Best known for his many teen comedy movie hits, including Sixteen Candles (1984), Weird Science (1985), The Breakfast Club (1985), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Pretty in Pink (1986), and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), as well as Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), Uncle Buck (1989), and the Christmas family comedy Home Alone (1990).
Maybe on the surface, John Hughes’s films seem like happy-go-lucky Midwest suburban comedies — certainly enough so to become huge hits. Virtually all of them, though, break long enough from the laughs to show some deep feelings and even deeper chasms between middle-class kids and their parents, principals, neighbors, relatives, and — especially — each other.
John Hughes is a writer. All of the films he directed and most of the films he produced are his own creations. Though even people who should know better (like the editors of Rotten Tomatoes) think of Hughes as the director of “Hughes films” like “Pretty in Pink”, the Chevy Chase “Vacation” series, and the “Home Alone” series — he isn’t. They do certainly bear his unmistakable stamp, and he was the writer and producer of those films, but Hughes has actually only directed eight films. The last one, “Curly Sue”, was in 1991.
John Hughes grew up in Michigan and moved to Chicago just in time to have it shape his teen years. (Whew! Can you imagine all those films set in Lansing?) He was a copywriter in the prestigious Chicago advertising agency Leo Burnett Co. in the seventies (leaving in 1980, just a few days before I was hired there). The legend goes, he wrote advertising in the morning and, in the afternoon, wrote jokes for the likes of Rodney Dangerfield and stories for National Lampoon magazine — and, of course, the screenplays. His early efforts for National Lampoon included “Class Reunion” and “Vacation”, as well as a swashbuckling “Nate and Hayes” and “Mr. Mom“.
Though his first directorial effort, “Sixteen Candles“, (1984) was a hit, making Anthony Michael Hall and especially Molly Ringwald stars as well as the first brats of the Brat Pack, he was just warming up. A year later, he directed the classic “The Breakfast Club“, with Judd Nelson one-upping the heretofore height of high-school rebellion, James Dean.
Was John boy working out his childhood loathing of authority figures? If so, it works. Principal Vernon of “The Breakfast Club” was bad, but Principal Rooney of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” was, well, without principles. Purposely out of touch and loathing of students, Rooney’s villainy makes Ferris absolutely heroic, and makes his good times that much more fun. Ferris is recess to “Breakfast Clubs” detention, and is perhaps even more of a classic. Not only does it supply true teen angst, but it purposely foils it with self-actualized teen heroes ingeniously manipulating the adult world. (He reprises it to huge success with childhood hero/angst in the Home Alone” series).
Are the characters of “The Breakfast Club” Ferrises as sophomores? Maybe. Involvingly real as Ferris is involvingly fantastic, the five youth in detention battle to détente with each other, small victory over the man”, and great victory over their own fears. It is telling that Hughes took away part of Molly Ringwald’s complaints in “BC” and gave it to Ferris’s foil, Cameron.
Directorially, Hughes graduated to Planes, Trains & Automobiles” in 1987, and made a virtually perfect pairing of John Candy and Steve Martin. This magnificent buddy” (using the term rather loosely) farce that centers on their hopeless efforts to get from New York to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving, moves in the pathos in the blink of Candy’s big, boyish innocent eye, and suddenly the audience switches sides. Its no longer about getting home; its about coming to terms with each other.
Hughes brings back John Candy for “Uncle Buck” in 1989. Candy works the good-hearted” angle into his loser yet smart character and works magic, even though the best (and only thing) he has to play off of is a kindergartener named Macaulay Culkin.
Hughes’s directorial finale was in 1991 with “Curly Sue”, before Jim Belushi took acting lessons. Whatever happened, it was for the best. Hughes turned his writing/directing talents into writing/producing, this time tackling the kid genre with “Home Alone”, “Dennis the Menace”, Flubber”, and “101 Dalmatians” — all of which, certainly, bear his stamp.
— Nate Lee
(with an admitted prejudice for physical comedy)