American Teen Comedy
10 May 2000
John Hughes, one of the premiere teen cinema directors, was able to attain greatness primarily through his eighties teen comedy output. His eighties films consist of Sixteen Candles(1984), The Breakfast Club(1985), Weird Science(1985), Pretty in Pink(1986), Ferris Bueller's Day Off(1986), and Some Kind of Wonderful(1987). Hughes wrote and sculpted these films through the eyes of teenagers who loathed authority, loathed school, and were just looking for an exit. Hughes also weaves many common threads throughout these films. Hughes' films contain five major themes. The character who is striving for something or someone, but in the end realizes that their happiness is not most important. The disillusioned and maniacal parents and authority figures. The siblings who misunderstand each other, but in most cases ultimately come to a common understanding. The child who must take a stand against or set straight the oppressive parents. Finally, the most abundant character among Hughes films, the individual. Through these commonalties Hughes' films teach the viewer how to lead his life, and how to relate to his parents, teachers, and siblings. The viewer grows a bit with even the smallest glimpse through the looking glass into a John Hughes film, and becomes a better and more knowledgeable person because of it.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times says, "the kid brother has refined sister-bating to an art form." This kid brother to which she refers is Oscar nominated Justin Henry. The film is Sixteen Candles. Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) is a bit upset, but also understanding of her older sister. Her older sister is, however, a major factor in Samantha's parents forgetting her sixteenth birthday. The younger brother, Mike (Justin Henry), is quite the jerk to Samantha. Unlike other Hughes siblings, Mike never grows more mature and realizes why he should try to understand his sister better and be nicer to her. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker writes that even though the children in the film do not look like siblings, they certainly sound like siblings. Another movie sibling who is not going to relate to her older sibling more, nor is given the chance to because of limited screen time, is Brian Johnson's sister in The Breakfast Club. The only line she is given comes at the beginning of the film when Brian is being dropped off in front of Shermer High School for his flare gun related detention. She says, "yeah" with much contempt and mockingly after his mother has reprimanded him a bit. She, much like Mike Baker, is young and maybe too immature to understand her big brother. The younger siblings represented are still too young and are just placed in to be an annoyance. It is the older siblings relationships with the main character which can teach the audience something.
Jeanie Bueller (Jennifer Grey) of Ferris Bueller's Day Off holds much contempt for her brother Ferris because of all of his antics with ditching school and faking out their parents and just being a little too free. Paul Attanasio of The Washington Post describes Ferris as a guy who "glides through life, a Jay Gatsby to his classmates, getting everything he wants." While relating to Garth Volbeck(Charlie Sheen) Jeanie relays the thought which bugs her so much, "why does he get to ditch, when everyone else has to go." At another point prior to that she wonders, "What makes him so G-d damn special?" Through talking to Garth and making out with him, something hits her. She wants her brother to succeed and realizes that she shouldn't care what he does. While the movie is nearing its end, she guides him out of a near meeting with Katie Bueller (the mom) and after letting him sweat, gets him out of a dangerous situation with Edward R. Rooney, dean of students. Jeanie matures as a character much more than do the two kids previously described. She is able to come to terms with herself and her brother. Before this experience she would have never interacted with a hood like Garth Volbeck. She makes people realize that even though things seem unfair, one should just let it slide. Jeanie develops without any prodding or pushing from other forces, unlike Chet in Weird Science.
Chet Donnelly(Bill Paxton), Wyatt's brother in Weird Science, also holds much contempt for his younger brother. It is not so much contempt as it is rage or hatred or utter non-caring. Chet demands money from his brother, and along with material possessions he also wants complete obedience. He wants Wyatt to sit when he says sit, to cover himself when he is wearing women's underwear, and to be completely submissive to his every need. Much like it took Garth Volbeck to be a catalyst in Jeanie's turnaround, it will take someone else to speed up Chet's maturing process. Not alike Jeanie, though, is the severity to which Chet's catalyst pushes him. The catalyst is a girl that Gary and Wyatt created named Lisa(Kelly Le Brock). Lisa basically turns Chet into a Jabba-the-Hutt-type creature and threatens to give him Elephantitous of the nuts unless he apologizes to Wyatt and promises to be nice to him. It appears that all is well between Chet and Wyatt after this occurrence. It is quite clear, although not as clear as in Jeanie's case, that Chet thinks differently about his brother at the end of the film. Possibly, with Lisa's abrupt absence, Chet will go back to being his cruel self. For the moment, though, all seems right with the siblings of the Donnely household. It is evident, that in some Hughes films there needs to be a driving force or a good reason for siblings to get along better.
