Why Planes, Trains And Automobiles Is The Definitive Thanksgiving Movie

Illustration for article titled Why Planes, Trains And Automobiles Is The Definitive Thanksgiving Movie

John Candy was only 43 when he died of a heart attack in 1994 on the set of a truly terrible movie called Wagons East!. I was young, but I remember his death being met with something like unsurprised shock. Candy had, after all, been quite overweight for years; he also drank and smoked. I can think of many actors, though, with much longer careers, who never came close to striking a note as sweet and pure as Candy did in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

The movie, on paper, is a bit of a clichéd mess. An uptight advertising executive named Neal (Steve Martin) and a cheerfully rude shower-ring salesman named Del (Candy) are trying to get to Chicago for Thanksgiving. After Del inadvertently steals Neal’s cab in midtown Manhattan, the two end up sitting next to each other on a plane to Chicago. Del talks too much, exposes his smelly feet, and snores, among other things. When the plane is diverted to Wichita because of bad weather, Neal reluctantly agrees to share a hotel room with Del, because it’s the only room left in town.

All of which leads, early on, to the key scene of the movie, and the best scene of Candy’s career. The scene has been parodied a fair amount since, but every year I watch it, it still gets me.

That’s genuine venom from Steve Martin, and genuine hurt from John Candy, who, you think for a moment, might actually be beaten. But then he rises to his own defense.


“I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me, because I’m the real article,” Candy says. “What you see is what you get.”

That sets the stage for the rest of the movie, which plays out as you think it might—a train from Wichita stalls in the middle of a field; a bus only gets them so far as St. Louis; a rental car is destroyed by fire thanks to a carelessly tossed cigarette; a refrigerated truck gets them another portion of the way to Chicago; and the final legs of the journey are undertaken via Chicago “L” and by foot.

Hijinks at each stop, of course, ensue. The funniest for my money, are the scenes in the rental car, including this one which is a masterclass in slapstick:

The movie is also full of some wonderful dialogue, the most famous example of which is Steve Martin’s profane rant against a rental-car company worker. Directly after that, though, I’ve always appreciated the insult Martin’s character directs towards a taxi driver, mainly because it’s so economically worded.

Owned. Indeed, it’s the underlying heart of the movie that makes the rest of it funny. The jokes aren’t that great, but since we fall in love with the characters so quickly, they don’t have to be. Fifteen minutes in, Del and Neal might as well be family.


When they finally get back to Chicago, it’s revealed (spoiler alert) that while Neal has a giant house and a wife and three kids, Del has none of those things; his wife, whom he’d only spoken of in the present tense, had in fact died eight years prior. For the viewer, the fullness of Del’s loneliness becomes complete.

And you get the sense that Candy’s loneliness wasn’t any less. Here’s a passage from a Roger Ebert review that always stuck with me:

One night a few years after “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” was released, I came upon John Candy (1950-1994) sitting all by himself in a hotel bar in New York, smoking and drinking, and we talked for a while. We were going to be on the same TV show the next day. He was depressed. People loved him, but he didn’t seem to know that, or it wasn’t enough. He was a sweet guy and nobody had a word to say against him, but he was down on himself. All he wanted to do was make people laugh, but sometimes he tried too hard, and he hated himself for doing that in some of his movies. I thought of Del. There is so much truth in the role that it transforms the whole movie. Hughes knew it, and captured it again in “Only the Lonely” (1991). And Steve Martin knew it, and played straight to it.


Thanksgiving is the ostensible reason for the entire plot of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but I also like to think of the movie as being structured not unlike Thanksgiving day itself, when you’re introduced or reintroduced to people who can be by turns irritating, endearing, exasperating, loving, biting, and forgiving.

By the end, you’re mostly happy it’s over, even if you eventually realize the journey wasn’t so bad after all.

News Editor at Jalopnik. 2008 Honda Fit Sport.

