As someone who grew up in the 1980s, the films of John Hughes, especially the teen comedies he wrote during that decade, fill me with joy. It isn’t just the rose tint of nostalgia either (though certainly, that plays a part). Those films spoke to me. They’ve become part of my cinematic DNA. It is hard to remember now, but the early 1980s were devoid of really good media and art directed at teenagers. The YA book genre wasn’t what it is today. On television, there were Afternoon Specials which were meant to both entertain and instruct but were really poorly made and preachy (and I didn’t know a single person who watched them earnestly rather than ironically). At the cinema, teen movies tended to fall on two lines – slashers and raunchy sex comedies. Both of these presented attractive bodies for lustful gazes and as meat for the machete for the former.
Hughes’ films took teenagers and their problems seriously. His characters spoke and acted like me and my friends. They cursed and drank. They talked about sex. They obsessed about sex. They wanted to have sex and sometimes did. They were concerned about their hair, their clothes, and their look. His protagonists were often misfits trying to break into the world of popularity in suburban high schools. They were often well-developed female characters, a rarity at the time and today. His films were the first that really connected to me in a personal way.
They were beloved by me, my friends, and teenagers across the country. They still are. People still talk about John Hughes movies, as if they were magic. Those movies are now considered classics. But they weren’t loved by everyone. Parents of a certain ideological bent and moral propagators decried teenagers cursing, drinking, and sexing in the movies (things their own teenagers were no doubt doing). Watching them now, as an adult with a young daughter of my own (she’s nine, not quite the teenagers portrayed in the movies, but not that far off either), I find I have my own problems with them.
Hughes got his start writing for National Lampoon, a magazine known for satirizing popular culture with crude, crass jokes. One of those stories was turned into the film National Lampoon’s Vacation. He wrote the scripts for several other films which landed him a three-picture deal with Universal to write and direct. His first film as a director was Sixteen Candles. Moreso than his other teen comedies, you can feel the influence of National Lampoon. It is filled with jokes that exist solely for the laugh and doesn’t come from a place of plot or character development. There is an entire character who seems to exist for the sake of some jokes. Stereotypical, racist jokes.
The character is named Long Duk Dong (and if you fail to get the joke within that name, the film regularly plays a gong in the soundtrack every time his name is spoken). He’s a foreign exchange student from China living with one set of grandparents. They brag about how much they enjoy having him around because he washes the dishes and mows the lawn without complaint. He speaks in broken English and generally behaves like a racist caricature.
As a kid, I thought he was hilarious. What’s funnier than a guy whose name is “Dong”? I used to regularly quote the following lines as if it was the height of comedy:
So… What’s your name?
What’s your first name?
What’s your middle name?
I used to empathize with the Geek (Anthony Michael Hall). I never made a bet with my friends that I’d have sex with someone, nor asked a girl for her underpants (or in fact charged my peers a dollar for a peek at said underpants). But I understood posturing as if I had sexual prowess. I used to want sexual prowess. As a teen, I was never bothered or really even noticed the line uttered by the romantic lead about his passed-out drunk girlfriend noting he could “violate her ten different ways”. When he essentially trades his girlfriend for a pair of underpants, I never thought about how gross that was. I was too busy gazing at the attractive girl in the short skirt.
I realize this doesn’t say much for my maturity at the time. Watching it now, as a 40-something-year-old Dad, these things play much differently for me. I’m not in any way excusing these things in the film or my own reaction to them. But I am trying to come to terms with how our culture has viewed sex and women through the years and how that has changed. I’m trying to understand how my own understanding of these things has changed. Truth be told, this review has been difficult for me to write. I spent several hours writing and deleting it last night. I have a lot of nostalgic love for this film, and I still think there are some very good things about it. But it is very problematic. What do we do with those things? Should we write extensively about them in reviews of their new Blu-ray releases?
I believe John Hughes was first and foremost trying to make us laugh. He wrote a comedy plain and simple. A comedy with realistic characters and a lot of heart, but a comedy none-the-less. I think coming from the National Lampoon background he wound up putting the jokes first and the story second. There is a story that in the original script the scene in which that dad and the girl have a heart to heart ends with the Dad asking his teenage daughter where her underpants are. Hughes argued that it was a good joke. Others argued that was a pretty weird thing for a father to be asking his daughter. Good taste won out, and the line was cut, but I think it is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about. All too often in Sixteen Candles, the jokes win out over good storytelling and good taste.
