Starts a Wave of Teen Films

With his directorial debut, Sixteen Candles, John Hughes began a remarkably successful career as a filmmaker known particularly for comedy teenage films.

Summary of Event

With the release of Sixteen Candles on May 4, 1984, John Hughes began a remarkably prolific and successful career as a filmmaker best known for his so-called teenage films. Although usually comedies, his films treat teenage problems and emotions seriously, without being exploitative or condescending. These films launched the careers of many young actors, spawned countless imitations, and established Hughes as the master of the genre. Sixteen Candles (film)
Motion pictures;Sixteen Candles
Motion pictures;teenage films
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];John Hughes[Hughes]
[kw]Sixteen Candles Starts a Wave of Teen Films (May 4, 1984)
[kw]Teen Films, Sixteen Candles Starts a Wave of (May 4, 1984)
[kw]Films, Sixteen Candles Starts a Wave of Teen (May 4, 1984)
Sixteen Candles (film)
Motion pictures;Sixteen Candles
Motion pictures;teenage films
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];John Hughes[Hughes]
[g]North America;May 4, 1984: Sixteen Candles Starts a Wave of Teen Films[05430]
[g]United States;May 4, 1984: Sixteen Candles Starts a Wave of Teen Films[05430]
[c]Motion pictures and video;May 4, 1984: Sixteen Candles Starts a Wave of Teen Films[05430]
Hughes, John
Ringwald, Molly
Hall, Anthony Michael
Candy, John
Columbus, Chris

John Hughes was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1950 into a middle-class family whose frequent moves during his early childhood may have helped foster his identification with the “outsiders” featured in so many of his films. When he was in the seventh grade, his family settled in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, where he would continue to live as an adult and where most of his films would be shot. As a student at Northbrook High School, Hughes, like many of his most memorable characters, was a self-described “geek,” passionate about pop music (particularly John Lennon and Bob Dylan) and art.

Actress Molly Ringwald starred in Sixteen Candles.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Hughes attended the University of Arizona at Tucson but left before graduating, returning to Chicago to work as a copywriter at one of the city’s largest advertising agencies. While pursuing a successful career with the agency, he simultaneously wrote material for comedians such as Rodney Dangerfield and Henny Youngman and published articles in the National Lampoon. He finally gave up his lucrative job as an adman for a less financially rewarding, but more creatively fulfilling, position on the National Lampoon’s editorial board.

He began his career in the film industry by writing screenplays for the National Lampoon’s film division, including the screenplays for the 1983 release National Lampoon’s Vacation
National Lampoon’s Vacation (film) (which featured Anthony Michael Hall and John Candy, who became two of Hughes’s regular actors) and National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982). He also wrote the commercially (although not critically) successful Mr. Mom
Mr. Mom (film) (1983), based on his own years as a “househusband.” Hughes found his experience as a screenwriter frustrating, because the gap between his script and what finally appeared on the screen was too wide. Although he had never been on a film set, Hughes was determined to direct his next screenplay, Sixteen Candles, in order to exert more control over the finished product.

Sixteen Candles chronicles an eventful day in the life of a Shermer High School sophomore, Samantha (Molly Ringwald), during which her parents forget her sixteenth birthday in the confusion of preparations for her sister’s impending wedding, her bedroom (and telephone) is taken over by her obnoxious grandparents, a nerdy foreign-exchange student accompanies her to the school dance, and she pines for a seemingly unreachable senior (Michael Schoeffling) while at the same time being relentlessly pursued by a freshman geek (Anthony Michael Hall). As the story progresses, Samantha discovers that the geek is actually someone with whom she can share confidences, the “cool” senior is actually a shy romantic, and her less-than-perfect parents really do care about her.

For a directorial debut, the film was generally well received. Pauline Kael Kael, Pauline of The New Yorker, calling it “less raucous in tone than most of the recent teen pictures,” compared it to the “gentle English comedies of the forties and fifties,” commenting that “John Hughes has a knack for making you like the high school-age characters better each time you hear them talk.” Janet Maslin Maslin, Janet of The New York Times called it “cheerful and light, showcasing Mr. Hughes’s knack for remembering all those aspects of middle-class American adolescent behavior that anyone else might want to forget.”

