Old Trunk. New Baggage.
Here rests a nondescript case or trunk large enough to seat two people, maybe even three, and it does so on more than one occasion in the movie, Planes, Trains and Automobiles starring John Candy and Steve Martin.
Roughly an 80 by 40 by 50 centimetre leather and canvas steamer covered in decals and dirt and weighing 9 kilograms – empty – the trunk brings together two polar opposite personalities; an endearing Del Griffith (Candy), the upbeat traveling salesman, and a frustrated Neal Page (Martin), a matter-of-fact marketer and the mouth of the movie.
Their chance meeting begins when Neal trips over the trunk in his haste to catch a ride; it’s not the last time that will happen. The cab abandons Neal in the chaos that is downtown New York after taking on a new fare in Del Griffith with that trunk in tow.
A key prop throughout Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the trunk is important in bringing and keeping together the main characters, no matter how many times Neal attempts to distance himself from Del. The trunk is a burden that binds them and the foundation for frustration, anger, confrontation and sympathy.
Del Griffith is a “go with the flow” kind of guy who can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, a friend out of every client, and instant cash from “Czechoslovakia ivory”.
Neal Page, on the other hand, doesn’t have time; not for an indecisive client, not for NYC, a city that’s too fast, and certainly not for the likes of Del Griffith who’s too slow.
After recognizing Del at the airport and, later, Del’s villainous luggage – the root of the anguish – Neal spends much of the movie grasping at every opportunity to evade and escape the lowly shower curtain ring salesman.
When Del offers to buy an airport hot dog and beer to make up for taking his taxi, Neal responds, “I’m kinda picky about what I eat.” On the plane and seated next to each other, Neal shuts down the small-talk with, “I’m not much of a conversationalist. I’d really like to finish this article.”
As the movie progresses we realize that this is Neal at his politest.
During a lay-over due to their redirected flight, they head for the Braidwood Inn, a Wichita motel and customer of Del’s. As the destitute duo stare into the last room at the inn, wide-eyeing the double bed, Neal considers sleeping in the lobby rather than, as he says in a panic, “Shh-share?!”
It is during this quaint time in close quarters that Neal addresses his feelings by dressing down Del in a tirade that concludes with, “I could tolerate any insurance seminar. For days I could sit there and listen and go on and on with a big smile on my face. They’d say, “How can you stand it?” and I’d say, “Because I’ve been with Del Griffith. I can take anything.”
This is the Neal we can expect going forward, along with his continued attempts to ghost Del.
During the train-stage of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Neal buys Del a ticket to ride but feigns disappointment when he says, “They, ah, didn’t have two together.” Del’s suggestion to meet for a drink in the bar car is quickly shot down by Neal with, “I’m going to get some sleep.” Once the two are seated separate of each other, it is Neal who starts small talk with a stranger.
From the moment the two men first ran into each other, Neal has disliked Del. His disdain for someone he doesn’t know, and doesn’t care to take the time to know, is immense. By now it moves Neal to suggest, “I really think we’ll get to where we’re going a lot faster if we were alone,” a position on which he flip-flops after the train breaks down. Neal accepts that, good or bad, Del is his only ride home whether it’s by rental car, transport truck or the L – the nickname for Chicago Transit.
Still, Neal has ‘some balls’ – a recurring joke in the film – to ask himself, “How did I get hooked up with this guy?”
Ironically it is “this guy’s” connections, his lived experience, and adaptability that get Neal home just as he had promised, albeit “a little late,” exclaims the persistently pessimistic Neal.
As the L comes to a stop, the mood changes with the light at the end of the tunnel, figuratively. A departing Del comments, “Next time, let’s go first class,” to which Neal gets in one final soft dig, “God, I hope there isn’t a next time.”
With Neal seconds away from never again seeing his new nemesis, so he thinks, we, the viewer, are seconds from learning that the likeable, ever optimistic Del Griffith is homeless. “I don’t have a home,” claims Del adding another heart-breaking truth, “Marie’s been dead for 8 years.”
Del reminds us that homelessness can happen to anyone. We are also reminded that vulnerable people who are alone, lonely and isolated are easy targets, that homeless people – the most vulnerable in our community – are often judged wrongly, and that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and kindness.
John Candy’s performance in the role of Del Griffith is one of the best portrayals of homelessness in film. Steve Martin was so moved by Candy that he talks about the impact years after John’s passing (March 4, 1994). Martin called working on the film a “breakthrough” and said he cries whenever he thinks about Candy’s ad-libbed answer to Neal’s "Why aren’t you going home?"
Silent through it all is that leather and canvas steamer scarred from years of abuse.
What was in the trunk anyway? It is Del Griffith’s foundation — his home, his memories and his possessions – all of them.
Homelessness is a heavy burden.