‘Those aren’t pillows!’ John Candy and the soft-hearted genius of Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles - Alamy
Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles - Alamy

By the late Eighties, John Hughes was – as described by his long-time producing pal Tom Jacobson – a “powerhouse” of the movie business. The master of the teen movie – including The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – the writer/director/producer was a modern Hollywood auteur.

He had a reputation for being difficult and bullish, and was known for dropping collaborators from his inner circle without warning. “John was mercurial,” says Tarquin Gotch, a music supervisor whom Hughes unceremoniously ditched – only to later bring him back to run Hughes Entertainment. “You were his best friend and suddenly you weren’t. That was the nature of the man. You can’t have the great stuff without the artistic temperament.”

When Jeremiah S. Chechik directed National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Chechik found that Hughes’ influence made him a powerful creative ally. Chechik likens Hughes to a “900lb gorilla” who would fight his corner against Warner Bros executives. “If I had issues with the studio,” says Chechik, “or if they disagreed with my approach and said, ‘You should change that,’ I’d always say, ‘Absolutely, no problem! I’ll just check with John…’”

Teen movies had given John Hughes his influence and reputation, but his festive movies were an equally definitive part of his all-American oeuvre: full of heart-swelling sentiment, family values, and that joyous balance of laughs and tears.

All staples of the Christmas movie, of course, and all part of the success of Hughes’ festive hits: Christmas Vacation, a must-watch every December; Home Alone, as perfect as any family film ever made; and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which, while set as Thanksgiving rather than Christmas, is so wonderful that it’s probably the strongest argument we have for celebrating Thanksgiving in the UK – just so we have a decent excuse to watch it every year.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles has been re-released on a brand new 4K Blu-ray, which includes over an hour of never-before-seen material and deleted scenes – recently discovered in John Hughes’ archives.

A native of the Midwest, Hughes grew up between the suburbs of Grosse Pointe, Detroit and North Shore near Chicago. He worked as both a creative director with an advertising agency and a freelance writer for Playboy, before landing a writing gig with the hugely influential National Lampoon Magazine.

As observed in Kirk Honeycutt’s book, John Hughes: A Life in Film, Hughes’ movies were filled with autobiographical detail. The floorplans for all the houses in his movies looked the same – doors opening onto staircases with big rooms either side, apparently like Hughes’ own house in Chicago – and his stories were often set in the fictional town of Shermer, Illinois, based on the suburbs where he grew up.

Films were set around life events and milestones too: vacations, family get-togethers, birthdays, prom, having babies. But making movies for the holidays was also a shrewd business decision. As Tarquin Gotch recalls: “He used to watch It’s a Wonderful Life and say, ‘That’s on every Christmas, I need one of those!’ John came from advertising, so this was not a coincidence. It was thought-out and planned – a very conscious decision. He was a clever man.”

Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which landed in cinemas on November 25 1987, is a family Christmas movie in all but its calendar setting. “I sometimes have to stop and remember, is it a Christmas film or not?” laughs Jennifer Candy, John Candy’s daughter.

As buddy comedies go, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is, well, miles ahead – the story of uptight family man Neal Page (Steve Martin), who gets lumbered with big-mouthed, big-hearted shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy), as Neal journeys home to Chicago for Thanksgiving.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles writer John Hughes - getty
Planes, Trains and Automobiles writer John Hughes - getty

Candy’s Del is the family member whom Neal never wanted or asked for (and don’t we all have to endure one of those during the season to supposedly be jolly?). But the snob vs slob dynamic develops into something deeply intimate, signposted by the film’s funniest set-up, when the pair are forced to share a motel bed and wake up the next morning, snuggled up together, with Del’s hand tucked between two pillows. “Those aren’t pillows!” shouts Neal as they leap out of bed and compensate with some macho postulating. “See that Bears game last week? Helluva game!”

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is arguably the most affecting of any John Hughes film. The emotional gut-punch, revealed at the end, is that Del is a homeless widower, endlessly travelling but with nowhere to go. It sounds cheesy by 2022 standards, but if you’re not welling-up to the sound of the warbling Eighties ballad, Every Time You Go Away, which chimes in at the end – as Neal takes Del home for Thanksgiving dinner – your heart’s as frosty as the crust of snow that covers Hughes’ festive films.

It’s proof that few filmmakers understood the emotive power of a well-placed pop song like John Hughes. “We’d sit in his office and he’d run the film and say, ‘I need something here and here,’” recalls Gotch, who worked in A&R and managed bands before joining Hughes as music supervisor. “John would be drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes all bloody night, and we’d try different songs against the picture. He loved that creative mood. Whenever he would throw something out, you wouldn’t be slavish, but invariably he was right. He came up with Oh Yeah in Ferris Bueller, and I thought ‘F––– me, that’s it, you nailed it there, John… I’ll just go and do something else!’”

