orchestration from that other movie’s title theme also cues a streak of defying the status quo. This is easy to overlook but it’s in almost every sumptuous frame of what at first blush might seem like a movie musical accompaniment to TV’s 1974 Happy Days, Elton John’s 1973 “Crocodile Rock”, American Graffiti (1973) and other 1970s-era nostalgia for the 1950s.
Thanks to the creative team, especially Kleiser, songwriter John Farrar and Farrar’s collaborator, pop star Olivia Newton-John, and those in charge of casting, cinematography, music, choreography and costumes, Grease skates along.
For example, animated opening credits feature caricatures of every major Fifties figure from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to You Bet Your Life‘s Groucho Marx. Barry Gibb’s title theme song, “Grease”, perfectly blending Seventies pop into a Fifties attitude and vigorously sung by Frankie Valli over the opening credits, bounds through the speakers as an animated deer and rabbit snuggle up to the cartoon version of leading lady Olivia Newton-John in character at her vanity mirror. This knowing wink with its burst of joy sets the tone for a smart and deviously good sendup. During its 40-year existence, Grease usually gets credit for being fun. Rarely does it get credit for also being sharp.
It’s cutting on multiple counts, if not as raunchy as the original Chicago stage production at Kingston Mines. One of the characters, who’s part of the leathery high school gang led by John Travolta’s Danny Zuko (that boy at the beach as the film opens), lays on his back for an indulgence in what today would be called upskirting. He gets busted and chided instead of being tagged as a “sex offender” for the rest of his life. Such is the picture’s context that any act of sexuality or rock-n-roll rebellion, and the two do go together, amounts here to a dig at the repressed status quo.
The female counterparts, the girl gang Pink Ladies, led by Stockard Channing’s cynical, black-clad Betty Rizzo, suggest that they too, do what they ought not to do, singing in “Summer Nights” about shallow exploits such as golddigging. It’s worth noting that Rizzo’s decked in black before Sandy goes that route. So, there’s a real thread in Grease about reclaiming one’s rebelliousness within the pack of one’s choosing.
This happens amid numerous nods to Lucky Strike cigarettes, an anti-gay gag, a famous adult TV star spiking a precocious child’s drink, jokes about stolen auto parts, a broken condom and the line that “men are rats, fleas on rats, amoebas on fleas on rats”.
There’s also the song “Born to Hand Jive” and a dance scene that puts West Side Story in the dust with nearly every girl hiking her skirt or having it lifted by boys. Then, there’s this exchange between a high school student who hops into a hot rod and a group of boys: “You think this is a gang bang?” One of the boys’ reply? “You wish”.
Carefully, in full color, with vibrant costumes, lush photography and loose, improvised dance movements by Patricia Birch, Grease unleashes and unspools the teenaged anxiety and sexual liberation with cartoonish awkwardness. The kids’ lingo rhymes. The plot skips and moves. Thus, Grease memorably expresses the ethos of the Fifties. Primary colors, simplicity in functional clothing designed to accentuate the human body, wind caressing tousled hair as the American flag waves in the background — Grease puts us on with polish and shine. It’s a movie which is inviting to watch.
This is the Randal Kleiser touch. The director that John Travolta had worked with on ABC’s 1976 telefilm The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, whom Travolta would insist be part of his studio deal, adds depth to every candy-coated scene in Grease. Where there’s raunch, Kleiser delivers warmth. Where there’s sugar, he adds bitterness. Bringing each contrast of the conformist, only partly fabulous Fifties into balance with a winking, buoyant sense of life, Kleiser sunkisses every scene and shuttles between dark and light themes. When the Scorpions come to rumble, Jeff Conaway’s Kenickie flips a switchblade. But Doody’s in the frame with a squirt gun. The gloom of Rebel Without a Cause slips into the youthful energy of West Side Story, always in color.
Grease endures as a film with a reputation which unfortunately gets reduced to the second-to-last scene, in which Newton-John’s Sandy enlists her friend Frenchy (Didi Conn) to turn her into a vamp.
However, judging Grease primarily, let alone solely, by this scene ignores the power of Sandy’s choice. For starters, her display happens only after she witnesses Danny’s brave and magnanimous demonstration of loyalty at the drag race. Also, Sandy’s makeover helps and vindicates Frenchy, her friend and Pink Lady sponsor. Sandy’s sexual coming out follows Danny’s mea culpa and willingness to improve and earn back Sandy’s trust. Danny proves this again and again — with Travolta basically playing his ABC character Vinnie Barbarino from Welcome Back, Kotter — in a series of sports vignettes with Sid Caesar as Coach Calhoun.
Sandy is hardly a feminist. Her origins are as a wholesome girl who prefers a pedicure to pierced ears. She makes Travolta’s Zuko the focus of her most concentrated efforts (and he reciprocates her intensity of romantic interest). But, bearing in mind this is Grease, not Shakespeare, Sandy is also relatively dimensional, openly flirting without shame with the athlete played by Lorenzo Lamas, asserting herself with Danny as they enter the Frosty Palace, where she judges and snubs nasty Rizzo, proving that, like Doris Day and Sandra Dee, it’s a mistake to underestimate the good girl. After all, John Farrar’s “Hopelessly Devoted to You” is the movie’s moral center, complete with a reflection of her beloved dreamboat in the pool. So, it’s a male to whom Sandy, pre and post-makeover, pledges her devotion.
With great casting, especially Eve Arden, and an old-fashioned, Technicolor flair for a sense of the cinematic, Grease gels at a summer carnival, where the nerd, too, is uplifted and transformed. Even hardened, jaded Rizzo softens and becomes human. One of the film’s happiest moments comes when it’s disclosed that the girl rumored to be in trouble isn’t pregnant after all, as if to prove its radical status, whether for 1978 or the Fifties context (making it even more radical more today). ,
That someone won’t be forced to raise an unwanted child is a fact which is cheered, even celebrated. All of this comes in the afterglow of John Farrar’s two-minute-plus declaration of desire, “You’re the One That I Want”, with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John back in black, shaking, dancing and dominating the screen against a yellow backdrop with a sign warning Danger Ahead.
Everything ends with not a hint of doom as Grease lifts the audience and glides into the air to the cast’s climactic song and dance to “We Go Together”. There’s a reason why Grease, sharp and slick as it is, still connects with audiences. It’s not necessarily the best or the brightest musical in movies. But — thanks to the stellar cast and crew and Randal Kleiser’s direction — its blend of nice and naughty, reflecting the Fifties’ innocence, goodness and liberation, shines.