Planes, Trains and Automobiles

This is my first blog post, and I’m writing it on Thanksgiving. I thought I’d take a closer look at my favourite Thanksgiving movie, from a screenwriting point of view.

 

PTA

 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is hardly an obscure choice – indeed look up any “Top Ten Thanksgiving Movies” list and this film will inevitably feature.

It’s one of those films I assume everyone must have seen at some point, but if you haven’t, SPOILERS BELOW:

 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a 1987 American comedy film written, produced and directed by John Hughes. The film stars Steve Martin as Neal Page, a high-strung marketing executive trying to return to his family for Thanksgiving in Chicago after a business trip to New York City. On the flight home he meets Del Griffith, played by John Candy, an eternally optimistic, overly talkative, and clumsy shower curtain ring salesman. A sudden snowstorm in Chicago forces the plane to land in Wichita. All the hotels are full, so Neal is forced to accept Del’s invitation to share a cheap motel room. So begins a three-day ordeal for Neal as the mismatched pair try to get back to Chicago – where everything goes wrong, much to Neal’s mounting frustration.

 

On viewing PT&A for the first time, it might at first seem to be nothing more than an entertaining comedy. We have two wonderful performances from a couple of very gifted comic actors, deft yet unshowy direction from an eighties master of the genre – John Hughes – and a number of laugh-out loud funny scenes. This one is probably the best known, and takes place the morning after Neal and Del are forced to share a motel room – and bed – together:

 

 

 

So we have jokes about men accidentally fondling each other’s behinds, and washing their faces with used underwear.

 

Another scene of note (which takes this movie off the family-friendly viewing list) is this one, when Neal finally cracks after being allocated a non-existent rental car at the airport:

 

 

So an entire scene there devoted to the repeated use of the word: “fucking”. That said, it’s probably the best scene devoted to the repeated use of the word fucking in any movie ever made. And the “You’re fucked” button at the end is perfect.

 

So in many ways PT&A is a broad, even vulgar comedy.

 

However, the film also works on a deeper level. The ending is genuinely moving, and this is down to a character we never see, except in a framed photograph: Del’s wife, Marie.

 

Apparently it was Billy Wilder that once said:

 

You want to make them laugh and you want to make them cry.

 

It’s Hughes’s deft use of Marie throughout the screenplay leading up to the final revelation that elevates PT&A from a great Thanksgiving comedy to a truly wonderful movie.

 

Let’s take a look at John Hughes’s skills as the screenwriter; specifically how subtly and deftly he plants information about Del’s wife Marie throughout the screenplay … all leading towards the tear-jerking final scene.

 

The first time Del makes any reference to his wife or marriage is 13 minutes into the movie, when he and Neal are both stranded at Wichita airport:

 

DEL
You know, the finest line a man will walk is between success at work and success at home. I got a motto– Like your work, love your wife.
 
NEAL
I’ll remember that.

 

See how subtle that is? Del isn’t even specifically mentioning his own wife, and we don’t even know for sure if he has one. But Hughes is planting the first seeds for what is to come.

 

We have this clever little exchange a couple of minutes later. We’re still at the airport – Neal has tried to book a motel room for himself in Wichita without success, and he finds himself back with Del:

 

DEL
Well. Welcome to Wichita. Did you book a room yet?
 
NEAL
I, uh, couldn’t get in anywhere.
 
DEL
Soon as we got off the plane, you called home. I called the Braidwood Inn.

 

So Neal’s first call was to his wife. Del’s first call was to secure that precious motel room. It’s a tiny moment – but even this is a deliberate plant from Hughes.

 

At 19 minutes, Del unpacks in their shared motel room. He silently takes out a framed picture of his wife, looks at it and carefully places it on his bedside table. The moment is simple, visual … we can see he loves his wife and he misses her when he travels.

 

The first time Del actually refers directly to his wife is when Neal has a full-scale rant for the first time in the middle of the night, at 26 minutes. A hurt Del responds – this is one hell of a speech from John Candy here, illustrating his skills as an actor:

 

DEL
You want to hurt me? Go ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. 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 like to hurt people’s feelings. Well, you think what you want about me. I’m not changing. I like–I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. ‘Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.

