Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Too young at 59 and 95

While I was wasting time last week reliving the past and sci-fi cons of old, a couple of major movie talents passed away. Time to catch up.

Proms, teens & adolescence (1950-2009)

We may tend to think of John Hughes as a director, but he actually only directed eight movies, all within an eight-year period, ending in 1991. Primarily, he was a writer and then a producer. He was one of those filmmakers who carved out a clear niche for himself. When you hear the phrase “a John Hughes film,” a very specific kind of movie comes to mind. It is set in the 1980s, it is about teenagers and it likely has Molly Ringwald in it, or at least it seemed that way. (Hughes and Ringwald collaborated a grand total of three times, twice with him as director.)

Career- and creative-wise, Hughes had an interesting arc. He started out writing for the National Lampoon and wound up turning out scripts for Disney—before he vanished off the radar and retreated to rural Illinois. As a teenager, he lived in the Chicago suburbs, which became a frequent setting for his movies and also provided a Second City connection. This biography explains a writing c.v. that encompasses National Lampoon’s Class Reunion, Vacation, European Vacation and Christmas Vacation, as well as the John Candy vehicles Planes, Trains & Automobiles, The Great Outdoors and Uncle Buck (which he also directed), as well as Disney remakes 101 Dalmations and Flubber. Also scattered among these are such disparate comedies as Mr. Mom, She’s Having a Baby, Dennis the Menace and the original Beethoven movie (about a dog, written under the pseudonym Edmond Dantès). And let us not forget the wildly successful original Home Alone, directed by Chris Columbus. I actually heard an item on Hughes’s passing on BBC radio which stated matter-of-factly that the movie made Macauley Culken the “top child star for decades.” Uh, no, BBC, it only seemed that way.

But despite all those successful scripts, Hughes seems destined to be remember for his “teen movies.” Three come to mind and, frankly, some of us have trouble remembering which one is which. In chronological order, they are Sixteen Candles (with Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall), Pretty in Pink (with Ringwald, Andrew McCarthy and Jon Cryer) and Some Kind of Wonderful (with Eric Stoltz, Mary Stuart Masterson and Lea Thompson). Hughes directed the first one, Howard Deutch helmed the other two. As a trilogy, they trolled the insecurities, clique consciousness, geeky friends, unrequited crushes and forgotten birthdays of the lives of 1980s teens. For people in the right age range, these movies evoke memories and emotions that spoke to them in their adolescence. And they all had the lump-in-your-throat end-of-the-movie moment that was Hughes’s trademark, even in the zany, madcap Home Alone.

Above all, two movies that Hughes directed seem to have affected then-teenagers more than any others. One is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in which a charming young rogue has all kinds of unlikely adventures when he decides to play hooky from school or “mitches,” as they say here in Ireland, where the movie remains a favorite to this day. Its charming lead was the baby-faced Matthew Broderick, already in his mid-20s, who had made a splash a few years earlier in WarGames. It had the necessary apoplectic authority figure in Jeffrey Jones, who had raised his profile a couple of years earlier in Amadeus. Is it a coincidence that Bill Clinton was elected president a mere four years later? I think not.

The other movie is perhaps Hughes’s most serious one. The Breakfast Club is frequently cited by many then-teens as having a major influence on them. Chronicling the interactions of an array of students from different backgrounds during a day in detention, it spoke to the pigeonholes in which adolescents often see themselves stuck. It featured Hughes regulars Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall as well as Brat Packers Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy. Unfortunately for the film, it was at a disadvantage with me. I had recently seen a German movie at the Seattle International Film Festival called Klassen Feind (Class Enemy), which had virtually the same premise. The German version was so rough and gritty and harrowing and it so unrelentingly got under the skin of real class distinctions that it made The Breakfast Club with its collection of bright, familiar faces seem like weak tea indeed. I suspect that I would have appreciated Hughes’s film better if I had not happened to see the other one first.

But that is beside the point. It wasn’t really aimed at me anyway. And the audience it was aimed at “got it.” I do not begrudge the filmmaker and the generation that he connected with their relationship one bit. And I’m a bit amused to read in his New York Times obituary that the recent documentary Don’t You Forget About Me winds up painting the recently reclusive Hughes as a modern-day J.D. Salinger.