Sixteen Candles can be seen as a template for many of Hughes’s subsequent films, introducing the setting, plot devices, dialogue, characters, and themes that recur in his work. The affluent, upper-middle-class Chicago suburb featured in the film appears throughout Hughes’s films, and Shermer High School provides the background for The Breakfast Club (1985) Breakfast Club, The (film) and Weird Science (1985). Weird Science (film) Also appearing in several Hughes films is a lavish home, usually trashed during a wild, unchaperoned teen party.

The wonderfully authentic use of teenage slang in Sixteen Candles became a Hughes trademark. His dialogue always rings true, unlike the wooden slang adolescents mouthed in most rock-and-roll films of the 1950’s and beach-party movies of the 1960’s, and his use of cars, clothes, and popular music never hits a false note.

Sixteen Candles also introduces the kinds of characters that Hughes would continue to create in later films. His protagonists, usually middle- or upper-middle-class white teenagers, typically see themselves as outsiders, as does Samantha, who feels estranged not only from her family but also from the in crowd of sophisticated seniors at school. Also an outsider, and another of Hughes’s favorite figures introduced in the film, is the geek, whom Hughes described to one interviewer as “a guy who has everything going for him but he’s just too young.” Other stock Hughes characters appearing in the film are the foolish, out-of-it adults teachers, parents, and grandparents and the wealthy in crowd of handsome jocks and gorgeous prom queens who populate most Hughes movies.

Favorite Hughes themes, such as the conflicts between outsiders and insiders, appearance and reality, and adults and teenagers, are also introduced in Sixteen Candles. As the chaos caused by the drunken party reveals, the difference between insiders and outsiders is not great when the rigid adolescent social barriers are broken. The geek and the senior have a heart-to-heart talk, as do Samantha and the geek. Appearances prove to be deceiving as the prom queen, who is not so cool when she is drunk, finds herself sexually attracted to the geek, and the cool senior is shyly hesitant to approach Samantha. Adults are seen to be irrelevant at best and idiotic at worst; they exhibit only brief flashes of warmth and understanding.


Sixteen Candles launched a remarkably prolific and successful career for Hughes as screenwriter, director, and producer. Many of his subsequent films have been commercially successful, particularly Home Alone (1990), Home Alone (film) which became the biggest moneymaking comedy in Hollywood up to that time. The fledgling careers of young actors Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall were advanced by Sixteen Candles; in fact, the list of actors who have appeared in Hughes’s films is a virtual who’s who of young actors in the 1980’s: Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Matthew Broderick, John and Joan Cusack, Eric Stoltz, Mary Stuart Masterson, Lea Thompson, James Spader, and Andrew McCarthy all had parts in Hughes productions. The term “brat pack” was often applied to a group of popular young 1980’s actors, many of whom worked with Hughes.

Hughes’s career took off after the release of Sixteen Candles. The Breakfast Club, which he wrote and directed, was perhaps his most critically successful teenage film. Five teenagers forced to spend a day together in Saturday detention break down barriers to discover that, despite their outward differences, they are united by their feelings of alienation from their parents and teachers and their sense of being victims of an elaborate social system. Although it was criticized for stacking the deck against adults, the film still represents one of Hollywood’s best portraits of the power of the high school caste system.

In 1985, Hughes followed The Breakfast Club with Weird Science, a science-fiction take on his usual themes. The film was an entertaining diversion but was neither commercially nor critically successful. Hughes also wrote the screenplay for another 1985 film, National Lampoon’s European Vacation. In 1986, Hughes made Pretty in Pink, Pretty in Pink (film) another critical and box-office success. Written and produced by Hughes and directed by Howard Deutch, Deutch, Howard the film starred Molly Ringwald as Andie, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks in love with Blane (Andrew McCarthy), McCarthy, Andrew one of the rich in crowd. Andie is adored by a geek (Jon Cryer). Cryer, Jon As in Sixteen Candles, a wild party scene provides an important plot device, and Andie finds strength in being different, the geek finds he can be attractive to women, and Blane discovers that his friends can be jerks.

