‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ Is The Quintessential Thanksgiving Movie

On the previous post, I left out Planes, Trains and Automobiles because I felt the movie deserved its own post. Of all the John Hughes movies he directed, this was his masterpiece. Considering the difficulties that happened during filming, it’s a wonder the movie turned out so well.

It also showcased John Candy in his best film role as Del Griffith, a shower curtain salesman who is either one of the most pleasant person you’ll meet or one of the most annoying depending on your taste. Del keeps crossing paths with a marketing executive, Neal Page (Steve Martin) who isn’t the nicest man. Neal and Del’s paths cross by accident as Neal is trying to catch a taxicab at New York City area airport to make a flight to Chicago. While he trying to bribe a lawyer for a cab, Del steals it with Neal briefly chasing it down in time for the two of them to look at each other.

Later, Neal and Del recognize each other at the terminal as the flight is delayed. Del apologizes and offers to buy Neal a hot dog and a beer, but Neal doesn’t want to be bothered. Later when he is bumped from first class to coach, he has to sit between Del and an older male passenger. Del doesn’t have the best manners as Neal becomes irritated.

A snowstorm in Chicago diverts the plane to Wichita, Kan., where Del helps Neal get a motel room. At his Chicago suburban residence, his wife, Susan (Laila Robbins) is concerned about him. At the motel room, both Neal and Del are stunned to realize not only are they sharing a motel room but it’s only got one bed. Sharing a motel room with a stranger is bad enough but the same bed is worse.

Over the next 48 hours, they keep splitting up and getting back together through a lot of strange events. A young thief (Gary Riley) steals all their cash after breaking into their motel room. When they try to get on a passenger train, it breaks down in Missouri. They ride a bus into St. Louis where Neal tells them they should split up. But when he tries to rent a car, it’s stolen. Later at the airport, he finds Del again who’s rented a car.

They also learn more about each other and themselves. Del keeps talking about his wife, Marie. Neal’s wife, Susan, is having a hard time believing why he’s not made it home, especially when a co-worker of Neal’s was able to take a later flight from New York and make it to Chicago on the same night.

When they try to drive the rest of the way to Chicago, a lit cigarette from Del accidentally blows back into the back seat when Del tries to throw it out and the car erupts in flames. The car is later impounded after they are stopped by a state trooper (Michael McKean) for speeding who utters the famous line “Do you feel this vehicle is safe for highway travel?”

Hughes based this movie on a true-life experience that occurred to him when he was working in advertising and marketing as a copywriter. He had to give a presentation in New York City but when he flew back to Chicago, a snowstorm diverted the flight and he ended up rerouted to Des Moines, Iowa, but then to Denver and finally Phoenix. The movie itself would become a difficulty to film as several scenes had to be filmed in upstate New York as they couldn’t find scenery with snow on the ground.

Also, none of the major airlines and car rental companies would agree to use their brands. This led the production team to have to make up a fictional airline brand and car rental brand with logos that they had to copyright. To shoot the scene where Neal walks through a parking lot to discover the Lincoln Towncar he’s reserved has been stolen, they had to rent vehicles from actual rental companies and find a parking lot area they could rent. This became very problematic for Hughes who wasn’t too happy. It’s been reported character actor Troy Evans who played a truck driver with only a few seconds of screen actually had to be on call for several days so they could film his brief appearance. He made enough money he was able to use it toward a down payment on his new house.

It’s at this point, I have to bring up something about the car rental portion. While the events regarding the car rental may not happen now as opposed to the mid-1980s, the suspension of disbelief allows it. I worked for Dollar Thrifty for a year in the mid-2000s. Del wouldn’t have been able to rent a car without his own credit card in his name. Also, a shuttle bus driver wouldn’t leave a customer in a parking lot until he found the vehicle. The parking lot would also have a security guard, but maybe they were on a break. Also, many car rental companies have “emergency vehicles” in their fleets to be used in the event of an accident or breakdown. I’m guessing Marathon, the fictional car rental company, isn’t the best.

Like most of Hughes’ scripts, a lot of material was written and filmed but not used. At about an hour and a half, the original cut was nearly twice as much close to three hours. Martin and Candy improvised so much that some reports indicate it’s closer to four hours. Some scenes that were shown in the trailer were also cut. These include Neal looking disgusted as he eats a slice of pizza and Del doing an Elvis impersonation in front of the mirror. Hughes’ script shed a light on a lot of things, such as the thief is actually the pizza delivery guy upset because he was only tipped $1.

Susan also suspects Neal of having an affair and there are scenes of him calling her where he tells her about Del. But she thinks Del is a made-up name for his mistress. This explains the ending when Neal brings Del home why Susan is so emotional when seeing him. The state trooper also had a larger role. Even though he only has less than one minute of screen time and appears toward the end, McKean was the fourth billing on the credits. In a cut scene, we discover that Del missed turn-off to head to Chicago and has drove north into Wisconsin. This works on a previous scene where Del gets turned around and goes down the wrong way of the interstate giving “You’re going the wrong way!” more meaning.

After the car is impounded, Neal and Del getting into an altercation and Neal punches Del. This explains Del’s eye during a scene. I can see why Hughes cut this. After Neal and Del bond on the second night in a motel as Neal invites him in from the cold, it would’ve been out of character for Neal at this moment to hit Del. Also, it’s been reported that the ending was drastically changed thanks to some facial expressions Martin did while waiting for the camera to begin filming.

