Few filmmakers have had their finger on the pulse of the American zeitgeist better than John Hughes in the 1980s. A former advertising copywriter and the son of a Chicagoan salesman, also named John Hughes, the now legendary screenwriter and film director rose to prominence in the mid-to-late 20th century by recognizing what audiences wanted to see and hear. And sometimes what they needed to feel.
It was that gift which allowed him to transition from moonlighting as a joke writer for standups like Rodney Dangerfield to writing proper comedy films outright—and sometimes lacing them with an emotional sentimentality that, if not universally true, almost always felt authentic. The ‘80s comedies he wrote and directed, including Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), are still watched and celebrated to this day as much for their moments of earnestness (such as when Alan Ruck demolishes his neglectful father’s Ferrari) as for their jokes.
This holds true for what is arguably Hughes’ most timeless directorial effort too: the single agreed-upon “Thanksgiving movie,” Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987). A classic two-hander buddy picture about an odd couple enduring an impromptu road trip (and each other), just in time for that all-American holiday of turkeys and mashed potatoes, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is hilarious. How can it not be when it cast Steve Martin and John Candy at the peak of their comedic talents and popularity? The film then forces them to play off each other like oil and vinegar as their characters share the same modes of transportation, and hotel rooms, and bathroom towel sets, and then finally even a bed. The indignant exasperation radiating from Martin’s evermore withering gaze and Candy’s personification of a bear hug is comedic peanut butter and jelly.
Yet the reason the movie continues to linger on with families, Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving and generation after generation, is more than just the yucks. The film has an emotional resonance and soul; it may even be Hughes’ most adult screenplay, as the problems actually weighing these men down are more complex than prom dates or who you sit with at lunch.
As it turns out, Candy’s Del Griffith is a widower, and sadder than that, one who feels the loss of his wife so profoundly that he’s elected to live permanently on the road. He has no home and, thus, nowhere to spend Thanksgiving. Still, he busts his good-natured (if oblivious and impolite) keester in order to get Martin’s family man Neal Page home for Thanksgiving. And most miraculously of all, the poignant way this is all revealed in Planes, Trains and Automobiles was a last minute fix in post-production where Hughes utilized some footage Martin never even knew was filmed in order to create the greatest emotional catharsis of the picture.
John Hughes, Steve Martin, and a Beautiful Expression
Planes, Trains and Automobiles was likely one of the more personal films in Hughes’ career. In addition to the film starring an advertising executive (Martin’s Neal) making the brutal commuter flight between New York City and Chicago, the film also was loosely based on the worst Thanksgiving of the filmmaker’s life. Back in his copywriting days, Hughes really did intend to spend only an afternoon in NYC before returning home to Chicago for the holidays. Instead he endured five days on the road because of weather delays, which landed him all the way in Phoenix, Arizona. During those trials and tribulations, he spent most of the holiday with a salesman who’d seen it all before.
It is not hard to imagine Del and Neal represent two sides of Hughes’ persona: the world-weary salesman, who like Hughes’ own father had that human touch that could connect with anyone, and, well, the guy who lives in the elite suburbs of Chicago and who would rather just be home for the holidays. For the film, Hughes cast two actors he incredibly admired, one of whom he worked with before in Candy, and one whose career he had watched from afar.
“I thought Steve Martin was the funniest man alive,” Hughes told the Boston Herald in 1987 (via Vanity Fair’s oral history of the movie). “He was the first real rock-and-roll comedian who appeared in arenas, not little clubs. So I was a little in awe when he came to my home for a meeting for Planes, Trains.”
That might be true, but Martin is known in the industry for both his precise perfectionism and, according to some folks, a professional aloofness that, in retrospect, may not have been a natural fit for an unapologetic sentimentalist like Hughes. According to film journalist Tim Appelo (via IndieWire), Martin’s old colleague Tom Smothers once remarked, “Spending time with [Martin] is like being alone.” What this meant is that while Martin was a comedic and improvisational genius, he always was in control of how he played the characters. Martin, the actor, determined how much of himself he liked to reveal on set—which was apparently little.
Looking back on working with Martin, Hughes reportedly said, “You say, ‘Gee, Steve, why don’t you do this, why don’t you’—he does what he wants to do, you know?” When it came to getting comedic energy while playing off Candy, it could be dynamite, but there was never a moment where Martin was caught off-guard or as emotionally vulnerable as Hughes wanted.
