Why 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' Is the Best Thanksgiving Movie Ever

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

A note for the uninitiated: Planes, Trains and Automobiles is John Hughes' 1987 odd-couple road comedy -- newly released on Blu-ray & DVD -- in which two strangers, Neal (Steve Martin) and Del (John Candy), endure travel hell trying to get back to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. Also: spoilers throughout; proceed accordingly.

1. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the greatest Thanksgiving film of all time

Admittedly, this is like being the tallest dwarf in southwest Idaho, because there just aren’t that many Thanksgiving movies, much less good ones. But still, it’s an achievement, because What’s Cooking?, Hannah and Her Sisters, and the savage Ice Storm are very good films.

So why are there so few Thanksgiving movies and so many Christmas movies? A theory: Christmas movies are mostly about stuff. They’re about wanting things, and having things, and the agony of being in between -- which is the central narrative of American life. And they feature recognizable (read bankable) characters, stories and symbolism, which makes them easier to sell. 

Thanksgiving, however, resists. It was long ago surrounded by the armies of Christmas; its supply routes have been severed, and Black Friday is forever battering at its gate. But, still, Thanksgiving stubbornly insists on being about gratitude. You can hear the market’s frustration at not being able to monetize it. But it will not be monetized. At its core, Thanksgiving is a day to reconcile great physical and emotional distances, and rest. And that’s what PT&A captures perfectly, which makes it great. 

That and the fact that it’s one of the funniest movies ever made.

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Paramount Pictures/YouTube

2. If there’s a real villain in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, it’s Wichita, Kansas

Yes, New York comes in for a few good whacks. When we first meet Neal, he’s in one of those soul-blanching NYC conference rooms, his face-twisted with hate, waiting for his dithering boss to approve a dumb print ad for some meaningless beauty product. And then we see him out on Park Avenue having a (pre-Uber) cab stolen by a smirking fleet-footed whelp broker played by Kevin Bacon. And then we see him try to bribe his way into another cab by appealing to the good nature of a smug lawyer. (“I don’t have a good nature,” the lawyer says.)

At first you think this is just another expression of 1980s suburban Midwestern populism: The big city is fully of slick, superficial shits trapped in their little fluoresced boxes of sadness and greed, cutting each other’s throats because they’re empty inside and it’s fun. Even in the original script, Hughes describes pedestrians as “a stampede of independent, socially incompatible human units.”

But then we get to fucking Wichita, Kansas. And there we see the mechanics of regional snobbery laid bare. Being a Chicago guy, of course John Hughes thinks New York is elitist, soulless and cold, unlike Chicago, which is authentic and peopled with real humans. But being a Chicago guy, Hughes also views Wichita as a hilarious sack of animate hog excrement, where good people are continually harassed and preyed upon by deranged hillbillies. It’s like “Wichita” is derived from some Native American word for “Mud-Hell.”

Witness: Neal and Del get a ride from the airport in some kind of heavy metal hotrod taxi lined with fur and porn with a “WOLF” license plate. The greasy deviant cabbie takes them the scenic route, prompting Del to comment, “He’s proud of his town. That’s a damn rare thing these days!” Ha ha ha ha ha Wichita. Then they’re robbed in their hotel room by some degenerate longhair with a switchblade. Then they’re taken on a hell ride to the train station by basically Cletus from The Simpsons, who makes his dour wife pick up their luggage. (“She’s skinny, but she’s strong,” he tells them. “Her first baby come out sideways. She didn’t scream or nothing.”) In one establishing shot of the hotel where Neal and Candy are staying, you can literally see pig anuses

There are many things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, PT&A declares. But one of the big ones is this: We don’t live in Mud-Hell.

3. Let’s pause for a moment to consider the pillow joke

Neal and Del wind up in a sleazy, vibrating-bed hotel room. There’s only one bed. Apparently they didn’t have cots in 1987. At least not in Wichita. (I’m surprised they even have beds there; I figured it would just be heaps of dirt upon which unlucky visitors could be ceaselessly violated by wall-eyed farm animals.) So, the two men share the bed. Morning breaks. Emmylou Harris’s “I’m Back in Baby’s Arms” is playing. The camera pans over to show Del spooning Neal. Del kisses his ear and smiles. Neal wakes up.

