The DVD Dissection: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (Those Aren't Pillows Edition)
Posted by Chad Webb on 11.12.2009
A true classic gets a dumb title, but also some extras. How does it stack up?
Steve Martin: Neal Page
John Candy: Del Griffith
Laila Robbins: Susan Page
Michael McKean: State Trooper
Kevin Bacon: Taxi Racer
Dylan Baker: Owen
Written and Directed By: John Hughes
Theatrical Release Date: November 25, 1987
DVD Release Date: October 20, 2009
Running Time: 92 minutes
There are some movies that instantly transport you back in time. They make you think of a certain person, place, or thing, and no matter how many times you see it, those memories always surface. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles always reminds me of my father. As my movie tastes have matured, I can safely say we do not agree on many titles anymore. The one actor we can agree on is John Candy. Both my father and I own the DVD, but if it airs on television, and we catch it, we must finish it. The same can be said for Uncle Buck. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a special film, one whose humor has never waned, and whose underlying drama becomes progressively more poignant. Of all the great films John Hughes (Ferris Beullerís Day Off, The Breakfast Club) has provided, this tops my list.
The "odd couple" theme will never grow old. Like so many other premises in cinema, that is one that will be recycled regularly because with the right actors, it can always succeed. Of all the attempts at this story outline, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is easily one of the best, and unquestionably one of the most unforgettable. I can scarcely think of another version with as many stand out sequences as this. In his great movie essay for this film, Roger Ebert said the following: "Some movies are obviously great. Others gradually thrust their greatness upon us." A more accurate statement could not be uttered in regard to this 1987 classic. One might not realize after the first viewing how truly splendid and enchanting it is, and maybe not even after the second viewing, but eventually, when you keep watching it over and over again, it becomes ingrained in your soul, it becomes a stamp of your life, and you discover that it became great without you really noticing.
As a person that has traveled numerous times, using all different modes of transportation, the hysterical events of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles have a ring of truth that becomes more frighteningly realistic as time rolls along. In the beginning of the story, Neal Page is sitting in a meeting, waiting for his boss to finish examining some layouts. He has to catch a plane in order to arrive home when he told his wife he would. The meeting puts him behind schedule, and on top of that, he has trouble hailing a cab. Anyone who has visited a major city can sympathize with that. When you really need one, they are never available. Neal makes it to the airport, but just as he does, his flight is delayed.
As destiny would have it, Neal recognizes a man in the airport lobby. It seems that the same individual that snuck in and stole his cab while Neal was bartering with the original occupant, takes a seat right in front of him reading The Canadian Mounted. The man feels sorry about this, but the issue rests. Neal's problems continue. Once the flight is ready to go, Neal discovers that his first class ticket was booked for a coach seat assignment. He is forced to plant himself in coach, and coincidentally, he lands right beside the man from the lobby. The man introduces himself as Del Griffith, a traveling salesman who works for American Light & Fixture. He is the Director of Sales for the shower curtain ring division. He carries with him a sample of these rings. It turns out Del has sold so many shower curtain rings across the United States, that he has friends everywhere, and can ask for favors around every corner.
The flight ends up being re-routed to Wichita, Kansas due to severe weather in Chicago. Ben Stein informs us of this in his cameo. All the hotels in Wichita are booked, except the Braidwood Inn, where Del knows the owner. Del offers to help Neal book a room, hence the two take a taxi to the hotel. The taxi is called "Dooby's Taxiola", and the driver looks like an aging Fonzie. His car is plastered with photos of nude women, blasting rock music, fancy exterior lights, and even hydraulics. He takes the long way so Neal can get a look of the town. We never do find out what the ride cost, but one can guess it was expensive. It winds up that Del and Neal must not only share a room, but share a bed, and subsequently one of the most faithfully discomfited and riotous sequences ever put to film unravels. The duo's adventure persists as Neal and Del try desperately to get home for Thanksgiving, but Neal cannot shake Del from his life. What results is a friendship in the purest form.
