This month marks the 25th anniversary of the film Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Released on November 25, 1987, the film would become a box office hit and subsequently become a much beloved comedy classic (especially by yours truly).
It would mark a departure from the popular teenage comedies for director/writer John Hughes that he was best known for. It would give John Candy his best comedic film character ever. And it would become Steve Martin’s own personal favorite out of all the films he has done.
I remember being very anxious to see Planes on a chilly evening during its initial release. I had always loved Steve Martin and him co-starring with John Candy sounded like potentially a great teaming. Plus, the commercials looked pretty good.
I always thought Candy was funny on SCTV, but other than Splash I thought the films he did were pretty poor and he was usually wasted in silly comedies.
He was much better when he would just pop in for a small part in a movie, be funny and leave, like Little Shop of Horrors, Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation or The Blues Brothers (“Orange whip?”). As much as I wanted to like him in movies I was growing impatient with his leading roles. Armed and Dangerous didn’t give me too much confidence in Candy’s future film work.
Since debuting in The Jerk, Martin’s most memorable films had him continuing to play outlandish characters in wacky comedies – The Man With Two Brains, The Lonely Guy.
With 1984’s All of Me it began the first rumblings that Martin was more than just a funny stand-up who could do zany movies. The film was the perfect showcase for his physical humor and proved the guy could act.
Martin’s talents would again be reinforced by audiences and critics earlier in 1987 with Roxanne, which Martin had not only starred in, but also wrote. It was now accepted that Martin didn’t need to rely on wearing a white suit and funny glasses to get laughs and he was actually a very talented actor.
Director John Hughes was one of the most popular directors during the 80’s. Much like how audiences had certain expectations when they would go see a ‘Steven Spielberg Film’, it was the same with a film by John Hughes.
It seems every decade there are films that leave a real lasting impact on the young audiences who would watch them. 1950’s – Rebel Without A Cause, 1960’s – Frankie and Annette’s beach movies, 1970’s – Star Wars and Grease.
In the 1980’s it was John Hughes. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, they would all become a big part of adolescent viewing in the 80’s. Teens would see them, quote them, listen to the soundtracks, quote them again and watch them again. Hughes’ films have to have something special to them, since they’re consistently being ‘rediscovered’ by generations of movie fans ever since.
I still don’t know if there is an equivalent filmmaker to Hughes today. What are the quality teen movies for kids now? What are the films teens are watching today that they’ll be fondly rewatching thirty years from now? Sometimes I think the genre has virtually vanished.
It’s not surprising how Hughes’ now grown audience so strongly remembers these flicks. All those films left a deep mark on the ones who watched them back in the 80’s. Last week I got a random text from a friend quoting Ferris Bueller out of nowhere. He really loves 80’s movies. I don’t think he’s gone a week without quoting or talking about a movie from that decade.
Sure, there were the typical 80’s teen/sex comedies of the period (a genre I’ve been revisiting lately), but a Hughes movie would try to give you more than guys running around with boners and girls being spied on in the shower.
Like his teen audience, Hughes was growing up and wanted to graduate to a bit more adult fare, hence Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It’s kind of funny, saying a movie with a guy putting his hand between another guys ass was more adult – but there weren’t any teenagers in it.
Martin plays Neal Page, a tense advertising exec who is headed home for the Thanksgiving holiday from New York to Chicago. After a flight delay Neal finally gets on his plane and fate sits him right next to Candy’s Del Griffith, a traveling shower ring salesman who has already unknowingly given Neal some headaches.
As with the best road movies, Neal’s trip gets complicated. A snowstorm forces him to land in Wichita and now he has to find another way to get back home. Luckily for us he teams up with Del so they can pool their talents together and get back for their Thanksgiving dinner. Unfortunately for Neal, Del’s only talent seems to be making every foot of this journey a total nightmare.
Martin’s straight-laced character is thrown into a maddening tailspin from Candy’s loud obnoxious salesman who is completely oblivious to the disgust, aggravation and mayhem he’s putting this guy through.
Could Planes, Trains and Automobiles possibly be the funniest road movie ever made?
Martin and Candy were never better and really make a great odd couple of traveling companions. At this point in his career Candy’s best sidekick role seemed to be with Tom Hanks in Splash. They reteamed in 1985’s Volunteers, but here with Martin he’s a partner onscreen. He’s given much more to do and there are more dimensions to his character than just being a zany sidekick.
