When it comes to the topic of the greatest Halloween movie, or the greatest Christmas movie, there’s hearty debate to be had and plenty of good options. The greatest Thanksgiving movie, though? You can’t put up a fight against Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
Comedy legends Steve Martin and John Candy are together at the height of their talents, and both have said they considered it their greatest film. The John Hughes-penned script is indeed hilarious, but it’s not only funny. It’s dark and deeply human, with an uncanny ability to make cynics out of optimists and optimists out of cynics. Regardless of your disposition, it’s a long trip back to Chicago, 1987, so we’d better get on our way!
John Hughes’s inspiration for the story is simple: his holiday flight from New York to Chicago was indeed diverted, causing him to be 5 days late. It’s a story too good to not make into a movie, and Hughes wrote an overlong 145-page script detailing many an unfortunate detour. The whole thing was actually filmed, creating a legendary 3-hour version of the movie that has never been released. In the end though, this is probably a good thing- the story was apparently basically the same and the extra footage was mostly extra incidents that Neal and Del would run into along the way.
With all the transportation disasters and incompetence that the movie includes, it’s no surprise that no real-life companies were willing to cooperate. As a result, the production had to build train tracks and airport terminals, refurbish trains, design logos and uniforms, and rent 250 cars to make sure the story had all its necessary elements. In combination with the meandering script, the budget inflated and the movie began to worry some Paramount execs.
After cutting down to just 92 minutes, John Hughes felt he’d captured a good compromise in story and pace. Like a lot of cult films, though, PTaA‘s theatrical release wasn’t so financially impressive. And yet despite lukewarm box office takes, the movie stayed in the top 10 for 7 weeks, a sign of positive word-of-mouth. When the movie was released on video, it found great success in its ability to be shared and enjoyed over and over again. It’s a movie that gets better every time you see it.
Two of the most replayed scenes in comedy history are in this movie. The first comes when Del and Neal wake up uncomfortably close to each other in a motel, leaping out of bed and jogging around the issue admirably. Sure, it’s a little bit aged, but the timing and the tone are so perfect that you’ll be too busy laughing to roll your eyes. The second is Neal’s infamous encounter with car rental clerk Edie McClurg. While that scene’s number of F-bombs has been outdone many times since, the quality of the F-bombs has yet to be topped. There’s just something about Steve Martin’s delivery that toes the line of reality and fantasy, meanness and righteous venting, that it shocks us and tickles us all at once.
Another way PTaA remains beloved after all this time is how painfully genuine it is. Yeah, there’s some ridiculous gags, like going backwards on the highway and Neal seeing visions of Hell. But it all feels like an experience we can relate to emotionally, if not logically. Del, John Candy’s character, is flawed and maligned for trying too hard to please others and create intimacy with them. Many, including Roger Ebert and John Hughes, have affirmed that this was a real-life issue of Candy’s that affected him deeply. Steve Martin knew it too, and played his role as straight and as grumpy as possible to bring out the most sympathetic reactions in Candy.
Neal, while a real grouch, is pretty relatable in his own way. His ever-worsening journey and his inability to get away from obnoxious Del are all too familiar to anyone who has had the best-laid travel plans explode in their face. It’s this relatability that gives the movie its punch; because while his grumpiness is understandable, it’s not justified. As with the movie, we cannot tear apart those trying to love and help us even when they end up hurting us on accident. We can all stand to be a little more understanding of the people around us, especially with the holidays reminding us of just how precious family and friends are. PTaA gives us those reminders in spades, especially with its memorably bittersweet ending.
When Del and Neal hoist up Del’s huge trunk and carry it to Thanksgiving dinner, we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen to Del tomorrow. But we know for tonight, he’ll be warm and loved in the way he deserves.
“Through The Projector Lens” is a feature celebrating classic, unforgettable movies that have stood the test of time. If you would like to see a film featured, especially if it has a relevant event coming up, let us know in the comments! If you’ve got any great tales of Planes, Trains and Automobiles- cinematic or otherwise- we’d love to hear those too!
All images credit to: Paramount Pictures