Alice’s Restaurant (1969): Making an Anti-Establishment Movie

Arthur Penn directed Alice’s Restaurant, a loose adaptation of the 1967 folk song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” originally written and sung by Arlo Guthrie.

The film stars Guthrie as himself, with Pat Quinn as Alice Brock and James Broderick as Ray Brock. Penn, who resided in the story’s setting of Stockbridge, co-wrote the script with Venable Herndon in 1967, after hearing the song.

Alice’s Restaurant was released on August 19, 1969, just days after Guthrie appeared at the Woodstock Festival. A soundtrack album for the film was also released by UA Records. The soundtrack includes a studio version of the 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, and adds several bonus tracks to the original LP.

Narrative Structure:

In 1965, Arlo Guthrie 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 quits school, and subsequently hitchhikes back East. He first visits his father Woody Guthrie (Joseph Boley) in the hospital.

Arlo ultimately returns to his friends Ray (James Broderick) and Alice Brock (Pat Quinn) 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 Shelly (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 Shelly, 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 day they receive phone call from “Officer Obie” (Police Chief William Obanhein as himself), asking 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 station where they are arrested.

They are then driven to the “scene of the crime” where the police are engaged in elaborate investigation. At the trial, Officer Obie is anxiously eager to show the color glossy photos of the crime but the judge (James Hannon as himself) happens to be blind, using a seeing eye dog. He levies a $25 fine, orders them to pick up the garbage and sets them free. The garbage is taken to New York and placed on a barge.

Meanwhile, Arlo has fallen in love with a beautiful Asian girl, Mari-chan (Tina Chen).

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. He makes himself unfit by acting like a homicidal maniac in front of a psychiatrist, but fails (the incident gets him praise).

Because of Guthrie’s criminal record for littering, he is sent to wait along with the convicts on the Group W bench, then rejected as unfit for military service, not because of the littering incident, but because he makes a remark about the dubiousness of considering littering to be a problem when selecting candidates for armed conflict, making the officials suspicious of “his kind.:

Upon returning to church, Arlo finds Ray and the club members showing home movies of a recent race. Shelly enters high, and Ray beats him until he reveals his stash of heroin, concealed in some artwork.

Shelly roars off into the night on his motorcycle to his death; the next day, Woody dies. Ray and Alice have hippie-style wedding in church, and drunken Ray proposes to sell the church and start country commune instead, blaming himself for Shelly’s death.

Movie’s Ending

The film ends with Alice standing alone in her bedraggled wedding gown on the church steps.

The film grossed $6.3 million in the U.S, making it the 23rd highest-grossing film of 1969.

Arlo Guthrie as himself
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
James Hannon as himself – the blind judge
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