It is widely agreed that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986) is not only one of the finest teen movies ever made, but one of the greatest American films of the 1980s.
Yet, if you ask even the film’s most devoted fans, “Why doesn’t the Sausage King of Chicago turn up for lunch at Chez Quis?”, no one admits to having any idea. (1)
The answer to that question is at the heart of why this film is such a brilliantly constructed masterwork.
The day begins for Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) with his pretending to be sick so that he can skip school.
He then, in order:
Convinces his best friend, Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck), to ‘borrow’ his father’s 1961 Ferrari 250GT California.
Impersonates the father of his girlfriend, Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara), to take her out of school.
Leaves the Ferrari at a Chicago car park, from where two attendants take it on a hair-raising joy ride.
Ferris, Cameron and Sloane look down on the city from the Sears Tower and then visit the Chicago Board of Trade.
They have lunch at the upmarket Chez Quis restaurant.
The trio heads to Wrigley Field for a baseball game and then to the Art Institute of Chicago for the extraordinary “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” sequence.
Ferris sings “Danke Schoen” and “Twist and Shout” on a float in the Von Steuben Day Parade.
They retrieve the Ferrari, which has 176 extra miles showing on the odometer.
Back at Cameron’s house, in the glass shrine to the Ferrari, Ferris and Cameron try to reverse the odometer and accidentally smash the car. “What did I do?”, asks Cameron. “You killed the car”, says Ferris. Ferris offers to take the blame, but Cameron decides it is time to become a man and face his father.
The day comes to a close with Ferris making a dash across the Chicago suburbs to get back to his alleged sick bed before his parents discover he isn’t really sick.
Of these, the most crucial event is the lunch at Chez Quis.
Lunch at Chez Quis
Ferris arrives with Cameron and Sloane, all rather underdressed, at the elegant Chez Quis.
Inside, Ferris makes a show in front of Cameron and Sloane …
… of scanning the list of bookings for that day.
His fingers run down the list of entries to “Abe Froman” for 3 people at noon.
A snooty maître d’ (Jonathan Schmock) arrives. Ferris tells him he is Abe Froman and that he has a booking.
The snotty maître d’ is unconvinced.
Cameron and Sloane stand to the side, looking uncomfortable.
Cameron: “Okay Ferris, can we just let it go, please?” Sloane: “Ferris, please. You’ve gone too far. We’re going to get busted.”
Ferris: “A: You can never go too far. B: If I’m going to get busted, it is not gonna be by a guy like that.”
A round of telephone calls follows, the trio trying to convince the maître d’ that Ferris is Abe Froman.
The maître d’ is finally won over and the three sit at Abe Froman’s table.
So, let us again pose that key question: If Abe Froman has booked a table for 3 at noon, why doesn’t he turn up, thus revealing Ferris to be an imposter?
Equally, if Abe Froman has decided not to come to lunch and had a staff member ring to cancel, Ferris would still be exposed as a fraud. But that doesn’t happen, either. Why?
The simply answer is that Ferris made the booking under the name of Abe Froman. His scanning down the list was just part of the day’s plan of giving Cameron the most exciting and unexpected experiences of his life.
Sure, Cameron could still have had fun if Ferris had said, “Let’s have lunch at Chez Quis” and booked under the name Bueller, but it wouldn’t have been the same. Where would have been the thrill of doing something truly outrageous?
After all, Ferris’ main game is to get Cameron to come out of his self-protective shell and engage with life.
That is also Ferris’ motivation for performing on the float at the parade.
Von Steuben Day Parade
Look at the sequence:
Seven women in German attire stand on a parade float (two are partially obscured). An unseen Ferris announces: “Cameron Frye, this one’s for you.”
Six women form a ring, the accordionist always standing separate.
The six women begin to sit …
… and up rises Ferris rises from the middle, singing “Danke Schoen”.
Cameron and Sloane scream in shock.
