When I think of the late John Candy I think of the comedy, of course, and how my mom and my sister and I would rent his comedies, regardless of their critical acumen, and watch them over and over, laughing and laughing. But when I think of the late John Candy I also think of the sadness he let permeate those comic roles. Sometimes the director could sense that sadness and tap into it, sometimes Candy’s co-stars would sense it and play off it, but just as often Candy was left to bring that sadness on his own, to impart melancholic depth where there was none. I have written more about “Summer Rental” than anyone probably should, but I will cherish that 1985 movie to infinity for how Candy, after an initial half-hour of hit-or-miss hijinks, nimbly turns the part of a discouraged father into one whose spirit is quietly lifted. It’s just a dumb comedy, but Candy ensures that it’s not just a dumb comedy at all.
I wonder if John Candy’s now adult children, Jen and Chris, see the same thing in the role of “Summer Rental’s” Jack Chester. They don’t mention it in their recent interview with Ryan Parker for The Hollywood Reporter, timed to coincide with what would have been their father’s 66th birthday today, and which got me to thinking about Candy. But Jen and Chris do mention that for all the hilarity their father could espouse on screen, he was just as adept at conveying vulnerability. It never mattered how ridiculous or blandly conceived the role might have been – he could always extract extra layers. Consider Cinema Romantico’s beloved “Cool Runnings.” It was a Disney product about the Jamaican bobsled team, yet it introduced Candy’s disgraced coach Irv Blitzer alone at a bar hopelessly gambling on horse races and smashing a radio to bits when he loses. It’s played for laughs, as most of the movie is, but Candy lets real burned out disappointment and rage register in these moments and throughout. Indeed, twist his introductory sequence just one degree, add a bluesy piano instead of the up tempo steel drums, and could just as easily look like the beginnings of a Caribbean noir.
There is, I presume, a lot of psychological baggage to unpack about why Candy felt the need to make so many people laugh and why he subsequently took on less than stellar comic parts in less than stellar films rather than challenging himself to seek out true dark roles. The reasoning proffered in Martin Knelman’s unauthorized 1996 biography is as tepidly transparent as the book’s title: “Laughing on the Outside.” This theory has popped up in another places too, like the story Roger Ebert relayed in his Great Movies critique of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”, where he happened upon Candy at a bar, alone and drinking and down on himself, for trying too hard to make people laugh, Ebert reckoned.
If you take that diagnosis as gospel, it becomes easy to let yourself see it in his roles, like the “The Great Outdoors” when, at the behest of family and friends, he imbibes The Old 96er, an entire 96 ounce beef steak. Was there a more evocative blurring of the lines in Candy’s canon than this, a man going all out to his absolute detriment just to ensure that everyone around him was pleased? Perhaps that’s too simplistic, or too much conjecturing, to assume that Candy enacted his own struggles in his acting. Then again, Jen does say in the interview that her dad “brought a little bit of himself to all his characters.”
So maybe the immortal Del Griffith of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” really was, as Ebert posited, founded on the essential nature of its actors, where Del was as much a Canadian comic as a shower ring salesman seeing as how (over) eager he was to please. Of course, Del could not help but wreck the friendship he makes with salesman Neal Page (Steve Martin) whereas Candy himself never did wreck any of his friendships with us at the movies. He did not even wreck that friendship in, say, the fairly woebegone “Canadian Bacon”, a really good idea just not executed right, but which I watched for the first time in my University of Iowa dorm room, where I often felt low, and where merely seeing John Candy do John Candy things brightened my mood.
That’s why today on Halloween I find myself thinking not of horror but of “Who’s Harry Crumb?” It’s the sort of movie that can easily be picked apart, either by crude means in saying it’s not that funny or more wannabe erudite means in saying something like the film is far too reliant on putting Candy in costumes and not really doing anything with them, or perhaps classifying it as Candy’s unsuccessful attempt at fashioning his own “Naked Gun.” Still, a la “Summer Rental”, Candy found something in the dodgy script and italicized it.
If “The Naked Gun’s” Frank Drebin was oblivious about everything, Candy’s Crumb remained oblivious to his own sleuthing limitations even as he was cognizant enough to know that the neglected daughter, Nikki (Shawnee Smith), of the affluent family he was helping was neglected. He welcomed her assistance as they developed into an unlikely duo, and their onscreen dynamic, as warm as it was comic, became the film’s defining feature and has always made me think of Candy himself. He reached out to his audiences the way Crumb reached out to Nikki and we were all always better for it.