Alice's Restaurant (film)
MGM Home Video DVD
|Directed by||Arthur Penn|
|Produced by||Hillard Elkins
|Screenplay by||Venable Herndon
|Music by||Arlo Guthrie
|Editing by||Dede Allen|
|Distributed by||United Artists|
|Running time||111 minutes|
Alice's Restaurant is a 1969 American comedy film co-written and directed by Arthur Penn. It is an adaptation of the 1967 folk song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" by singer and songwriter Arlo Guthrie. The film stars Guthrie as himself, with Pat Quinn as Alice Brock and James Broderick as Ray Brock. Contrary to popular belief, while Arlo Guthrie wrote the lyrics and music for the narrative song "Alice’s Restaurant Massacree," he neither wrote nor co-wrote the screenplay for the film Alice’s Restaurant, which was instead co-written by Venable Herndon and Arthur Penn.
Alice's Restaurant was released on August 19, 1969, a few days after Guthrie appeared at the Woodstock Festival. A soundtrack album for the film was also released by United Artists Records. The soundtrack includes a studio version of the title song, which was originally divided into two parts (one for each album side); a 1998 CD reissue on the Rykodisc label presents this version of the song in full, and adds several bonus tracks to the original LP.
In 1965, Arlo Guthrie (as himself) has attempted to avoid the draft by attending college in Montana. His long hair and unorthodox approach to study gets him in trouble with local police as well as residents. He is thrown out of school, following which he hitchhikes back East. He first visits his father Woody Guthrie (Joseph Boley) in the hospital.
Arlo ultimately returns to his friends Alice (Pat Quinn) and Ray Brock (James Broderick) at their home, a deconsecrated church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts where they welcome friends and like-minded bohemian types to "crash". Among these are Arlo's school friend Roger (Geoff Outlaw) and artist Shelley (Michael McClanathan), an ex-heroin addict who is in a motorcycle racing club. Alice is starting up a restaurant in nearby Stockbridge. Frustrated with Ray's lackadaisical attitude, she has an affair with Shelley, and ultimately leaves for New York to visit Arlo and Roger. Ray comes to take her home, saying he has invited a "few" friends for Thanksgiving.
The central point of the film is the story told in the song: After Thanksgiving dinner, Arlo and his friends decide to do Alice and Ray a favor by taking several months worth of garbage from their house to the town dump. After loading up a red VW microbus with the garbage, and "shovels, and rakes and other implements of destruction", they head for the dump. Finding the dump closed for the holiday, they drive around and discover a pile of garbage that someone else had placed at the bottom of a short cliff. At that point, as mentioned in the song, "...we decided that one big pile is better than two little piles, and rather than bring that one up we decided to throw ours down."
The next morning they receive a phone call from "Officer Obie" (Police Chief William Obanhein as himself), who asks them about the garbage. After admitting to littering, they agree to pick up the garbage and to meet him at the police station. Loading up the red VW microbus, they head to the police station where they are immediately arrested.
As the song puts it, they are then driven to the scene of the crime where the police are engaged in a hugely elaborate investigation. At the trial, Officer Obie is anxiously awaiting the chance to show the judge the 27 photos of the crime but the judge happens to be blind, using a seeing eye dog, and simply levies a $50 fine, orders them to pick up the garbage and then sets them free. The garbage is eventually taken to New York and placed on a barge, to be taken out and dumped in the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, Arlo has fallen in love with a beautiful Asian girl, Mari-chan (Tina Chen).
Later in the movie, Arlo is called up for the draft, in a surreal depiction of the bureaucracy at the New York City military induction center on Whitehall Street. Because of Guthrie's criminal record for littering, he is first sent to the Group W bench (where convicts wait), then outright rejected as unfit for military service.
Upon returning to the church, Arlo finds Ray and members of the motorcycle club showing home movies of a recent race. Shelley enters, obviously high, and Ray beats him until he reveals his stash of heroin, concealed in some art he has been working on. Shelley roars off into the night on his motorcycle to his death; the next day, Woody dies. Ray and Alice have a hippie-style wedding in the church, and a drunken Ray proposes to sell the church and start a country commune instead, revealing that he blames himself for Shelley's death. The film ends with Alice standing alone in her bedraggled wedding gown on the church steps.
