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Six definitive films: A beginner’s guide to the comedic genius of John Hughes

We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.” – John Hughes

American filmmaker and writer John Hughes is now regarded as one of the most successful directors to have worked in the comedy-drama genre during the 1980s and the 1990s. He has directed true cult-classics like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off which have gone on to become definitive coming-of-age films.

Born in Michigan in 1950, Hughes grew up in a neighbourhood where there were few kids his age. As a consequence, he spent most of his time and used his imagination to cope with his isolation. His family kept moving around, which further contributed to Hughes’ sense of destabilisation. However, he took solace in music and art. A huge fan of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, Hughes said: “My heroes were Dylan, John Lennon and Picasso, because they each moved their particular medium forward, and when they got to the point where they were comfortable, they always moved on.”

He dropped out of university to try his hand at comedy, starting out by selling his material to top performers like Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers. Hughes quickly climbed up the ladder due to his talent, securing the position a contributing editor at the National Lampoon where he impressed everyone with his wit and humour. The stories he wrote for the magazine became the basis of his later notable works like National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Hughes made his directorial debut in 1984 with the seminal teenage film Sixteen Candles whose influence on the genre can hardly be overstated. In order to avoid being known for exclusively making teenage films, he also made comedy hits like Uncle Buck and Planes, Trains & Automobiles. The greatest commercial success of his career came as a screenwriter when he wrote the screenplay for the immensely popular Christmas comedy Home Alone (1990).

On what would have been the filmmaker’s 71st birthday, we revisit his celebrated filmography as a tribute to the undeniable talent of John Hughes.

John Hughes’ 6 definitive films:

6. Sixteen Candles (1984)

Hughes’ celebrated directorial debut starred Molly Ringwald as a fifteen-year-old high school sophomore who hopes for a nice sixteenth birthday but her crazy life gets in the way. Although the film might seem dated to new viewers, its nostalgic value has helped established Sixteen Candles as a cult-classic.

“What I like,” Molly Ringwald explained, “Is that the lives of the kids in this movie are not based on sex, but on romance. I think that’s accurate for most teenagers – girls, especially. My character has a crush on this senior named Jake, but I don’t think the first idea in her mind is hopping in bed with him. Most of my friends don’t want to get laid, but to have crushes and stuff. You know.”

5. Uncle Buck (1989)

Starring John Candy as the titular character, Hughes’ 1989 comedy is about an unreliable bachelor who takes on the responsibility of looking after his brother’s children: two harmless kids and a rebellious teenager. Even though it isn’t the best collaboration between Candy and Hughes, Candy manages to deliver a magical performance as Uncle Buck which transforms the film as a whole.

Co-star Amy Madigan said of John Candy: “I had not met him before Uncle Buck. Of course his reputation preceded him—all the hilarious stuff he’d done. We just kind of hit it off. We had a great time. He was the king of ad-libs.

“He and John Hughes had worked together before, so they had a really neat shorthand. It was sometimes all I could do to keep a straight face since he was just so hilarious. You would be doing a closeup, so the other actors are off camera, and he would just throw this stuff at you to crack you up.”

4. National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

Based on a story that Hughes wrote while working for the National Lampoon, this road comedy was voted as the 46th greatest comedy film of all time in a 2000 poll. The film stars Chevy Chase as a father who decides to take his family out on a vacation to an amusement park but misadventures disrupt his plans.

The film was a huge commercial success, earning more than $60 million in the US on a $15 million budget. National Lampoon’s Vacation has become a cult film now, fondly remembered for being one of the funniest screwball comedies of the ’80s.

3. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

A vastly influential teen comedy film which perfectly captures teenage disillusionment, Hughes’ 1986 film stars Matthew Broderick as a high-school student who convinces his girlfriend and his best friend to skip school for a day and explore the city of Chicago instead.

“Ferris is,” Hughes revealed, “The kind of person I would really dream about being. Nothing bothers him. The world is his oyster. He takes everything in his stride and his best friend is usually who I end up being: the person [who] knows when he gets out of bed in the morning that everything’s going to go wrong.”

2. Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

The apotheosis of the iconic combination of Hughes and John Candy, Planes, Trains & Automobiles also stars Steve Martin as a marketing executive who gets stuck in Kansas with an overbearing shower curtain ring salesman (Candy). The film proved that Hughes had the talent to branch out of making teenage comedies, turning out to be one of the best works Hughes made in his lifetime.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles was a commercial success and was critically acclaimed for the standout performances by Candy and Martin. Film scholars have also noted that the subtextual class commentary which makes the work relevant even today.

1. The Breakfast Club (1985)

In The Breakfast Club, Hughes decided to dump all the stereotypes together and managed to create something real out of it. The iconic teenage drama features five high school kids from different cliques who connect with each other despite the walls that they have built up in order to maintain their borrowed identities.

“Kids are smart enough to know that most teenage movies are just exploiting them,” Hughes said. “They’ll respond to a film about teenagers as people. Both of these movies [The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles] are about the beauty of just growing up. I think teenage girls are especially ready for this kind of movie, after being grossed out by all the sex and violence in most teenage movies.”

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