This story is over 5 years old.


'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' Is the Perfect Thanksgiving Movie

John Candy and Steve Martin's holiday classic is as heartwarming as it is hilarious.

When it comes to Christmas, there's no limit to the number of films Hollywood studios will churn out to celebrate America’s favorite holiday. This year alone, audiences can look forward to four releases over the next few weeks: The Star, a CGI children’s film about the birth of Jesus told from the animals’s perspective; The Man Who Invented Christmas, starring Christopher Plummer as Charles Dickens while he wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843; and Christmas-themed sequels to Bad Moms and Daddy’s Home.


But Thanksgiving still belongs to a single film released 30 years ago this week: John Hughes’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles, starring Steve Martin as a high-strung advertising exec just trying to get home for the holidays and John Candy as a boisterous, talkative traveling salesman trying to help.

As Neal Page (Martin) finishes a business trip in Manhattan and wants to return home to Chicago for Thanksgiving, fate binds him to Del Griffith (Candy)—who, if you met while traveling in real life, would be your worst nightmare. He steals a cab the first time we see him, spills all the beer in the motel room, lugs around a giant trunk, and leads a packed bus on a sing-along.

Forced to share everything from a train ride to a taxi to a bed (“Those aren’t pillows!”), Neal
becomes more and more frustrated with each new ordeal that arises. We’re right there with him when he finally explodes at Del, relatively early on in the movie, telling him he’s a slob, he’s unfunny, and that his pointless stories suck. But then the camera stays on Del and we watch his face fall.

“Yeah, you’re right. I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you but I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings,” Del replies. He knows he can be a blabbermouth. “You think what you want about me, I’m not changing. I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. Because I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.”


Released in 1987, the timing of Planes, Trains and Automobiles was perfect: for director John Hughes, trying to move away from the high school coming-of-age movies that were becoming his trademark; Steve Martin, whose movies were shifting from the likes of slapstick comedies like The Jerk and toward family flicks like Father of the Bride; and the introduction of John Candy into more mainstream roles following his time at SCTV and bit parts in films like National Lampoon’s Vacation and The Blues Brothers.

It must have been refreshing for moviegoers, too. By the time Planes came out in November, 1987 had been a year saturated with back-to-back action movies such as Predator, Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop II, Full Metal Jacket, and RoboCop. Even the coming-of-age films were adrenaline vehicles: The Lost Boys, Dirty Dancing, Adventures in Babysitting. Hughes himself would later shift to a string of Christmas movies, writing National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (a spinoff story featuring characters Hughes originally developed for the first Vacation film), Home Alone and a sequel, and the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street. But Planes would become remembered as the singular iconic Turkey Day movie.

It doesn’t hurt that other films about Thanksgiving are generally few and far-between. You’d think a holiday about people putting their differences aside and coming together for a meal would be a storytelling goldmine, but the most well-known ones are scattered across decades and genre. There’s Woody Allen’s indie-esque comedy Hannah and Her Sisters, the Addams Family sequel Addams Family Values, Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays, and the angsty Katie Holmes dramedy Pieces of April. And Thanksgivings typically seen in the movies usually take the form of nightmarish family confrontations, like the awkward sexual experimentation seen in The Ice Storm and The House of Yes, or the bitter resentment of Scent of a Woman.


Planes, Trains and Automobiles isn’t a flawless film: how does a plane heading to Chicago from New York City get redirected nearly twice as far away to Wichita? How is Del able to rent a car using Neal’s credit card without having to provide any form of ID? Why is Del specifically heading to Chicago in the first place if he doesn’t have a home there to return to? But for all the gaps in the plot, there are a million little touches. Like when the airport rep (a cameo by Ben Stein) announces the delayed flight, a sign behind him lists the plane’s new destination as “nowhere.” Or how the man waiting for the train next to Neal and Del has a box full of loose mice on his lap. Or the fact that Planes is rated R for one reason only: the golden, 60-second fuck-filled monologue that Steve Martin lovingly spits at the car rental lady (played by Edie McClurg, the principal’s secretary from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

What elevates the film are the performances by Steve Martin and John Candy—not as caricatures of personality types or parodies, but as real people and exaggerated versions of themselves on-screen. Martin, who can slide his characters into contempt and condescension as easily as slipping into a suit, is perfect at balancing Neal’s curt etiquette with being a complete asshole. And then there’s Candy, who was as well-meaning and eager to please in life as he was on-screen.

In a review of Planes by Roger Ebert, the film critic described an encounter with Candy, who was smoking and drinking in a hotel bar one night a few years after the movie was released: “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 Steve Martin knew it, and played straight to it.”

At the end of the film, we realize the truth about Del’s wife, revealed through flashback bits of
dialogue to Neal, who is finally able to hear what Del has been unconsciously hinting at the entire film. And Neal does what any good friend would do: he invites him home for dinner, each of them taking a handle on Del’s trunk, which we now understand is not just luggage but the emotional baggage that Del carries everywhere.

We never actually see the Turkey Day dinner that Neal’s been imagining the entire movie, but we don’t have to. No other film better embodies the meaning of Thanksgiving: it’s not about the food or even family but having empathy for others. A holiday that only means as much as the people we choose to spend it with. Planes, Trains and Automobiles gets it right.