Written, Produced and Directed by John Hughes
"I hate to say I'm moving beyond anything because I don't want to denigrate that work or that audience...But most of my stories are going in other directions now. It got to a point where I was starting to repeat myself. How many ways can I shoot a high school hallway? I'm sure there are millions that I haven't thought of yet, but I felt I should get away and explore what's next."
"John Hughes: Director Graduates To The Adult World" by Bob Strauss, Chicago Sun Times, published November 1987
It will never cease to amaze me with how much of a road map John Hughes created for me.
Beginning with "Sixteen Candles" (1984), my relationship with the work of Writer/Producer/Director John Hughes has served a wide variety of functions. Certainly, with comedy, John Hughes existed as much of an instructor as all of the comedians, performers and writers that I had already adored. Unquestionably, Hughes was a leader with music, as there are so many artists that I never woud have heard of, let alone listened to and embraced if not for him. Undeniably, Hughes was a teacher regarding writing as the existence of this blogsite is as much a testament to him and his massive influence upon my life as much as it is to the medium of film itself.
But then, there is something much more ephemeral with the work of John Hughes and how it has affected me throughout my life, especially during my adolescence and my college years as the finest of his work was being first released to the world and I ended up watching and re-watching endlessly. Admittedly, these days, I do not watch Hughes' films very much at all. Not because my love for them has lessened (not in the least) but maybe because I have watched them enough to fill five lifetimes.
Perhaps, the distance is a great thing because even as I know the films backwards and forwards, the existing lapse from not having seen them does create for a certain disconnect as well, so when the inevitable reunion occurs, it is like seeing them anew or at least, with fresher eyes.
At this time, I turn my attention towards "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," John Hughes' holiday classic now reaching its 30th anniversary! In addition to this milestone, it exists as one of his films that achieved the rare status of becoming a box office and critical hit, an accomplishment that often eluded him, at least from the standpoint of critic approval. And why should it not as the film represented Hughes operating at the very peak of his powers during an enormously fruitful and furiously paced period during which he wrote, produced and directed "Planes Trains and Automobiles," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986) and the delayed (more on this later) "She's Having A Baby" (1988) back-to-back-to-back, while also miraculously finding time and opportunity writing and producing the Howard Deutch directed "Pretty In Pink" (1986) and "Some Kind Of Wonderful" (1987). I remain flabbergasted to this day that Hughes was able to accomplish this exceedingly prolific feat.
As with essentially all of his films at that time and more specifically, at this point in my life, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" was another pivotal episode in Hughes' then on-going filmography. I reflected that his films provided me with a sense of a road map. "Sixteen Candles" was released when I was 15 years old and "Some Kind Of Wonderful" arrived when I was 18. His six film ode to high school and the teenage years followed me perfectly through the entirety of my high school years, all the while offering counsel, encouragement, compassion, understanding, guidance, and of course, copious amounts of beautifully observed and realized humor, as if Hughes himself was my prized and most beloved teacher for he aided me tremendously in my journey of self-discovery and a growing world view.
John Hughes was the finest creative figure during that specific stage of my life and even as I look backwards in time, I still feel so committed to this feeling of reverence and respect for this man, whom I never, ever met or knew personally, who indeed was an indispensable influence and source of inspiration. For those six films, Hughes was catching me right where I was in my growth and development. With "She's Having A Baby," (the film which was designed to follow "Some Kind Of Wonderful" in June 1987 as the thematic bridge from high school characters to adult characters but whose release was delayed due to a Director's strike) and then "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," John Hughes was in the position of showing me what came after high school, and I was anxious to become immersed in his perspective.
Yet, this day's newspaper was more than prized for me be cause it would indeed contain the late, great Gene Siskel's review of John Hughes' latest film, a review I was more than anxious to read even though Siskel had been harshly critical of Hughes work aside from both "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club" (1985), whereas his colleague/competitor, the late, great Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times was typically more consistent with actual praise for Hughes' output. To my surprise, Siskel's assessment of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" was highly positive as were Ebert's, and one from USA Today that I quickly read at the newspaper stand inside of the Stare Street Walgreen's between classes. I was excited enough to see the film, Hughes first foray into adult territory as a director and with no less then comedy giants Steve Martin and John Candy in the leading roles of this R rated movie.
