Chicago, Illinois (1986)
The A.V. Club calls Ferris Bueller's Day Off a "103-minute commercial from the Chicago Office Of Tourism." From the depths of suburbia to the top of Sears Tower, and everywhere in between, Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane cover a lot of ground on their day off. So why Chicago and not some other big, bustling city with all sorts of cool stuff to do? Read on, Shmooper.
John Hughes's Kind of Town, Chicago Is
"Chicago is what I am," writer-director John Hughes once said. "A lot of Ferris is sort of my love letter to the city" (source). And what a letter it is. Much of the movie was shot on location in Chicago, allowing Hughes—who grew up in suburban Northbrook, Illinois—to spotlight some of his favorite sites in the Second City.
Take the Art Institute, for example, where Cameron goes deep with Georges Seurat's pointillist masterpiece "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." "When I was in high school, the Chicago Art Institute was a place of refuge for me," explains Hughes. "I went there quite a bit. I loved it. I knew all the paintings. I knew the building. And this was a chance for me to go back into this building and show the paintings that were my favorites" (source).
In the '80s, Hughes required that all of his movies be shot in Chicago, and back in those days of spiky mullets and button-covered jackets, he had the clout to make such demands (source). (He also had the spiky mullet and the button-covered jacket.) Even at the height of his directing career, when his post-production responsibilities meant Hughes had to move to Los Angeles, he kept a home in the Chicago suburbs so his family, especially his sons, could hang on to their Chicago roots—and have a proper, subzero Christmas each year (source).
Shake It Up, Baby, Now
Between priceless works of art, the Chicago Board of Trade, and historic Wrigley Field, Ferris and his friends experience a lot of Windy City sights and sounds, but the real Chicago set piece is the Von Steuben Parade, a German-American heritage celebration where Ferris takes over a float and turns the Loop into a thousands-strong dance party.
According to Julia Cameron in her article "John Hughes' Rational Anthem: 'I Won't Grow Up,'" the Von Steuben sequence was Hughes's favorite part of shooting. "Those were real faces, real people," Hughes explained. "That guy twisting up on that scaffolding was no actor. He was a real guy. That was spontaneous and we were lucky enough to catch it." Later in the article, Hughes presents more hometown pride, "We had 10,000 people and not one incident. That's Chicago." And to most of the pop culture population, John Hughes's name is as synonymous with Chicago as deep dish pizza, the Bulls, and the blues.
Rockin' the Suburbs
In addition to Hughes's renowned affinity for his home turf, Chicago also offered Ferris Bueller's Day Off something that other major cities like New York and Los Angeles simply couldn't: a perfect mix of lively city and sleepy suburb.
"Chicago seemed like a character in the movie," producer Tom Jacobsen says in Susannah Gora's book You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation (Three Rivers Press, 2011). "[Hughes'] presentation of it was very beautiful, and what's great about Chicago is that it has this vibrant urban center, but it also has idealized images of suburbia; you get both."
Ferris's hometown, the Chicago suburb of Shermer, is practically picture perfect—probably because it doesn't exist. Shermer is Hughes's own creation, and he set sixteen films there over the course of his career. In crafting his own world, Hughes not only could give a nod to his old stomping ground of Northbrook (which was previously called Shermerville), he could also create an enhanced, romanticized representation of suburban life.
In addition to complementing the hustle and bustle of Chicago, the fact that the affluent suburbia presented in Ferris Bueller's Day Off is idealized—or, put another way, pretty darn ritzy—also lets the movie explore issues like materialism. Morris Frye's garage is the most transparent example of this, and not just because it features incredible floor-to-ceiling windows.
The fact that Cameron's dad loves his $350,000 Ferrari more than he loves his own son is central to the movie's story. It's why Cameron is an anxiety-ridden, bed-ridden hypochondriac at the beginning of the movie. It's why Ferris wants to take a day off to wake him up. And it's ultimately why Cameron has a rad catharsis and decides to stop being afraid and to start standing up to his detached, avaricious dad.
That Toddlin' Town
"Chicago looks glorious in Ferris Bueller's Day Off," gushes The A.V. Club, "and it certainly reflects the love Hughes had for his hometown." It's also instrumental in reflecting the angst and uncertainness of suburban teens in the mid '80s—the sportos, motorheads, dweebies, etc., who felt the pull of the nearby city, felt the uncertainty of life after graduation, and felt not quite ready to grow up.