Classic Corner: The Lords of Flatbush

I don’t remember how old I was when I realized that Fonzie was a loser. Yes, we’re talking about Arthur Fonzarelli, a.k.a. “The Fonz,” the good-natured greaser played by Henry Winkler on eleven seasons of ABC’s smash sitcom, Happy Days. To little boys, Fonzie was the epitome of cool, with catchphrases like “Sit on it” and the then-ubiquitous “Ayyy” echoing over schoolyards across America. Today, Fonzie’s motorcycle jacket hangs proudly in the Smithsonian. And yet every young man of my generation at some point found ourselves wondering — especially as the program continued to air throughout Ronald Reagan’s first term and Winkler himself was pushing 40 – why is this middle-aged man still hanging around with high school kids and living above the Cunningham family’s garage? Doesn’t Fonzie have any friends his own age?

Directors Martin Davidson and Stephen F. Verona’s 1974 The Lords of Flatbush was released the same year Happy Days premiered, both capitalizing on the surprise blockbuster success of American Graffiti and a tsunami of 1950’s nostalgia that would continue through Grease and most of the 1980s, as baby boomers got the car keys to pop culture and tried to stay teenagers forever. (I suppose one could argue that this historically blinkered, selective idealization of a blindingly white, soc hop conformist era has finally reached its logical end with the MAGA movement, but that’s a subject for another day.) Lords was one of the many movies I never actually saw as a kid, yet had vividly envisioned a fantasy film in my head based on the VHS box art. The cover shot of Winkler and Sly Stallone in tough guy leather jackets had me imagining an origin story for Fonzie in which he fought in a street gang alongside a young Rocky Balboa. How could any real movie compete with that?

Especially this unassuming picture, a scrappy New York indie emblematic of the era, shot on rough and tumble 16mm with a threadbare budget. Set in 1958, the movie is filmed primarily in cramped close-ups, one assumes because they couldn’t afford to dress too many sets. Carried along by the energy of these young actors, such corner-cutting becomes part of the charm. The titular Lords are a quartet of Brooklyn hoodlums who hang out, boost cars, and chase chicks, not necessarily in that order. Perry King stars as Chico Tyrell, the gang’s de facto leader who gets all the best-looking girls, at least for a little while. He’s backed up by Stallone’s Stanley Rosiello, a verbose slab of a man whose steady girl has a bun in the oven, much to his chagrin. Winkler has a smaller part than advertised, playing Butchey Weinstein, the smart-aleck who’s maybe a little too smart to still be running with this crew.

There’s an episodic, slice-of-life quality that makes The Lords of Flatbush feel like all this stuff happened to the filmmakers, or at least to people they knew. (Published the same year and set in the neighboring borough of the Bronx, Richard Price’s semi-autobiographical debut novel The Wanderers covers a lot of the same ground with significantly more specificity and style. It was adapted into an excellent film by Philip Kaufman in 1979.) Another son of Fellini’s I Vitelloni, the movie gets its power from a wistful melancholy that creeps into the second half – especially in Winkler’s performance – as the boys realize that their days of being wild are coming to a close. In the film’s best scene, Stallone is frog marched into a jewelry store by his gal and her best friend, the massive man basically bullied into buying an engagement ring he can’t afford for a fiancée he doesn’t want to marry.

Stallone received an “additional dialogue by” credit on the screenplay, and the jewelry store sequence has a lot of the hallmarks that would distinguish his Oscar-winning script for Rocky two years hence. (A later scene in Stanley’s pigeon coop foreshadows the egregious overwriting of Paradise Alley and other Stallone screenplays.) But perhaps Sly’s biggest impact on the film was getting the original Chico –an unknown actor named Richard Gere– booted off the project after a dust-up during rehearsals. Stallone told the whole story to Ain’t It Cool News back during the mercifully brief era when movie stars used to have to debase themselves before the worst troglodytes on the internet for publicity purposes. (Still, Sly’s remained strategically mum about the popular theory that he’s the one who started the gerbil rumor that dogged Gere for decades. To be fair, it’s ornate enough to sound like Stallone dialogue.)  

The biggest stumbling block for contemporary viewers is an atrocious faux-‘50s song score by “You Light Up My Life” singer-songwriter Joseph Brooks, a guy you don’t want to Google. The kitschy music stinks of the early ‘70s, slathered over scenes that were begging for jukebox oldies. His on-the-nose lyrics tilt into cringe-inducing bathos, especially during the film’s otherwise moving final scene. But despite Brooks’ aural atrocity, the ending of The Lords of Flatbush quite touchingly conveys the sad truth of how growing up often means growing apart. You start to understand why Fonzie would never again have friends his own age. 

“The Lords of Flatbush” is streaming on Netflix.

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