It was practically all I could think about during my entire bus ride home on that snowy day, and certainly, I was also devising of ways to respectfully ask my very strict parents if I may see the film that evening. Thankfully, they granted me my wish, drove me to the Ford City movie theater--the location where I had seen "The Breakfast Club,""Weird Science" (1985), "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and "Some Kind Of Wonderful" over the past two years--and there I sat, on opening night, Thanksgiving eve, with hardly anyone else in the theater with me. In a way, it almost felt like a private screening and I was about to be let in upon a terrific secret.
After enduring one minor mishap after another in his attempts to simply hail a cab to make it to the airport on time--from losing one taxi in a foot race with another businessman (Kevin Bacon in a clever cameo), being relinquished of $75 to a merciless attorney for purchase of another taxi to falling over a large trunk into the street and having said taxi inadvertently taken away by the owner of the trunk--Neal finally arrives at the airport to discover a building snowstorm has caused a flight delay, making his return to Chicago longer than expected.
While waiting to board upon the next scheduled flight, Neal meets the owner of the trunk, Del Griffith (John Candy), a travelling salesman who specializes in shower curtain rings. Del, while gracious to a fault, is precisely the type of figure the fastidious Neal wishes to remain as far away from as possible. Obnoxious, overly talkative, and filled with a barrage of personal space invading bad habits that drive Neal to his breaking points, Del Griffith is that veritable bad penny that Neal Page just cannot rid himself of during an odyssey that takes the pair to a re-routed flight to Wichita, Kansas, derailed train trips, a bus ride to St. Louis, hysterically catastrophic rental car escapades, all manner of seedy motels and more.
Yet, the arduous journey leads both Neal and Del to a greater understanding of each other, themselves and most importantly, within the film's final, crucial and surprisingly devastating revelations and supremely warm hearted conclusion, the true meaning of Thanksgiving.
As previously stated, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" found John Hughes operating in peak creative form and to that end, both Steve Martin and especially, an undeniably heartbreaking John Candy, elicited performances that neither of them had previously achieved at that time. Their chemistry was as ingenious as Hughes' writing and directing, making the trio an unstoppable creative force that I wished could have found another opportunity to work together again.
For you see, John Hughes delivered the creative goods to his stars with a full, complete story with two richly devised characters speaking Hughes' priceless, endlessly quotable dialogue that was grounded within a certain, approachable reality that allowed the comedy to strike to an often screamingly funny degree. Hughes was decidedly not the kind of comedy filmmaker who felt that if he just turned the cameras on, a script was unnecessary and Martin and Candy would just inherently "be funny." Hughes gave Martin and Candy an entire cinematic universe to immerse themselves with, wich allowed them to play to their strengths as they unearthed talents previously unseen.
For Steve Martin, the once "Wild and Crazy Guy," we were given the opportunity to witness him not just playing the "straight man," but the upper middle class Midwestern family man (i.e. the audience stand-in), whose devotion to his wife and family plus his determination to arrive home for Thanksgiving as promised provided the character of Neal Page with a specific, serious core from which his escalating frustration and often explosive reactions would fuel both the comedy and the drama of the film as a whole.
But, what made his performance so remarkable was how deeply he mined the depths of Del Griffith's existential anguish. Now, even though we are dealing with a film that is 30 years old, I will not produce any spoilers here. But that being said, from his private monologue while seated in frigid weather inside of a burned out rental car to the film's final scenes, John Candy gave us a character that punched our hearts so hard and honestly, that we ached...and all the while never sacrificing the comedy. It is a performance that, to this day, I felt deserved an Oscar nomination.
There was no question that I loved "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" on that very first viewing but it was indeed John Candy's performance and those final moments that truly stuck with me as I left the theater and ruminated over it while at home afterwards and over Thanksgiving dinner as well.