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The Upsetter

I always find it most irksome that so many people at the time thought Kurt Cobain’s suicide was some kind of cultural watershed moment destined to define my generation and would go out of their way to tell me so. It wasn’t.

I remember I was working my day job at an industrial fishing supply warehouse near Seattle’s Ballard district loading heavy chain by hand into a container for shipping to Alaska, when KISW broke the news that John Candy had keeled over from a heart attack in New Mexico filming a western. A little part of me died inside that day, and it was a closed casket funeral.

See the thing was, was that I loved movies however wasn’t starstruck in any sense of the word. I knew it was an industry and that the dream factory angle was just good, yet outdated, marketing.

But John Candy had been one of the few celebrities I would have actually have given a damn about meeting in real life. Even if he was in a shitty movie, that movie suddenly wasn’t as shitty. That’s high praise. None of that “everybody loves a jolly fat man” bullshit, he just seemed like a decent and talented guy. Genuine.

My roommate who worked the gill nets the floor below me and I drove home nearby for lunch to find our other roommate there on his day off. We’ll call him Jake. He had moved out to Seattle to be cool and I never grew up in Iowa so I guess I couldn’t blame him but did anyway. Jake wasn’t a bad guy and I helped get him hired on my other job bouncing at the Moore Theater then immediately regretted it. He asked us if we’d heard the news. I’d lost my appetite and whatever we were home to smoke wasn’t helping. I replied that yes, I had heard and it sucked. Royally.

Jake told me not to worry. That the doctors had said he was going to pull out of it. I replied that I’d heard on the radio that the heart attack had been fatal. Jake asks me what the fuck I’m talking about and I reply that I’m talking about John fucking Candy, in New fucking Mexico, what the fuck was he talking about? 

He goes on to tell us that the radio had just reported that Kurt Cobain had collapsed of an accidental drug overdose in Rome, innocuous cold medicine inadvertently mixed with booze now in the hospital on a ventilator with the beep-beep, but don’t worry fellas, he’s going to make it!

You have to understand, we’d just lost John Candy. I wasn’t in the mood for this shit.

I tell him that Kurt Cobain was a self-pitying miserable junkie fuck-up who’d woken up to realize he’d married some hatchet-faced harpy and had decided to take the easy way out, which was kind of bullshit seeing as how he had a kid and all. That it wasn’t accidental and twenty bucks said so, come maybe a couple of weeks of investigative journalism mixed with fatuous celebrity media. Double or nothing that if Cobain woke up from his coma he’d try and do it again.
Faced with such Heresy, and claiming me to be wallowing in self pity just because the fat guy from “Stripes” had died, Jake agreed to the bet.

Shitty bet, but I felt I won just by virtue of verbalizing it. Manners dictated I didn’t also mention the other obvious evidence for the suicide theory, that the guy had grown up in a small shitty Washington town with small shitty Washington town attitudes, getting beat up and ostracized for not belonging by phony assholes who had co-opted and adopted his music and message so that they could now belong. Like Jake.

The next day both the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran the two stories almost side by side above the fold, except Cobain’s was a little bigger. However, Candy’s byline broke your fucking heart. At the end of the column, they listed the name and address where you could donate money to his wife and children. Years later I found out from people who’d worked with him that he was the expansive type, the kind of guy who laughed and lived and would always pick up the check. All those years in show business, all the laughs I and countless, nameless others had gotten, and his wife had to take charity? And I’m supposed to feel sorry for that guy in Rome?

I thought to myself if Jake didn’t welsh out of the deal(Which was a very big if, Jake being one of those types who would always play the victim especially if there were women around) I’d be putting at least a crisp twenty in an envelope for the widow and kids even though back then I was so broke I couldn’t pay attention.

Three weeks later whatever happened to Cobain happened, suicide or not. I’ll never forget that day. That was the day I knew I wouldn’t be getting forty bucks from my roommate.

We miss you, John. Always will.