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The John Hughes / ABC / Walt Disney Company connection

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The John Hughes / ABC / Walt Disney Company connection

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You'll find all sorts of tributes to the late John Hughes around the Web today. Stories where people talk about their favorite lines and/or sequences from "Sixteen Candles," "Pretty in Pink" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." But I wonder how many of these articles will bother to mention the role that ABC & The Walt Disney Company played in this famed writer / director / producer's career.

Truth be told, Hughes' very first Hollywood credit came from writing an episode of "Delta House," which was the TV spin-off of "National Lampoon's Animal House" that aired on ABC back in 1979. (Here's another interesting bit of trivia associated with this short-lived television series. "Delta House" is the sitcom that helped launch Michelle Pfieffer's career. Her role as Faber College's Bombshell is what initially brought this future Academy Award-nominee to the attention of casting agents in LA).

Of course, the reason that John got the opportunity to write for "Delta House" was all those hilarious stories that Hughes wrote & edited for "National Lampoon" magazine. With perhaps the most famous of these being "Vacation '58." Which dealt with one 1950s family's struggle to reach Disneyland on an ill-fated cross-country trip.

Warner Bros. acquired the rights to this story as well as hiring Hughes to write the screenplay for what eventually became known as "National Lampoon's Vacation." Given that there was just no way that Ron Miller (i.e. the then-president of Walt Disney Productions) was ever going to allow Disneyland to be used as the setting of the finale for this Harold Ramis film, John was forced to rename the Happiest Place on Earth. Calling Disneyland Walley World in the movie version of "Vacation '58." More importantly, Hughes gave Walt a new moniker for this film -- Roy Walley -- so that Disney's lawyer's then wouldn't descend on the project. That said, the make-up artists who worked on "National Lampoon's Vacation" still supposedly referenced numerous photos of the Old Mousetro as they were creating Eddie Bracken's Walt-like look for this road picture.

Chevy Chase punches out a moose in "National Lampoon's Vacation"
Chevy Chase punches Marty Moose in "National Lampoon's Vacation."
Copyright 1983 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved

And given that it was ABC & Disney that helped Hughes get his start in Hollywood, it's only appropriate that Mickey was there as John's career in film drew to a close. Of course, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg didn't know that Hughes was already looking to get out of the business as they began their dogged pursuit of this filmmaker in the early 1990s.

All Michael & Jeffrey knew was that John was the writer / producer of those hugely popular / enormously profitable “Home Alone” movies. Which were just the sorts of films that Eisner & Katzenberg thought that the Mouse should be making. Which is why these high powered executive took the corporate jet to Chicago in 1990 and then cooled their heels on the set of “Curly Sue.” Patiently waiting for a break in the shooting of this Jim Belushi comedy so that they could then pitch John on the idea of coming on over to Disney.

Michael & Jeffrey’s efforts eventually paid off. For -- in February of 1995 -- Hughes joined forces with Ricardo Mestres (i.e. the former president of Disney’s Hollywood Pictures) and then formed a new production company, Great Oaks Entertainment. Which produced two high-profile projects for Walt Disney Pictures, 1996’s live-action remake of “101 Dalmatians” and 1997’s Robin Williams redo of “The Absent-Minded Professor,” “Flubber.”

It would be nice to report that “101 Dalmatians” & “Flubber” were actually worth all of the time & money that Eisner & Katzenberg put into wooing Hughes. But to be honest, while these remakes did fairly well at the box office (i.e. “101 Dalmatians” earned $136 million domestically, while “Flubber” pulled in $92.7 million the following year), they both borrowed far too heavily from “Home Alone.” Really piling on those sadistic slapstick scenes where the villains get their comeuppance.

John Hughes directed the live action version of Disney's
Copyright 1996 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

Mind you, Disney’s main disappointment with John during this period was that – while Hughes was willing to write & produce movies for the Mouse House – he wouldn't climb back into the director’s seat. Something clearly must have happened on the set of “Curly Sue.” For – after Hughes finished helming that 1991 Warner Bros. release – he never directed again.

One wonders – especially in the wake of John’s untimely passing – if studio execs around town are now digging through their slush piles and perhaps reconsidering some of those unproduced John Hughes projects that are lying around out there. I know for a fact that Mickey is still sitting on “The Bee.” Which is this family-friendly comedy that Great Oaks Entertainment – for a time – was considering making for Walt Disney Pictures.

The story – as I understand it – involves a farmer who’s just trying to get his daily chores done only to then be terrorized by this pesky bee. The Mouse House (back when it still had a deal with Jackie Chan) envisioned this project as being something that would pair this martial arts master with a CG insect. Which – it was hoped – would then result in a production that would then have broad international appeal. But for one reason or another, this Great Oaks Entertainment movie never got made.

John Hughes Portrait
John Hughes (1950 - 2009)

There’s a number of John Hughes projects like this lying around town, with my personal favorite being the never-produced Universal Pictures’ parody, “Jaws 3, People 0.” Which may just be the funniest film title ever. Right up there with the also-never-produced “Spaceballs III: The Search for Spaceballs II.”

Anyway … I know – at a time like this – it’s very tempting to just slap in a copy of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and/or “The Breakfast Club ” and then mourn the passing of this talented moviemaker. But John Hughes deserved better than that. I mean, this was a pretty complicated guy who – at the very height of his powers in Hollywood – just walked away from the business and then became a gentlemen farmer in Northern Illinois.

So do yourself a favor. Don’t settle for easy choices today. If you want to get a sense of who John Hughes really was, how he actually started out, then I suggest that you head on over to Mark’s Very Large National Lampoon Site. Where -- as you dig down into the archives of this unauthorized guide to the very best years of that humor magazine (1970 – 1975) -- you'll discover dozens of articles that Hughes wrote and/or edited for the “Lampoon.”

John Hughes Poster
Copyright 1983 Warner Bros. All Right Reserved

And -- while you're rooting around at Mark's Very Large National Lampoon Site -- do make a point of reading of “Vacation ’58.” After all, it’s not every day that you get to read a story where Walt Disney gets shot in the leg.

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