View of the Chicago skyline. Photo by Sarah Oberklaid.

The holiday is a Chicago kind of event

It is Black Friday in America. For those of us avoiding the mall like it’s our racist uncle, there’s one true salve: Christmas movies.

Christmas gets DEDICATED CHANNELS of movies devoted to every facet of the holiday season. There’s the recovering girl accountant tames love among horses and horsemen. There’s recovering girl architect finds the only thing she can truly build is happiness with her long-left-behind hometown sweetheart. And there’s the recovering girl royalty finds love among immensely wealthy southern California villas while overturning a millennium-old monarchy through deft use of Oprah interviews. All in time for the elementary school pageant or choir to serenade the town center gazebo.

The conga line of Christmas movies emphasizes how few films there are about Thanksgiving. Peripherally, there’s “Addams Family Values” because of the amazingly bloody Wednesday Addams retelling of the first Thanksgiving. But that was a summer camp event. There’s also “The Ice Storm,” but that’s just a swinger party over a long weekend that happens to fall late in November. Interestingly also with Christina Ricci.

The only true Thanksgiving movie is “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” That’s the list. And that’s enough.

Odd Couple on wheels

Now thirty-five years years old, the John Candy/Steve Martin anti-buddy movie stands up amazingly well as a comedy. Martin is the exhausted corporate cog Neal Page, trying to get back to his family for Thanksgiving. Candy’s Del Griffith is the world’s most famous shower curtain ring salesman. It’s a role so good-natured that it’s a little hard to watch knowing that Candy would only be with us for a few years more.

The movie is essentially “The Odd Couple” on wheels. Tightly wound Neal’s frantic rush to the airport comes only in time to see his flight delayed. That sets off a cascade of misbegotten ideas and missed connections putting him ever behind the time to actually celebrate with his family. He becomes increasingly frantic in the mugging silver topped rage that only Steve Martin can portray. When the movie’s few F-Bombs drop, it’s completely in context and understandable.

Ever at his side, is Del, turning up for longer periods and in more uncomfortable situations. Whether it’s Del swapping credit cards, setting the car ablaze, or being the cause of Neal’s late taxi to the airport in the first place, it’s always one catastrophe after another. Del is not oblivious, obtuse, or obstinate. It’s just that every event develops in the most Del way possible. 

Which is what makes the movie a perfect encapsulation of Thanksgiving. No matter how high or low one sets the expectations, they will always develop in the most Del way possible.

The Chicagoness of it all

The catastrophes that beat down Neal and Del could only happen because they are on the move for the holiday. It’s that movement which sets Thanksgiving apart. Few other holidays are so closely intertwined with the bottlenecked process of getting somewhere. With the short weekend, everyone squeezes their movement out onto Wednesday, and delay their trip back to Sunday. A bottleneck that, for many, spends some time in the airspace or land routes across the middle of the country.

There’s a Pareto curve for cities where holiday movies take place. New York is the number one by a vast margin, with dozens of films using the city as a holiday backdrop. We try to avoid them. At the other side, there is a long, dwindling tail of cities that have shown up once in a Christmas film. But in that second place is Chicago, mostly due to one person: John Hughes

Hughes used Chicago in many of his films, from “Sixteen Candles” to “Ferris Bueller.” But it’s particularly notable in his three credited holiday movies: “National Lampoons Christmas Vacation,” “Home Alone,” and “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” The first two he wrote. The last one he wrote and directed.

The similarities between the films are pretty striking when looked at together. White nuclear families with dads working for unnamed corporate overlords and addled homemaker mothers burdened with the holiday management responsibilities. Mixed sets of male and female children in various stages of overly mature childhood or safely vanilla teenage horniness. Enormous homes on treelined suburban streets with newel posts (occasionally wobbly) at the front door.

Really, this could be any of the houses from one of the John Hughes holiday movies. But it’s actually from Uncle Buck. The point is that they really are the same place and you wouldn’t have known if we didn’t say anything. (Universal Pictures)

The point of each movie is the ever devolving ways that calmness can be disrupted. “Christmas Vacation” is the slow, pressure building accretion of invited and unexpected family at a central location. “Home Alone” similarly got the extended family into one place, then put all of them (minus one) on a plane to Paris. “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” is the culmination of all those torments, but following the person trying to arrive in a place that can expect blizzards.

It’s a fundamentally conservative perspective, which is kind of funny given the cutting edge of Hughes’ female-led and nerd-heavy early movies. But even those had a level of casual racism and misogyny that can’t be ignored today. The nerds literally MADE a woman for sex in “Weird Science.” The rare Black character is likely a cop or a bus driver.

And that is a holiday image that we do have to wrestle with. The urban-ness of Chicago is a distant backdrop, kind of the point of these stories. They are about hearth and home, and a uniquely narrow perspective of what that means. 

But the location is weirdly fundamental. The stories are the kind that can only take place in a city that is the functional center of the nation’s transit. All roads and air routes and holidays lead to Chicago, with a big suburban house at the center of it all. That’s the message of John Hughes’ holiday movies. 

And for those of us on the move this holiday, whether by plane, train, or automobile, we intimately understand that lesson. Good luck, everyone.

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Article Author

Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.