Some confused judges confer.
Now, how could Ferris gatecrash a float in a heavily guarded parade? How, if this is supposed to be a spur-of-the-moment decision by Ferris, is he in perfect choreographic harmony with the other women?
Not one of the women looks at him in surprise or annoyance. Not one treats him as anything but part of the team.
Obviously, Ferris has planned everything in advance. No doubt that is why he is seen rehearsing “Danke Schoen” in the shower at the beginning of the film.
As to the judges looking confused, that could be because they are shocked to see Ferris-the-Singer in street clothes rather than traditional German attire. They may have also expected a different singer to the one they got.
Of course, Cameron would have still had fun if Ferris had said, “Hey, Cameron, I’m going to perform on a float today”, but it would have had none of the zing of Ferris’ appearing out of nowhere.
It takes enormous thought and planning to work out what Cameron would like most, and then arrange it in such a way that will have Cameron guessing for years.
As for those who refuse to accept that Ferris planned the whole day, they are like the flat-Earthers who insist that Harrison’s Ford’s Deckard is not a replicant in the first version of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), despite Deckard’s eyes glowing as only a replicant’s can!
Ferris Bueller was made in a halcyon age when filmmakers had the nerve to ask audiences to fill in back-stories for themselves. But, just in case a few were asleep on the job, there is a give-away line of dialogue.
Near day’s end, Ferris says goodbye to Sloane at her house.
Sloane: “You knew what you were doing when you woke up this morning, didn’t you?”
“Me? … Nah.”
Nothing could be clearer than that. It is a slap to the back of the head. Yet, Sloane’s line seems to have sailed past audiences and critics alike – and has continued to do so for decades.
It is always dangerous to speculate about why audiences react in certain ways, but perhaps they didn’t want to face the truth of Ferris’ goodness and caring, preferring to think that everything that happened that day was due to happenstance, with Ferris an arrogant show-off. (See Appendix.)
TimeOut, for instance, concludes: “How unfortunate that no one got to wring the little bastard’s neck.” (2)
While that sounds outrageous, it may not be far from many people’s truth. Perhaps the real Ferris is just too good and too clever. Perhaps audiences feel more comfortable with flawed characters, ones who chance their luck and go with the flow, rather than show the improvisational and organizational brilliance of an Orson Welles.
Everybody likes people who do good things for others, but not with Ferris’ degree of ingenuity, forethought and self-effacement. To most, good deeds should be done out in the open with the recipients publicly expressing their gratitude. But Ferris hides his goodness, seeks no praise and denies any involvement: “Me? … Nah.”
Subconsciously or otherwise, the audience rewrites the movie so that Ferris no longer books Chez Quis under the name Abe Froman, no longer plans and rehearses the song numbers for the parade, and no longer engineers Cameron’s re-engagement with life.
You know all those wince-inducing comments throughout the film about Ferris’ sweetness and caring? Well, they are actually true.
Or: How even the Great John Hughes Gets Perplexed
In his DVD commentary (recorded 16 years after the film’s release), writer-director John Hughes reveals very little about Ferris’ plans for the day, other than to take an oddly dark view of his hero’s ability to “fool everyone”.
In the pool scene after the trip to Chicago, Cameron plays dead. Ferris is genuinely worried about his friend. Cameron then opens his eyes and jokingly says, “Ferris Bueller, you’re my hero.” Ferris is furious and looks like he wants to punch Cameron.
On the DVD, Hughes says:
[Ferris is] genuinely angry here. He really doesn’t like being one-upped. Ferris is not really a nice guy. He’s an interesting guy, he’s an interesting person. He’s not necessarily virtuous.
Wow! The only problem here is that Hughes is describing a film quite different to the one he made. There is nothing in the pool scene to suggest Ferris is upset about being one-upped. Either Hughes’ memory is a little faulty after one-and-a-half decades or he has done the same rewriting of his own movie that audiences appear to do. Watch the scene as many times as you like and only one conclusion is drawable: Ferris is furious because Cameron made his heart ache with concern, only for it all to turn out to be a prank.
