The canon of Christmas films has expanded over the decades such that there are as many choices as there are tastes in holiday fare. However, despite other cinematic efforts to tap the earlier November holiday, Thanksgiving still belongs solely to the John Hughes 1987 comedy masterpiece “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” While other movies (“Home for the Holidays,” “Addams Family Values”) have used the Turkey Day as a plot device, only “Planes” can truly be said to be a “Thanksgiving movie” in the truest sense of perfectly capturing not only the spirit of the day but also of forever tearing it away from any other film efforts. It is the only film I know of that everyone watches this time of year.
Christmas gives filmmakers an excuse year after year to churn out (typically vapid) new attempts at separating moviegoers from their cash, but arguably the only film truly enshrined in the pantheon in the last 30 years was “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” in 1989 — coincidentally, also written by Hughes. Several lists came out this week in various online forums of the “best” Thanksgiving films. Unsurprisingly, “Planes” topped them all; surprisingly, there were more films on those lists than I would have expected.
So why does “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” still hold sway as both a classic comedy and retain its status as the ultimate Thanksgiving film nearly 30 years after its release? It enjoyed relatively modest box office for its day but found a cult following on VHS and became a Thanksgiving Eve tradition in many homes (mine included).
“Planes” is one of those comedies that is essentially perfect and, despite the passage of decades, seemingly does not age. The story of mismatched, uptight Neal Page (Steve Martin) and the crass-but-lovable Del Griffith (John Candy) trying to get back to Chicago for Thanksgiving is about as far from complicated as a script pitch could possibly be. John Hughes (1950-2009) excelled at a certain brand of ‘80s comedies of efficiency. He directed only nine films in his career but wrote many, many more, including the “Vacation” movies, “Home Alone” and “Mr. Mom.” Typically his directorial efforts took place in a single day or two, had sharply defined characters, were always less than two hours and, in the best tradition of comedy, found ways to squeeze laughter not just out of humiliation — though that was certainly a part of it — but by forcing his characters into situations and company that all but guaranteed an explosion of hilarious proportions. The comedy came not from the story but from the characters’ reactions to the plots, something writers of contemporary “funny” films would do well to observe.
Think of Mr. Martin’s F-word-laced tirade about three-quarters of the way through “Planes.” After suffering humiliation after humiliation, walking back from the car rental lot to St. Louis’ Lambert Airport across a frozen highway and runway, Neal is met by a giggling, too-happy clerk (Edie McClurg, one of Hughes’ regulars), whose face sours upon beholding the steaming Neal.
“Welcome to Marathon. May I help you?”
What follows is the film’s most famous two minutes, in which Neal — heretofore so buttoned-up, desperately trying to smirk his way through adversity while clinging to his upper-middle-class notions of propriety — finally loses his mind and unleashes an angry, mean-spirited soliloquy at the clerk peppered by 18 (I counted) F-bombs.
That much profanity probably failed to shock even audiences of the day (or now), but it is the exact right script choice for the moment: Neal has come completely unglued, and circumstances have unleashed the primordial rage within that he works ever so hard to keep in check day by day as a suit-and-tie type.
Hughes understood that a well-placed curse word had the ability to both surprise and elicit laughter. Neal using the F-word even once would have been funny enough, but his dropping it as every other word for a full minute is nothing short of comedic transcendence. Though the film continues on for another 40 minutes, and more misery yet awaits Neal, the rental car scene is the ultimate apex of his fall from polite boardroom drone to scalding, ranting maniac, forced at last to fight at street level with the blue-collar folks he has treated previously as so far beneath him (and using “their” vernacular, no less). The moment is a humor masterpiece in and of itself, and Miss McClurg’s brief-yet-firm response takes the wind out of his tempest with but two words — one of them, again, “that” word.
Yes, the rant earned the R-rating in a film that otherwise would be fine for the whole family, but it is crucial to both the film’s success and to Neal’s unraveling. To ever see “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” on television, with either bleeps or substituted words, is nothing short of a crime against cinema. In a half-century career of brilliance, it is perhaps Mr. Martin’s finest moment ever committed to film. (To put this into some personal perspective, it is the one scene my father, a virtual hate machine for anything Hollywood, insisted on being alerted to before it happened every Thanksgiving Eve.)
