Why We're Thankful For 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles'
The holiday season is plentiful - if not bursting - with Christmas films, most of which are heaped upon us in early succession just like everything else tinsel and mistletoe. And you can't say there isn't variety to account for differing tastes: It's A Wonderful Life for your traditionalists; A Christmas Story for your Gen X'ers, Home Alone for Gen Y; Lethal Weapon and Die Hard for those who want a little bang with their ho-ho-ho. (Of course they count, they take place at Christmas!) It's fair to say, however, that we still don't have a solid case for a traditional classic for Thanksgiving... or do we? There is one film which remains a staunch favorite particularly among fans, both for its big laughs as well as its immense heart, which by all rights ought to be crowned the pinnacle of Thanksgiving movie magic: we never fail to find ourselves thankful for Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
In 1987, John Hughes was still in the midst of branching out
from his stable of rightfully beloved teen films but hadn't yet made a solid
mark; his first attempt at aiming beyond the high-school set, the Kevin Bacon
marriage-woes yarn She's Having A Baby, was in the can but wouldn't see the
light of day until the following year. In the meantime, the director landed two of our greatest comic performers - well, one at least, the Great White North can lay claim to the other - to star in a spirited salute to the odd couples of comedies past. Steve Martin's tightly-wound marketing exec Neal Page, grounded hundreds of miles from home thanks to a snowstorm and
desperate to get back in time for Thanksgiving, has his perfectly regimented
commuter's agenda completely upended by his encounter with crass, slobby,
yet irrepressibly cheerful shower curtain-ring salesman Del Griffith, writ large and
lovable by the late John Candy.
Disasters aplenty ensue, amongst them a veritable cornucopia of hilarity
and heartbreak... here are some of the highlights:
The ever-present Hughesverse players: Though never precisely stating that all of his films take place in the same universe (outside of the fact that many of his films center the fictitious Chicago suburb of Shermer, Illinois), seeing the same old trusty faces turn up gives Hughes' films a certain warmth and familiarity, and PT&A is no different. On his way out of New York, Neal pow-wows with his colleague portrayed by Lyman Ward, who also played Ferris Bueller's father. (Who perhaps through no coincidence was also an ad-man.) In trying to get to JFK, he sprints for the a cab at rush hour against the aforementioned Mr. Bacon, who probably isn't playing his same character from She's Having A Baby... but he could be! And they keep turning up... perpetual drone-machine Ben Stein as an airline representative, and the ever-bubbly Edie McClurg as a rental car agent who delivers Martin the decisive blow at the crisis-point of his mental breakdown. Warning, kids... very strong language:
UPDATE: Our original version of this clip was pulled from YouTube shortly after press time; apparently, the one thing Paramount isn't thankful for this holiday is free publicity. Boooo. So here's an inferior version gacked off of someone's TV... watch it while you can!:
The eternal horrors of the holiday commute: Well before the
real adventure begins, Hughes sets the stage for Neal Page's test of mettle in
that setting that so many of us can relate to at Thanksgiving, slammed shoulder to shoulder in
coach with strangers you can't possibly get away from for a few minutes of
precious down-time as you try to get to your destination. After having lost his
last-ditch cab to Del Griffith back in the Big Apple, he's stuck next to him on the plane: Del's non-stop yakking and smelly socks on one side, and an old-timer
with an powerful snore on the other. (In a rare case of broadcast
versions of a film featuring material not seen in theaters, the television edit
of PT&A includes an additional bit with Del methodically listing all the
different alternate meals he's fond of ordering on various airlines; Neal's
frustration is deeply, hilariously palpable throughout.)
Local color: All shapes, all sizes sizes, all sorts of uproarious ticks: It would be one thing if Neal only had to put up with Del along his trek back to the Windy City. Of course, the two can't get where they're going alone unless they walk, and that could very well take them past New Year's Day. Along the way they hook up with or run afoul of numerous characters both well-meaning (the Midwestern greaseball cabbie in the flashy boat who is determined to show off beautiful downtown
Times are tough, but the music is fantastic: Though not as deeply entrenched in the obscure New Wave acts of the day as his earlier films, Hughes's soundtrack for PT&A is still shot through with some killer beats, making it that much hipper for its efforts; the premiere track is doubtlessly the Silicon Teens plucky synth cover of "Red River Rock," providing a solid pop-culture reference point for that faux-group's brief foray into the 80's scene. (It was actually a side project of Mute Records impresario Daniel Miller; you can listen to the song in its entirety on MySpace.) As always, Hughes also balances the current sounds with canny use of some genuine classics, most memorably a cover of Patsy Cline's "Back in Baby's Arms" which accompanies that tender moment between Del and Neal when they're forced to share a bed. ("Why are you holding my hand?"... "Where's you're other hand?"..."Between two pillows"...."Those aren't pillows!")
Five words: Steve Martin and John Candy: There is absolutely no underestimating two great talents at their peak, and it's on both of these men's shoulders to bring their A-game and lift the already great material to a level of true holiday classic. They deliver in spades; as Neal Page, Martin abandons all of the buffoonery that made him famous and perfectly embodies the humorless neatnik who loses sight of his soft side, ironically while he's trying so fervently to get back to that which matters most...his wife and kids. He's not a bad guy, but while the battle to get back home takes on epic proportions, he spends most of his energy bitching and moaning without ever really opening his eyes to the essential goodness in other people... particularly Del, who for all his boorishness is a genuinely kind soul who only wants to do right by his new acquaintance, and knows his heart well enough to hold his head up high even when he's being brought down low:
UPDATE #2: Yep, this one got pulled too. Which is a real shame because there aren't any other clips of the heavy stuff on YouTube at the moment. So, somewhat reluctantly, we give you the "you're going the wrong way!" clip instead. Not too reluctantly, though, because that dashboard gag is still a corker:
It's a perfect marriage of performer and role; no matter how much he gets under your skin, at the end it's impossible not to like the guy. And it's in the film's final reveal that all the pieces fall into place - SPOILER ALERT! - as despite how he often speaks fondly of his wife back home, it's only when they finally make it back to Chicago that Del reveals to Neal that his beloved Marie is long dead and he has nowhere to go. Naturally, having regained his appreciation for what a lucky son of a bitch he really is, Neal brings him home for Thanksgiving dinner with his family; when the Page family is reunited there are relief and smiles aplenty, yet the film chooses to end on Candy's longing face as he watches a loving couple embrace. It's a masterful performance at the center of a real American classic that captures what Turkey Day is really all about - what gets us through life at the toughest times, what makes us strive to be better people even when fate slings every shade of shit in our direction and does its best to grind us down to a frazzled nub. And at times like these, what else can we do if not count our blessings? And laugh at ourselves. Hard.
If you're not too busy watching college football or a bunch of big balloons, watch Planes Trains & Automobiles on Thanksgiving; if the football or balloon enthusiasts in your household win out, you can always catch it at the Arclight's 21 & Over screening on December 1.