As for Hughes’ comment about Ferris not being nice, again where is the evidence to support it? Sure, Ferris is cheeky, mischievous and arrogant, but, like James Bond (“Bueller … Ferris Bueller”), he has good reason to be. Both are supremely gifted individuals.
Anyway, arrogance simply means “to claim for oneself”, something everyone (especially Cameron) ought to do.
It doesn’t matter how Ferris appears to others (including the audience); what matters are the actions he takes and whether any good comes from them. And, everything Ferris does that day does prove to be good for Cameron. He saves Cameron’s life by helping him turn from a youth ruled by fear into a man prepared to stand tall, prepared to enter his house justified:
“I am not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m going to take a stand. I’m going to defend it. Right or wrong, I’m going to defend it.”
Sorry, Mr Hughes, but Ferris is nice … and virtuous.
The most puzzling claim made by Hughes, however, occurs in the scene where Cameron pretends to be Mr Peterson (Sloane’s father) in the phone call with Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones). Thrilled by being able to swear at his headmaster (only because he is pretending to be someone else), Cameron gets carried away and, on the spur of the moment, tells he wants Sloane left out front of the school so that ‘he’ can pick her up. Ferris is furious with this change of plans and smacks him.
According to Hughes:
Ferris has hit him, embarrassed him and now he is drawing him back in and making him pay for his mistake, which is very important to the plan, as he is going to get Cameron to make a mistake so that he can get the car. Cameron has to pay for his getting too confident with Rooney. And this is the price he’s going to pay.
Again, Hughes is at odds with his own movie.
Once Cameron has said that Sloane is to be met out front, Ferris has no option but to arrange for a false Mr Peterson pick her up. And that means also having a ‘Peterson’ car. That is why Ferris tells Cameron: “To fix the situation, I’m going to have to ask you for a small favour.”
That favour, of course, is to borrow the Ferrari 250GT California.
Now, Cameron Frye’s dad has several cars, all of could be associated with Mr Frye rather than Mr Peterson. The one exception is the Ferrari, which he has never taken out of the garage. It is the perfect car for the pretend Mr Peterson (actually, Ferris in disguise).
There is nothing to back up Hughes’ claim that Ferris gets “Cameron to make a mistake so that he can get the car”. All that happens is that Ferris has to think very quickly when Cameron makes a mistake. In no way does Ferris encourage or desire Cameron to stuff up.
Of course, Ferris no doubt intended to take the Ferrari all along. It was probably part of the plan to get Cameron to face up to life – that is, to face up to his father. Cameron’s mistake with Rooney just gave Ferris the perfect excuse to commandeer the car.
Hughes seems to admit as much when, a moment later, he says that deep down Cameron wanted Ferris to take the Ferrari. Of course he did. Cameron is at least partially aware that Ferris is a gift from the gods, someone who gives him the chance and energy to live out his repressed desires.
The real moral of this Appendix, therefore, is that filmmakers, no matter how masterful, cannot always be trusted about their own work. Stated intention (especially decades later) is as relevant to a finished film as yesterday’s weather.
It is even possible that John Hughes is not fully aware of the true brilliance and intricacy of his own movie. Perhaps not even he can answer the question of why the Sausage King of Chicago doesn’t turn for lunch at Chez Quis. But he made it, signed off on it and must accept the consequences – in this case, all great.
- Posing the Abe Froman question has been a personal obsession for more than 20 years. In that time, no one queried has ever offered the answer discussed in this article. Writing articles and the odd bit of public speaking about Ferris have also failed to flush out the true believers. They must be out there, somewhere. Anyone … anyone …?
- http://www.timeout.com/film/reviews/66575/Ferris_Buellers_Day_Off.html, accessed 28 May 2009.