I saw the film for a second time on that Friday evening, along with a treasured friend from high school, at Chicago's Water Tower and this time, the theater was packed full and filled not with teenagers but people who were mostly middle aged to varying degrees. By the time, the film reached its conclusion, there was not a dry eye in the house...except for me and my friend, who were possibly the youngest people at this particular showing. It was a moment that has firmly etched itself into my memory of seeing John Hughes movies as they were first released in theaters and this reaction was definitely a powerfully potent one.
For his output during that period, the film seems to have been as personal as any of his teen films and most definitely, the essentially autobiographical "She's Having A Baby." Hughes' Father and Grandfather had each worked in sales and furthermore, the original idea for "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" surfaced from John Hughes' own experiences working in advertising at the Leo Burnett corporation combined with his moonlighting business trips between Chicago and New York writing for National Lampoon. One such experience had Hughes and a colleague stranded in Wichita due to a snowstorm making him unable to return to Chicago for five days but thankfully, his experiences were nothing like anything that Neal and Del were forced to endure.
It was the first film of Hughes' in which he indulged his love of holidays, something that essentially became a sub-genre with in his oeuvre. In features ALL written and produced by Hughes, he delivered "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (1989), as directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik, the Chris Columbus directed box office behemoths' "Home Alone" (1990) and "Home Alone 2: Lost In New York" (1992) and Director Les Mayfield's melancholic yet classy remake of "Miracle On 34th Street" (1994), each film set at Christmastime. Furthermore, and like "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," the undervalued, palpably sad, angry and very effective "Dutch" (1991), as directed by Peter Faiman revolved around Thanksgiving.
Yet, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" felt to feature John Hughes at his most idiosyncratic, just as with his teen films, from its inventive visual aesthetics to his impeccable choice in left-of-center songs which ran the gamut from British synth pop, blues, country and alternative rock and all held together perfectly with frequent Hughes film composer Ira Newborn's wildly diverse score as the glue.
And most importantly, Hughes' gifts as a comedic writer were especially sharpened, not just with his gift for dialogue but in overall construction and set ups. For instance, one nearly throwaway moment featuring Neal Page and Del Griffith's credit cards at the Braidwood Inn in Wichita early in the film does not actually receive its full payoff until the conclusion of the extended rental car highway sequence late in the film. We never see it coming and with all of my subsequent viewings of the film, I am repeatedly amazed with how carefully Hughes set up every moment so everyt hing would reach its greatest effect.
Aesthetically, the film represented John Hughes in an especially playful mood yet a meticulously detailed one as no major travel companies, from airlines, bus companies and train lines would allow themselves to be represented in the film for fear of negative backlash in the real world. So, Hughes and his filmmaking team had to invent them all, augmenting the already (yet quietly) composed fictional Chicago suburb of Shermer, IL., thus creating a film universe that was as seamless and as detailed as anything we experience in the real world.
Bit players and supporting actors from previous Hughes films all popped up in various places during "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," most notably the terrific Edie McClurg as another one of Hughes' bubbly yet savvier than she appears support staff characters. And again, I have to mention Kevin Bacon's cameo, as I wondered if he was actually reprising his role of Jefferson "Jake" Briggs, his Hughes alter-ego character from "She's Having A Baby," in a most rascally state of mind as he races Neal Page for a prized taxi cab near the film's opening. To that end, what movie is Neal's wife watching on television as she sleeplessly waits up for Neal? Answer: "She's Having A Baby"!
For so much of his film career, Hughes' construction of the characters and locale of Shermer, IL was innovative to say the least, all the while inventing a larger film universe that jointly represented the world as it is alongside the world Hughes may have wished for it to be. With "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," John Hughes took the "snobs vs. slobs" aesthetic of so many film comedies of the 1980's and injected a healthy and hefty amount of palpable insight and soul into the proceedings, making the life lessons of the characters truly earned moments which audiences could be affected by.
