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Giving Thanks for Planes, Trains and Automobiles

My holiday movie-watching tradition starts Thanksgiving weekend, the four-day holiday during which I usually have some pleasant and relaxing down-time. These days, it happens when the grown children and their children have left for their own homes after some chaotic few days of high chairs, potty chairs, sippy cups, and Sesame Street.

I nestle on a couch with my knitting needles and yarn, the remote and the dozen or so of my holiday favorites. It’s a contest to see how many I can watch in one marathon sitting. Call me a sap, but there is nothing better than a few sobs and tears at the end of The Family Stone or Love Affair (the remake with Warren Beatty and Annette Benning.)  I smile broadly each and with every last scene of The Holiday or Love Actually (even after crying each and every time Emma Thompson’s heart breaks.)

There is no better movie, though, to begin my marathon than Planes, Trains, and Automobiles with Steve Martin and John Candy, and written, directed and produced by John Hughes. It’s hilarious, it’s emotional, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s uplifting. As Roger Ebert once said, this movie is an arrow “straight to the heart”.

I’ve probably watched Planes, Trains and Automobiles 25 times. I didn’t discover it in the movie theater when it was released on the day before Thanksgiving in 1987. It the time, we were raising young daughters who were not even in school yet. We certainly didn’t spend much time or money at the movies that year unless it was Benji: The Hunted or The Great Mouse Detective.

So it was several years later that my daughters and I discovered Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Simply because of its R rating, we waited until they were older when the video made it to our home. (The movie earned its R rating for its funniest scene where Martin’s character is more than a bit frustrated with the car rental clerk. There are 18 F-bombs in the one monologue, certainly inappropriate for younger children.)

I’ve loved Steve Martin in many things, particularly his role as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors. Like most of my peers, I chuckled through the Smothers Brothers, the Carol Burnett Show, and Saturday Night Live watching Steve’s comedic routines.  I enjoyed The Lonely Guy, Pennies from Heaven, and Roxanne but sometimes his slapstick was a bit awkward for my taste. It wasn’t until his roles in Parenthood, Grand Canyon, Father of the Bride and A Simple Twist of Fate that I began to truly appreciate him.

My favorite John Candy movie was Cool Runnings (1993), one my daughters loved, as well. We watched the movie over and over in the years after his death of a heart attack in 1994. Candy was only 43 when he died and Cool Runnings was the last movie released during his lifetime.

The beautiful irony in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (and don’t forget that New York City cab, Chicago Transit Authority commuter rail, and the back of several trucks) is that while both men appear to be caught in a nightmarish attempt to get home for Thanksgiving, it is only Martin’s character (Neal Page) who has anywhere to go. Clumsy and clownish Del Griffith (John Candy’s character) is genuinely trying to help, yet he can’t escape the disastrous results in each attempt.

I was a bit disappointed to learn that John Hughes, the producer, director and writer of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, originally wrote and filmed a different ending. I simply can’t imagine an ending that leaves out the perfect and poignant Scrooge Awakening when Neal Page reflects and discovers that Del Griffith actually has nowhere to go for Thanksgiving.

I adore this movie for its comedic moments, but I love it for its pain, heart and truth. Martin plays the extremely uptight Neal Page which, apparently, is more like Steve Martin’s true personality (much more serious and quiet.) Candy’s role as Del Griffith as a clumsy, obnoxious, ridiculous and sloppy salesman is sometimes achingly uncomfortable to watch. But he is real and he wins our hearts in most scenes because he tries so hard despite his sweet and honest self.

There are some fantastic cameos in the film. One is Kevin Bacon as Martin’s nemesis hailing a cab on the New York streets. Two days before Thanksgiving. In rush hour.  In real life, Kevin Bacon was hanging around after just shooting another John Hughes film and he volunteered for the uncredited role. William Windom begins the movie in the very first scene as a terribly confused executive who can’t make a decision. If you watch the credits all the way through, you’ll find Windom still trying to make up his mind on Thanksgiving in his boardroom, surrounded by his turkey dinner. In my childhood, Windom was a favorite TV actor of mine starring in Farmer’s Daughter opposite Inger Stevens. Edie McClurg plays the sassy and clueless rental car clerk and Ben Stein is the Wichita airport employee who broadcasts the cancelled flight that begins Neal’s and Del’s three-day saga.

In the beginning of his career, John Hughes was best known for writing, directing, and producing a handful of teenage angst movies (Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). It was the moralistic Planes, Trains and Automobiles that earned Hughes great respect.

John Candy acted in eight of John Hughes’ films and Candy’s death at an early age deeply affected Hughes who stopped directing after Candy died. Although he continued to write and produce, Hughes was involved in only eight films after Candy’s death from 1994 until his own death in 2009. Hughes died fairly young himself of a heart attack at age 59.

Of course, the Minuteman Library Network has most, if not all, of Hughes’, Martin’s and Candy’s films on DVD to borrow. Morrill Memorial Library cardholders can download and watch some of Martin’s comedic antics with Carol Burnett and Johnny Carson on hoopla, our streaming video, audiobook and music service. One of my favorite Martin movies is A Simple Twist of Fate (1993) in which Martin has a very serious role as the adoptive father of a seemingly orphaned child.  It is available on DVD or on hoopla – a must-see for the holiday viewing season.

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte’s column in the December 1, 2016 issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Sam Simas

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