“Del,” Neal says, “why did you kiss my ear?”
“Why are you holding my hand?”
“Where’s your other hand?”
“Between two pillows.”
“Those aren’t pillows!”

They jump out of bed, skeeved out, and start taking about the Bears.

Classic scene. But also: ponder the fact that Del can’t tell the difference between two pillows and a human ass. Does Steve Martin have a particularly pillowy ass? Because he doesn’t look like it. And what does this say about Del’s sexual history? 

In light of this, I submit the possibility that Del’s wife Marie never did exist. She was actually a body pillow, and PT&A is basically the sequel to Lars and the Real Girl.

Paramount Pictures

4. Contrary to popular belief, the pillow joke is not the best joke

The best joke is when Del and Neal accidentally wind up on the wrong side of the highway and start taunting the other drivers who are screaming at them to turn around. 

Neal: “What’s going on?”
Del: “This joker wants to race.”
Other car: “Turn around!”
Neal: “He doesn’t want to race. That’s ridiculous.”
Del: “Okay, let’s go, let’s go.”
Others: “Put your window down!”
Neal: “He’s trying to say something.”
Del: “He’s probably drunk.”

[Neal puts his window down]

Others: “You’re going the wrong way!”
Neal: “He says we’re going the wrong way.”
Del: “Oh, he’s drunk. How would he know where we’re going?”
Neal: “Yeah, How would he know? [sarcastic] Thank you! Thanks a lot. Terrific.”
Del: “Thank you! [beeps horn] What a moron.”
Others: “You’re going in the wrong direction!”

Del mimes drinking, boozily lolling his head around with his tongue hanging out, before they’re nearly pancaked by two oncoming semis, a sequence in which Neal hallucinates Del as the devil cackling at him.

5. The second best joke is when Neal and Del are lying unhappily in bed, the night before the pillow incident

“I had no idea those beer cans were gonna blow like that,” Del says.

“You left ‘em on a vibrating bed,” answers Neal. “What did you think would happen?”

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Paramount Pictures/YouTube

6. “One possible project that's captured [John Candy’s] imagination is a script written by director John Hughes.”

“‘I know you're not supposed to talk about these things until they really happen, but it's really what I've been waiting for. I just cried with laughter when I read it. It's like it was written for me.’” -- Los Angeles Times, August 28, 1986

"I just started it, stopped to go to sleep. Got up. Continued, went back to sleep for a while, dreamed about it. Got up, finished it. I never stopped being inside it." -- John Hughes, to The New York Times in 1991, on writing the script for PT&A in three days.

7. The script was 148 pages long…

And Hughes’s first cut of the movie ran for a reported four-and-a-half hours. A lot of the stuff in the original script deserved to be cut. But there’s one brilliant bit that I really wish had stayed in. It’s Del, the shower curtain ring salesman, running his mouth on the plane from New York:

“I like to kid people that if it weren’t for shower curtain rings, Janet Leigh probably wouldn’t have caught her lunch in Psycho. You see that flick? ... I like to joke, but that one was no joke. I was new to that business when that baby hit the silver screen and that shower murder left a crap stain on the reputation of shower curtains the size of Texas. Pebble glass shower doors took a big bite out of our business for several years. We’re back on our feet now. We’re doing good. The young people going into their first homes don’t have the same phobia about showers that their parents had. That Alfred Hitchcock. You know what that Birds film did to parakeet sales? El dumpo, Jack. Sewer City. Good friend of mine lost his shirt.”

Walt Disney Pictures

8. Del was the inspiration for Bing Bong the imaginary friend in the Pixar film Inside Out

He has also been an obsession of Family Guy for years.

9. PT&A is remembered for being a great odd couple/road comedy with heart

But its real genius is making you feel like an ungrateful shit. This is the standard mission of many holiday films that concern the importance of Things That Matter over mere things, but what sets PT&A apart is that it has John Candy.