There are an endless series of gags, slapstick and quote-worthy lines from beginning to end and they’re all pretty damn funny. Naturally, as the title indicates our heroes travel by all those modes of transportation. Plus, throw in a late night cab ride, a crammed bus, the back of pickup truck and inside a refrigerated truck. Too bad they didn’t get to include some bicycles on their adventure.
There is a great escalation of chaos throughout their journey. One of the best of these scenes is a seemingly easy late night ride down an empty highway. If you’ve seen the film you know the scene I’m referring to. The whole sequence is put together brilliantly. The climax of shots with Neal and Del’s reactions are comedy gold. I’ve never been able to hear the phrase “You’re going the wrong way!” the same ever since.
There is one shot that I’ve always particularly loved in the film. At the airport after their first brief encounter in New York involving a cab, Neal recalls where he saw Del before. As Neal’s recollection kicks in Hughes cuts to a shot of Candy doing the same expression when Martin last saw him.
The shot goes further to illustrate Martin’s memory with a cab door placed in front of Candy. The shot lasts for only a few seconds, but I always liked that added detail.
Besides the catastrophic anarchy on the roads of America the film has some great lines. Hughes was a terrific writer. He infused his teen characters with angst and problems who were able to verbally express themselves. Here, the actors all deliver Hughes’ lines with great conviction and the combination makes them very memorable.
Probably the most famous exchange comes between Martin and Edie McClurg’s car rental agent. After Neal was stranded in a parking lot with no rental car waiting for him, he treks back across highways and runways to give an angry classic demand that consists mainly of f-bombs.
Anyone who has experienced poor customer service would sympathize. Without missing a beat McClurg tops the scene off with the inevitable comeback.
This is the scene that got the film slapped with an R-rating. I think using the ‘F word’ eighteen times in a minute made the MPAA uncomfortable. I still don’t understand their standards. How can Planes be given the same rating as Saw or any of those intense, grisly horror films? I don’t get it.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know all the great lines. And if you haven’t, it’s a must-see!
My personal favorite tirade Martin does in the film is his ‘Chatty Cathy’ speech where he loses it with Del and articulates how painful it is to listen to his nonsensical stories.
I’ve endured many people since first seeing this movie who have the same incompetent storytelling ability as Del suffers from. Hearing them drone on and on about really….nothing, while they really genuinely believe they’re being entertaining and I’m enjoying listening to their verbal diarrhea.
I guess they think the big smile on my face must mean I’m relishing their tales, but in reality I’m replaying in my head Martin exhaustingly suggesting to Del that when he tells his stories “Have a POINT. It makes it SO much more interesting for the listener!”
I don’t think there’s been a year that’s gone by since that I haven’t watched Planes. It’s practically become a November tradition. My father – who only really liked movies called Knute Rockne, Rudy or Field Of Dreams – loved Planes. Every year around Thanksgiving he’d ask me “Hey, when are we going to watch the funny guys try to get home for Thanksgiving?”.
The film is absurd and over-the-top at times, but Hughes, Martin and Candy tried to make Neal and Del more fleshed out than just one-note characters going through a series of misadventures. There is a sad element to the Del character, that provides the film with some heart and heads it to an emotional ending.
Although, I’ve never liked the song Everytime You Go Away by Paul Young, so when that song comes up during the final minutes of the movie it kind of grates on me.
Hughes had shot tons of footage while filming and his original cut of the film was said to have been three hours. It’s always been one of my cinematic yearnings to finally get to see what else was shot for the film.
My guess is probably most of it was probably just filler and awkward scenes, probably not a lot of hidden gems in there. I’d like to see it for myself though. It really pained me to read that Hughes had said most of that extra footage “has probably deteriorated by now”.
Candy died in 1994 at age 43. He left behind a host of film work, one of his most popular film roles being Del Griffith. In 2009 Hughes died at age 59. His death was a surprise, especially since Hughes had fallen off the Hollywood radar for so long. To those who grew up watching his films they immediately associate his name with the films that mean so much to them.
Twenty-five years later Planes, Trains and Automobiles continues to be one of my favorite comedies. I still find it as funny and entertaining as when I first saw it. Every year – especially around Thanksgiving – movie fans will continue to stumble onto this seemingly simple little movie and discover how good it is.
*UPDATE NOVEMBER 2022:
A new 4K Blu-Ray release includes “Over 75 minutes of deleted and extended footage”. I haven’t seen the release, but from what I’ve heard from some is that the deleted scenes are a novelty and there are some amusing bits, they don’t alter the film in anyway. Many of them are extended scenes where Martin and Candy riffing. One thing I’ve heard is the scenes show how Hughes pared down the film to only the best comedic bits and elements to make it such a beloved classic comedy.