Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Happy 30th Anniversary To Planes, Trains And Automobiles

Happy 30th Anniversary to one of my all-time favorite movies, Planes, Trains And Automobiles! The film premiered back on November 25, 1987.

The movie was written and directed by the late, great John Hughes, who was responsible for some of the most iconic films of the 1980s and 1990s. He wrote Mr. Mom, National Lampoon's Vacation, European Vacation, Pretty in Pink, Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, Dutch, Beethoven and Home Alone 2: Lost In New York, among many others.

He wrote and directed Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, She's Having A Baby and Uncle Buck. Now that's a resume!

Planes, Trains And Automobiles is one of the very few Thanksgiving movies out there, and I make a point to watch it every year on the holiday.

The story couldn't be simpler. Neal Page (played by Steve Martin) is an uptight Chicago marketing director who finds himself stuck in New York City a few days before Thanksgiving. He runs into Del Griffith (played by the late John Candy), a slovenly, talkative shower curtain ring salesman. The two of them are thrown together by circumstances and find themselves traveling by... well, plane, train and automobile as they desperately try to make their way back home before Thanksgiving. That's the plot!

Hughes was a VERY prolific screenwriter, and hammered out the first draft of the script in just three days! For those of you who're not familiar with screenwriting, that's ridiculously fast! Most writers spend weeks or even months on a script.

I love this film quite a bit, but I've noticed it's becoming more and more of a period piece with each passing year. All through the movie, Neal has a huge amount of trouble lining up transportation for himself. He also can't ever seem to find any way to communicate with his frantic wife and let her know he's still alive. 

If the movie were being made today, virtually every problem Neal faces could easily be solved today with a cell phone!

Although it's now considered a classic, Planes, Trains And Automobiles wasn't a huge box office hit. It only managed to gross $49 million against its $30 million budget. Adjusted for inflation, it grossed $108 million on a $66 million budget. 

I've no idea why a comedy film would cost so much, since there are little or no effects and most of it was shot on location. Maybe the actors got huge paychecks?

A few things about the film:

• John Hughes based the film on a real life travel experience. He was on a flight from New York to Chicago that was diverted to Wichita, Kansas due to weather. For various reasons, it then took him a whopping FIVE days to get back home!

• Once filming was completed, Hughes assembled a rough cut (minus music and special effects) that clocked in at a whopping THREE HOURS! That's wayyyyy too long for a comedy film. Most comedies top out at around ninety minutes, simply because it's tough to make people laugh for longer than that.

Hughes and editor Paul Hirsch then produced a finished two hour cut, and this was the version that was shown to test audiences. Hughes later edited it down even more to one hour and thirty three minutes for theatrical release.

According to Hirsch, the two hour cut probably still exists somewhere in Paramount Studios vaults, but says the film stock has probably deteriorated by now.

If you watch the finished film closely, it becomes obvious there's some footage missing. Near the end of the movie, Del Griffith shows up with a semi truck to take Neal home to Chicago. For some reason Del's suddenly sporting a black eye in this scene. We never saw him get punched in the face prior to this, which indicates there must have been a big fight scene that was cut out.

There was also a cut scene in which the pair end up in a strip club (after the rental car catches on fire).

There was also a ton of cut footage involving Neal's wife Susan, which actually worked to her character's benefit. In the final edit, Susan is a beatific, ethereal presence who practically glows with a heavenly light. She spends the entire movie worrying and fretting about Neal, wondering where her beloved husband could be. When Neal finally returns home, she appears at the top of the stairs like a haloed angel, and almost floats down the stairs into his waiting arms.

Compare that to the original cut, in which Susan was a shrill, jealous and unpleasant shrew. She spent a good portion of the film accusing Neal of having an affair, because she thought "Del Griffith" was a made-up name and he wasn't a real person!

In the original ending, once the pair arrive in Chicago, Neal simply invites Del to his home for Thanksgiving dinner. Hughes later decided it would be more interesting if the two finally split up, and then have Neal change his mind and search for Del and invite him home.

Hughes and Hirsch then constructed this new ending in editing from existing footage.

• All exterior shots of the plane Neal and Del take to Wichita comes from the 1980 movie Airplane!, which was also released by Paramount.

• Since all the transportation companies in Planes, Trains And Automobiles are portrayed as inept and incompetent, no real world corporation would agree to lend their name to the movie. So the filmmakers invented several fake companies.