But here I am writing an essay on John Hughes in what should be a review of what should be Arrow Video’s new release of the film. I hope you’ve actually seen the movie as I’ve probably completely confused you if you haven’t. So let’s back up. Sixteen Candles is about Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald), a girl unlucky enough to have her sixteenth birthday fall one day before her older sister Ginny (Blanche Baker) gets married. Looking at her breasts in the mirror, she says, “Chronologically your sixteen today. Physically you’re still fifteen.” When she goes downstairs on the morning of her birthday, there is no party. No cake. No singing. Not even a single “happy birthday” uttered. Her entire family has forgotten what day it is.
At school, she takes a sex quiz with questions like “Have you ever touched it?” and “Have you ever done it?” which is followed by “If you answered “I don’t think so”, would you do it?” And inevitably, “Who would you do it with?” She answers that last one with Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), the senior sitting one row over in class. Trying to not get caught by the teacher, she passes the quiz to her friend behind her, not realizing the friend is asleep. The note falls to the floor and Jake picks it up.
Reading it, he becomes intrigued. He asks his friend about what Samantha’s like. His friend asks him why he cares, she’s a sophomore, a nobody. And besides, he’s already got Caroline (Haviland Morris), his prom queen girlfriend. She’s the one he later trades in for a pair of underpants (which belong to Samantha). Jakes says he’s looking for more in a girl than just sex. He wants a real relationship. It is at this point you should note that he’s only noticed Samantha exists because he stole a note from her that confesses she wants to have sex with him.
After school, Samantha finds that one set of grandparents has taken up residence in her bedroom while the other set makes comments about her, and then gropes her growing breasts. She’s kicked out of her brother’s room because Long Duk Dong is using it. To get away from her family, she goes to the school dance where she’s harassed by the Geek. In between him trying to mount her, they do share a heart to heart in the form of admitting various humiliations. This is when he admits he made the bet about bedding her and asks to borrow her underpants.
The Geek later uses those same underpants to gain access to a party at Jake’s house. It is there where Caroline gets so drunk she passes out, allowing Jake to utter his disgusting “violate her” line. It is there where Jake admits he really likes Samantha, causing him to allow the Geek to take Caroline home in exchange for Sam’s underpants. It is strongly hinted that the Geek date rapes Caroline, though in the morning in the hangover fog that follows neither of them can actually remember what happened.
So yes, Sixteen Candles is a problematic film. I’ve run through most of the difficult sections but I’ve left out what makes it worth watching. Despite some tasteless jokes, the film is very funny and entertaining. The characters aren’t nearly as fleshed out as other Hughes films like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, but they do feel real. Certainly more real than most of the teenage characters from other films of that era. It is buoyed by a wonderful performance from Molly Ringwald. She starred in two other John Hughes films and he credits her as his muse for a while. It is easy to see why. She’s a natural performer. We feel her frustration at being forgotten by her family, her anger at the Geek, and the heartache she has pining over Jake. But overall she demonstrates warmth and kindness. When she gives her underpants to the Geek, it isn’t because she feels pressured or bullied by him, but rather empathy.
Arrow Video has done a bang-up job with this release. It has a new HD print from a 4K scan of the original negative. It includes the original 92-minute theatrical cut plus an “extended” 94-minute cut that includes an additional scene previously only seen on television edits. It is loaded with extras including an audio commentary, several new interviews with cast members and crew, image galleries, a PDF copy of the script, and a new video essay. It comes with a reversible sleeve and a full-color booklets complete with two essays about the film. Arrow doesn’t wash over the controversies either. The print and video essays all provide thoughtful re-examinations of the film from a modern perspective.
Sixteen Candles is very much a product of its time. So much of what it does would never fly in a film made today, and with good reason. Yet it is still very much a part of my formative cinematic makeup. It is controversial and problematic, yet it is also funny and warm. It introduced us to a new genre of teen films, to John Hughes the director, and to Molly Ringwald. Arrow Video’s new release of the film is a marvelous way to re-introduce you to the film while never shying away from those controversies.