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is also the film that began the close comedy partnership and bond between John Hughes and John Candy.

Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles - Alamy
Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles - Alamy

“I can attest to the fact that they were soulmates,” says Tom Jacobson, who produced a number of Hughes’ films. “They connected – their comedy style, the dialogue style, John Candy’s ability to inhabit the characters. John Candy would always read the script in John’s voice. I remember moments on Uncle Buck that were so inspirational. John would sit right under the camera and just roll through a whole magazine, and say, ‘Do this again,’ and just throw out lines to John Candy. It was like improv writing, which was really fun to watch. Whatever you could throw at John Candy, he could take it and riff off of that. They had a real simpatico.”

That’s seen in the rediscovered material that’s included on the new Planes, Trains and Automobiles Blu-ray – alternative versions of scenes that are in the movie, with Steve Martin and John Candy exchanging entirely different dialogue.

“My dad was a family man and John Hughes was very similar, family was important,” says Jennifer Candy, who appeared in Chowchilla, a comedy short starring and written by her brother Chris Candy. “Our families would get together and my brother and I would hang out with John’s kids. My dad and John just got each other – they had inside jokes, bantered back and forth, and finished each other’s sentences. Not everyone in Hollywood finds that connection. But even though they worked together, they didn’t bring their work to the family life – when we hung out together, it was like another part of our extended family.”

John Candy – particularly in Planes, Trains and Automobiles – became the heart and soul of John Hughes’ movies from that era. As Hughes matured from teen flicks to grown up-based family comedies, Candy embodied the adolescent spirit that had been so key to Hughes’ earlier films, invariably playing characters who were childlike, clumsy, good-natured, and innocent – often stood next to other, more cynical adults. “A lot of my dad’s characters were part of him,” says Jennifer. “There was a truth to the character – a truth and realness. He brought something that was relatable.”

After Planes, Trains and Automobiles, John Hughes and John Candy collaborated on films that included Uncle Buck and The Great Outdoors. Not Christmas films, but still very much about family. And if you haven’t watched at least one of those films on ITV2 this festive season, you’re doing Christmas wrong. Candy also appeared in 1990’s Home Alone, written by Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus.

Before Home Alone was National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the third film in the Chevy Chase-led series – following 1983’s still-very-funny Vacation and 1985’s much-less-funny European Vacation – about the haphazard misadventures of Clark Griswold, Chase’s earnest-but-on-the-edge dad.

The original film was based on the story Vacation ’58, which Hughes had written for National Lampoon Magazine; similarly, Christmas Vacation was based on Hughes’ story Christmas ‘59.

Clark tries to host the perfect family Christmas but is plagued by a series of calamities, including the unexpected arrival of trailer park moron Cousin Eddie (played with idiotic genius by Randy Quaid). But even worse: the bonus cheque that Clark is awaiting to cover the cost of Christmas never arrives.

“There was a kind of good creative tension,” recalls producer Tom Jacobson. “Because Chevy was a big movie star at the time and John was a big producer powerhouse. I think John worked slightly differently on this one than he did on his movies, where he was the total auteur. They had to go back and negotiate things in the script. But they got it done.”

Though it’s more all-out pratfalls than Hughes’ usual blend of gentle laughs and heartstring-yanking, Christmas Vacation does have a resonating sentiment beneath the gags. Battling with the responsibilities of fatherhood – from being a provider and living up to the image of the all-American patriarch, to carving the turkey and putting up the exterior lights – Clark’s plight makes Christmas Vacation the ultimate dads’ festive film. John Hughes himself was a young father – “He met his wife in college and had his kids in his early 20s,” says Tom Jacobson, “which was unusual for a guy making movies” – and based Clark on experiences from growing up in the Midwest.

The Griswolds: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
The Griswolds: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

“The creation of Clark Griswold came out of John’s personal memory, a compilation of Midwestern dads,” says Jacobson. “John was a great observer, like any great writer. He took that world around him and used it to inspire him.”

After reading Hughes’ script, Jeremiah Chechik went back to classic comedy directors to find what he describes as a “Rockwellian, middle-American style.” “I studied many of my forebearers,” he says. “Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks… I began in earnest to see why their movies had lasted.”

