There aren’t a lot of movies set around Thanksgiving. There are several reasons for this - the most important one being it’s a bizarre, truly American holiday that anyone outside the country (except Canada) doesn’t really understand. Because of this, to base a film around it would automatically rule out international favour. Typically screenwriters tend to focus their yarns around Christmas if you’re in search of a family gathering, or perhaps Halloween or New Year's Eve in a pinch. But alas, my lord and savour, King of the 80s, rebel with a cause and grand master filmmaker, auteur John Hughes dared to make a film set where few had set their films before - Thanksgiving. It’s a time when (depending on where you are in the country) it’s cold, possibly even snowing and everybody, everybody is on the road trying to get to where they’re going for that fateful last Thursday in November. Because transport congestion isn’t enough so send anyone off the deep end, genius John Hughes assembled two of the most famous and beloved comedic names in film and stuck them together to survive an overcrowded airport filled with delayed passengers, a train that breaks down, a bus to nowhere, rental car companies, a road trip from hell, cheap hotel rooms, a robbery, a car breakdown - and all endured with the worst travel companion known to mankind. You can’t help but laugh at the shenanigans... and for the simple fact that it’s not you.
You could claim that it was all strategy. ‘Planes’ could just as easily be set at Christmas - the elements are still there: snow, migration of the populous, a national holiday. But then it would have been one in a pile of movies to watch inside with the family, even if it still made the short list. Here, he gets ahead of the pack - by a month at least - and now tops a very short, niche list. Is there no end to this man’s genius!?
By the time 1987 rolled around, John Hughes had made a name for himself for his teen comedies such as ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’, ‘Sixteen Candles’ ,‘The Breakfast Club’ and ‘Weird Science’. All successes. All still highly regarded today. But it was his return to the adult world that today gives him his highest Rotten Tomatoes score as a writer-director at 92% - only ‘Nation Lampoon’s Vacation’ sits higher at 93% with Hughes serving as a writer/producer. While he was the teenagers’ filmmaker back in the day, giving them a voice no one had given them before, it’s funny now to think that the foibles of adulting is where he found his mass critical acceptance. Hughes’ appeal is such that many countries gave ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ a PG (or equivalent) rating despite one infamous scene where the word “fucking” is uttered 18 times in the span of just 60 seconds. A scene Roger Ebert claimed was “one of the greatest moments in movie dialogue.” Take that, Quentin Tarantino! Consequently, ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ sit on Ebert’s ‘Great Movies Collection’.
...one infamous scene where the word “fucking” is uttered 18 times in the span of just 60 seconds. A scene Roger Ebert claimed was “one of the greatest moments in movie dialogue.”
John Hughes got people. Therein lies the beauty of his work. He never talked down to people or saw anyone as less-than, and this was reflected in his characters. While he obviously wrote the occasional villain or two, he still managed to sneak in those human moments to elicit a touch of empathy. In ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’, we hate Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), but at the end of the movie when he’s beaten, defeated, sitting silently on the bus accepting a gummy bear still warm from the pocket of a student, you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. The same rules apply to ‘Planes’. Neal (Steve Martin) and Del (John Candy) are simply men trying to get home at the hardest possible time. They’re opposites, forced together to endure not only everything that Murphy can throw at them, but the worst of it all, each other’s company. Who hasn’t sat next to a Chatty Cathy on a plane or had to go anywhere with a less-than-ideal companion? The idea is, we can all relate. Of course, these unpleasantries are never thrown at us all at once, but that’s what makes for such a fantastic road trip buddy comedy farce.
‘Planes’ was the start of something big on many fronts. As mentioned earlier - this was the beginning of a more mature John Hughes. ‘Planes’ was followed by ‘She’s Having a Baby’, ‘Curly Sue’ and the remake of ‘Miracle on 34th Street’. This was also the spark that lit the fire for Hughes’ foray into holiday movies, with ‘Home Alone’, ‘Home Alone 2’, ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’ and the aforementioned ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ made in its wake. Let’s not forget ‘Planes’ would be the first of four collaborations between Hughes and John Candy - ‘Uncle Buck’ being the best of the bunch. ‘Planes’ also gave rise to a mature “movie star” Steve Martin, who up until then had been a king of stand-up comedy and films such as ‘The Jerk’.
On this, ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ 30th anniversary, we can be thankful for three things: John Hughes - who yesterday, today and tomorrow gave us the greatest comedies a child, a teenager and an adult could hope for. Steve Martin and John Candy - an on-screen pairing only dreams are made of. It’s a shame it only happened once. But in the case of Candy and Hughes, only the good die young. And lastly, the line “Those aren’t pillows!”. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then I suggest you go fucking watch the movie right fucking now. Happy fucking Thanksgiving.