My family doesn’t have many family traditions. Ever since my father passed away, when I was about 3 years old, my immediate family has consisted of just my mother and me. As such an insular family, we tend to bounce around between various branches of our extended family for holidays and birthdays. We drive out to see this or that grandparent, this or that collection of aunts, uncles, and cousins, this or that group of family friends. When you’re adopted by a larger group of people, you don’t generally start the traditions. You bring your side-dish and you get initiated into someone else’s rituals. But my mom and I do have one family custom that’s ours, one that has endured over the years, through cross-country moves, family feuds, and a rotating list of participants. And that tradition is watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles every Thanksgiving.
Holiday travel is one of the few kinds of travel that isn’t especially fun, interesting, or exciting but, having grown up traveling through most holiday seasons, I’ve become something of an expert. For example, I know that you should always bring snacks and refreshments (regardless of the mode of transportation, none of the food options are ever tasty or reasonably priced) and should always go to the bathroom before leaving (or when you stop for gas, or if others in your row are going, too). You should definitely try to travel directly whenever possible (less chance of getting stranded), and always arrive early—it’s far better to wait in the bar with a beer and a good book than to miss the boat completely. Most of all, though, I know that adopting a zen approach is the easiest way to get through it all.
Of course, disasters happen: ticket reservations get subjected to human or machine error; you lose your cab or your wallet or your phone; you get stuck sitting next to someone who won’t shut up, or someone who snores, or in front of a child who won’t stop kicking your seat; weather reroutes planes or simply prevents them from leaving at all; trains or buses or cars catch fire. Any combination of these is enough to make the average person snap, which is why it’s especially hysterical to watch Neal Page (Steve Martin) and Del Griffith (John Candy) be subjected to every single one.
“Watching the movie growing up, it was the humor that always drew me in, but as an adult it’s the humanity.”
Neal, an advertising exec on his way home to Chicago, and Del, a traveling shower-curtain ring-retailer, are stranded in Wichita, Kansas, after a snowstorm reroutes their flight. Thanksgiving is in three days, and all Neal wants is to get home in time for his kids’ pageant and the family dinner. Del—the embodiment of an overly-chummy salesman—steps right in with his business connections and helps Neal find a hotel room for the night. It doesn’t take long for proper, uptight, leave-me-alone Neal to snap at gregarious, slightly crude, overbearing Del for his spilling beer on a bed they’re forced to share, and his guttural wheezing, and his incessant chatter, and his restlessness, and…
Though I’ve seen it dozens of times, watching Neal lay into Del is still difficult. Because at our worst we’ve all been Neal, harshly judging someone we barely know for the shallowest of grievances. This scene, and the next morning’s now-infamous “Those aren’t pillows!” moment, sets the tone for the way the film deftly balances the harsh realities between the ways we sometimes react to strangers with hostility, and the times when we manage to see beneath situational or personal annoyances and rise above them.
My Thanksgivings have changed a great deal since my mother and I first started watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles all those years ago. We used to watch it with my mom’s side of the family back in Seattle, but for the past few years we’ve been watching it with my father’s side of the family. After I’d moved out to New York City for college, we started joining them in Connecticut for Thanksgiving and, for maybe the very first time, we were invited to bring our traditions along with us (coincidentally, by my uncle, who reminds my family of Steve Martin). Planes, Trains and Automobiles was our only offering—and now they own it on DVD, too. There have been times when, fittingly, unforeseen circumstances have barred us from watching it— technological difficulties have arisen, one year we went to Boston instead—but inevitably we always make up for it in some way, catching the last half on cable somewhere, or watching it later, closer to Christmas. And, much like the company and surroundings, my emotional relationship with Planes, Trains and Automobiles has evolved with age and circumstance, as well.
Watching the movie growing up, it was the humor that always drew me in, but as an adult it’s the humanity (and, sometimes, the cruelty) behind that humor which often keeps me watching. When the rental car company assigns Neal a missing car, he’s forced to hike back across the runway and quickly proceeds to unleash the word “fucking” on the woman at the front desk eighteen times in a single minute. The humor in the scene, though, comes not just from the rampant profanity—or even from Steve Martin’s brilliant physical comedy—but also from the fact that most of us have likely been Neal at one time or another, ripping into some poor and undeserving person who just happened to be the face or voice behind a company that did us wrong (Comcast, Time Warner employees, I’m sorry). Revisiting the film with more life experience under my belt, I can see all the raw, emotional undercurrents that run beneath the laughter and how they resonate with my own flaws or losses—the times I’ve been judgmental and rude to strangers who didn’t deserve it, the absence of male role models in my life to illustrate all the ways in which husbands and fathers are supposed to interact with their wives, families, and each other.
When I was younger, Planes, Trains and Automobiles felt like a peek into this secret world of men that I knew so little about. And it took some time for me to understand all the ways in which Neal and Del are both flawed, deeply and almost unbearably so. Neal, behind all of his frustration and anger, is really just a man trying to get back home to his family. Growing up without a father around, I always liked that about Neal. I wanted to think that all fathers would be that way, just doing whatever it took to get home to their kids, and that my father would’ve been that way, too. As a kid, I tended to cast my sympathies moreso with Neal because of this – seeing John Candy as the goofy man in a devil costume who was a burden to regular guy Steve Martin. But these days, I find my heart going out to Del, just wanting so desperately to be liked, to connect with someone, that he seems oblivious to all the ways he’s overwhelming and occasionally rude. He is put through the very same hell as Neal (or worse, even), but always manages to keep a smile on his face. And so now, every time I want to pull a Neal and unleash a hellstorm on someone, I try to remember Del first, to grin and think, “Shit happens.”
As our first Thanksgiving together approached, I discovered that my boyfriend’s family has a Planes, Trains and Automobiles tradition, too. And, reading various articles and essays about the movie and its associated traditions over the years, it sounds like I share this tradition with many other families as well. But I was surprised to discover that there are those who actually don’t like it, people who feel it’s too clichéd, or that Neal and Del aren’t likeable, or that the underlying sadness simply overrides all the humor. However, that doesn’t much bother me, or make me argumentative like it might with other films. Because for me, Planes, Trains and Automobiles exists in its own world; it’s not just a movie, it’s a tradition. Revisiting Neal and Del’s road trip every year is about more than just having something to put on the TV after stuffing ourselves full of food and attempting to come down from our own holiday travel nightmares. It’s a reminder that strangers, like family, are worth some extra patience and kindness. Whether it’s the person sitting next to you or the one standing on the other side of the counter, everyone comes with their own life experiences and things to offer, be it the last hotel room in Wichita, or a free truck ride to the train station. And out on the road (or rails, or skies), we can all use a little help.
Taylor K. Long is a writer, editor, and photographer. She lives in rural Vermont with her cat, Alcatraz.