Eric's Time Capsule: Planes, Trains and Automobiles (Nov. 25, 1987)

John Hughes' association with teen movies is so entrenched that modern critics often feel compelled to name-check him, usually with great reverence, when reviewing anything set in a high school. It's easy to forget that he only wrote and directed four such films -- Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science and Ferris Bueller's Day Off -- and that most of his other two-dozen-plus screenplays have been about families and kids: Home Alone, National Lampoon's Vacation, Mr. Mom, etc.

Rarer still in the Hughes canon are films that are entirely about adults. Of the eight films he has directed himself, only two fall under that category: She's Having a Baby and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the latter of which has become a classic that almost surpasses any of the teen comedies Hughes made.

PT&A was released the day before Thanksgiving in 1987, Hughes' fifth film as a director and the first one after that string of teen-centric hits. He filled it with people he was comfortable with, including Ferris Bueller cast members Edie McClurg, Ben Stein, and Lyman Ward (Ferris' dad). There's a cameo from Kevin Bacon, who had just starred in Hughes' She's Having a Baby, which was released 10 weeks after PT&A and can actually be heard playing on the hotel room TV early in the film.

Star John Candy had appeared in Vacation, which Hughes wrote, and though co-star Steve Martin and Hughes had not worked together before, they certainly knew each other in Hollywood comedy circles. Candy and Martin were both very popular. The film was a departure from Hughes' established genre, but it wasn't exactly a risky proposition.

That said, it may be surprising how positive the reviews were. Martin and Candy were stars, but they weren't exactly known for highbrow, critic-pleasing comedies. Yet most critics adored the film, and audiences rewarded it with a modestly successful box office take. Its $49 million gross would be about $88 million at today's ticket prices, making it a Pineapple Express or Step Brothers-sized hit, and it has flourished on TV and video. (Hughes helped its TV longevity by shooting an alternate, profanity-free version of the famous F-word-laden car-rental-agency scene for broadcast networks to use in place of the theatrical one.)

The film is a combination of two major genres, the road-trip movie and the odd-couple movie, as well as the sub-genre I like to call the one-thing-after-another disaster comedy (think Meet the Parents). Uptight Neal Page (Martin) and annoyingly gregarious Del Griffith (Candy) are stranded businessmen trying to get from New York to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving, forced by circumstances to pool their resources and become traveling companions. Neal and Del's opposite personalities create plenty of comic potential (casting Martin and Candy as heightened versions of themselves seals the deal), and there's a lot of the vehicular mayhem and destruction typical of the road-trip genre. Some of these gags are more inspired than others -- Hughes' sense of humor runs toward the conventional -- but Candy and Martin sell them like true pros.

Take the bed scene, for example. It is customary in all comedies that if two heterosexual men are required to share a bed, they will wake up in a compromised position, react initially as if nothing is wrong, do a double-take, then leap out of the bed in horror. (This is so well established that it's only in comedies that two straight men ever have to share a bed. If it happened in a drama, we'd be expecting hilarity when they woke up, and the film's mood would be ruined.) Hughes employs this chestnut, which was already old in 1987, but look at how well Martin and Candy play it. The dialogue itself is classic:

MARTIN: Why did you kiss my ear?


CANDY: Why are you holding my hand?


MARTIN: Where's your other hand?


CANDY: Between two pillows.


MARTIN: THOSE AREN'T PILLOWS!

Hughes, a reclusive Chicagoan who dislikes Hollywood and rarely grants interviews anymore, has said that there's enough footage lying around somewhere for a three-hour version of PT&A. While it would be marvelous to see those deleted scenes, I can't imagine the film working with a running time much longer than its current 92 minutes. The story is preposterously slim, after all: two guys are trying to get home. It is primarily a farce, focused on slapstick and errors and mishaps, not on characterization. Del and Neal eventually become friends, but neither of them learns, changes or grows. (The idea that Neal has spent too much time away from his family is halfheartedly brought up, then discarded.) You can have too much of a good thing, and farce is definitely one of the good things that it is easy to have too much of.

That being said, where is this film's special-edition DVD? The 2000 DVD release is bare-bones, without a single extra -- not even the trailer. A recent "I Love the '80s" edition is downright fraudulent, with one alternate scene and nothing else. Any film that is rumored to have an extra 90 minutes of deleted scenes floating around ought to be able to scrape up some DVD extras, particularly a perennial favorite like Planes, Trains & Automobiles.

PT&A was something of a triumph for everyone involved: a smart, funny, exceedingly well crafted film that, unlike many comedies, achieves timelessness. You could make the exact same film today and the only detail you'd have to alter would be to have the characters use cell phones rather than pay phones. Even all the changes that have occurred in the airline industry since 1987 wouldn't affect the comedy of errors that Neal Page and Del Griffith endure.


FROM THE TIME CAPSULE: When Planes, Trains & Automobiles was released 21 years ago this week, on Nov. 25, 1987 ...

  • It was Thanksgiving weekend; PT&A was released the day before the holiday, along with Three Men and a Baby. Flowers in the Attic and Teen Wolf Too had opened the week before, and The Running Man had opened two weeks earlier. Fatal Attraction, Dirty Dancing and The Princess Bride, all released 10-15 weeks prior, were still in the Top 10.
  • The economic world was still reeling from Black Monday (Oct. 19), when stock markets around the world crashed -- or, as today's economists call it, "child's play."
  • Zac Efron and Kevin Jonas (of the Jonas Brothers) were both less than a month old.
  • The Fox Network had just launched its very first season, with programming only two nights a week. Its Sunday night lineup included 21 Jump Street, Married ... with Children and The Tracey Ullman Show. Other new series on other networks included Full House and A Different World.
  • Among the titles on the New York Times Best Seller list were Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Clancy's Patriot Games and Toni Morrison's Beloved.
  • The top song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart was Billy Idol's "Mony Mony," to be followed the next week by "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," from Dirty Dancing. Other recent #1 hits were Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now" and Michael Jackson's "Bad."



Warning: Extremely Salty language, NSFW out loud.



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Eric's Time Capsule appears every Monday at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website, where THOSE AREN'T PILLOWS!