Every year, I’m dismayed by the shelf life of John Hughes’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It’s a movie I love and would watch numerous times over a holiday season, if the particular holiday it represents didn’t come and go so quickly. For example, any given December I can watch Scrooged three or four times. But Thanksgiving comes and goes so quickly, in that there’s no real “season,” we get, maybe, a one-week window to watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Compare this even to Halloween, when the whole month of October is “scary movie month.” Planes, Trains and Automobiles just kind of feels like a movie that should be on television as much as Home Alone or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but, instead, will disappear into the ether in the next four or five days.
Anyway, yes, I did re-watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles recently and, for reasons that should seem self-evident, it was a tough watch, more than it even usually is. And it usually is anyway because, despite how funny it is, John Candy’s Del Griffith is such a tragic figure. His arc makes me very sad. And that’s not even getting into Candy’s untimely death just a few years later, which compounds the whole thing. This movie has always made me sad, but yet I still watch it. And this year it’s made me even sadder.
I didn’t like Thanksgiving until I moved to New York City. In fact, for many years watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles was the most Thanksgiving-themed thing I participated in. I grew up an only child and, on my mom’s side of the family, I am somehow an only grandchild. I don’t even know any other only grandchildren. I think that’s a hard thing to pull off, even though I personally had nothing to do with it. But this made for pretty small Thanksgivings – to the point that I don’t really have many memories of them. And whatever we did do, I was always the youngest by about 30 years. You know that scene we always see in movies, of a large family around a big table with a big turkey in the middle? I never experienced that. But then I moved to New York and, for a good stretch, I’d go over to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving where a bunch of other people who didn’t travel back home for the holiday would also congregate – people around my own age even! I really enjoyed this. It felt like an episode of Friends. (There were a couple of bad Thanksgivings thrown in during this time period where I’d be invited to someone’s house to spend the holiday with their family – and I legitimately did not know how to act or what to do with myself because I had no prior Thanksgiving training. These were unnecessarily stressful events for me.)
So, for the most part, my appreciation for Thanksgiving has grown over the last few years. Then in 2017 my dad unexpectedly died five days before Thanksgiving. Though, it was weird: instead of disliking the holiday even more, I kind of found myself throwing myself into it. To the point, in the years that followed, I actually started going back home to Missouri again to be with my family, something I hadn’t done since I moved.
Look, the pandemic has sucked. But I will say that I am a little less forlorn about my lack of travel and “attending events” than I thought I’d be. It’s probably due to how bad New York City was back in April, but my mindset has landed on “being safe” and, at least, doing my part to not personally take up space in a hospital, or possibly infect others and send them to the hospital, outweighs any personal need I have for “fun.” (And this is the part I just can’t get over about the Ted Cruzs of the world making Thanksgiving some sort of culture war and that real tough guys go ahead and have Thanksgiving. In the end, it makes hospital workers’ lives harder and why any sort of rational human would do this to them is beyond me.)
Anyway, this time watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles, I didn’t feel as sad for Del. At the end, he got to be around people who wanted him to be there. (I always do wonder what Neal and Del’s future relationship would be like. It’s nice to think it became a tradition that good ol’ Del would come over every Thanksgiving.) I just felt sad that, this year, I couldn’t go home: something I only recently discovered was important to me. And I’m sad for all the people who are in similar situations. And, I suppose, even the people who are going ahead with it anyway, and all the tragic stories we will for sure read in the future about how that all turned out. In comparison, Neal and Del’s story feels a lot simpler. Instead of the story being tragic, I found it, instead, hopeful.
Also, when was the last time you watched the “unedited for television” version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles? It hit me that I guess I hadn’t in quite a while and didn’t realize I was watching the real version, because when Steve Martin goes into his tirade on poor Edie McClurg at the airport rental car counter, I found myself legitimately shocked. Which tells me it had been a long time since I had seen the unedited version of that scene. The movie does such a great job of keeping everything pretty subtle to that point, that by the time Steve Martin goes into his eff-bomb tirade, it really feels like it comes out of nowhere. It’s like we are expecting some sort of intellectual faux snooty takedown – don’t forget, Neal thought a busload of travelers would be familiar enough with “Three Coins in a Fountain” for a singalong – but, instead, Neal just hits us over the head with the most vulgar thing he can say. It’s brilliant. (It should be noted that scene was filmed in St. Louis and as someone who has been to that airport many, many times, there is a something quite cathartic about the whole endeavor.)
I think, this year, I’ll watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles a few more times. Even beyond its yearly expiration date. Even into …. December. It captures something about missing home better than most of the other, even more Christmas themed movies do. For me this movie is Thanksgiving. And, this year, it feels like it’s all we’ve got – and it’s going to have to last a bit longer than usual.
You can rent ‘Planes, Trains, and Automobiles’ via Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, and Vudu. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.