Laura Nelson(Maddie Corman) has a seemingly different relationship with her brother Keith Nelson(Eric Stoltz) in Some Kind of Wonderful. The sibling relationship between Laura and Keith was very similar to a normal brother-sister┬ relationship. Keith wanted Laura out of his stuff, out of his hair, and out of his personal life. Laura wanted to look through Keith's records and invade his privacy. She also realized that her brother was not the most popular person. When it became apparent to her that her brother was "going with" Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson) she realized that she should start being nicer to him so she can gain greater social status. Through some eavesdropping she realizes that Harvey Jenns is plotting against Keith and Amanda is in on it. The problem is that Keith, because of his relationship with his sibling, does not believe her. Through much convincing and thinking Keith sees what is going on and realizes that his sister does care about him. Again, the sister wanted something (greater social status) and so she became closer to her brother. Much like Chet it is unclear whether this will last. Much like in real life, it is an on-going loop which spins around sibling relationships. One second everything is fine, and the next it is hell in a hand basket. The audience finds these relationship methodologies quite helpful and may or may not grow closer to their own siblings.
Another typical character of Hughes films is the person with parents who just do not understand. The biggest example of this in any Hughes film is Cameron Frye of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Bob Thomas of The Associated Press describes where Cameron lives as, "John Hughesland, a mythical suburb where parents are well-meaning but stupid, teachers are terminally dull and where the teen-agers are ingeniously deceptive, talk dirty but only kiss, drink beer but do not use hard drugs." Cameron's father and mother, to a lesser extent, are two people in life who he just loathes. Cameron, early on, says of his mother, "She's in Decatur, unfortunately she's not staying." He also describes his father as a, "Son of a Bitch." It is quite evident that Cameron lives in fear of his father. It seems that he cannot talk to him, and that his father cares more about material objects than his family. His father got upset when Cameron broke his retainer. His father loves his car, but hates his wife. Cameron ends up taking his father's most prized possession, a 1961 Ferrari 250GT California, for a joyride. He also kicks it out the back of his garage into a ravine. What comes next is one of the most prolific scenes in any Hughes film. After watching this, the viewer realizes that nothing is unattainable. Although Cameron's "Take a Stand" speech is emotional and reveals how much Cameron grew throughout the film, there are doubters. Paul Attanasio says of this, "only an inveterate rubbernecker would want to watch him." Patrick Goldstein of The Los Angeles Times calls the subplot of Cameron and his father "belabored." It is an essential part of the film, and if nothing else, teaches the viewer to stand up for who they are.
Derek Malcolm of The Manchester Guardian Weekly describes the parents in this film as ones who "demand their [the kids] respectability at all cost." The film is The Breakfast Club. Andrew Clarke (Emilio Estevez) has a very demanding father. His father wants him to wrestle, and not only to wrestle, but to win. Andrew must escape from his father, and to vent his frustration he taped Larry Lester's buns together. He still will not be able to stand up to his father even with the soul baring which he did in the detention. His father will be just as demanding, and Andrew will play along as if he wants the exact same thing. There are some parents that are just too stubborn. A key example is Jon Bender's (Judd Nelson) father. His father rubs cigar butts into his skin, and curses at him, and is somewhat absent. This goes to explain Jon's character very well. He is the criminal, and most of all has no direction because his parents are more absent than all the rest. Unless he stops his father from drinking, he has no chance of getting through to him and taking a stand. Keanu Reeves once said in Parenthood(1989), "you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car---hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they'll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father." This is no further true than for the fathers in John Hughes films. Always the father and never the mother. This can be construed as a rough characterization of the role of Hughes' own father.
The strong father in Hughes' films is a common theme. The father is not so much strong as he is a force. Until now, the father's have had no or little screen time (in the case of Andrew Clarke's). The fathers represented in Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful are slightly more understandable than the fore mentioned fathers are. Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times says that the scenes in which Keith and his father (John Ashton) argue are some of the most entertaining in the film. Keith would like to devote his energy to art work, and his father would rather have him go off to a university. With much defiance of his father, Keith goes so far as to take his college savings and spend them on jewelry for Amanda Jones. The end of the film brings about a surprisingly civilized fight, and the father has to come to the realization that his son has grown up. What the father wants is not always best. Andie (Molly Ringwald) and her father Jack's(Harry Dean Stanton) relationship is slightly different. This is so because this the only father-daughter relationship of this nature presented in a Hughes film. Andie must drive her father around, if it were not for Andie, her father may never get up in the morning and look for work. Perhaps this is more typical of lower income families, as Andie and Jack's income is the only one which is not typical of the Hughes families. The relationship between a father and his son or daughter is one which Hughes adores to examine. Though for all the stubborn and set-in-their-ways parents, there are always the dimwitted ones who are oblivious to everything.
