Paying Tribute To John Hughes & Dr. Gene Sutton

He was a highly successful writer/producer/director.  She was the most powerful woman in my high school.
 
Sadly, both of them are now deceased.
 
John Hughes was a Michigan-born, Chicago-based filmmaker who actually got his start in advertising as a copywriter.  According to Wikipedia, his comedy career began when he wrote jokes for stand-ups like Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield.  Then, he got into satire which led to a writing gig for National Lampoon Magazine.  After writing the screenplay for National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (the follow-up to Animal House), he reworked his somewhat autobiographical Lampoon short story, Vacation ’58, into a script entitled National Lampoon’s Vacation which Harold Ramis directed.  The film was a hit in 1983 (it spawned three sequels; Hughes only participated on Christmas Vacation) as was Mr. Mom with Michael Keaton.  Hughes wrote that one, too.
 
He made his directing debut with Sixteen Candles in 1984, the first of several films dealing with the lives and loves of teenagers.   
 
The Breakfast Club, the first film to ever credit him as a producer, remains one of his finest efforts.  Five very different high school students – a jock, a nerd, a popular girl, a troublemaker, and a weirdo – spend the day together in detention.  Despite moments of friction and the ever watchful eye of Paul Gleason, they find a way to connect and forge a bond that inspires the name of the movie.  Both funny and moving in equal doses, The Breakfast Club managed to achieve something that most modern teen flicks are too lazy and disinterested to attempt.  It respected its young audience at the same time it was entertaining them.  It taught them to be tolerant of those who are different without being preachy or condescending.  As a result, the film has endured for almost a quarter century.  It speaks to those who enjoy it the most.
 
Another career highlight was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  On the surface, you think the story is about a charming rascal who loves to torment his uptight high school principal.  But as Roger Ebert correctly pointed out in his original 1986 review, it’s really about saving a life.  Matthew Broderick really was the only choice to play the title character:  a funny, smartly subversive teen deeply concerned about his buddy, Cameron (Alan Ruck).  Cameron can’t talk to his father and always seems to be sick.  Ferris decides to fake illness, get his lovely girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), out of class and drag his depressed pal out of his bed for a day of fun and reflection.  All the while, Mr. Rooney (the perfectly slimy Jeffrey Jones), is determined to catch Ferris in the act.  How hilarious is Ruck during the scene when he puts a deeply embarrassed Rooney in his place while on the phone with him.  (Now the college kids on the TV show, Greek, get to do the same to him.  Ruck plays the Dean on the ABC Family series.)  Or how about all those close calls?  The Ferrari scene?  The clueless parents?  The jealous sister?  Much like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a sly, funny and compassionate teen comedy that understood its audience better than most films.
 
Many of Hughes’ movies were financially successful but one that wasn’t (but should’ve been) was 1987’s Some Kind Of Wonderful.  As I wrote in The Hamilton Spectator seven years ago, “Eric Stoltz is a high school student and aspiring artist desperately in love with rich girl Lea Thompson. His best friend (Mary Stuart Masterson), who works with him at the local gas station, is a would-be rock drummer who is secretly in love with him. Getting in the way of his chance to score with Thompson is Craig Sheffer, a real nasty piece of work and her on-again, off-again playboy boyfriend, who is able to keep her in line by mastering the art of emotional manipulation. Whenever she threatens to leave him, he brilliantly plays on her insecurities and continues to cheat on her. Canadian actor Elias Koteas has a wonderful supporting role playing a high school toughie who befriends Stoltz in detention and proves to be a surprisingly loyal pal as the movie progresses. All the leads are strong here playing intelligent, thoughtful characters in a warm and funny film that makes today’s teenage movies cold and loveless by comparison.”
 
That same year, Hughes offered his greatest cinematic achievement.  Planes, Trains & Automobiles was the original Bromance, a heartwarming and hilarious comedy about two polar opposites brought together by a series of calamities and ultimately, mutual affection.  The much missed John Candy plays the brilliant but overbearing shower curtain ring salesman, Del Griffith, and Steve Martin is Neal Page, the tight-ass advertising salesman desperate to leave New York City for his hometown of Chicago in order to spend Thanksgiving with his wife and kids.  Tucked below the surface of so many transportation mishaps is a love story about two men who learn to put up with each other’s differences and idiosyncracies, and embrace the unlikely companionship they both have found.  Each is made better and more tolerant by the sheer presence of the other.  The film’s final act is both heartbreaking and genuinely sweet.  The shot of Del’s hands holding onto his hat ever so tightly while Neal and his beautiful wife embrace says it all.  It was the masterpiece Hughes never topped.
 
