Sixteen Candles

Probably better if this post was written by a woman who was a girl in 1984, instead of an old guy who was already married for four years when this came out. Since it is my blog however, and since I am not a teenage girl, all you are going to get are my perspectives on this sweet teen nightmare/fantasy that started John Hughes off as the guru of teen angst and comedy of the eighties.

sixteen_candles_ver1First loves and crushed dreams are the subject of this film from the mastermind of John Hughes. Mr. Hughes had written two or three movies before this but this was his directorial debut. Between 1984 and 1986 he wrote five films that dealt with the trauma of being a teenager. He directed four of those himself and all of them have had a lasting impact on a generation of film watchers and film makers. After his sudden and much too early death in 2009, people came out of the woodwork to praise his films and to honor his legacy. Although the movies might be seen as fluff by some, they managed to touch a whole population of kids from this time period in some pretty important ways. This film was the start of that signature sensibility that a decade latched on to.

Artists need a muse to reach their greatest heights and John Hughes found his in the sixteen year old actress that starred in three of those five essential teen films from the period. Molly Ringwald had already been in a couple of films I’d seen before this came out. She is the young daughter of the two stars in Paul Mazursky’s take on the “Tempest” and she was the annoying tag along young sidekick in a 3D Science Fiction film headache called “Spacehunter:Adventures in the Forbidden Zone”. In those movies she really was a kid, here she is a young woman, glowing on screen and creating a cultural tidal wave that lasted about five years. TimeShe was the “It” girl of the eighties. I don’t know if it was overexposure, poor role choices or simply America moving on to another child acting phenomenon (as we have done many times before) that slowed down her career. The trajectory she was on was not sustainable, and her film profile dropped to the horizon. I’m sure her career is still successful, she appears on television regularly and pops up in films occasionally, but you can’t stay sweet sixteen forever. That is the status she will always have in anyone’s mind if they have seen this movie.

Her character is Claire,Sam, an average teen girl, looking forward to celebrating the magic number sixteenth birthday. Unfortunately, the day falls one day in front of her older sister’s wedding and the rest of the family is so distracted by that event that Claire  Samantha gets brushed asides without even a greeting, much less the big party she anticipated. Now it is a stretch of the imagination to believe that her parents, three siblings and four grand parents would all over look this occasion, even under these circumstances. Once we accept that leap of faith, the movie plays it very honestly with the disappointments and regrets that she and her family would likely go through. A sophomore in High School is only a little better than being a Freshman, and when you are an insecure young girl, everything is likely to beat you down. Claire Sam is cute as a button and stylish as all get out in her Hateighties layered look and hair style. Fortunately she does not suffer from the tease that most of the other actresses had done to their hair in this film. Her short bob allows the character to be more identifiable, even thirty years after the fashions had passed. She definitely could rock a hat. To have any sense of reality in this admittedly big fantasy, she has to be the kind of beauty that is natural and a little unconscious.

Along with Miss Ringwald, “Sixteen Candles” had another less than secret weapon. Anthony Michael Hall had already been in a John Hughes’ scripted film, “National Lampoon’s Vacation”. After making a memorable appearance in that very entertaining fim, he shows up making an even bigger splash in this as “Farmer Ted” or as he is billed in some versions of the film “The Geek”. Hall was a slight, youngish fair haired and skinned stand in for Hughes himself. It is perhaps unfair but clearly accurate, that boys and girls mature at different speeds. Both Ringwald and Hall are sixteen when the film is made, but he appears on screen to be at least two years behind her physically and of course emotionally as well. The senior “Jake” is the object of her affection but Farmer Ted has her in his sights early on and it is clear he is stepping up out of class. Hall makes the brash geek both boorishly inane and sympathetically likable. He has to carry off the likable part because he makes the most bold request that was ever granted to a geek in High School.

The Geek: Can I borrow your underpants for 10 minutes?


This wannabe player, who has never bagged a babe, has made a bet with some of his geek friends that he will have carnal knowledge of his desired woman, and they have demanded proof. The floppy discs that are the payoff for the bet, disappear from use within a few short years of this film. Like eight track tapes before them, the five and a quarter inch discs are merely a legend these days. 8-inch-floppy-disksIn 1984, they were the state of the art for the burgeoning geek community of computer nerds that would define the decade’s rebels. It was a big gamble for Farmer Ted but in the end, it would have been a small sacrifice if he had not been able to display those panties triumphantly over his head in the boys room at the dance. Besides, he is the only member of the cast to actually sing a birthday song to Claire on her sweet sixteenth.

The passage of time may also render certain other elements of the movie obsolete. The race based jokes about Gedde Watanabe’s foreign exchange student are likely to leave viewers of today shifting a bit uncomfortably in their seats. The jokes are still funny, but the caricature of the Asian dork is very un-pc.  I imagine the humor that derives from his character’s name would still fly in a Apatow film or another chapter in “The Hangover” series, but would still raise some ire and make many crusaders for tolerance feel compelled to picket or at least post meme’s on Facebook to show their displeasure. The Donger Needs FoodI think a lot will be forgiven in the spirit of the movie, which is mostly a Valentine to shy teens and lonely kids everywhere. The emphasis was more on the culture clash than on belittling the ethnic group depicted. None of the characters except the deliberately unhip and slightly racist grandparents really demeans “the Donger” in the film. He also ends up with a girlfriend that emphasizes how much variety there is in the world of teen romance.

