Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017 | 2 a.m.
In these ultra-anxious times, we might find ourselves looking ever more forward to the happier times of year. That may be why the Hallmark Channel started advertising its coming Christmas movies well before Halloween, let alone Thanksgiving, and is showing them now.
As we know, late November through December is the time of year when we all get together and argue about whether “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie or not. (I used to assert that of course it was, but now I recognize that position as perverse.) Right now we still have Thanksgiving to get through, which led me to thinking, is the Thanksgiving movie a thing?
The movie I most associate with Thanksgiving is the 1933 original of “King Kong.” The film itself has no thematic connection to the season, but on Thanksgiving Day the New York television station WOR/Channel 9 aired it every year without fail. As a movie-mad youngster, I lived for this broadcast. I got even more excited when the station added “Son of Kong” and “Mighty Joe Young” to the mix and, as I got into my teens, Japanese monster movies like, yes, “King Kong vs. Godzilla.” (My memory is such that I might be conflating movies that played the day after Thanksgiving with those that played on the holiday proper, but it is a four-day weekend after all.) Soon enough, the adults in the room had tired of indulging me and took back the television to use it as God intended on Thanksgiving, which is to watch football.
Football. Maybe that’s a reason Thanksgiving movies might not be a thing. The late 20th century delivered two bona fide Thanksgiving movies that are now old enough to consider classics — but are they good enough? The first, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” is a 1987 comedy from John Hughes, starring Steve Martin and the great, much-missed John Candy, about an extremely odd couple of businessmen who find themselves teamed up against their will in a breakneck run to make it to their respective Thanksgiving dinners.
The movie is streaming — supposedly — on the app of the cable channel Starz. I normally gain access to this app through my cable provider user ID and password, but when I tried to watch the film that way on my iPad, a black screen and a message, in a very elegant typeface, appeared instead: “First, a quick piece of business: While you now have access to tons of your favorite stuff, this title isn’t offered by your provider. We’re confident that you’ll find more of the obsessable series and movies that you crave.”
Let the subscriber beware. I was able to watch “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” on Starz through Amazon Channels, and remind me to cancel that subscription before my seven-day free trial runs out (oops, too late now).
The movie is brisk and consistently funny, and it hits the sentiment bone in a smart, relatively honest way. The slow-burn rage of Martin against the oblivious amiability of Candy remains a spectacular comedic blend. As is customary with films written and directed by Hughes in the 1980s, there’s an American class-analysis subtext that holds the characterizations together: Martin’s aspirational hauteur is the irresistible force bulldozing into the immovable object of Candy’s just-folks awkwardness. The language is still super-salty even by today’s standards.
The second, “Home for the Holidays” (1995), looks as if it ought to get by on its cast alone: Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning, Geraldine Chaplin and Claire Danes. Not to mention Dylan McDermott, Cynthia Stevenson, and Steve Guttenberg cast against type as an uptight in-law. As it happens, the movie, directed by Jodie Foster, has got even more going for it. While you wouldn’t want to call it prescient, Hunter’s character, Claudia, an artist turned restorer, is the kind of career-challenged bohemian whose status remains relevant today. Downey’s frenetic gay brother is also refreshing in his nonstereotypical quirkiness. The family-is-almost-all-we’ve-got theme is a little pat but not totally cringe-worthy. It’s a smile-inducing sit, rated PG-13 and free to stream on Amazon Prime.
Some pictures that are not entirely set on Thanksgiving but are popular for their funny Thanksgiving scenes include the not-entirely-good teaming of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in “Grumpy Old Men” (1993) and “Funny People” (2009), which features Adam Sandler giving a doozy of a Thanksgiving toast. (“Grumpy Old Men” is available free for Hulu subscribers, and both films can be rented or purchased via Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Microsoft and Fandango Now.) If you’re not in the mood to watch all of “Funny People,” there’s a clip Fandango put up on YouTube.