Home Alone, the surprise blockbuster that followed three years later, was his last enjoyable film.  Siskel & Ebert didn’t get it but that didn’t prevent myself and millions of others from packing theatres in late 1990 and beyond from being immensely entertained by a rather preposterous live action cartoon.  Macaulay Culkin, who appeared in Hughes’ Uncle Buck, was never better as Kevin MacAllister, the kid who appeared to alienate everyone in his own family to the point of being completely forgotten on the morning of a big family vacation.  Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern were good sports playing The Wet Bandits, two dimwitted home invaders who meet their match in Kevin who has quite clearly benefitted from a childhood filled with cartoon viewing.  Throw in a mysterious old man that even made George Costanza cry and you’ve got heart to go along with the very funny slapstick.
 
After the awful Home Alone 2, Hughes’ career never again scaled the heights of commercialty or artistic brilliance.  He never directed another movie after the disappointing Curly Sue.  He abandoned teen films altogether for the less satisfying world of family pictures like Dennis The Menace and Baby’s Day Out, often recycling the burglar characters from his biggest hit.  Then, there were the remakes.  Miracle On 34th Street, a live-action 101 Dalmatians, Flubber.  His decline was staggering.
 
In a weird move, for much of the rest of his career, he continued to offer stories and scripts but under the name Edmond Dantes (the hero from The Count Of Monte Cristo).  It’s just as well.  Would you allow the name “John Hughes” to be associated with Beethoven, the Saint Bernard movie?
 
His last Edmond Dantes’ credit can be found on the 2008 Owen Wilson comedy, Drillbit Taylor (unseen by me).  Despite the fact that he hadn’t made a good film in nearly 20 years, John Hughes’ legacy will remain his strong 80s features and Home Alone.  His influence as a writer of teen comedies is glaringly evident even today in TV dramedies like Greek and One Tree Hill.  (A second season episode of the former actually mentions his name in passing.)
 
Hughes died of a heart attack while visiting his family in New York.  He was 59.
 
Long before she joined The Canadian Olympic Committee and became one of the most influential residents in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Dr. Gene Sutton was a high school gym teacher.  I never had her for any classes because she only taught the girls.  But there was no mistaking her presence at Delta Secondary.
 
During my four years there (1989-93), Ms. Sutton, as we called her, ran the Girls Athletic Council, an organization so powerful that it even eclipsed The Student Council.  During my first General meeting as President in September 1992, a motion was put forth by my predecessor to allow the GAC to do all the activities it had proposed.  It passed unanimously.  Just like that.  It was staggering.  And these were well-run activities, too.  I remember one time just before Christmas we all got to play Bingo in the gym.  I didn’t win anything but it was well organized and had a good turnout.  As an ineffectual student leader who couldn’t even organize a car crash, it looked that much more impressive to me.
 
Gene was passionate about amateur sport, particularly girls’ gymnastics which was her specialty.  She coached Delta’s gymnasts all four years I was there.  A number of her team members took dance lessons from my mother who learned firsthand how well respected Gene was.  They always talked about her.
 
Speaking of my mother, she reminded me of the time Gene came up to her at our church (also named Delta) during some school event that took place there.  “You must be Dennis Earl’s mother,” she said.  Mom never forgot how nice that moment was.  It was the first time they had ever spoken.
 
I didn’t know Gene particularly well but whenever I encountered her at school she was always warm and extremely supportive.  I’m pretty sure that if ever there was a vote for worst Student Council President ever, I would be near or at the top of the list.  But Gene would probably disagree.  Because I did Dana Carvey impressions during the speech that won me the election, she always called me “Dana”.  Sometimes, she would put me on the spot to do an impression which would make her laugh.  She liked the George H.W. Bush impression the most.  I would usually run into her in the office where I did the public announcements on many mornings.  She always mentioned how good a job she thought I was doing.  It was hard not to smile around her.
 
Dr. Sutton died of “complications from an aggressive infection”.  She was 64.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, August 6, 2009
10:39 p.m. 
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Published in: on August 6, 2009 at 10:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

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