A lighthearted romp at first blush, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” yet tells the story of how the example of simple goodness can be transformational.
The category of “Thanksgiving movies” is a select one indeed, but it is not meant as faint praise to crown John Hughes’ 1987 film, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the greatest Thanksgiving film ever made. On the surface a carefree comedy, the movie carries a subtle Christian subtext and a message whose deep pathos is not fully revealed until its penultimate scene.
The movie tells the story of Neal Page (played by Steve Martin), a middle-aged, well-to-do advertising executive, who is trying to get home from New York to spend Thanksgiving with his family at his home in an up-scale Chicago suburb. His journey quickly becomes a nightmare when he meets Del Griffith (played by John Candy) a boorish, traveling shower-curtain-ring salesman, who attempts to befriend the self-centered Page. Griffith first inadvertently steals Page’s taxi, then ends up seated next to him on a plane that is grounded by a snowstorm, and next proceeds to bumble in nearly every attempt to help Page get home by, variously, train, truck, and automobile.
The interplay between the staid and trim Martin and the gregarious and rotund Candy makes for some hilarious and unforgettable scenes: Page and Griffith are forced to share a hotel bed together and wake up to find that they are cuddling in their sleep, dreaming of their wives (“Those aren’t pillows!”); Griffith mistakenly drives the wrong way down a highway, dismissing two motorists’ shouted warning that they “are going the wrong way” with the retort, “how do they know where we’re going?”; Griffith’s carelessness results in the pair’s rental car going up in flames, yet Griffith is nonplussed and pilots the skeletal vehicle down the interstate, telling a police officer who stops them that he indeed deems the car “safe for highway travel.”
But beneath all the hijinks lurk the messages of charity and redemption. Page, intent on getting back to his family, is oblivious to the fact that Griffith does not seem to be going anywhere in particular at Thanksgiving time. There are subtle hints sprinkled throughout the film that something is awry in Del’s life. He lugs around a large trunk, and though he mentions his wife Marie more than once and places a framed picture of her next to his hotel beds, he never checks in with her by phone, as Page does several times with his wife.
By modern standards, Page would be seen as a good man. He is a hard worker who has provided a comfortable living to his family. He is a good husband and father, who is eager to get home to his wife and children, who obviously adore him. One would guess that Neal Page gives regularly to local charities, holds doors for ladies, and tips waiters generously.
But it is in his interaction with the working-class Griffith that Page’s inner nature is revealed. For most of the film, he wants nothing to do the oafish salesman. Early on when sharing a hotel room with the slovenly Griffith, he is driven to his wit’s end and explodes at the salesman: “When you’re telling these little stories, here’s an idea: Have a point! It makes it so much more interesting for the listener.” In the first indication that this movie is deeper than a typical slapstick comedy, Griffith is brought nearly to tears by Page’s words: “Yeah, you’re right: I talk too much. But I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you, but I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. ‘Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.”
Key to the success of the film is this refusal of writer-director Hughes to make cardboard characters out of Griffith and Page. The shower-curtain-ring salesman, despite his boorishness, is aware that he is a “blabbermouth” who can annoy others. Page is also not one-dimensional. He is an everyman in his understandable desire to avoid the loquacious and overbearing Griffith, yet his face shows the regret he feels when he realizes he has deeply wounded Griffith in the hotel room scene described above.
Griffith’s essential goodness eventually begins to affect Page. When they end up being forced to abandon the same broken-down train, Page spots Griffith struggling to drag his oversize trunk across a rough field. Page shakes his head in resignation and picks up one end of the trunk. One is reminded of the reluctant Simon helping Jesus carry his cross. Near the end of the movie, when Griffith is forced to sleep in the burned-out car during a snowstorm, Page invites Griffith to share his hotel room. Over many mini-bottles of liquor, the two men joke and philosophize in a realistic scene of alcohol-fueled male bonding. Page seems to finally appreciate Griffith for what he is: a well-meaning, unpretentious, good soul, who simply “goes with the flow, like a twig on the shoulders of a mighty stream.”
After they part ways on a Chicago train platform, Page, who already realizes that Griffith has made him “a little wiser,” has time to recall and laugh at the pair’s misadventures. In doing so, it finally dawns on Page that Griffith does not have a home. Hurrying back to the station where he left the traveling salesman, Page finds Griffith sitting alone on a bench. “You said you were going home. What are you doing here?” Griffith replies: “I don’t have a home. Marie’s been dead for eight years.” In the movie’s final scene, Page and Griffith, each holding an end of the trunk, which, it is now clear, symbolizes the pain of loss that Griffith silently bares, walk up to Page’s home. “I won’t stay long,” Griffith offers. “Maybe I’ll just say hi, then be on my way.” “Just come on,” is Page’s reply.
Page’s act of charity in bringing Griffith to his home for Thanksgiving brings a heartwarming, and unexpected, conclusion to Planes, Trains and Automobiles. A lighthearted romp at first blush, at bottom it tells the story of how the example of simple goodness can be transformational. Page is much like Mel Gibson’s Simon of Cyrene in The Passion of the Christ: a man compelled to help a man he finds revolting, but who, by the very act of helping that man, comes to care about him. Genuinely intent on helping a complete stranger get home to his loved ones, Del Griffith, shower-curtain-ring salesman, does much more than that: He saves a soul.
This essay was first published here in November 2012.
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The featured image is a still from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, courtesy of IMDb.