Take the scene where Neal viciously lays into Del in the motel room in Wichita. It is drenched in bile, and worth quoting in full:

“You’re no saint. You got a free cab, a free room. Someone who will listen to your boring stories. I mean, didn’t you notice on the plane when you started talking eventually I started reading the vomit bag? Didn’t that give you some kind of clue, like maybe this guy’s not enjoying it? Everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny, or mildly amusing , or interesting. You’re a miracle. Your stories have none of that. They’re not even amusing accidentally. Honey, I’d like you to meet Del Griffith, he’s got some amusing anecdotes for you! Here’s a gun so you can blow your brains out. You’ll thank me for it! I could tolerate any insurance seminar. For days I could sit there and listen to them go on and on with a big smile on my face. They’ll say, how can you stand it? And I’ll say, because been with Del Griffith. I can take anything. You know what they’d say? They’d say, I know what you mean. The shower curtain ring guy. Whoa. It’s like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll. I expect you to have a little string on your chest that I can pull out and have to snap back. Except I wouldn’t pull it out and snap it back, you would. Ack ack ack! And by the way, when you’re telling these little stories, here’s a good idea, have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener.”

Setting aside for a moment the fact that Neal is eviscerating Del for a sin we haven’t actually seen him commit (he tells a lot of boring stories in the original script, but none of those really made it to the final cut), the reason this scene works so well is because, like it or not, at this point you’re kind of on Neal’s side. His diatribe feels pretty good, because Del is annoying as hell. So when Del’s face falls, and he gives his teary response (impeccably delivered by Candy) -- 

“You want to hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. 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 like to hurt people’s feelings. 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.”

--it isn’t just Neal who is implicated, it’s us too for enjoying his tirade maybe a bit too much.

Then, in later scenes, when Del’s wife comes up, Candy’s performance is so subtle that you don’t even pick it up until you rewatch the film knowing that Marie has been dead the whole time. And then you feel even worse for missing the signs, like Neal did. You realize how often Del is on the verge of a breaking into sobs. Candy’s expression when Neal tells him, “At the very least, at the absolute minimum, you’ve got a woman you love to grow old with” and later, “Say hello to Marie for me, I feel like I know her” should have won him an Oscar.

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Paramount Pictures/YouTube

10. Here’s a question, though:

When they get to the motel in Wichita, Neal takes the first shower immediately upon arriving. When he gets out, he’s shocked to see that Del has somehow used all the towels and made a mess of the bathroom. Since he would have noticed this when he got into the shower, that means Del somehow slipped in, destroyed the place and used all the towels while Neal was in the shower. But in the film, Del was on the bed the whole time.

Eh, maybe I’m being nitpicky and this is just an excuse to relay a great line from the script that didn’t make it to the film: 

Neal: “Do you realize that you used all the towels?”

Del: “I’m pretty big and they’re pretty small. I’m sorry.”

11. Honorable mention for best joke goes to the exchange between Del, driving a burned-out, snow-filled car, and a state trooper

Cop: “Do you feel this vehicle is safe for highway travel?”

Del: “Yes, I do. Yes, I really do. I believe that.”

Paramount Pictures

12. Neal is much more unhappy in the original script

When his coworker wishes him a happy holiday, he says, “That’s a contradiction in terms.” It’s implied he’s a philanderer. It’s revealed later in the script that his wife thinks this whole misadventure is a ruse, that Del is actually a woman Neal is having an affair with. She announces she’s going to leave him the day after Thanksgiving. 

None of this made it into the final film, but it does account for how weirdly relieved and emotional Neal’s wife Susan is to see Del when he arrives at her house, and it explains the slightly odd way she says, “Hello Mister Griffith.” This despite the fact that Neal seems never to have mentioned Del to her in the film.

13. Some select anachronisms:

-Del and Neal claim they were carrying $700 and $263 in their wallets when they were robbed at the motel. What are they, drug dealers?

-Del manages to rent a car using Neal’s credit card without showing ID.

-Del then crashes the rental car through the front of a motel, flees, and is somehow not apprehended by the police within 30 seconds.

-Neal walks across a tarmac at the airport and is somehow not shipped off to some Homeland Security gulag in Bulgaria within 30 seconds.

-When self-driving cars become the norm, people will not understand key parts of this film.