Recalling my second viewing of the film at Water Tower and gauging my reactions towards the film 30 years later, at the age of 48 and after countless viewings, what truly amazes me even more after all of this time is how astute, precise, and even devastating the movie truly is as what we have is the story of two very sad men, in the middle years of their lives, thrown together and forced to help and understand each other. And I would gather even further that with John Hughes as the film's creator, perhaps "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is the story of three very sad men and perhaps, with the film's life lessons, we were witnessing were the figure of Hughes was delivering messages to himself as well.
Neal Page has certainly worked his way to his particular station in life but to that end, he is indeed a man of considerable privilege, as evidenced by his Shermer, IL home and more pointedly, the sleekness of his occupation, and his wardrobe, most likely purchased at Neiman Marcus (hence one of his credit cards), which includes his sharp fedora and the telling wrist watch, which perfectly suggests how much he is tethered to the constructs of time itself.
Like the character Tom Hanks portrayed in Robert Zemeckis' "Cast Away" (2000), time defines Neal Page, as much as his personal proclivities and his economic status yet the journey of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," forces him to confront some dark truths about himself and his life: that time is rapidly slipping away from him and the relationships he holds dearest and his self-absorbed nature will not do him any favors within navigating the larger world.
Certainly, we can gather some level of tension in the relationship between Neal and his wife Susan, who in addition to worrying about his travels back to Chicago, at one point even suggests a level of distrust with a pointed "Neal? What's going on?"--a tension that the highly intuitive Del Griffith could detect instantly with his equally pointed question, "Trouble on the homefront?"
During a restaurant conversation in a St. Louis diner, Neal, mentally kicking himself for missing his daughter's school Thanksgiving pageant, laments to Del that he has been spending too much time on the road, which indeed cuts to the core of the character. He has spent his adult life working diligently to provide for the very people he rarely sees, a quandary that not only explains his pain but also his impatience, intolerance and anger.
It is as if he, like so many of us, desperately wishes that he could control time itself so that he could have more than enough to be available to work as well as to have more than enough to spend with the people he treasures most. The film showcases what happens when Neal Page is reminded that he is completely unable to control time and through the collaboration of Hughes and Martin, we are witness to a beautifully simultaneous slow boiling meltdown that fumes with rightful and self-righteous frustration and is released with downright honest hilarity.
For a man who wishes to be in control, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" deftly illustrates just how out of control Neal Page actually is. Yes, in regards to his wrestlings with time. but, more pointedly, his relationships within the social class structures of those who operate above and below his own pay grade, because in the real world, his level of privilege gets him absolutely nowhere. Neal Page possesses no street smarts whatsoever as he is foiled over and again from that aforementioned attorney of a higher economic status who haggles $75 from him for a taxi to all manner of everyday working class characters who one-up him consistently and constantly. He ingratiates himself to no one, presents himself as if the world owes him favors he has not legitimately earned and he is routinely pummeled for it...sometimes literally!
Neal's extended rant against Del in the Braidwood Inn features all three primary creative forces of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" in especially striking form in a sequence that firmly presents the film as existing as much more than something designed to just make you laugh. In fact, it is one of my favorite scenes in any John Hughes film. Even more, seven years ago, I wrote these words about this very scene:
"This is the scene where Neal Page (Steve Martin) unleashes his long pent up rage at Del Griffith (John Candy), who stands there, takes it all, does not crumble and asserts his individuality. It is a scene that would almost be too painful to endure if Neal's viciously cruel rant was not also so savagely funny. What takes this sequence to the next level is how Hughes occasionally cuts to the face of Del Griffith, where we can have a few moments to witness his pain and hurt feelings at the other end of Neal's harshness. It deftly transforms the sequence into a social lesson and depicts how the sadistic rules of the playground exist well into middle age. This is the scene that not only raised the acting stakes and bar for Martin and especially Candy, but it also elevated this film from terrific comedy into something much deeper and memorable."