Rob Salem of The Toronto Star says of Hughes that, "he as yet to include a single adult character in any of his movies capable of handling day-to-day existence, let alone raising children." Salem describes Tom and Katie Bueller (Lyman Ward, Cindy Pickett), of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, as "inept parents" and "well-meaning dolts." Tom and Katie are totally oblivious to Ferris' schemes and truly believe that he is a very sick boy. Katie has some doubt when she goes home, but is fooled by a mannequin. What mother would go home to check on her son and not actually go in the room? Hughes inserts these parents as the type he would have liked to have; free-spirits. Another example is Samantha Baker's parents in Sixteen Candles. It is quite true that Samantha's sister's wedding was the following day, but that does not give her parents the right to completely forget about her birthday. Mike Baker says of this, "Classic."
The overly dimwitted parents lead into the very maniacal authority figures, usually in the form of school disciplinarians. David Sterritt of The Christian Science Monitor describes them as "simple-minded and cartoonish." No where has there been such deviants as Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason in The Breakfast Club) and Edward R. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones in Ferris Bueller's Day Off). Derek Malcolm from the Manchester Guardian Weekly describes┬ Vernon as "a bored and cynical teacher who clearly hates their [the kids] recalcitrant guts." He sets them the task of writing a paper to evaluate themselves. He is very viscous towards Bender, but does not go overboard in his disciplining. He stands his ground, and although the regulations of his detention are quite grueling, he does not come off as such a bad guy in the end. He only treats the bad students, like Bender, poorly. Rooney is another story. He is always scheming. He goes so far as to snoop around the Bueller estate, break into their house, and knock out their dog. Paul Attanasio describes Rooney as "snakelike." Rooney has a cartoonish mustache, and is placed into very physical comedy scenes which foreshadows the burglars in Home Alone(1990). These administrators are meant to be a conglomerate of all the evil teachers who may be at a high school, only greatly exaggerated.
Hughes next likes to use the characters who are individuals. The characters who sacrifice their wants and desires for the greater good of the film. These people go under similar changes to Jeanie Bueller. They can be greedy or jealous, or they can come to the realization that they would feel better about themselves, no matter how much they hate to admit it, if they gave the girl or guy they are pursuing happiness. Unfortunate for them, this happiness often comes in the arms of another person. Duckie (Jon Cryer) from Pretty in Pink makes quite a sacrifice for the greater good of Andie (Molly Ringwald). He adores her, and she knows it. The only problem is that Andie is in love with the rich and preppy Blane (Andrew McCarthy). Blane has a lot of pressure on him not to date a poor girl by his friend Steff(James Spader). At one of the final scenes, after much turmoil between Andie and Blane (even a run-in at school), Andie shows up at the prom pretty in pink. Duckie does in fact tell Andie to go for what she wants, makes a sacrifice, and Andie ends up getting Blane. Duckie, on the other hand, gets Kristy Swanson. So it is not so bad a deal.
Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall) in Sixteen Candles provides a similar service for another Molly Ringwald character, Samantha Baker. Farmer Ted or "The Geek" pursues Samantha with a passion. He bothers her on the bus, he asks for her underwear, and he tries to entice her to dance with his gangly body. He knows that she really wants Jake Ryan(Michael Schoeffling). His chances with her are not as good as Duckie's, particularly because they do not seem to know each other as well. Farmer Ted goes behind the scenes, tells Jake of Samantha's infatuation, and by the end of the film Jake and Samantha are together. Farmer Ted has also "bagged a babe" along the way. Again, a geeky character has made a huge sacrifice for the interest of another.