This is but one example of how perfect Hughes fashioned his film as both writer and director. Every scene works, every joke lands, not a moment of screen time is wasted. While there are pratfalls and pitfalls for certain, the laughter, the pathos, comes from the odd-couple relationship between Neal and Del. While much of the humor comes from their verbal sparring, Hughes accomplishes this as much with visual gags. Consider when Neal first recognizes Del at the airport as the thief who swiped his cab on Park Ave. during rush hour. Neal peers up from his issue of Fortune to spy Del reading a trashy stag book called “The Canadian Mounted.” In that one throwaway moment Hughes has established not only a clash of personalities but one of class.
These two will be anything but friends. It is therefore required they spend the next 90 minutes together.
Hughes understood intrinsically that comedy is about victims, not perpetrators. We like and identify with Neal because he is continually victimized by Del’s increasingly poor, if heartfelt, choices, and we like Del not just because he is the everyman so many of us are but because he has no one to blame for the morasses he creates but himself — a man as flawed as any of us.
Hughes applied this same axiom in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” While yes, Ferris is unquestionably the hero of the piece, the film is really about Cameron (Alan Ruck) and his transformation from neurotic antisocial wreck to finding confidence by the story’s end (that poor Ferrari!). Some of us are Ferrises, but most of us are Camerons. And while the school bureaucrat Edward Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) is indeed Ferris’ nemesis, we like Rooney because, at the end of the day, he’s right: Ferris is ditching, he knows it, we know it; Ferris must be held to account, but Rooney continually falls into Ferris’ prefabricated traps. He’s the superego to Ferris’ id, seeking desperately to get the jack back in the box. Both Cameron and Rooney continually fall victim to Ferris’ machinations, which produces the humor.
As great as “Ferris” is, “Planes” is superior and more mature, and Hughes’ best work. Hughes, who had worked primarily in the realm of teen angst in “Ferris,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles,” in “Planes” set out to tell a story about adults who might well have been the older versions of the insecure leads of his teen comedies. In watching Neal chafe at every misfire from Del and his working-class ilk, it is not hard to imagine Neal’s oppressive, stifling upbringing in Chicago’s far more desirable suburbs. Notice how Del is on a first-name basis with hotel clerks, cabbies, train conductors, and how he has “a friend” at seemingly every port of call along their journey. Del lives and works at street level, a caste in which Neal fears to tread. This is best exemplified in the Trans-Missouri bus when Neal attempts to lead the passengers in a singalong of “Three Coins in the Fountain,” which receives a stupefied group stare before Del rescues him with the theme song of “The Flintstones,” an instant crowd-pleaser.
Hughes also applied one of his familiar tropes by having characters get the hero’s name incorrect, as when when Gus at the Braidwood Inn calls Neal “Nick.” It’s a way of bringing someone down, and Hughes did this beautifully as a running gag in all the “Vacation” films by having minor characters continually butcher Clark Griswold’s (Chevy Chase) moniker in all manner of malapropisms. It’s embarrassing if not outright humiliating — and something someone of Neal’s kind would definitely find insulting.
Gus the hotel clerk showcases yet another of Hughes’ abiding strengths as a director. As few other auteurs ever have, Hughes populated his cast with exceptional character actors in minor roles who transformed what should have been throwaway parts into being as equally memorable as the leads. The supporting cast of “Planes” is rife with such roles, some on-screen for but seconds: the smarmy Manhattan lawyer who cheerily scams Neal out of $75 for a cab Del then steals, the clerk at the final night’s motel with the unique enunciation (“these aren’t, uh, credit cardsssss”), Dooby and his “taxiola,” Owen the truck driver with the supremely odd facial tic, Miss McClurg as the recipient of the F-word tirade, to say nothing of the better-known performers like Kevin Bacon and Ben Stein who show up, do their thing, and then are gone from the film.
