Once Upon a Time in the 80s: The Breakfast Club (Part 14 of 17)

Warning: This article features in depth plot analysis. If you have not seen this film you are urged not to read on. Spoiler alert administered.

John Hughes was a big name in the 1980s, but more so as a writer/producer than as a director. He started off as a writer with the National Lampoon’s crew. While it’s true he did work in a formulaic manner, and did practically invent the template for the teen film of the 80s; he did strike gold from time to time. The teen film of the 80s was so badly adapted to the 90s it spawned a spoof film called Not Another Teen Movie at the turn of the century. Hughes became a big player as a writer/producer but rarely directed his own scripts. He directed this film but his other films ran the gamut quality-wise from Weird Science, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off and Curly Sue to Vacation, The Great Outdoors and Home Alone. Hughes’ best directorial efforts were this film and Trains, Planes and Automobiles; regardless of all that this is his seminal work.

We start with a quote by David Bowie which is much better in the written word than it is in the song itself: “…And these children/ That you spit on/As they try to change their worlds/ Are immune to your consultations,/They are quite aware/ Of what they’re going through…” and the image shatters so we begin…

The Breakfast Club is in essence two things: it is first a character study and secondly, a timeless manifesto of teen angst. The setting is Saturday detention, our five protagonists are all here for reasons of their own but they are thrown together in the school library for eight hours and have to co-exist though they are very different. This is one of Hughes’ great situations and has been repeated on shows like Dawson’s Creek. Hughes is a master of creating a great situation for comedy. The premise of Sixteen Candles is that everyone has forgotten the main character’s birthday and it was a plot of one episode on practically every sitcom in the 1980s. This film is almost a play it is so dialogue-driven, however, if you turned it into a play I don’t think it’d work not that that’s going to stop anyone from trying [I’ve since learned at a screening with a Q & A hosted by Kevin Smith that this film was initially written as a stage play].

The Breakfast Club (1985, Universal)

“Anyone who moans that cinema in the 80s amounted to the death of dialogue and the triumph of action Jackson, should take a look at this movie. It’s all talk.”

The characters are immediately defined as we see them dropped off at school. Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) is told by his mother to use his time to study, he protests saying he isn’t supposed to study and she says he has to find a way; he’s the brain. Andrew (Emilio Estevez) is being reamed out by his father that he won’t get a scholarship if he gets caught again that and his letter jacket tell us; he’s the jock. Claire (Molly Ringwold) is being told that cutting school doesn’t make her a defective; she’s the popular girl or the princess. Allison (Ally Sheedy) is dropped off without a word when she goes to say goodbye the car speeds off and almost runs over Bender (Judd Nelson) so we have the last two, the basket case and the criminal. These labels are very important because that’s what we all perceive them as in the beginning and how they perceive each other and we learn about these characters and they bond with each other. While they’re in detention they’re each supposed to write a 1,000 word essay but they choose to do something else instead.


Why they ended up in detention ends up being like the “Rosebud” of this film. Except in this film it is but a gimmick. In their discussions, we find out more and more about these characters and what pushed them there. We find out about their home lives and for all of them there is something that makes it unbearable for them. In a very memorable scene Bender re-enacts a typical night in his house and depicts an argument between his parents. When Andrew doesn’t believe him he lifts his sleeve and says “See this? It’s about the size of a cigar. See this is what you get in my house when you spill paint in the garage.” Andrew relates how his father was always browbeating him to be number one and how he’s been made to hate weakness. Claire’s affections are a prize her parents keep fighting over since their divorce. Brian relates how he nearly killed himself, albeit with a flair gun, because he got a B in shop and his parents demand academic excellence from him “I can’t have it, and my parents can’t have it,” he says. At the end, we find out Allison’s problem is that her parents outright ignore her and that’s why she’s been contemplating running away. Their discussion concludes with the question “My God are we all going to turn into our parents” and Allison “It’s inevitable at a certain age your heart dies,” which leads us to the antagonist.


The Breakfast Club (1985, Universal)

The villain in this film is Principal Vernon (Paul Gleason). He is the establishment. And when he gets Bender alone he ranks him out like nobody’s business, and you just want to punch him right in the face, and he even gives Bender the chance to but Bender’s not used to this brutal honesty and is scared to death. I’d even say his tough guy image is an act even though he does have a hellish home life. Vernon also talks to the janitor and complains that “Every year these kids are getting more and more arrogant,” and then the Janitor speaks the truth saying “Come on, Vern, the kids haven’t changed you have. What do you think you’d think of yourself at their age?” and that ends the conversation. The principal is the embodiment of everything these kids hate and fear becoming. And he also gives a very good and funny performance. The teen angst of this film is apparent. When this film becomes a manifesto is when at the end they decide to ask Brian to write their essay for them and he agrees.