Still another Hughes success followed in 1986 with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (film) Once again, Hughes focuses on a day in the life of a teenage eccentric (Matthew Broderick), Broderick, Matthew but this hero is a wildly popular, egocentric goof-off. The film celebrates the sheer joy of being young, as Ferris cuts school and revels in a day of freedom. Some Kind of Wonderful, Some Kind of Wonderful (film) a mirror image of Pretty in Pink, followed in 1987, with the protagonist, Keith (Eric Stoltz), Stoltz, Eric as a boy from the wrong side of the tracks and the geek (Mary Stuart Masterson) Masterson, Mary Stuart as a platonic girlfriend. Keith, like Andie, is in love with a member of the in crowd while the geek pines away for him. Again a wild party scene provides the pivotal moment, when the hero stands up to the intimidating jocks and the cool girl realizes her friends are fools.

Hughes then began to move away from the teenage film, writing, producing, and directing his first entirely “adult” comedy, 1987’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (film)
She’s Having a Baby (1988) She’s Having a Baby (film)[Shes Having a Baby] was Hughes’s first(unsuccessful) attempt to follow his teenagers into young adulthood. He then wrote and coproduced three more comedies, all featuring John Candy, including The Great Outdoors (1988) Great Outdoors, The (film) and Uncle Buck (1989). Uncle Buck (film)

Hughes then achieved remarkable success with the phenomenal popularity of the family comedy Home Alone (1990). Written and produced by Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, it was released with little fanfare during the Christmas season of 1990 and became one of the most successful comedies of all time. Set in the affluent suburbs of his previous films, Home Alone revolves around perhaps the ultimate outsider, a child who is forgotten by his entire family, as he discovers his own strength of character (and trashes a lavish home along the way). Hughes continued to have success throughout the 1990’s and into the early twenty-first century, especially with sequels to Home Alone and with the popular Beethoven (1992), Beethoven (film) written by Hughes and directed by Brian Levant, Levant, Brian which also produced a string of sequels.

Teenage films can be traced from the Andy Hardy series of the 1940’s through the rock-and-roll and juvenile-delinquent films of the 1950’s and the beach-party films and teen melodramas of the 1960’s. Those films, usually told from an adult point of view and often featuring an adult protagonist, usually failed to create a believable teenage milieu through use of slang, music, or characters. Hughes’s greatest contribution to filmmaking has been to establish the teenage film as a genre to be taken seriously. An astute observer of teen culture, he refuses to condescend to his characters, treating their emotions and opinions with respect. Many imitations of Hughes’s work were produced in the late 1980’s, such as Adventures in Babysitting (1987), Can’t Buy Me Love (1987), and She’s Out of Control (1989), and many films successfully expanded the genre, such as Heathers (1989), River’s Edge (1986), and Edward Scissorhands (1990), but Hughes can rightfully claim credit for making teen films a legitimate enterprise. Sixteen Candles (film)
Motion pictures;Sixteen Candles
Motion pictures;teenage films
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];John Hughes[Hughes]

Further Reading

  • Barth, Jack. “Kinks of Comedy.” Film Comment 20 (June, 1984): 44-47. Discusses film comedy trends of the early 1980’s, including John Hughes’s films, and presents a brief interview with the filmmaker.
  • Clarke, Jaime, ed. Don’t You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. Collection of essays by novelists and others addresses the meanings that Hughes’s teen films had for the contributors.
  • Dworkin, Susan. “Beach Blanket Bingo Never Looked So Good.” Ms., August, 1984, 14-15. Discusses several teen movies of 1984, including Sixteen Candles, from a feminist point of view.
  • Kael, Pauline. Review of Sixteen Candles. The New Yorker, May 28, 1984, 101-103. Presents detailed and insightful discussion of the film.
  • Kaveney, Roz. Teen Dreams: Reading Teen Film and Television from “Heathers” to “Veronica Mars.” New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006. Examines the evolution of major films and television programs aimed at teenage audiences. Devotes a chapter to “John Hughes and the creation of a genre.”
  • Tropiano, Stephen. Rebels and Chicks: A History of the Hollywood Teen Movie. New York: Back Stage Books, 2006. Entertaining volume looks at teen films from the 1950’s onward, with an emphasis on how Hollywood has shaped the image of the American teenager. Includes discussion of Hughes’s work and other teen films of the 1980’s.

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