They created "Mid-Central Airline," complete with a logo and a fake boarding area (yep, that's Ben Stein as a Mid-Central employee!).

They also whipped up a fake logo and sign for "Trans-Missouri" bus lines.

The film crew also designed a Comtrak railway station, and painted several old railroad cars with logos and authentic signage. By the way, "Comtrak" is a combination of real-world company names "Conrail" and Amtrak." 

Additionally, they rented twenty miles of track for the scenes of Neal riding the train through the countryside, before it ultimately breaks down.

By far the most elaborate of these fake companies was Marathon Car Rental. The crew built an airport terminal set, complete with a Marathon rental counter. They also designed a Marathon company logo and some very convincing employee uniforms.

They even painted a bus with the Marathon logo and colors!

And they populated an airport lot with two hundred and fifty vehicles for the scene in which Neal finds his rental car is missing.

• Speaking of the Marathon Car Rental scene— after Neal discovers his rental car is missing, he laboriously makes his way back to the terminal, where he vents his frustration on a hapless clerk, played by Edie McClurg.

His tirade lasts exactly one minute, in which he says the word "f*cking" exactly eighteen times. This scene earned the film its R rating.

• Snow plays a big part in the film, as it's the reason Neal's plane is diverted in the first place. Unfortunately the winter weather was uncharacteristically warm that year, making snow difficult to find.

In the scenes filmed at Lambert Airport in St. Louis, the filmmakers actually had to truck in snow, to make the area look suitably wintry!

• Actor Dylan Baker made his film debut in Planes, Trains And Automobiles as Gus' son Owen, who Del hires to take them to the train station in Wichita. Owen makes quite an impression, what with his constant tobacco spitting, odd mannerisms and bizarre sinus affliction.

Baker's a hard-working actor who's appeared in over a hundred TV shows and movies. You may remember his best as Dr. Curt Conners in Spider-Man 2 and 3.

Neal and Del's rental car is a horrible looking, pea green 198 Chrysler LeBaron Town and Country. It was modified heavily for the film (with numerous Dodge parts) to turn it into a fictional model.

If the car looks vaguely familiar to you, you're not wrong. It was designed to resemble the Clark Griswold's Wagon Queen Family Truckster from National Lampoon's Vacation!

• Neal and Del eventually make it to St. Louis, where they rent a car to drive the last leg of their trip back to Chicago. The car catches fire that night, but is somehow still drivable, despite the fact that half of it's burned away. The next day they're stopped by a Wisconsin State Trooper, who confiscates the car for being unsafe. Which of course delays them yet again. A couple things here:

Actor Michael McKean plays the Wisconsin State Trooper who stops the pair. Amazingly, he receives fourth billing in the credits even though he appears onscreen for just ninety seconds! He must have had a hell of an agent!

Secondly, as you can see from the above map, St. Louis to Chicago is a pretty straight run. There's even a highway (I-55) that provides a direct route between the two cities. There's absolutely no reason for Neal and Del to travel anywhere near Wisconsin to get to Chicago.

Their St. Louis to Chicago trip also seems to take an inordinately long amount of time. It should be about a four and a half hour drive, depending on weather conditions and traffic. Granted they're forced to spend the night in a motel, since their burned-out car no longer has any headlights. Still, it somehow it takes them well over twenty four hours to make this relatively short trip!

I'm assuming there was likely a ton of footage cut from this section of the film, which probably involved them getting lost and blundering into Wisconsin.

• As is the case in pretty much every John Hughes film, the main character is from Chicago.

Neal Page's home is actually located in Kenilworth, Illinois (a Chicago suburb), and looks pretty much the same today as it did in 1987.

For some reason, the interiors were not shot in the actual house, but on a sound stage. Hughes had an elaborate interior set of Neal's house built, which contained a whopping seven rooms and took five months to build. This set, which is seen for just a few minutes in the final film, ended up costing $100,000, which greatly angered Paramount executives.

Planes, Trains And Automobiles actually contains a post-credit scene, which was a rarity for 1986! 

At the beginning of the film, Neal's boss (played by an uncredited William Windom) is mulling over three different ad layouts, unable to decide which one to use.

In the post-credit scene, we see he's STILL sitting in his office on Thanksgiving Day, trying to decide!

• If you've never seen the film, I highly recommend it. Seek it out before the inevitable gender-flipped remake, starring Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy!

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