The Spitfire Grill

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The Spitfire Grill
The Spitfire Grill.jpg
The Spitfire Grill movie poster
Directed byLee David Zlotoff
Produced byWarren G. Stitt
Written byLee David Zlotoff
Music byJames Horner
CinematographyRob Draper
Edited byMargaret Goodspeed
Distributed bySony Pictures Releasing
Release date
  • January 24, 1996 (1996-01-24) (Sundance Film Festival)
  • August 23, 1996 (1996-08-23) (limited)
Running time
117 min.
CountryUnited States
Budget$6,000,000 (estimated)
Box office$12,643,776 (US)[1]

The Spitfire Grill is a 1996 American film written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff and starring Alison Elliott, Ellen Burstyn, Marcia Gay Harden, Will Patton, Kieran Mulroney and Gailard Sartain. It tells a story of a woman who was just released from prison and goes to work in a small-town café known as The Spitfire Grill. The film won the Audience Award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, prompting several distributors to enter into a bidding war in response to the positive buzz, but when the movie was finally released, critics as a whole responded less favorably than they had at Sundance.

The movie was the basis for the 2001 Off-Broadway musical of the same name by James Valcq and Fred Alley.


The story centers on a young woman named Percy (Alison Elliott) who was recently released from prison. She arrives in a small town in Maine with hopes of beginning a new life. She lands a job as a waitress in the Spitfire Grill, owned by Hannah (Ellen Burstyn), whose gruff exterior conceals a kind heart and little tolerance for the grill's regular customers who are suspicious of Percy's mysterious past. None is more suspicious than Nahum, Hannah's nephew, although his wife, Shelby, has a kinder curiosity.

When Hannah is bedridden after a nasty fall, Percy and Shelby pitch in to save the Grill and win the approval of Hannah, who learns she does need friends. Joe, an attractive young man in town, becomes smitten with Percy. He is approached by a scientist who thinks that the town's trees might have medicinal benefits. As the plot unfolds, Hannah holds a $100-per-entry essay contest to find a new owner for the grill. This creates a positive change in the town, but the plans are disrupted by Nahum's suspicions about Percy and the revelation that a local hermit is Hannah's shell-shocked, Vietnam veteran son. Percy sacrifices her own life to save Hannah's son and prompts a number of the town's citizens to examine their own conduct more deeply.

Overall, the film deals with powerful themes of redemption, hatred, compassion, independence, the economic problems of small towns, the plight of Vietnam War veterans, and, to some extent female empowerment. The film somewhat misleads the audience into thinking that it will be Percy who finds redemption, but it is other characters and relationships, and indeed the town itself, that are powerfully redeemed through Percy's actions.


The idea for the film was conceived by Malcolm Roger Courts, long-time director and CEO of Sacred Heart League, Inc., a Catholic nonprofit fundraising and communications organization based in Walls, Mississippi. In the late 1970s, he wished to make a film --- an alternative to the ministry of print that was a hallmark of Sacred Heart League, which published and distributed millions of pieces of literature.

With the approval and support of the league's board of directors, Courts began searching for a screenplay that could be produced under the direction of Sacred Heart League's film production subsidiary, Gregory Productions, Inc. Courts and his colleagues read more than 200 prospective screenplays and found most of them lacking in Judeo-Christian values and good story-telling. In the early 1990s, Courts was introduced to Warren Stitt, who eventually became the executive producer of "The Spitfire Grill." Stitt knew of the work of Lee David Zlotoff of MacGyver fame, and an introduction was made. Courts agreed to field screenplay treatments from Zlotoff, and in late 1994, the story of the film was written by Zlotoff.

With private financing from Sacred Heart League, the film was shot in Peacham, Vermont and Troy, Vermont in 35 days in April–May, 1995. After editing the film, it was submitted to the Sundance Film Festival in the feature film competition, and was accepted for screening at the 1996 festival in Park City, Utah. Before screening at Sundance, Courts engaged composer James Horner to compose the musical score for the film.

With the three female stars in attendance at Sundance, Courts and his team enjoyed the support of an enthusiastic crowd during the festival screenings. During one sold-out festival screening, a representative of Castle Rock Entertainment viewed the film and contacted her superiors in Los Angeles. A second print of the film was sent by courier to the Castle Rock headquarters for screening by its executives, who promptly offered $10 million for the film's rights, the largest sum paid outright for an independent feature film.

On the heels of being sold to Castle Rock Entertainment, the film won the Audience Award at Sundance. The film was distributed worldwide with only a modest return and lukewarm critical reaction.

Profits from the sale of the film were used to construct a kindergarten through eighth grade school for 450 children in Southhaven, Mississippi, located 10 miles from the Sacred Heart League headquarters in Walls.

In 2001, a musical adaptation of the film with a brighter ending, written by Fred Alley and James Valcq premiered at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, directed by David Saint and then moved to Playwrights Horizons Theater in New York.



The film received mixed to negative reviews. Critics generally were impressed by the film's efforts, but felt that the script was too underdeveloped and too similar to other films. Roger Ebert wrote "Watching this plot unfold, I was remembering last week's Heavy, which also premiered at Sundance; its cafe was run by an older woman (Shelley Winters), and had a veteran waitress (Deborah Harry) and a young waitress (Liv Tyler), and had a regular customer whose name was Leo, not Joe, although he was played by Joe Grifasi. Also echoing in the caverns of my memory were several other movies about stalwart women running cafes and striding above the local gossip: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Fried Green Tomatoes, Staying Together and of course Bagdad Cafe."[2] Robert Roten of the Laramie Movie Scope wrote "this light character study explodes into a full blown melodrama at the end using a bunch of tired old clichés, like misplaced money, your standard hermit in the woods and an almost laughably melodramatic drowning. Give us a break. With a more imaginative story, this could have been a great movie, but as it is, it's just a C+."[3]

The Spitfire Grill currently holds a 33% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 27 reviews.


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