 

Candy goes to sit down on the bed, facing the framed photo of his wife.

 

The next significant moment is at the film’s mid-point – 44 minutes:

 

NEAL
I’ve been spending too much time away from home.
DEL
I haven’t been home in years.
NEAL
What, seriously?
DEL
No, It’s a figure of speech. y’know, I’m on the road so much, it’s like not being there.

 

 

Del’s “I haven’t been home in years” line is a hugely important moment, as it’s the first time Del inadvertently reveals anything close to the truth about Marie..

 

The next time Del refers specifically to his wife is at 71 minutes. Neal has given away his expensive watch to secure a motel room, leaving Del out in the car alone, where he “speaks” to his wife Marie:

 

DEL
Well Marie. Once again, my dear, you were as right as rain. I am, without a doubt, the biggest pain in the butt that ever came down the pike. I meet someone whose company I really enjoy, and what do I do? I go overboard. I smother the poor soul. I cause him more trouble than he has a right to. God, I got a big mouth. Ohh. When am I ever going to wake up? I wish you were here with me right now. But I guess… that’s not going to happen. Not now, anyway.

 

Neal takes pity on Del and lets him share the motel room, where they get drunk on miniature liquors. At 73 min in we have this exchange:

DEL
You know, when I’m dead and buried, all I’ll goin’ to have around here to prove I was here was some shower curtain rings that didn’t fall down. Great legacy, huh?
 
NEAL
At the very least, at the absolute minimum, you’ve got a woman you love to grow old with, right? You love her, don’t you?
 
DEL
Love is not a big enough word. It’s not a big enough word for how I feel about my wife.
 
NEAL
To the wives.
 
DEL
To the wives.

 

 

Finally this odd couple reach Chicago, where they are both on a platform waiting for the ‘L’ train, about to go their separate ways. At 81 min:

NEAL
Happy holidays.
 
DEL
Happy Thanksgiving, Neal.
 
NEAL
Okay.
 
DEL
Give my love to the family, will ya?
 
NEAL
Same to you.
 
DEL
Maybe I’ll get a chance to meet’em one day?
 
NEAL
Okay. Say hello to Marie for me. Feel like I know her.
 
DEL
Yeah.
 
NEAL
So… OK. And you have a happy Thanksgiving.
DEL
Hey, you know it.
 
NEAL
So long.

 

So Neal’s on the train – looking forward to finally seeing his family for Thanksgiving. We see classic holiday images – his wife, kids, a (pecan?) pie, the turkey. Neal thinks back to his three-day adventure with Del … remembering the times they laughed together …

 

… and then we see a flashback to this line from Del, back in the first motel room they shared:

DEL
I like me. My wife likes me.

 

And we see this moment again:

 

NEAL
At the very least, at the absolute minimum, you’ve got a woman you love to grow old with, right?
 
Hughes then shows Del’s response – where he doesn’t quite nod.
 
And finally, here’s the moment of revelation for Neal. We see this again, from the movie’s midpoint:
 
DEL
I haven’t been home in years.
 
Hughes sticks a little reverb on the line … it all makes sense to Neal.
 
CUT TO Neal getting off the train, back at the station where he parted ways with Del.
 
Del sits alone in the empty waiting room:
 
NEAL
Del, what are you doing here? You said you were going home, what are you doing here?
 
DEL
I, uh… I don’t have a home. Marie’s been dead for eight years.

If you don’t have a tear welling up in the corner of you eye at that moment well…

 

CUT TO Neal and Del carry Del’s trunk up a road together – it’s the road that leads to Neal’s house. Neal invites Del in for Thanksgiving Dinner with his family.

 

If you want to rewatch these final scenes, they are posted here:

 

 

 

You want to make them laugh and you want to make them cry.

 

I have no idea if Billy Wilder ever saw Planes, Trains and Automobiles. He died in 2002, so I’d be surprised if he hadn’t – and if so I’m sure he would have approved.

 

This movie is no ordinary comedy. Thanks to some wonderful screenwriting and directing from John Hughes, along with excellent performances from Steve Martin and John Candy, this is a truly great Thanksgiving movie – and one of my all-time favourites.

 

If you have the opportunity, watch it again today.

 

Happy Thanksgiving.

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