Although the mismatched pair thread acts as the skeleton, the heart of the film examines how to understand the feelings and emotions of another. John Hughes does not rely on the comedy for everything. His movie is about thinking of something larger than ourselves, and it is a lesson Neal learns the hard way. After so much aggravation, delays, and uneasiness, Neal explodes on the overwhelming Del. He stands motionless as Neal verbally bashes every quality he possesses. At this moment, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles allows the audience to embrace its deeper layers, and it is then that the increasingly impactful resonance takes shape. Until that juncture it was going to be just a series of gags, but Hughes aims higher than that. Conveying heart in your movie is not easy, but this was an area Hughes triumphed in, and no matter what flaws detractors claim exist, they can not argue with that.
As fond as I am of watching John Candy, I have never been an avid fan of Steve Martin's comedy. I think he tries too hard to obtain laughs, and comes across as too exaggerated most of the time. I've always thought he had a natural propensity as a dramatic actor. Films like Shopgirl, and a few others where he provided minor roles, showcase his strengths and versatility, but he limits himself too often. The character of Neal Page is the best of both worlds, which is why it is Steve Martin's finest turn as a performer. He chose the part because the adamant stringency and solemnity of Page allowed for an excellent set up to the humor. Page is a man who has not genuinely experienced the curve balls that life can toss at you. He has a high paying job, a loving family, and presumably many friends. His big city lifestyle has given him a narrow minded view of the world, and when he meets Del, he comes face to face with his stubbornness and arrogance.
He wants to be left alone, but life doesn't always let that happen, and Neal learns that he must "rough it" a bit, share with someone else, and understand how every dollar counts. Hughes employs a gradual build up to their wacky excursion that makes it ten times as uproarious, but it was in the chemistry between Candy and Martin where the film soars. No other pair of actors could have played these characters as masterfully. Martin's forte is priceless reactions and loud expressions, and Candy's effortless mistakes give him the opportunity to go crazy with this. The best example is when their credit cards get switched, and Neal assumes Del had stolen it. Del thinks Neal gave it to him out of kindness, and Martin's unbelievable facial response is just so impeccably timed and executed. But as it takes two to tango, Steve Martin could never have prospered with the role if John Candy had not been there alongside him to pave the way.
John Candy's greatest characters are the ones who are quite lovable and fun, but also a bit frustrating to deal with. He is responsible for so many terrific comedic performances because he has such a vivacious energy and extraordinary presence. Summer Rental, The Great Outdoors, Only the Lonely, and Who's Harry Crumb? are just a few that we can cherish. Candy was meant for the comedy genre, and unlike Martin, was never as exceptional in dramatic roles. That is not to say he could not pull one off. My point is Candy could nail the serious tones in small doses rather than large ones. Del Griffith is Candy's sweetest persona, and his portrayal is saturated with conviction, hilarity, and charm. Del's key scene is, ironically, when he talks to himself in the burnt out vehicle. He mentions that he is smothering Neal, and that explains how Del wants so badly to please everyone. We can observe this during his first lines, but only during this instance of total lonliness is his nature spelled out.
John Hughes brilliantly captures the essence of how each mode of transportation can drive you nuts, while simultaneously exuding how bizarrely different people all across the country are. Sitting next to someone on a plane that will not shut up, having a train break down in the middle of nowhere, and pushing a car out of the snow are all situations moviegoers can relate to. In what is arguably the funniest moment, Neal is driven to a parking lot to pick up his rental car, but it is not there. He must walk all the way back to the offices, through the ice and slush, and over the runway to find out what exactly happened. As he approaches the counter, the cheerful rental agent is busy on the phone discussing Thanksgiving dinner. Neal's verbal tirade of profanity is simply unparalleled. To see such an uptight human being lose control like that after so much hardship is side-splitting to say the least. Another great scene is when Del leads a bus full of passengers to various recognizable songs. Neal tries to play along, but can only think of "Three Coins in a Fountain", to which the entire bus looks back as if he is an alien. Getting embarrassed like that would make anyone angry, but Del jumps in with "The Flinstones" theme to counter the awkwardness.