- Arlo Guthrie as Arlo
- Pat Quinn as Alice Brock
- James Broderick as Ray Brock
- Pete Seeger as Himself
- Lee Hays as Himself – Reverend at Evangelical Meeting
- Michael McClanathan as Shelly
- Geoff Outlaw as Roger Crowther
- Tina Chen as Mari-chan
- Kathleen Dabney as Karin
- William Obanhein as Himself – Officer Obie
- Seth Allen as Evangelist
- Monroe Arnold as Bluegrass
- Joseph Boley as Woody Guthrie
- Vinnette Carroll as Draft Clerk
- Sylvia Davis as Marjorie Guthrie
- Simm Landres as Private Jacob / Jake
- Eulalie Noble as Ruth
- Louis Beachner as Dean
- MacIntyre Dixon as First Deconsecration Minister
- Arthur Pierce Middleton as Second Deconsecration Minister
- Donald Marye as Funeral Director
- Shelley Plimpton as Reenie
- M. Emmet Walsh as Group W Sergeant
Cameos and special appearances
The real Alice Brock makes a number of cameo appearances in the film. In the scene where Ray and friends are installing insulation, she is wearing a brown turtleneck top and has her hair pulled into a ponytail. In the Thanksgiving dinner scene, she is wearing a bright pink blouse. In the wedding scene, she is wearing a Western-style dress.
Stockbridge police chief William Obanhein ("Officer Obie") plays himself in the film, explaining to Newsweek magazine that making himself look like a fool was preferable to having somebody else make him look like a fool.
The film also features the first credited film appearance of character actor M. Emmet Walsh, playing the Group W sergeant. (Walsh had previously appeared as an uncredited extra in Midnight Cowboy, released three months prior.) The film also features cameo appearances by American folksingers/songwriters Lee Hays (playing a reverend at an evangelical meeting) and Pete Seeger (playing himself).
Differences from real life
While the original song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" was, for the most part, a true story, most of the other events in the film were fictional creations of the screenplay's writers. According to Guthrie, commenting in the DVD's audio commentary section, the film used the names of real people (although the real name of his co-defendant was Richard J. Robbins) but took numerous liberties with actual events. Most notably, the film has Guthrie being forced to leave a Montana town after "creating a disturbance" – i.e., several town residents object to Guthrie's long hair, and gang up to throw him through a plate glass window. This never happened, and Guthrie expresses regrets that Montana got a "bad rap" in the film.
The characters of Shelley and Ruth were created for the film, and had no real-life counterparts.
Other more minor differences exist, including the fact that in real life the red VW microbus actually belonged to Ray, not Arlo; Ray and Alice lived by themselves in the church, not as part of a commune as seen in the film; and the real-life 1965 Thanksgiving dinner was only attended by a handful of people (not the dozens shown in the film). The song portrays these events with more accuracy than the film.
Critical reception of the film has wavered between seeing the film as light entertainment and as a political statement: "Calling the 1969 film a comedy misses its noir backbeat of betrayed romanticism, and thinking of it as a madcap autobiography misses its politics. This is a movie driven by the military draft and the Vietnam War."
When interviewed in 1971, the film's director, Arthur Penn, said of the film: "What I tried to deal with is the US's silence and how we can best respond to that silence. ... I wanted to show that the US is a country paralyzed by fear, that people were afraid of losing all they hold dear to them. It's the new generation that's trying to save everything."
In being offered the opinion that violence is not so important in the film, Penn replied: "Alice's Restaurant is a film of potential transition because the characters know, in some way, what they are looking for. ... It's important to remember that the characters in Alice's Restaurant are middle-class whites. They aren't poor or hungry or working class. They are not in the same boat as African Americans. But they're not militants either. In this respect the church dwellers are not particularly threatening. They find it easy to live there, even if most people can't afford such a luxury. From this point of view, this film depicts a very specific social class. It's a bourgeois film."
However, other commentators have pointed out that there is indeed violence in the film, but of an unexpected kind, domestic violence. Alice is very often beaten by her husband, Ray – something which the others do not even react to. Ray's repeated request to Alice for them to start over again shows her in the role of a battered partner. The film ends with the wedding guests leaving and Ray and Alice trying to persuade them to stay. The final scene is not of a loving couple seeing off their guests, but of Alice standing alone looking into the distance, watching the guests leave, as if knowing that her future is in fact bleak with Ray.
- Nominated for Academy Award for Best Director (1969) – Arthur Penn
- Nominated for Writers Guild of America Award for Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen (1970) – Venable Herndon, Arthur Penn
- Third Place – Laurel Awards – Golden Laurel for Comedy (1970)
- Nominated for British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards – Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music (1971) – Arlo Guthrie
- "Box Office Information for Alice's Restaurant". The Numbers. Retrieved February 26, 2012.
- James Grady, "Thanksgiving at Alice's Restaurant: The Guthries' American Dream Lives On", Politics Daily, 25.11.2009.
- M. Chaiken and P. Cronin (eds), Arthur Penn Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 1998, p. 65.
- M. Chaiken and P. Cronin (eds), Arthur Penn Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 1998.