TRASH FROM THE ATTIC: Where are all the Thanksgiving movies?
By Matt Martin
When November rolls around and the days grow shorter, America prepares to honor family and prosperity in the form of a day-long feast. Meanwhile, cinema junkies have only one question in mind: why aren’t there more Thanksgiving films? Think about it. There are hundreds of Christmas movies that have become cultural icons. And Halloween has an entire genre behind it, giving thousands of holiday horror movie options. These holidays have become inseparable from the films that helped define them.
But for Thanksgiving there are meager few choices. In fact, with some research you’d be hard pressed to find more than a dozen or so. Why so few? Is the holiday so bereft of ideas and situations that there’s nothing cinematic to make of it? I think not. As long as family and friends come together, everyone argues, bickers, and bonds, and America sets in for some serious marathon eating, there’s always room for more Thanksgiving films.
So until the next one comes around, settle in with one of our few great turkey day flicks and remember why we put ourselves through this food-drenched family therapy in the first place.
PLANES, TRAINS, & AUTOMOBILES – Often considered the best Thanksgiving film, Steve Martin and John Candy are two salesmen who drive each other crazy trying to get across country for the holiday by any means necessary. Every scene is hysterically painful, from the overly cramped plane flight to an endless series of interstate driving disasters, and ends on one of the more touching and beautiful Thanksgiving moments in cinema. A career high for both Martin and Candy, as well as director John Hughes, who finally departed from his highly successful teen comedies (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club) to make this, his most mature work. Watch for Kevin Bacon in a quick but effective cameo as the catalyst for all the film’s events.
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS – After losing her job and finding out her daughter would rather spend Thanksgiving with her father, a broken but defiant Holly Hunter returns to her family home for a little love, support, and quiet…none of which she’s going to get when she finds her entire dysfunctional extended family has the same idea. Directed by Jodie Foster and co-starring Anne Bancroft, Claire Danes, and Robert Downey Jr., this bittersweet comedy not only perfectly conveys the hectic, confrontational nature of holidays but also captures the combination of love and desperation that defines the modern American family.
HANNAH AND HER SISTERS – One of Woody Allen’s best. Mia Farrow leads a phenomenal ensemble cast (including Michael Caine, Barbara Hershey, and Dianne Wiest among many others) in this examination of destructive family politics that begins and ends with emotionally raw Thanksgiving dinners. Winner of multiple Academy awards, it remains one of the finest dramatic examples of the subtle cruelties of family and the tensions of forced holiday encounters.
GRUMPY OLD MEN – Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (so wonderfully paired in earlier comedies like The Fortune Cookie) are old men at war when a lifelong feud turns ugly at the arrival of a beautiful woman in their lives, played by an always game Ann Margaret. As funny as it is sweet, with wonderful supporting turns from Kevin Pollack, Daryll Hannah, and Burgess Meredith, the film spans from Thanksgiving to Christmas showing how holidays push otherwise repressed people to open up to loved ones and friends.
PIECES OF APRIL – If Grumpy Old Men is the “elder generation” Thanksgiving comedy, this is the view from the youthful perspective. Katie Holmes, as April, is struggling to make ends meet with her boyfriend in a broken down apartment on New York’s lower east side. In order to impress her disapproving family and to get closer to her estranged mother, she wants to prepare the ultimate Thanksgiving dinner for everyone. But with an oven that dies unexpectedly and a boyfriend who’s beaten by thugs, April’s “perfect” holiday quickly and hilariously begins to self destruct. With Patricia Clarkson and Oliver Platt.
There are only a few other Thanksgiving movies in the history of cinema. The Ice Storm, Ang Lee’s hyper-dark study of imploding suburban families in 1970’s set across the holiday weekend, and The Myth of Fingerprints, a look at four siblings coming to terms with past family problems, are both phenomenal, if somewhat grim, dramatic choices. What’s Cooking is a wonderful feminist Thanksgiving film. Tadpole with John Ritter and Sigourney Weaver is an amusing, uncomfortably funny holiday treat. And on the horror side, the turkey/zombie film Poultrygeist and the giant psycho turkey men epic Blood Freak are fun and ridiculous ways to laugh your way through leftovers.
But in the end, virtually all of these films only use the holiday as a back-drop for their plots. Besides the various “pilgrim” films from across time, most of which are lifelessly dull, only one film really discusses the holiday itself: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Once again Charlie Brown and the gang show us the true meaning of the American holiday and its various enjoyments and disappointments, with Charlie holding on to his Thanksgiving spirit in spite of constant ridicule and a crappy candy-and-pretzel feast. Now that’s a true American. Well played, blockhead.
Matt Martin has written movie reviews for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and is co-owner of Black Lodge Video, located on the corner of Cooper and Evelyn. Black Lodge is the largest video store in the eastern US and is a faithful CYCA membership sponsor.