By DAVID A. KING, PH.D., Commentary | Published November 27, 2017
Like all families, we have a set of traditions and rituals that we assign to the Thanksgiving holiday.
We have a collection, curated by me, of an alarming number of ceramic turkeys. We have a clan of wax pilgrim figure candles; all from the late 1940s and 1950s, that my wife is fond of reminding me cost only 10 cents each in 1949 and are now worth 15 cents each. We have decorative gourds, plastic pumpkins, and rubber squash and dried-out Indian corn bunches. We festively display all these items on the dining room table, and they are systematically scattered all over the room by Waffles the cat on a daily basis.
We watch the Detroit Lions football game. We watch Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” a film that is bookended by two Thanksgiving dinners. We watch “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”—the special in which Snoopy serves toast, popcorn and jellybeans for dinner—probably 50 times.
And we watch, without fail on the night before Thanksgiving, the John Hughes film, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” which is one of the best holiday movies ever made and which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
Since its release in 1987, I have probably watched “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” at least 40 times, and with my wife, I refer to it all the time. It’s one of those “quotable” films, a movie with so many memorable moments and lines that we find ourselves laughing over it regardless of the season of the year: “He’s proud of his town! That’s a rare thing these days, you know.” “Do you consider this vehicle safe for highway travel?” “You ever travel by bus before? Your mood’s probably not going to improve much.” “Like a twig on the shoulders of a mighty stream!” “Kindness?”
I could go on and on, and if you know the movie yourself, you’re probably smiling, thinking of your own favorite lines from the film.
Many of those lines were in fact ad-libbed by one of the greatest comedic character actors of all time, the beloved and incomparable John Candy.
John Candy seemed wise beyond his years. Dead of a heart attack at only 43, he seemed to be 100 years old. Almost every great character he played, no matter how ridiculous, seemed endowed with a gentle benevolence and a sweet generosity; watching a John Candy performance, you felt as though you were watching the man play himself, so fully he captured the essence of the character.
Candy was born on Halloween 1950 in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, and he remained proud of his Canadian nationality all his life. Indeed, in Canada, he is a cultural hero and even appears on a postage stamp. He also identified strongly with his Roman Catholic faith. Candy attended Catholic schools, notably Neil McNeil Catholic High School in Toronto. Long after he graduated and became famous, Candy returned to the school annually. Following his death, the school renamed its arts studio in Candy’s honor. Candy once said, in his simple plaintive way, that the basic reason for his success was “rooted in the values and discipline and respect for others that I was taught at Neil McNeil.”
Throughout his career, that modest humility revealed itself in Candy’s most notable characters, from the lovable Uncle Buck in the film of the same name to the bashful and beleaguered Danny Muldoon in “Only the Lonely.” Yet it is for his role as Del O. Griffith in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” that Candy will probably always be best remembered.
Del is a traveling salesman, a shower curtain ring salesman to be more specific, working for the American Light and Fixture Corporation. Shortly before Thanksgiving, Del mistakenly hops a New York City cab already hailed by an uptight ad executive, Neal Page, played by Steve Martin. Neal is trying to get home to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. Del, it seems, has nowhere special to go. The two men meet again in the airport and end up on the same flight to Chicago. The plane is rerouted by bad weather to Wichita, Kansas, and from there the film becomes a hilarious odyssey of two strangers navigating their way across the Midwest by all means of transport.
I won’t spoil the ending of the film for those who have not seen it, but there is a twist that redeems Del from a heartbreaking loneliness that he carefully conceals from Neal and others the men meet on their travels.
Del is a big man with big appetites and big requirements for comfort. He also, he admits, has a big mouth. Near the end of their first night together, Neal attacks Del for his constant talking, and Del responds with a sincere, simple speech that could easily serve as Candy’s epitaph: “You want to hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel 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 me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. Because I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.”
Candy was an artist, but he was also a celebrity. In addition to his many film roles, he was a major player on the brilliant sketch comedy series “Second City Television,” and he appeared frequently on “Saturday Night Live” and the talk show circuit. Yet unlike so many Catholic celebrities who foreground their faith through either sincerity or depreciation, Candy rarely alluded to his Catholicism. He was an unassuming, cradle-to-the-grave Catholic, the sort of person who might sit next to you at Sunday Mass without saying a word. He was married in the Catholic Church to the woman who would be his only spouse. He raised his two children in the church. He was given full funeral rites at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in Los Angeles and buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California. Perhaps the closest he ever came to discussing publicly his feelings on spirituality was when he confided in Maureen O’Hara that he knew he would live a short life.
“I’m on borrowed time,” he told her.
John Candy belongs to a select group of comedic actors whose work defined my generation. Sadly, many of them died early and tragically. One thinks of Candy alongside his peers and protégés John Belushi, Chris Farley, Robin Williams—all dead because of overindulgence and mental health issues. Candy was never out of control; the last thing he did before he died in his sleep was make a lasagna meal for his film crew.
In short, among the actors of the comedy renaissance of the 1980s, John Candy was different. Even in the context of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” Candy seemed in a world of his own. His co-star, Steve Martin—without a doubt a brilliant actor and writer—at times comes across as distracted, as though he’d rather be doing something else. In fact, when Martin first read the script, he asked how much of it could be cut. In scene after scene, Candy’s improvisations allow Martin to rise to his full potential, and the two actors make a believable and unforgettable pair.
John Hughes, who is now rightly recognized as a genius, wrote, produced and directed the film, yet he was irritable and often depressed throughout the shoot, which was hampered by logistical, budgetary and even environmental problems. Hughes was devastated by Candy’s death and grieved him constantly. Following Candy’s death in 1994, Hughes’ own career declined. He made few films, and essentially lived a reclusive life for the decade before his own death in 2009, when he collapsed of a heart attack on a midtown Manhattan street.
If you’ve not seen “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” before, and want to see it this Thanksgiving, a warning if you plan to screen with family: the film carries an R rating, precisely for one reason. A scene at an airport rental car service (which will resonate with any business traveler) includes nearly 20 utterances of a certain word that may be offensive to some viewers and not suitable for children. Beyond that, the movie is appropriate for tweens and teens, and far surpasses the sophomoric and scatological holiday movies of the past decade. In fact, the television version of the film—which frequently airs this time of year—includes a few scenes deleted from the original theatrical release and edits the language.
Above all, beyond its reputation as a Thanksgiving fixture, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” endures as a comic classic that upholds traditional Catholic values of family and individual dignity, and it remains a testament to the creativity and authenticity of one of our finest comedic actors.
David A. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Film Studies at Kennesaw State University and director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.