While there is a montage at the beginning of all that is high school. This is also a striking visual sequence. We see Vernon holding the paper, Claire and Bender being romantic, Andrew and Allison holding hands and Brian getting into his car. And we hear Brian doing a voice-over narration:

“Dear Mr. Vernon: We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it is we did wrong, but we think you’re crazy for making us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club.”


The Breakfast Club (1985, Universal)

And as the narration ends we see Bender walking across the football field and he pumps his fist in the air as “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds plays the frame freezes. It’s the best, and one of the few acceptable, freeze frame endings I’ve ever seen; it’s perfect.


Some of the vernacular in this film is very 80s for example I don’t think I’ll ever know what “Neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie” is but the themes and storyline that run through this film are timeless such that I only came to see this film about three years ago (as of this writing). It’s a great piece of adolescent rebellion and a great comedy undoubtedly Hughes’ best work.

Works Cited: p. 33 Brat Pack: Confidential Andrew Pulver and Steven Paul Davies. BT Batsford: London, 2000.
The Breakfast Club. Dir. John Hughes. 1985. featuring Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwold, Ally Sheedy, Anthony Michael Hall, Paul Gleason. Universal Pictures.

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Once Upon a Time in the 80s: Genremeld (Part 10 of 17)

This is a recapitulation of a paper I did in college. This is part eight in the series to read other parts go here.

Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Creepshow, Weird Science, Time Bandits, Splash, Big, Back to the Future, The Witches of Eastwick and My Stepmother is an Alien all of these films crossed genres to try and make something new and unique, and this was a staple of 80s filmmaking.


It has been said that nothing really original has been said after 1800. In film much the same conundrum exists in that there really are no new stories, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t crave films. More so than any other decade prior the 80s were expert at recombining genres and on occasion creating something new or at least different enough that everyone flocked towards it.

One of the great hits of the genremeld was Gremlins. Never before or since has there been such a perfect balance of the horrific and comedic. There’s no tongue-in-cheek here it wants you to laugh and gasp in the same breath.


Gremlins (1984, Warner Bros.)

In the film Gremlins we have two important things occurring: first, this is one of the first films of the Spielberg School. It was written by Chris Columbus while he was attending NYU he later went on to work with Spielberg on The Goonies. It was directed by Joe Dante a former Corman protégé who later in the decade directed Innerspace and Matinee. Plot-wise this film is very important in that it’s a great example of the ’80s habit of fusing genres. Many ’80s many horror films were unintentionally funny this one is attempting to be purposely funny and succeeding. It was also quite frightening mostly to young kids because the cute, little furry things mutate into nasty, putrid beasts.


Structurally, this film is very tight. In the opening scene where the father (Hoyt Axton) buys a mogwai we are given rules, a trait common to many fantasy films, they are ‘don’t get them wet, don’t feed them after midnight and they hate bright light.’ The breaking of these rules end up being our act breaks and/or plot points. The first act ends in one of the most clear-cut fashions I’ve ever seen. Gizmo, the mogwai, gets water spilled on him in the 25th minute of the film and we see his progeny pop right out of him.


What a lot of people fail to notice is that there was actually a new creature invented for this film under the guise of an old myth. Gremlins were supposedly little monsters placed in machinery during World War II by the Germans. This creature comes from China according to this tale. It also allows for slight social commentary when Mr. Futterman complains about foreign cars and also while drunk he professes to believe in Gremlins in the classic sense. In the 1980s foreign cars truly bothered people enough such that the phrase ‘Buy American,’ was coined. 


Gremlins (1984, Warner Bros.)

The Spielberg School was always very big on ‘in-jokes,’ which can be readily apparent to the audience but are often missed (i.e. Rockin’ Ricky Rialto has the same billboard lettering as, and similar artwork to, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Gizmo hiding behind an E.T. doll). There is also a cameo by animation director Chuck Jones. 


The characters in this film are quickly established. We see Rand Peltzer, the father, haplessly trying to pedal his invention, Billy (Zach Galligan) signing a petition, Kate (Phoebe Cates) works at a bar for free and Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday) refuses to give a family more time to pay their loan. This film is funny and fun-filled and allusions to classic cinema are also play an important part in this story there is a clip from It’s a Wonderful Life and the Gremlins watch Snow White and in a hysterical turn they love it. There’s also mimicry of a popular film at the time Flashdance, and it’s great. The whole second half of this film is a wonderful mix of the hysterical and the creepy and sometimes both. Mrs. Deagle is thrown from her Stairmaster out the window to die in the snow. This shouldn’t be funny but it is. Then on the gross-out side we see a Gremlin melting in the sunlight. We also have the music of Jerry Goldsmith in this film who is wonderful composer who will turn out tunes just as hummable as Williams’s, but he specializes more in these fun types of films.

