Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: A Classic

Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987). Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Since its release in 1987, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles has become a Thanksgiving tradition for families across the United States.

Advertising executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) wants to return home to Chicago.  He’s all set to get on a cab only to see it stolen out in front of his eyes by traveling salesman Del Griffith (John Candy).  This sets up the inevitable conflict that arises between the two when they next meet at La Guardia Airport on the way to O’Hare.  But wait!  A blizzard in Chicago means they won’t make it to Chicago tonight.  Nope, they get rerouted to Wichita, Kan., instead.

This reroute just brings more frustrations for Neal.  He now reluctantly joins Del in renting a hotel room for the night.  It’s an uncomfortable night for the two of them and as highlighted by Neal’s comment, “Those aren’t pillows!”

With the plane out of the question, enter the train–which ultimately breaks down because John Hughes wants to make it as hard as ever.  After parting ways once before, the two end up meeting again.  This time, it’s getting on a bus–thanks to Del–that doesn’t go past St. Louis.  You can just sense the frustration in Neal by this moment.  Del comes to the rescue when Neal has no luck renting a car.  The comedy just keeps flowing scene by scene.  Unfortunately, the car burns thanks to a cigarette and it forces them to find another way to Chicago.  This comes after Neal is forced to sell a watch just to get a room for the night!

There are some cliche moments as the film builds up to Neal’s reunion with wife Susan (Laila Robins) and family.  Neal was all set to go home to his family and cue the inevitable montage of flashbacks.  When we see Neal turn back inside, he asks Del Griffith why he’s still sitting there.  Finally learning the truth from Del, Neal does the right thing and invites him over.  The way that Steve Martin and John Candy play this scene is absolutely perfect.  It just proves to show how John Hughes had this uncanny ability to give us strong emotional moments in his screenplays.

When one looks at Hughes’ filmography of the years, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles came after a four teen movies.  After his first four films, a comedy about adults is quite the change.  It doesn’t change the fact that Hughes knows how to write his characters.  Hell, he had a way with writing for teenagers in the 1980s.  In any event, this film marked the second time that John Candy acted in a John Hughes film.  Candy would have roles or uncredited cameos in another five films!

The beauty of this R-rated comedy is that we’re rewarded by Steve Martin and John Candy’s chemistry.  The two of them just want to from New York to Chicago but it’s not meant to be.  John Hughes gives us a screenplay that stays grounded amid the situation.  Think about it.  All Neal Page wants to do is get back home to his family.  We get characters who are very believable in their behavior.  Hughes’ script could have really taken the two of them to absurd situations.  It’s perfectly okay that this film doesn’t have some of the zainy hi-jinks of National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Led by the chemistry between Steve Martin and John Candy, John Hughes’ Planes, Trains, and Automobiles remains a quintessential Thanksgiving classic.

CAST:  Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, and Michael McKean

Paramount Pictures opened Planes, Trains, and Automobiles on November 25, 1987.  The film is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.