In Hughes’ script, Neal goes back to the elevated train terminal and finds Del sitting alone at which point Del tells Neal Marie has been dead for eight years. In the movie, the scene cuts to Neal and Del carrying his steamer trunk down the road to Neal’s house. But there was a scene written and filmed where Neal and Del go to a diner where Del tells him more about Marie and what happened after she died. He says he’s left the house he shared with her because of the memories. Since then, he’s been living out of his trunk on the road.

In the deleted diner scene, Del tells Neal that the absence of Marie led him to become to close to any stranger he’d meet around the holidays, which explains his behavior and why he’s so pleasant and happy to anyone he meets. I’m glad Hughes cut this. It might have worked good on paper, but the scene works better in what’s not said.

During this small almost empty terminal, Candy is sitting sheepishly on a bench in the terminal like a little kid waiting outside the principal’s office as their parents have been called. When he speaks of Marie’s death, he’s on the verge of tears. You can see in Martin how shocked he is as he looks down realizing how bad he treated Del. Then when he raises his eyes to look at him, you can see he’s going to do the right thing.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a textbook example of the phrase “Kill your darlings” as Hughes cuts the movie down to its barebones. While regulars like Ben Stein and Edie McClurg appear as an airport and car rental representative, respectively, you can blink and miss seeing other character actors such Susan Kellerman and Richard Herd in roles that were probably a little bigger in the longer uncut version. Larry Hankin and Lyman Ward, who also appeared in other Hughes movies, appear as a taxi diver and Neal’s colleague, respectively.

A TV version shows an extended scene on the airplane where Neal and Del talk about the awfulness of the dinner they’ve been served. The only thing on the tray that looks appetizing is a brownie which is suddenly buried under a lot of hair when the woman in front of Neal lets her hair down over the back of the seat. Incidentally, Neal is reportedly as close of what Steve Martin is in real life. Known for his “Wild and Crazy Guy” roles, he’s actually closer to the characters he plays here and on Only Murders in the Building. Emmy Award-winning Dylan Baker appeared in his first role as a Kansas redneck spitting tobacco and grunting like a pig. It’s reported that Baker spit and wiped off the tobacco juice before shaking Martin’s hand to get a grimace. Martin reportedly ran back into the motel building to thoroughly wash his hands.

But the actor who stands out the most is Candy. It’s hard to imagine but if you find old pictures from the 1970s of Candy during his Second City theater days, he was a lot slimmer. Being a big guy, both in height at 6-foot-3 and weight, he had become cast in a lot of movies as the lovable oaf after appearing in smaller roles in Stripes and Splash. But there’s something sweet and gentile about his role as Del. Also, there’s something sad as his desire to be liked sometimes pushes people away.

During their first night in the motel room, Neal unloads all the problems he has with Del and we see how hurt Del is. Here’s where Del responds emotional that he likes who he is, so does his wife and his customers because he’s “the real article” and can’t be a cynic like Neal because he doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. However, later in the movie, to make money, he more or less swindles bus terminal patrons into buying shower curtains until the belief they’re actually ear-rings. No one’s perfect but I think it shows how Del is able to survive while he’s homeless.

I’m almost certain that when Neal buys the train tickets, he intentionally lies to Del about not being able to buy two together because he doesn’t want to be with Del anymore. Neal thinks money and prestige is all that’s needed. Being shown that there’s another world out there he doesn’t bother to notice opens his eyes. Neal has what Del doesn’t. He has a wife who loves him and kids who are excited he’s home. One thing I like is how both the parents of both Neal and Susan are acting cordially when Neal introduces them to Del. In-laws are often shown as fighting and bickering in these movies, but that’s not the case here.

Neal has the best family a man can ask for. He realizes it at the end. He also realizes that he needs to repay Del with the kindness. You’re almost certain that Del soon became “Uncle Del” to their children. As I said early, filming was sporadic as they had to find locations where there was more snow on the ground. Some other scenes were filmed in Illinois towns, including Woodstock, Ill., where Groundhog Day would film a few years later. Both movies are about career-obsessed uptight men discover what really matters and getting a chance to change things for the better.

This was Hughes’ first movie as a director that wasn’t centralized around teenagers. It was a change for him as he tried to focus on more adult-themed material. The movie’s R-rating is mostly for a profanity-laced tirade between Neal and the car rental clerk where he drops the F-bomb in every other word it seems. The fact this language is the only thing that garners the rating shows how out of touch our ratings system was and still is. Hughes’ next movie She’s Having A Baby would also focus on adult characters but wasn’t as well received.

Hughes returned to his roots with Uncle Buck, also featuring Candy in the titular role. Hughes would focus more on family-oriented material as he would pen the Home Alone movies and Dennis the Menace. Candy would die suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 43 on the set of Wagons East leading the filmmakers to change the plot and it got bad reviews and bombed. His other movie released posthumously, Canadian Bacon, wasn’t well received either.

It’s been reported that Hughes and Candy were such good friends that Candy’s death caused Hughes to turn his back on Hollywood in the 1990s as Hughes knew he could never write another role for him. Candy did his small role as Gus Polinski in the first Home Alone as a personal favor and was paid less than $500 for a day’s work and even forfeited a percentage of the movie’s profits, not thinking it was going to be the big success it was. Regardless he never regretted the decision according to friends and family. Years later, stories of Candy’s kindness are still being shared. One story in particular is when he was confused as a set worker on SCTV because of his size and continued to help the other worker even when he was called to make-up.

This also marked a change for Martin as film critics began to take him more seriously. Who knows if we’d ever would’ve gotten a sequel to this or seen Martin and Candy together in a different movie? Maybe we’re not allowed to have too much of a good thing. Martin, Candy and Hughes all did some of their best work here. And almost 35 years later, this is still the best movie ever about Thanksgiving.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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