Ask anyone what their favorite John Candy film is and they’re likely to say, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” This film, along with maybe “Only the Lonely,” was one of the few screen examples of Candy’s true comic gifts: his warmth, charm, sunny disposition and genuine open faced sincerity. Candy was always a welcome presence onscreen, but sadly, he made a lot of bad films.
It’s hard to believe that John Candy’s been gone for almost eight years. Maybe like Richard Pryor, his co-star in the awful “Brewster’s Millions,” film just wasn’t the right vehicle for this big teddy bear actor. While Pryor was able to sometimes escape a pattern of bad films and display his genius on celluloid in “Blue Collar” and his concert videos, Candy was perennially pigeonholed in insipid comedies, films like “Volunteers,” “Armed and Dangerous,” “Who’s Harry Crumb?” But with “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and with the character Del Griffith, Candy gave his best performance in his best film.
When Candy’s shower-ring salesman first meets Steve Martin, he doesn’t make a very good impression. He steals Martin’s cab, and then when they bump into each other at LaGuardia airport, Martin seethes at the sight of him, only to later find out that he’s been bumped out of first class and into a seat next to Candy. Martin just wants to get from LaGuardia to O’Hare and get home to his family before the holidays, but it soon becomes obvious that he and Candy are diabolically destined to embark on a journey together.
The problem with Del is his jokes — they’re so bad. How bad? Martin would rather die than have to hear another one. Worse. He tells Candy he’d rather attend an insurance seminar than hear another joke. Candy’s problem with jokes is that he just can’t think of a punchline. He’s so friendly he’s irritating, and Martin looks like he’s going to have a nervous breakdown if he has to spend one more day with this guy. But fate has trapped them together.
The biggest laugh in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” and the most famous one, is when Candy and Martin are trapped in a motel room together where they endure the most embarrassing social situation two men could ever experience. It’s funny, but what happens before is really touching. Candy uses his connections in the shower-ring business to get the last room. He’s so charming, but then they find out there’s only one bed, and the reaction on Martin’s face is really funny; then he feels something strange on his backside and we get the big laugh, followed by some awkwardly funny soul searching.
It’s here in the motel room that Martin loses it and breaks into a long speech, where he points out Candy’s flaws one by one, while Candy just stands there, on the verge of tears. This is the best acting Candy’s ever done. He’s so hurt by what Martin says to him that Martin feels hurt, too. Candy just wants to please people so much (probably a necessity in the shower-ring business) that he inevitably tries too hard and makes people resentful. Eventually the two respect each other, and maybe feel some love.
This is a very touching film, but it’s also a very funny comedy. There’s the moment after “the embarrassing scene” where the two of them just stand there in horror, and then break into some monotonous chit chat about the weather and football. There’s the sight of Candy’s underwear in the bathroom, dangled right in front of Martin’s stunned eyes. They find a car that ends up so charred it gives new meaning to the term “highway to hell.”
Maybe this film, which has grown to become something of a holiday classic, touches so many people because of the emotional depth of Candy’s character. We find out something very sad about his character near the end of the film, and maybe here, we’re looking into Candy, the man. Look at Candy’s last performances and you’ll see a certain melancholy that crept into his performances, not unlike Dudley Moore’s work. With both actors, you could see a certain sadness. I have a feeling that Candy may have been chafing at all of the lame comedies he’d been trapped in. “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” showcases Candy’s hidden comic genius. It’s a great comedy, and a deeply touching one, too. Behind the star of “Uncle Buck” lurked a very fine actor.