In fact, as I just re-watched this scene days ago, I was struck by how much I actually didn't laugh this time around and was instead drawn in by the brutality, and ultimately, the strength of Del Griffith, a painfully awkward, deeply lonely man who somehow houses an exceedingly impressive stamina that keeps one foot marching in front of the other and a sense of steadfast optimism where so many of us would crumble to pieces. Where Neal Page screams to the universe, "You're messing with the wrong guy!!!," we see that he is easy pickings. Del Griffith, on the other hand, will always get to his destination...that is if he even has one.
The final moments of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," when all is fully revealed to Neal Page (as well as to all of us in the audience), I am still hard pressed to find anyone, anywhere who has not been shaken and emotionally shifted to a hefty degree, especially within a film during which we had been laughing so constantly. It is simply that all of the elements concerning Del has snapped into place for us in regards to Hughes' storytelling and how we regard our own lives. For instance, take the placement of Del Griffith's trunk, which arrives somewhat innocuously (but painfully for Neal) in the film but ultimately becomes a towering symbol by film's end.
Literally and figuratively, the trunk is indeed Del Griffith's entire life and the immense baggage he shoulders every day of every year. Even further, the trunk represents the baggage that Neal Page shoulders every day of every year, as well as for us in the audience and what Hughes depicts via Neal's transformation is his at first reluctant, then tentative then fully empathetic reach towards Del to shoulder the baggage together in friendship and community, for no one should navigate the world completely alone.
The aloneness of Del Griffith, even as I write about it, just touches me in a way that I am finding difficult to describe. Maybe because the feelings are primal in its painful existentialism. Despite his occasional vulgarisms (from crude expressions to bodily functions to his horrific treatment of motel bathrooms) and obnoxiousness, Del Griffith, armed with his street smarts combined with his considerable charm, his ability of fully knowing and engaging with his audience, and his general overall decency, he has built the ability of ingratiating himself to people all over the country.
Unlike the prickly Neal Page, Del Griffith is an accepting individual of all people, regardless of class or status, and that makes him a warming and considerably convincing presence even when he is hustling for money in order to return to Chicago (I absolutely love the montage of Del selling his shower curtain rings yet passed off as "Walter Cronkite moon rings," "autographed Daryl Strawberry earrings," "Czechoslovakian ivory," etc...). Yet, there are two major factors regarding his complete nature that does indeed strike at the core of his being: He knows himself well enough to realize that he tries too hard when he finds himself truly enjoying another's company, potentially ruining a friendship before it has even begun, which then leads me to my second realization...Del Griffith does not have any friends.
Frankly, Neal Page is someone who strikes me as one who does not really have any friends either. Yes, he has work associates and colleagues but those are not friends. I also gather that he may be a fine neighbor in his community but perhaps a somewhat distant one, having no close relationships with anyone outside of the sanctuary of his home and family, a place and people he rarely sees due to the demands of his career. Where Del's baggage, in the form of that trunk, is as visible as the heart upon his sleeve, Neal's baggage is distinctly cloaked but arrives in often misguided, misplaced fury. By the time the twosome begin to make some strides towards each other, and definitely by the film's emotional climax, the story of Neal Page and Del Griffith feels like the song "The Weight" by The Band as they each take a load off of each other to help carry the weight equally.
John Candy, Steve Martin and John Hughes on the set of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" 1987
And what of John Hughes himself? In many ways, so little is really known about him personally. But from what I have been able to gather after all of these years is that he was a uniquely gifted writer and filmmaker within an industry he was most likely not tailor made. He enjoyed working with actors but felt a distaste for the Hollywood industry and executives. His ego was incredibly fragile although he was never precious about his own material regarding on-set improvisations, script re-writes and the changes made in the editing phases. He was a tremendous wordsmith on the page, eloquent during interviews yet possessed difficulties communicating with his crews and over the course of his Hollywood years, his rage and tantrums are now legendary.
