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.