Hughes was off-hands with the production, busy shooting another movie, and gave Chechik creative freedom. “He looked at the cut and said, ‘You got it, the movie’s yours, it’s fantastic,’” recalls Chechik. “I made a massive change to the end during the mix. I called John and told him I wanted to cut a minute and he just said, “Do it, do it, do it.’”

Christmas Vacation was released on December 1, 1989. Chechik admits he didn’t pay much attention at first. “I just thought, ‘Yeah, it’s a Christmas movie, it should do OK!’” he laughs. That was until Chevy Chase took him to see the film with a paying audience and brought along American comedy legend James L Brooks. “I became terrified,” says Chechik. “I knew Chevy would like it, but James Brooks? He was a mentor to me. Sitting next to him and seeing him go hysterical was as satisfying as it gets for a young director.”

Thirty-three years later – and even when watched each and every December – Christmas Vacation is still riotously funny. As Clark Griswold, Chevy Chase has rarely been better. See his rubber-faced optimism as he drags the family though waist-high snow to find and cut down the perfect Christmas tree (but forgetting to bring a saw); his razor-sharp timing as he throws insults at his yuppie neighbours (including a pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus); and his inevitable descent into ranting festive madness (“Hallelujah, holy s–––!”).

John Candy in John Hughes's Uncle Buck - Alamy
John Candy in John Hughes's Uncle Buck - Alamy

And then there's Cousin Eddie, with his white loafers, the metal plate in his head – which causes him to wet himself and forget his own name every time the microwave is switched on – and his blithe stupidity. “Hey kids, I heard on the news that an airplane pilot spotted Santa’s sled on his way in from New York,” says Clark around the Christmas dinner table. “You serious, Clark?” replies Eddie.

Christmas Vacation was Hughes’ first Christmas movie hit. Home Alone, released the following year, became the highest grossing comedy of all time.

John Candy cameoed as Gus Pulinksi, the “Polka King of the Midwest”, who ferries Catherine O’Hara’s desperate mother back to Chicago, where Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin McAllister is, erm, home alone and defending his house against two burglars – played by Goodfellas-era Joe Pesci (God knows what he’d have done to Kevin if he’d actually caught him) and Daniel Stern.

If Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life defined the Christmas classic for the baby boomers of Hollywood’s golden age, Home Alone did it for the millennial generation: a near-disastrous yuletide saved by fairy tale-like Christmas spirit, infectious do-goodery, and a heaping of American schmaltz.

“We were absolutely blown away by the success,” says Tarquin Gotch, executive producer on Home Alone. “We were very worried when we previewed it. If you watch it, nothing happens for about two thirds of the film! There’s a lot of set-up. It’s not until about halfway that the crooks try to get into the house and the slapstick begins. Watching a preview was uncomfortable because there were no big laughs until halfway through. But then the laughing started and it never stopped.”

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York followed in 1992. Obvious observations about plausibility aside (by now the McAllisters should be investigated by social services for neglect; and the burglars would have been killed ten times over by Kevin’s lethal booby traps) Home Alone 2 is only inferior because it came second. It’s a near scene-by-scene re-tread of the first movie, but the formula works again, with the slapstick amped up.

John Hughes also wrote the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street, which Tarquin Gotch describes as one of Hughes’ “icon” movies: commercial properties, including the live action versions of 101 Dalmatians and Dennis the Menace (the American version), which Hughes mostly worked on later in his career.

“For me, the ‘icon’ films are the least successful of his work,” says Gotch. “I think his genius was to make films about ordinary people. He was the Frank Capra for white middle-class suburban America in the 1980s.”

Hughes’ teen movies were sentimental but rarely sickly. They have a certain magic, capturing the awkwardness and romanticism of teenage life with such understanding that they became a part of teenage life itself. Falling in love with The Breakfast Club was like a rite of passage for a generation of teens. Similarly, John Hughes’ holiday movies capture the tradition, spirit, and family dynamic of the festive season so brilliantly, they’ve also become part of it. After all, is it even Christmas if you haven’t watched Christmas Vacation and Home Alone?

Hughes died suddenly of a heart attack in 2009, aged just 59. His most personal films, however, have lasted like the classics that Jeremiah Chechik studied before making Christmas Vacation.

“I think it’s because they’re fundamentally humanistic,” says Chechik. “They’re human dramas and kind of braced by the comedy. I think his work has a real sense of tragedy – that’s what’s so interesting. In Home Alone you accidentally leave your child home alone?! And Vacation, which is the desperation of a man trying to prove himself worthy in terms of being able to afford things, having his pay cheque ripped asunder by his boss? They are fundamental tragedies that are very, very funny.”

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is available on 4K Blu-ray now