Warning: Contains spoilers
Holidays have always provided ample material for film. Christmas may be the reigning champion, running the gamut from It’s a Wonderful Life to Die Hard. Halloween basically owns the horror genre, and so on. Thanksgiving has had its share of films, with the holiday getting a nod in movies that take place over a longer span, or occasionally in family-focused dramas or comedies. But when it comes to The Greatest Thanksgiving Movie, there’s simply one grand champion: without a doubt, it’s John Hughes’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
John Hughes might be the patron saint of mining one’s own experiences for the movies. From the teen angst he parlayed into an entire subgenre (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, etc.) to the occasional lunacy of family trips (the Vacation series) to the uncertainty of adulthood (She’s Having a Baby), part of the brilliance of Hughes came from capturing personal stories and turning them into universal moments. What makes Planes, Trains, and Automobiles stand out is that it turns on the idea of what Thanksgiving is supposed to mean, rather than centering the action on a meal or family gathering.
The conceit of the story is simple. Neal Page (Steve Martin) just wants to get back to Chicago from his New York business trip in time for Thanksgiving with his family. Del Griffith (John Candy) is a garrulous traveling salesman, much different in temperament than the uptight, easily frustrated Page. Page’s attempts to get home on the various conveyances of the title are repeatedly thwarted by problems both beyond his control (weather, etc.) and precipitated by the perpetually well-meaning Griffith. Candy’s character tries as hard as he can to help, and Martin’s character just can’t be bothered. That’s an overt engine for comedy, but it also says something about the modern American view of holidays.
Holidays are most definitely a time when people try to come together because they want to, but they are also a time of paralyzing obligation. A good many people try to make the holidays “work” because they believe that they “have to do it,” not necessarily because they want to make it so. We believe that Page wants to get back to his family, but there’s something in his nature that suggests that his desire is also founded on a belief that he must get back to his family because that’s what one does. Griffith, it seems, intuitively understands both truths, and tries his best to help.
That the movie is built over the inconveniences of travel is no mistake. Modern transportation can be both the most expedient and most frustrating thing on Earth. Hughes drives this home over and over; nothing can make you angrier than when something that’s supposed to work, simply doesn’t. And nothing is ever easy about holiday travel, even with modern booking methods; if it was, there wouldn’t be constant updates on the news about weather, delays, closings, and wait-time expectations. Everyone has experienced travel anxiety, so that layer of the story slots perfectly next to the feelings of needing to make one particular meal on one day of the year.
Of course, Hughes puts the bigger themes underneath some seriously gut-busting humor. From Candy leading a sing-along of the theme to The Flintstones to the immortal “Those aren’t pillows!” scene, the movie is loaded with laugh after laugh. Hughes uses the humor to lull you into overlooking some of his more serious themes of loneliness, and that’s understandable, because the movie is just really, really funny. It’s the funny stuff that gets you to watch, and it’s part of the reason that you watch it again and again, but it’s not the only thing.
Hughes reserves his biggest emotional gut-punch for the last act of the movie. We’ve been under the impression that Candy’s Griffith has also been trying to get home. But we ultimately discover that his own wife died years ago. He’s all alone, and he just wanted to help Page get back to his own family so that he wouldn’t be alone, too. It’s a sobering reminder of how difficult the holidays can be for people who have lost family members, or how difficult they might be this year, when better judgment indicates that large gatherings are a risky proposition at best. It’s not really a surprise when Page brings Griffith to his home to share their Thanksgiving, but it’s a welcome and heartwarming outcome.
Like most of Hughes’s output, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is so successful and remains so beloved because it touches on a common experience in both outrageously funny and painfully funny ways. Most people probably struggle between the dueling forces of obligation and genuine longing for connection. Most people probably do experience some loneliness around a holiday, whether they’re missing absent friends or family members long passed. This movie works so well because it bridges all the sides. It’s the greatest because it finds humor, it finds heart, and it brings them both home.
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