The scene that continues to be my favorite is watching Del sing "Mess Around" by Ray Charles. It only gets funnier each time I see it. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is one of the greatest films ever made, not just because it keeps the audience laughing, but because John Hughes and his talented cast knew how to close the story and tug at our heart strings without straining. When Neal returns to find Del sitting alone on the train station platform, it is legitimately touching. I've always agreed with the assertion that best movies to you are the ones that you can watch over and over again without it ever growing tedious or losing its spark. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is one of those for me. It is one of those films that hits all the right notes and remains untouchable because of it.
Earlier editions of this film sported a flawed, but acceptable transfer. In truth, I was just happy to own it at the time. Looking back, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a picture with some clarity issues, particularly during the nighttime sequences. Thankfully the image quality has been vastly improved from the previous version. If the lighting is dark, chances are the picture might seem a bit blotchy to you. Still, compared to the last edition, this is a breath of fresh air. The daytime moments are vivid, bright, and beautiful to look at. This is a movie that has an aged aura to its transfer. I would almost label it a homegrown feel, but it is effective, and is important in preserving the time period with which it was made. It is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 that is enhanced for 16x9 TVís.
This screwball comedy may not have explosions or gunfire, but Hughes and his crew integrate some awesome sound effects. Take for instance when Del is scratching himself as he prepares to sleep, or clears his sinuses. Or how about when he puts the car in reverse and crashes into the hotel. The sound of car and tractor trailer side by side with screeching metal comes across with fantastic clarity. The songs are terrific, and Ira Newbornís suitably sensitive and jovial score is magnificent. Every character is perfectly lucid and understandable, and my volume knob rested at a comfortable position. This includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track in English, Spanish mono, as well as subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is distributed in a standard black keepcase with a lenticular slipcover on top of that which displays Candy and Martin standing in the snow next to their luggage. Underneath is the normal poster artwork, but someone has added an airport scrolling sign with a joke on it. I donít think it was necessary, but thatís me. You also have security clips on the side, but no booklets of any kind on the inside. The menu is the slipcover image of the stars, and is easy to navigate. The big problem with this double-dip is the title, which induces instant eye rolls. They really didnít need to spice it up by calling it the ďThose Arenít Pillows!Ē edition. It is corny and lame.
There have been numerous dips of this film, but each one has been the same old barebones edition.
Getting There is Half the Fun: The Story of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (16:44) Ė This is a nifty treat as we see John Candy, Steve Martin, and John Hughes at a press conference fielding questions about their careers and this film specifically. Hughes is given most of the questions. He talks about his quick writing, recurring actors, and so forth. This was short, but certainly neat. Candy was late getting to this because he was in the bathroom.
John Hughes for Adults (4:16) Ė This has more footage from the press conference, and has brief interviews about how this is more for adults instead of teens.
A Tribute to John Candy (3:06) Ė This is extremely short, but it looks to contain newer crew interviews sharing their memories from the film. Everyone says he was a nice guy.
Deleted Scene: Airplane Food (3:31) Ė Images of cut scenes can be found interspersed through the main featurette, but to see this was indeed an early Christmas gift for yours truly. It is indeed a rarity to view deleted scenes from an older film you love that are truly funny. This is one of them, although I can understand why it was left out. This is worth the upgrade alone.
Previews (1:33) Ė This is a short advertisement for Paramount TV on DVD. Yay.
The Film: 10.0/10.0
The Video: 8.0/10.0
The Audio: 8.5/10.0
The Packaging: 5.5/10.0
The Extras: 7.5/10.0
The 411: Even though the title of this DVD edition made me cringe, I am glad I now own it because the extras, which include a deleted scene and behind the scenes footage, are wonderful supplements. True, they are very short, but it was better than what we got before. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a genuine classic, not just for the holidays, but for film in general. Steve Martin and John Candy captured magic during these 92 minutes, and each actor gives some of their finest work on the screen. If you donít own the film yet, you need to, and this is a great opportunity to do so.