It’s hard to believe 30 years have gone by but that’s exactly the case with Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Originally released in 1987, the Steve Martin/John Candy comedy is rightly held up as a modern classic and so is where we’re turning our attention today not only because today is its actual anniversary but because of its relevance to the recently passed Thanksgiving holiday.
Martin plays Neal Page, a successful marketing executive on a trip to New York to get client approval for a new campaign. It’s two days before Thanksgiving and he just wants to get home to Chicago. He keeps encountering a traveling salesman named Dell Griffith (Candy), a mildly obnoxious but very friendly guy with few personal boundaries. Through a series of weather-related delays, they wind up seeking alternate transportation home but keep having the worst luck whether it’s with rental cars, trains or other modes of transportation.
Considering how big the two stars were in 1987 it’s no surprise that they are practically the sole focus of the theatrical poster. Page is clearly uncomfortable as Griffith sits with his arm around him, a worried and slightly terrified look on his face. Griffith, on the other hand, seems to be having the time of his life, sitting there smiling while wearing a heavy parka and bright red mittens. While Page has only his briefcase on his lap, Griffith is carrying along a massive trunk with stickers all over it from his travels.
The audience then was clearly sold a comedy of mismatched personalities, the uptight Page suffering the overly gregarious Griffith’s antics. That matches up with the cinematic personas of the two stars. Candy often played outsized personalities, the kind of person who wore his heart on his sleeve. For Martin, this was coming at the end of one phase of his career where he was overly comedic and the beginning of the next where he took on more dramatic roles, or at least approached comedy from a drier, more dramatic perspective. So the public perception of both actors is emphasized in the position of the characters.
Meanwhile, the story is shared with the copy explaining “What he really wanted was to spend Thanksgiving with his family. What he got was three days with the turkey.” That makes it clear to the audience that it’s Martin’s character we’re following and his point of view the story is taking.
The trailer makes that same point, explaining that Page is just having the worst luck in his simple attempt to get home for the holiday. The two don’t get off to a great start and things often get uncomfortable through their travels. What’s surprising is that there isn’t much of an arc that’s shared here, just a series of gags involving the unlikely pairing of the two very different personalities. There’s also a shocking amount of footage here that didn’t make it into the final film.
The point here is just to come out and watch two very talented and popular comedians riff off each other in a pleasant holiday comedy. Some of the personal drama that results from the clash of the two is shown here but it’s mostly just about the laughs. Also missing is the more heartwarming aspect of the story, something that surely would have been a focus if the movie were coming out today.
For 1987 it did its job. But it’s interesting to think about how not only would the whole story arc, including the emotional finale, would have at least been hinted at in a more modern campaign but how tone would have been so different as a whole. The conflict between the two would have been intact but it would have been much more overt as a result of the difference in social mores. Much of the comedy in the film is derived from Page’s continued insistence on being a nice guy, even if his patience does run out from time to time. And Griffith is rarely presented as a truly awful person, just one who doesn’t put on a lot of pretense. A remake would take very different approaches to both characters.
As it stands, the campaign sold the film well 30 years ago and the movie holds up as a go-to holiday classic, thanks largely to the talents of Candy and Martin. That’s why it was exactly those talents that were emphasized in 1987 in selling the movie to the audience.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.