Gremlins was a big hit grossing $148 million on an $11 million dollar budget, and it’s easy to see why. It turns from a horror/comedy and there’s a lot of action thrown in. We laugh at what we shouldn’t. This is also one of the more tastefully done ‘horrors-on-Christmas’ films with a Gremlin getting chopped to bits while Burl Ives’s ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ is playing. I used to be deathly afraid of this film and it took me many years to gather up the courage to see it again. I’m very glad I did see it again though because, as strange as it sounds, this film is even whimsical in the way it handles its subject matter. As an adult, I don’t know who would be truly afraid of it but it does offer its fair share of the horror currency known as the “gross-out.” It’s so well handled in that regard I think we may be in suspense for a bit waiting for something else like it.

In Memoriam- John Hughes

John Hughes

Often times an era in which one excelled, and the fact that an artist was wildly prolific within a time period greatly influences our opinion of him. Simply calling John Hughes the “Bard of Teen Angst” is not praise enough for not all of his work was a teen movie or a brat pack film.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles was not only an uproariously funny film, which was John Candy and Steve Martin’s only onscreen meeting, but a heartwarming film in the end. The revelation that Candy’s character was homeless became a 1980s template for sitcom episodes as did the plots of The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles.

Hughes then put Candy in The Great Outdoors in a similar brand of comedy but fewer social ramifications.

This was the man who penned the Vacation films to greatness and those were hardly angst-ridden just downright funny.

Hughes also showed his more dramatic side with titles like Curly Sue – a film whose perception in my mind is likely skewed due to my sister’s incessant watching of it. The heartfelt, sincere, coyly funny, at times dramatic She’s Having a Baby.

He was a star launcher from propelling Michael Keaton in Mr. Mom, and also John Candy, Anthony Michael Hall, Molly Ringwald and Macaulay Culkin.

Even his greatest hits: The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off show more diversity than Hughes is typically given credit for having.

The screenwriter is a largely anonymous figure in the Hollywood game and in the American consciousness, even more so when said writer chooses to leave Hollywood behind. Even with one of the longest string of hits in the history of film there was a fade, yet even while fading Hughes put his name on big scripts.

In the 90s Hughes was hired to write a series of remakes: 101 Dalmatians, Flubber, Miracle on 34th Street and Dennis the Menace.

He also wrote Beethoven which was good in its first installment and he has continued the series under his pen name scripting it or lending his characters.

The decade of course began with Home Alone, which has been tarnished in hindsight due to many things unrelated to the film. It is a classic comedy and at the end of its theatrical run was the 4th highest grossing film of all-time and the #1 comedy. It is still in the mid-20s of the all-time rank 19 years later, with no inflated ticket prices there to boost it. Hughes went on to pen the next two in the series.

Home Alone was inspired by one short scene in Uncle Buck where Macaulay interviewed Buck’s girlfriend through the mail slot. Which is another tremendous example of his artistry: one, because such a short exchange spun off into another film and that he found inspiration in that. It’s also great because the two films complement each other.

The remainder of his credits he had attributed to him where written under his pen name Edmond Dantès, he did have few indie attempts like a TV series called New Port South and a hard to find film called Reach the Rock.

Which were followed by story credits such as Maid in Manhattan– nothing special but as good as a Cinderella update can be. Lastly, Drillbit Taylor which reportedly was a tale optioned in the 1980s and untouched ’til last year.

So a lot of that body of work had little to do with angst and a lot to do with fantasy and laughter and things that would get us through angst. The label likely has to do with his magnum opus, the masterpiece whose first draft was written over the course of one weekend: The Breakfast Club.

This is the kind of film that strikes a big time nerve not just for teenagers but for those who were teenagers, I myself was in college when I first saw it and likely connected with it more because of it. It examines its characters with surgical precision, and they all understand each other more they are by no means fixed or better for the experience just changed and more aware. They stand united against a common enemy – their parents and the principal. 

Part of what made Hughes great was that he had an unwavering view of the world best exemplified by a quote of his: “I don’t think of kids as a lower form of the human species.”

Hughes practiced what he preached and will not be forgotten by any of us who are young or merely young at heart. Whether we just sought escape or seek to create characters as honest and true as he did we will not forget his words.