I have always wondered just what may have happened to Hughes over his Hollywood years, why he became consumed with such anger and why he abruptly departed from making films altogether. And now, as I have watched "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" again, I am wondering if Neal Page and Del Griffith are actually two sides of the John Hughes coin, so to speak. John Hughes could be considered to have been a workaholic as the speed of his output can attest, where he would typically have one film in theaters, while the previous film would arrive on home video formats and a third film was in pre-production all at the same time. His late night writings, while chain smoking and blasting music are also legendary as well as the rapid nature at which he produced completed screenplays ("Planes, Trains and Automobiles" was reportedly written in a mere three days).
Yes, John Hughes' work ethic is sound and completely responsible for his success, wealth and legacy. But even so, it seemed that what he wanted most of all was to simply write his stories and be left alone in the sanctuary of his family. By all accounts that I have ever read of the man, his wife Nancy Hughes and his two sons, James and John III, were nothing less than sacred to him. His love of Chicago was also unshakable.
For a spell during the mid 1980's, his peak period of creativity, Hughes was essentially forced to movie his family from Illinois to California, a move he always resented and ultimately, felt uninspired by. While I will never know about how much time he was away from his family while making movies, I do wonder if having two-year breaks from directing between "Planes, Trans and Automobiles" and "Uncle Buck" (1989) and "Curly Sue" (1991) as well as ceasing his directing duties entirely after 1991, it was a way to keep himself at home with his family and writing instead of dealing with the maelstrom of on-the-set movie making.
In the case of the actual filming of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," everything that I have ever read over these past 30 years have expressed that the shoot, which involved working and acting in routinely bitterly cold temperatures and the chasing of the ever elusive snow, has described the creation as nothing less than hellish and Hughes' reportedly grouchy, acerbic behavior on-set certainly did not help at all. It's one thing to become lost in creation while in the solitary act of writing but to make the story live and breathe and walk around via the aid of hundreds upon hundreds of other individuals who may not be as invested as yourself, that is another story entirely and could make for a miserable existence.
I also wonder if John Hughes, like Neal Page and Del Griffith, suffered from a lack of friends, something that he seemed to crave. It is well known how closely he bonded with both Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall once he bean directing his screenplays and how devastated he was when they each wanted to move onwards creatively (yet Hughes took it personally-essentially not speaking to them again). With each new project, he attempted to forge new relationships with his actors and some behind the scenes participants, but none seemed to connect in the way he wished until John Candy entered his life.
The friendship of John Hughes and John Candy was a powerfully deep one as some reports and articles have suggested they were as close as brothers, as they devised new projects together and spent hours upon hours talking on the phone and bringing their respective families together as well. It has also been suggested that John Candy's death from a heart attack in 1994 may have been the final straw regarding Hughes' relationship with Hollywood and his decision to leave it altogether.
I think that knowing even the little that I know, it would be difficult to think that none of the pathos of his real life did not find a way into his films. With John Hughes, the very best of his work contained more personal details than he was ever willing to fully admit, if at all. And in doing so, it feels right to think that whatever conflicts that faced Hughes during the process of creating "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" weaved their way into the narrative, whether consciously or not, making it all the more incredible to witness what a fall down hysterical yet beautifully bittersweet film the film actually became.
Perhaps this is the road map that John Hughes' "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" has placed in front of me, a map that I am still attempting to decipher as well as follow. The film represents a map that transcends one's age but speaks directly to it as the middle point of life sees one looking backwards as much as looking forwards, with the knowledge and understanding of mortality being more apparent than in years past. "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is a dual journey of two, lonely middle aged men in the throes of constant travel--one constantly in motion for the purposes of maintaining the very family he rarely sees, the other constantly in motion in attempts to outrun his own private pain--made by a then younger middle aged man in constant motion, moving as fast as his brain could think up stories and his hands could type them...yet, all for what if the experience ate away at him.
Neal Page, Del Griffith and John Hughes, all salesmen, all possible echoes of the fictional Willy Loman from Arthur Miller's "Death Of A Salesman" (1949), all experiencing a sense of being adrift in a cold, unforgiving world only to find each other at the very holiday designed for the grace of community and the warmth of communion.
And to think, all of this from a comedy.
John Candy, John Hughes & Steve Martin circa 1987