That changed on a day where, between scenes, Hughes told his cinematographer to film Martin without the actor’s knowledge. Martin was quietly preparing for the scene they were about to shoot, and Hughes saw in the actor’s quiet pensiveness the type of vulnerability he craved for his movies.
“Steve had a really beautiful expression on his face, ‘cause what he was doing was trying to learn his lines. He was thinking about his lines,” Hughes told Appelo. “This deep [look] that in context looks like he was troubled.” Hughes filmed it without Martin’s permission or awareness, and without knowing if he would ever use it. This decision would prove pivotal when it came to fixing the ending of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Changed Endings and Canny Editing
While the beloved holiday film is watched every year now as a breezy 93-minute odyssey, there is a famously “lost” director’s cut of the film that runs well over two hours. The original assembly cut ran even closer to four hours. And when it came to finding the movie buried within, Hughes realized that, as scripted, the ending did not work.
In its original version, Martin’s Page does not have the perceptive empathy to figure out that Del lied about his wife waiting for him in Chicago. Instead when Neal says goodbye to Del for the umpteenth time and gets on a Chicago elevated train headed home, he finds Del waiting for him at the next train station. Del’s humanity isn’t recognized by a newfound friend; it is pleadingly confessed when an enraged Neal demands to know why this guy is following him home. So Del reluctantly admits his wife is dead. In the end, and out of pity, Neal invites Del to Thanksgiving, and we spend a much longer time in the screenplay meeting all of Neal’s many relatives and enjoying their subsequent dinner.
Martin regrets some of what was deleted in the final cut, including a long and heartfelt speech by Del about how his wife was sick when they married, and they hoped to have children but her condition continued to worsen until she passed. In a 2021 interview with The Guardian, Martin said, “That scene was a page and a half long in the script, and in the movie I think it’s cut to three lines. But there was such beauty in it, and I never understood why John trimmed the scene.”
According to editor Paul Hirsch, who spoke to Vanity Fair for their 35th anniversary oral history, it had to do with how audiences perceived the Del character.
“That speech was getting bad laughs,” Hirsch said of test screenings for a two-hour version of the film. “As he was delivering it, people started to giggle, and then it got worse and worse. So we concocted a version in which Steve figures it out for himself, that Candy is homeless, and goes and fetches him. In the original version, Candy sort of ambushes Steve.”
For Hughes, it was a reportedly finer point, with IndieWire noting the director said, “I realized I don’t like [Del] at the end… He just went from being a pain in the ass to a tragic pain in the ass.”
Having Neal realize Del’s plight without having to be told gave both men more dignity and also provided Neal with the good grace to willingly invite Del to his home for Thanksgiving dinner. Similarly, by cutting the extended family exhaustion and hysteria Hughes had scripted for the final scene—ideas that would find their way into the screenplays for Christmas Vacation (1989) and Home Alone (1990)—the movie was allowed to end on the warmth of Neal and Del’s unlikely friendship and holiday good wishes, as opposed to this knucklehead guilting his way into a turkey dinner.
Still, there was the problem of changing the ending when Planes, Trains and Automobiles was already over budget and out of time. Those test screenings occurred in July 1987—long after the snow in Chicago melted—and the film was due out in November. This is where Hughes’ discreet filming of Martin proved invaluable.
Cropping the frame as close as possible, so as to hide that it was not filmed on a Chicago MTA train, Hughes and Hirsch used Martin’s vulnerability while mentally preparing himself for a scene to create the suggestion of Neal recognizing his own heartlessness and blindness while thinking about Del. (They also used alternative takes of Candy from other scenes in a montage here that created the suggestion of a nobler reading of the character than previously glimpsed.) The filmmakers also reversed some winter footage of Chicago trains coming and going out of a platform, and restructured the scene of Martin berating Candy for following him. Instead, as edited, the scene now plays like Neal is returning for Del out of genuine concern. He wants to make sure his new buddy has anywhere to go tonight.
The result is the emotional catharsis Hughes was looking for, and perhaps the most adult emotionality in an oeuvre celebrated for its heartfelt good cheer.