Think also of the bit player gems that populate “Ferris” like the slimy parking garage attendant, the maitre’d at the snooty French bistro, Charlie Sheen as a drug addict with perhaps too much wisdom for his own good. Of modern directors, perhaps only the Coen Bros. have been as masterful at rounding out their supporting casts with such golden ensembles for roles that were typically thankless.
True, as in all comedies, a little bit of fluidity is necessary to accept the “Planes” plot — such as why, after he has shadily rented Neal’s rightful car with Neal’s “misplaced” credit card, does Del then drive back to the airport terminal other than to nearly run over Neal and therefore reunite them for the next section of the story? And the distance from St. Louis to Chicago is a little over 200 miles, but Del and Neal travel for hours without making any seeming progress.
But never mind. A retread of all the gags of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” is here unnecessary, but one specifically must be mentioned. In his 2000 “Great Movies” profile of the film, Roger Ebert opined: “Not one movie a year contributes a catchphrase to the language.” Ebert was, of course, talking of “Those aren’t pillows!” in the film’s stab at showing two men uncomfortable with, as Ebert wrote “not homophobia but the natural reaction of two men raised to be shy and distant around other men — to fear misunderstood intimacy.”
Yet intimacy itself is why “Planes” achieves true greatness. Neal is certainly mean, if not outright rotten, and used to having things his way with little wiggle room for comfort or the input of others. When he goes off on an insult-laden diatribe at Del in which he says that he would “happily sit through any insurance seminar” rather than hear but one more of the jolly man’s anecdotes, the pain that crosses Candy’s face seems all too real. One gets the sense that Candy and his avatar both suffered extensively on the playground at the hands of children pointing not only to their weights but their quirky, misunderstood personalities. As an adult, Del just wants to be liked, to please. His mission is genuine, if misdirected, because a life lived to please anyone else is doomed to failure.
Watching the film again last evening, it occurred to me how nuanced was Candy’s performance. John Candy (1950–1994) typically portrayed happy ne’er-do-wells and losers whose intentions were true, all the while uttering that unique, staccato baritone chuckle of his. “Planes” gave him his only chance to showcase even some of the deep hurt that likely lurked in his soul. Pay attention to his monologue to his deceased wife while in the fried car, his reaction shots during Neal’s polemic as he relives again the pain of rejection and, of course, the tear-rendering final shots of the film as he still feels the loss of his late wife Marie while attempting to be happy that Neal has a family.
My friend and colleague Steve once said that films too seldom try for a third-act revelation. After Neal has abandoned Del for what we think will be the last time, he recapitulates the previous two days in his head before coming to a horrifying realization about Del’s personal life. Retracing his steps on the L, Neal finds Del alone on Thanksgiving morning, where he reveals at last that Marie is dead and that he lives a life of vagrancy, simply moving from town to town hawking shower curtain rings to eat. It is the moment Neal, despite perhaps believing he and Del parted as “friends” in the previous scene, finds his humanity and his generosity. His evolution, at least as far as the film goes, is complete. No doubt that Del has had it rough due to his size, but losing Marie all but destroyed him, and Neal sees finally that as irritating as the fat man may be, there is something he can still do for Del: invite him home for Thanksgiving dinner.
“Planes, Trains & Automobiles” is one of the few films where male audiences are “allowed” to cry, that takes male bonding seriously as much as it does for comic effect. While it’s likely that very few of us have ever undertaken a two-day journey with the worst of traveling companions punctuated by cars exploding, thieves in the night and being picked up by the testicles, we’ve likely all had a moment where we realize, however uncomfortably, that we have looked down upon someone else as lesser — almost certainly someone who is unlike us and has had it much, much worse but somehow still comes through it all smiling. Such is the magic of Neal’s relationship with Del: By finally understanding that there are people he thinks of a lesser but who nonetheless are just as human and frail as he is, Neal saves Del as much as Del saves Neal from himself.
It is as great a Thanksgiving lesson as one could ever hope to find.