-If ATMs existed, none of this would have ever happened.

14. Here’s a big question:

Where was Del going? We find out at the end that his wife/body pillow is no more, and he actually has no home to go to. In the script, at the big reveal at the end, Del explains to Neal that he has a habit of latching on to people during the holidays, but that still doesn’t explain why he was on the plane to Chicago in the first place. 

But maybe if you tweak it, it works. Maybe this is Del’s annual tradition. Maybe he’s so helplessly riddled with grief that it’s all he can do to return to the city he once called home and sit there, alone on a bench, mourning, or maybe quietly giving thanks for a thing he long ago lost, and hope that someone or something or some thought will come along and tell him what to do now. Adding that layer -- which could have been done in a single line of dialogue -- would have tied up the loose end.

Most likely, though, it’s just a big hole in the plot.

Paramount Pictures

15. OK, one more question:

Why was the plane diverted all the way to Wichita? It takes exactly as long to get from Chicago to Wichita as it does to get from New York to Chicago. Were there no closer airports? And just how bad was this storm? When the film cuts back to Neal’s house the next day, there are like four inches of snow on the lawn. Even Neal’s wife Susan is baffled by it. “I don’t understand what Wichita has to do with a snow storm in Chicago,” she tells him.

We either. I’m willing to be wrong. Maybe I don’t know enough about air traffic control, but I believe this diversion was concocted solely so Hughes could piss on Wichita.

16. A few penetrating insights about American-Canadian relations:

“[In PT&A] Candy plays a version of the good wife in his caring after Martin and his insistence on the importance of heart over head. As a Canadian, he takes up this role of playing a thoughtful feminine alter ego to an American protagonist with traditional ease. The mythology of Canada’s feminine role-playing to her masculine, aggressive continental partner is a well-known cultural observation, one that is often imagined to Canada’s disadvantage.” -- Made-in-Canada Humour [sic]: Literary, Folk and Popular Culture, by Beverly J. Rasporich  (2015)

“The metaphor of a masculine America’s penetration of a feminine Canada has been frequently evoked by those seeking a vivid imagery for the Canadian experience.” -- The Beaver Bites Back?, David H. Faherty and Frank E. Manning (1993)

The Canadian Mounted -- Title of a fake porno novel Del is seen reading at the airport

The Beaver Bites Back? -- Title of an actual, real book

17. In light of that, another suggested script revision:

“Del, why did you kiss my ear?”
“Why are you holding my hand?”
“Del, where’s your other hand?”
“It’s holding this gigante bean.”
“That’s not a gigante bean! That’s my prostate!

[Del sings “O Canada!”]

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Paramount Pictures/YouTube

18. About the f-bomb scene

Which, by the way, prompted Steve Martin to tell David Letterman that PT&A “is a perfect holiday film ... if you’re a parent who wants to take his 5-year-old to hear the f-word 19 times.”* In it, a fuming Neal has just walked all the way across the airport to get back to the rental car desk after his car wasn’t where it was supposed to be (the ‘80s were inconvenient!). There he meets the woman who played Mrs. Poole in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, whose makeup seems to have been applied with a fire extinguisher. She smiles and chirps. And he rips into her.

The bit doesn’t age incredibly well -- I do love how Martin says “runway” -- but it’s still funny. More important, though, it’s cathartic. Anyone who has ever spent time dealing with a hatefully chipper representative of a large corporation understands the burning rage and cosmic futility Neal feels at the end of that exchange. Yet again, he’s being a dick to a nice person, we’re enjoying it, and in the end, we’re all punished.

*There are actually 18 "fuckings" in the movie; there were 23 in the script.

19. John Candy, RIP

“One night a few years after Planes, Trains and Automobiles was released, I came upon John Candy 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 Steve Martin knew it, and played straight to it.” -- Roger Ebert, November 12, 2000

“He was a very sweet guy, and complicated, so he was always friendly, always outgoing and funny and nice and polite, but I could tell he had a little broken heart inside him.”

“I think it was his best work.” -- Steve Martin, 2014

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Joe Keohane is the features editor at Thrillist. Follow him @JoeKeohane