A face in the crowd (1914-2009)

Budd Schulberg did not have the longest c.v. of Hollywood screenwriters. Although born into the Hollywood community (his father was B.P. Schulberg, who ran Paramount Pictures in the 1930s), he had a way of annoying the wrong people. He was a member of Communist Party in the 1930s, which was not particularly helpful in the 1950s. But he held his nose and named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee because he was so disillusioned by the atrocities committed by Stalin and the party’s refusal to acknowledge them. On top of that, he wrote a scathing novel about what goes on in Hollywood called What Makes Sammy Run? Interestingly, that book managed to annoy people on both the right and the left. MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer was said to have told B.P. Schulberg that Budd should be deported. Noting that Budd was a natural-born U.S. citizen, the elder Schulberg responded, “Where the hell are you gonna deport him? Catalina Island?”

But despite his political problems, the younger Schulberg managed to produce at least two memorable books and at least two classic screenplays. He is best remembered for writing On the Waterfront, in which Marlon Brando played a prize-fighter-turned-longshoreman struggling to stand up to corrupt union bosses with the encouragement of an activist priest, played by Karl Malden. Given the theme and the fact that the film was directed by Elia Kazan, who had his own controversies with the Red Scare, the movie is fraught with all kinds of resonances about the mood of the times. His screenplay earned Schulberg an Academy Award.

He followed that up with A Face in the Crowd, also directed by Kazan and starring Andy Griffith in his big screen debut. Griffith played a folksy, homespun TV personality who is ultimately revealed to be a hypocritical con man. Griffith’s character has variously been compared to stars of the time like Tennesse Ernie Ford and the comedian John Henry Faulk, although the best fit may be radio giant Arthur Godfrey. Interestingly, in a 2006 book, Richard Schickel said Schulberg suggested that it may have been based on Will Rogers, as the writer recalled that Will Rogers Jr. intimated to him that Rogers Sr. had privately been a political reactionary, in stark contrast to his trademark homespun populist pronouncements.

Schulberg’s other major contribution to the movies would be providing the source novel for the 1956 film The Harder They Fall. Adapted by Philip Yordan for director Mark Robson, it was another story of one man wrestling with whether to stand up to corruption, this time in the boxing world. Humphrey Bogart played the down-on-his-luck former sportswriter who gets involved with unscrupulous fight promoter Rod Steiger to build up a naïve young Argentine boxer.

Interestingly, Schulberg’s 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? has yet to be adapted for the big screen. Reportedly, the rights were purchased by Dreamworks in 2001 for a possible movie to be directed by and/or to star Ben Stiller, but nothing has been forthcoming. Despite the success of bitter-at-Hollywood movies like S.O.B. and The Player, Schulberg was quoted three years ago as saying, “I still think there’s a sense that’s too anti-industry.” He reportedly said as recently as this year that Steven Spielberg had opined that the book “should never be filmed.”

Why has Hollywood resisted making a movie from this popular book when it seems to have exploited everything else that’s ever been published? A biography of Samuel Goldwyn contends that the mogul actually offered Schulberg money not to publish the book. Its story of Sammy Glick, a young uneducated Jewish boy from New York’s Lower East side, who rises to be a top screenwriter, frequently by stealing from other writers and not hesitating to climb over people, was definitely cynical. Goldwyn felt that the book perpetuated an anti-Semitic stereotype.

Despite the lack of a big screen adaptation, the book has had two small screen adaptations. The first appeared in 1949 on The Philco Television Playhouse, adapted by Paddy Chayefsky. It starred José Ferrer as Sammy Glick. The second was a two-part episode of Sunday Showcase in 1959 and was written by Schulberg himself. Glick was played by Larry Blyden, and other names in the cast included John Forsythe, Norman Fell, Dina Merrill and Barbara Rush. A musical adaptation of the novel played on Broadway in the mid-1960s for 540 performances, starring Steve Lawrence, Robert Alda and Sally Ann Howes. A revised version opened in 2006.

-S.L., 13 August 2009

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