Lastly is Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson's character) in Some Kind of Wonderful. She is in a slightly different situation than the other two martyrs. She is very close with Keith, even sleeps in the same bed sometimes. She, much like the other two, is a virtual outcast at school. Keith is trying to pursue Amanda Jones, and Watts pretends to totally support him. She even picks out the piece of jewelry for which Keith should spend his college savings. Much┬ like Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful has its own antagonist to Amanda in the form of Shayne (Molly Hagan). Shayne tries to talk Amanda into ignoring Keith in much the same way that Steff does to Blane. Watts teaches Keith how to kiss, and it is in that key scene that the audience learns of the huge chemistry between them. Watts believes she has given over Keith to the one he wants, and volunteers to be the chauffeur on his and Amanda's date. Amanda senses that the earrings are not for her, but for someone else. The end of this movie sees Keith chasing after Watts and embracing her. Hughes made this film to correct Pretty in Pink, if there was such a wrong in the nerd not getting the girl. He wanted to show that sometimes the good guy or girl does get the one they want. They just have to go through an arduous process to get there. The unselfish individual always seems to succeed.
The individuals in all of these films are the teenagers described above. The main characters, be it a Matthew Broderick or a Molly Ringwald or an Eric Stoltz, are individuals, but they are not always the ones who the audience can identify with the most. And they most definitely are not characterizations of Hughes himself. The Hughes films are meant to represent the often misrepresented or non-represented. The audience identifies and learns more from Duckie, Cameron, and Farmer Ted than it does from Ferris, Andie or Keith. Richard Harrington of The Washington Post noticed that Hughes relies on his stock characters such as "the sensitive outsider, the sympathetic punk, the obnoxious preppy, the precocious younger brothers and sisters, and the peripheral parents." It is these characters which make the films, not the character to whom the title pertains. These are the characters who teach the audience and who┬ cause them to grow and develop and think differently. They teach the viewer to stand up to his father, or to disregard evil authority, or to relate better to your siblings, or even to think of someone else before yourself. Do these teachings really effect people? Has Hughes succeeded? Sheila Benson of The Los Angeles Times feels that a studio executive should put a sign up that says "Played Out" and they should put it "over the whole vein of teen-age-only movies and begin to make movies that speak to all of us again." All of who? These films speak to people young and old, one just has to listen. Hughes, although maybe not aware, has touched the lives of many, and through expressing his thoughts and feelings in his films has changed his viewers for the better.
Attanasio, Paul. "'Ferris': More Teen Tedium." Washington Post, The 12 June 1986
Benson, Sheila. "'Science' fulfills Teen-age dreams." Los Angeles Times, The 2 August 1985.
Ebert, Roger. "Some Kind of Wonderful." Chicago Sun-Times, The 27 February 1987.
Goldstein, Patrick. "Director has an off day in 'day off'." Los Angeles Times, The 20 June 1986.
Harrington, Richard. "Some Kind of Wonderful." Washington Post, The 28 February 1987.
Kael, Pauline. "16 Candles." New Yorker, The 28 May 1984.
Malcolm, Derek. "Snap, Crackle, Pot." Manchester Guardian Weekly 16 June 1985.
Maslin, Janet. "Screen: '16 Candles,' A Teenage comedy." New York Times, The 4 May 1984.
Salem, Rob. "Adults are the idiots in tale of two kiddies." Toronto Star, The 13 June 1986.
Sterritt, David. "A Film Going Along For the ride, tracking teens playing┬ hooky." Christian Science Monitor, The 18 June 1986.
Thomas, Bob. "At the Movies: "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"." Associated Press, The 26 June 1986.
Breakfast Club, The. Dir. John Hughes. Perf. Paul Gleason, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, and John Kapelos. Universal, 1985.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Dir. John Hughes. Perf. Matthew Broderick, Alan Ruck, Jeffrey Jones, and Mia Sara. Paramount, 1986.
Parenthood. Dir. Ron Howard. Perf. Steve Martin, Rick Moranis, Keanu Reeves and Jason Robards. Paramount, 1989.
Pretty in Pink. Dir. Howard Deutch. Perf. Molly Ringwald, Annie Potts, and Jon Cryer. Paramount, 1986.
Sixteen Candles. Dir. John Hughes. Perf. Molly Ringwald, Paul Dooley, Justin Henry, and Anthony Michael Hall. Universal, 1984.
Some Kind of Wonderful. Dir. Howard Deutch. Perf. Eric Stoltz, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Lea Thompson. Paramount, 1987.
Weird Science. Dir. John Hughes. Perf. Anthony Michael Hall, Ilan Mitchell-Smith, and Kelly LeBrock. Universal, 1985.
This page was uploaded on 2 June 2000.
correction made on 14 December 2003 - Gina Gershon replaced by Kristy Swanson (paragraph 11)