I also know that there is a great deal of humor that circles around kids being intoxicated or high. This has yet to go away and in fact serves as the premise of a lot of today’s comedies. The idea that driving in that condition is funny however, sets off my own PC-prudishness. Let’s just move on to some more stuff that is fun and makes the movie worth your time.

Teen girls everywhere swooned over the handsome “Jake” played by  Michael Schoeffling. Eight years older than the other kids, he looks like the kind of guy that everyone would look up to in high school. His character is not a shallow cardboard chiseled profile. He already has a girlfriend in the envied Caroline. She is a little shallow herself, not really in a bad way but in a selfish and short sighted one. It is easy to root for Jake because he wants out of an unsatisfying relationship with an exceptionally attractive partner. I think there needed to be a little more to propel him towards Claire Sam.Somewhere in an editing room, there are out takes of Jake reading the survey that Claire Sam filled out in the Study Hall period they share. A smile, or a warm laugh  as a reaction shot would go a long way in making the eventual outcome more believable.

In my mind, the biggest hero in the film has always been Claire’s”s Sam’s Dad. Reportedly, the scene Paul Dooley shares with Molly Ringwald in the living room as she is going to sleep on the couch, was written to pull him into making the movie. Dooley was one of my favorite things about the movie “Breaking Away” five years before this. His similar character here adds a little gravitas to the proceedings. Every girl should wish for a Dad who is as understanding and supporting as Mr. Baker is in this movie. Having finally recognized thePep Talkfailure of the family to even acknowledge her birthday, he gives Claire Samantha one of the great presents that any parent could offer their child, his heart. If you are one of those people who think sentimentality is over rated and you detest it in your films, you will have a hard time choking down this sequence. To me, it is the slice of birthday cake that makes everything better.

I was twenty-six and married and still two years away from being a father when I saw this movie. Yet it still reached me, even as an outsider to all the demographic groups it was targeted at. The marvel of John Hughes’ movies is that they seem to be about everyone in the story, even if a character is there for just a few seconds. Farmer Ted’s friends, the girl on the school bus, Caroline, and Claire’s Sam’s siblings, all get moments to make an impression. Sometimes that impression is heart breaking, and sometime hysterical. That’s the way John Hughes saw it and the way he put it on screen. I was happy to add this in a Blu-ray format, to my collection so that I could share my impression of it with the world.

10 thoughts on “Sixteen Candles

  1. It’s been ages since I saw this but I remember loving it. It’s kinda bitter sweet for me though as I lost my mother on my 16th birthday so it’s not exactly a sweet sixteen 😦 In any case, John Hughes’ high school movies are so indelible, even for those who don’t grow up in America like me.

    • Oh, that is a sad story Ruth. I’m hope that the memories of your Mom will comfort you as you think about that birthday. You seem to have grown up pretty well and have managed to accomplish a lot. I’m sure your Mom would be proud. Obviously nothing as dramatic or tragic here, but a sweet story with a great soundtrack and some easy to remember moments. Thanks for pitching in with a personal story, even if it is a sad one, I’m glad to know you a little better.

  2. Strong selection here Kirkham. I dig the Farmer Ted-ness of this pic. Jake character actor showed up in “Vision Quest” (one of the best film soundtracks for me) as the wrestling sidekick, and then as you may know went back east to be a carpenter. Rickwald does indeed ‘rock the hat’ being and 80’s it film girl; her notable 80’s films being 16 Candles here, Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, & maybe the Pickup Artist with Robert Downey Jr to a lesser degree. The father is a solid endearing role from Dooley whom I like you also enjoy in “Breaking Away” and “Slapshot.” By the way, the awesome song in the background when Ted gets in the Car with Samantha is “Lenny” by Stevie Ray Vaughn (gone too soon; RIP). Long Duck Dong, though un-pc as you mention, is superfunny to me in the original spirit of the film. Great teen pic; bit of a mold for many other movies to follow. Rock on Hughes. 😉

    The Geek: “I know I came on kinda like a poozer on the bus tonight and everything. But… that’s just so my friends won’t think, you know, I’m a jerk.”

    Samantha: “But they’re all pretty much jerks, though, aren’t they?”

    The Geek: “Yeah, but, the thing is, I’m kinda like the leader, you know? Kinda like the king of the dipshits.”

    Samantha: “Well, that’s pretty cool. Hey, but a lot can happen over a year. I mean, you could come back next Fall as a completely normal person.”

    -Sixteen Candles, 1984

    • Thanks for the in depth response. I’d forgotten Dooley was in Slap Shot, my favorite Sports film of all time and my second favorite comedy. In continuing the non-pc nature of the name, I took this picture last weekend. Restraunt

  3. It’s a fun film; I saw it for the first time this January, and enjoyed it. I agree the non-PC treatment of Watanabe’s character is going to grate on some people, though I personally felt it was more “this guy’s wacky” than “this guy’s race is wacky”; but it’s a narrow line. I also get the concern over drunk driving… it’s amazing what was treated as normal and acceptable in movies of the 70s and 80s. Though as I recall, Farmer Ted hadn’t started drinking as of the “I’m him / he’s me” scene (a great exchange, along with Ted’s pep-talk to Jake earlier), so I’m going to put on blinders and assume that Ted’s black-out drinking occurred after he parked the car.

    • That’s what we want, to think he was responsible enough to drink in the car and black out, only after arriving at his destination. So glad to see you here Morgan, thanks for the comments.

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