One week from today, everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving movie, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, turns 25 years old. By a certain logic, we should therefore make next Sunday’s Scenes We Love post devoted to the John Hughes classic. But that would make it late for the holiday this Thursday — on or before which many sites will post their obligatory write-up on the wacky road comedy, which stars John Candy and Steve Martin as unfortunate traveling companions on their way home for turkey day. Also an occasion and a beloved film like this deserve the eight days of celebrating.
Unlike some other memorable and highly quotable works, this one is not the sort that we could include every single scene as a scene we love. Mostly, we just refuse to feature the famous “those aren’t pillows!” bit, and not just because of the homophobic aspect. It’s just really not that funny. Not that all the scenes below are funny. What we love about PT&A is how even though it’s a comedy it’s quite sad. Sure it kinda ends happily, but just before that warm final greeting there’s something depressing about the story. Hughes was great at making us laugh enough for someone who clearly had a lot of gloomy ideas in his head.
Going the Wrong Way
Here’s a good example of how dark this comedy is. Among the many gags in the film involving extremely awful travel situations, the idea of Del (Candy) driving on the wrong side of the highway is probably the most memorable. And this is probably because it’s more scary than funny. There are some nice comedic touches, such as Neal (Martin) pulling his fingers out of the dashboard and Del having bent the steering wheel. And the skeletons and Del as Satan are pretty silly, almost out of place in the movie. Maybe it just nowadays makes us think of the reality of the gag (especially having seen the devastating documentary There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane). Still, it’s not the darkest gag Hughes has written into a road movie. That would be the dog-dragging part from National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Okay, here’s a scene that’s more fun. Road movies are typically best for their supporting players, the many crazies the traveling protagonists meet along the way. In this scene, a young Dylan Baker plays a gross pickup truck driver offering Del and Neal a lift to a train station. The character is sort of a rehash of Cousin Eddie from the Vacation movies and the part with the wife being ordered to get their bags is a definite repeat of a gag from Hughes’s European Vacation script. Still, Baker is pretty disgustingly hilarious.
This is a John Hughes movie so of course one of those crazy characters is played by the wonderful Edie McClurg. What’s great about this scene and its foul-mouthed rant, which likely ensured the R rating, is how familiar it is to anyone who has been on either side of the counter — obviously it’s even greater if you identify with both (we definitely do). While it’s understandable and relatable how nasty Neal gets here, it’s also one of the many signs of how much of an insensitive asshole he truly is. He goes overboard. He’s not a likable character, and that makes him and the movie more interesting.
Del the Salesman
Del, on the other hand, is typically intended to be the more likable character throughout. Well, likable isn’t the right word, because he truly is irritating and ignorant as hell. Call him well-meaning all you want, but a guy as obnoxious as Del is also relatively selfish and insensitive in his tactlessness and carelessness. Then there is this little montage where we see that he can also be a total snake, duping suckers for money in a way that’s not just crafty salesmanship but very knowingly scamming. Here we get to know that Del also isn’t that much more innocent or kindly than Neal. They’re both scumbags in their own way and deserve each other.
“Have a Point” / “I Like Me”
The f-bombs in the scene above are plenty nasty, but that rant has nothing on the meanness of Neal’s speech to Del about how horrible and annoying he is. He’s stressed and had a long week, but is that an excuse to just tear the guy apart like he does? Fortunately, Del has a remarkably thick spirit and comes back with one of the all-time greatest responses in cinema. You can tell he’s hurt, and maybe he’s not a hundred-percent behind what he says, but it’s strong and inspiring and makes you start to favor Del a whole ton more than Neal again. We like you too, Del, in spite of when you ripped of those people with your “autographed” “earrings.” Enjoy the exchange below in isolated videos.
“Haven’t Been Home in Years”
We’re not typically keen on “reminder flashbacks,” those clips in movies that re-show the audience some earlier scene or dialogue, often in the pandering expectation that we don’t have a long enough memory to last a whole movie. They can sometimes be forgiven, though, if the device is truly recognizable as representing a character’s thoughts. Such is the case at the end of PT&A in the memory montage that gets Neal to realize the truth about Del. Besides, it’s followed by the mushy moment that we can’t help but always choke up during. It’s a heartfelt scene no matter if these two guys really deserve our emotion. We don’t even end up feeling the most sorry for Mrs. Page and the kids for having to spend their Thanksgiving with a real jerk of a husband/father (what’s with that look he gives his wife at the table?) and the semi-sleazy annoying guy he has suddenly decided he likes. Seriously, by the end this film crushes cold-hearted cynicism like no other. And that goes for whatever language you watch it in — below, you’ll find an Italian dub, because it’s the only version we could find.