Please wholeheartedly receive the compliments of the season until those compliments just seem like gratuitous sucking-up after a while! Yes, another post! Trust me, no one was more surprised as I was about it! With this slew of postings, I started with A Charlie Brown Christmas and now National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? Could my holiday choices get more less controversial than these? And yes folks, that can only mean one thing: This year I’m talking about the Christmas movies/specials that everyone on the planet with electricity has already talked about to the point of getting nauseous about being so very ad nauseum.
I guess it would help if I had a plan instead of just winging these choices by the seat of my derriere’s covering, but that certainly lacks the spontaneity that my obviously lovely reading public has come to endure ever so patiently.
But enough with my prattle prattling so forth and so fifth! Let me get knee-deep into yet another scattershot arrangement of talking points about something. And today, that something is the aforementioned National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which will be a title that I’m definitely not going to spell out through this enterprise today.
And once again, there’s no spoiler warning whatsoever. This film came out in 1989, which provided you with an incredible amount of time to see it by now in whatever year this is. When I was a mere boy and a beardless youth, I somehow managed to get plunked down in a theater to see this upon its first release. If you didn’t get that chance back then, I’m not going to say that I’m better than you. Not a bit of it. In fact, in the spirit of the season, I’ll keep it to myself.
So, gift wrap up your favorite cat, dig out the tree, and get that chemical toilet emptied immediately, because Christmas Vacation is about to begin!
- Let’s start off with my understanding that Chevy Chase is not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m a Chase fan. Yes, he can be a snarky prick; heaven knows there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of that from Saturday Night Live through Community and beyond and between. But when Chase gets into a groove of a character, there’s no one better. And Clark Griswold is one of those characters, the dedicated but bumbling father that will do whatever he can to make special family moments. Chase recognized that Clark Griswold was a gift indeed and he played it solidly. For whatever faults the film has, Chase isn’t one of them. He carries this film on his shoulders and does it well.
- It also helps that John Hughes is back on board for what turned out to be his final Vacation script. Lest we forget, Hughes ruled the decade of the 1980s with an amazing track record, which included the juggernaut known as The Great Outdoors. (Hey, that movie doesn’t get enough love, you Ferris loving freaks! And John Candy was a treasure; back off!) Plus, Hughes has two bona fide holiday classics: this movie and 1990’s Home Alone. Of course, just like the first Vacation film, the seed for this one started with a piece Hughes wrote for the actual National Lampoon magazine, when that existed and was funny. You know, now that I accidentally deliberately mentioned it…
- Is there a comedy brand with a bigger downfall than National Lampoon? It started off as a maverick comic magazine, pushing boundaries with some incredibly sharp and witty insights, biting parodies, and great artwork. There were also the stage shows, the Radio Hour, the albums, and their first film, National Lampoon’s Animal House, which was a colossal hit. The next two National Lampoon movies (Movie Madness and Class Reunion) weren’t that great, but then Vacation hit big. The not-so-great, just kind of okay European Vacation followed, but then Christmas Vacation came out and was successful. Sadly, and not that arguably, Christmas Vacation was the peak for National Lampoon. The legendary magazine died an agonizing death. Over the next two decades, the National Lampoon title was tacked onto a plethora of garbage straight-to-video “comedy” flicks, milking the brand until it became meaningless. Even the last Griswold excursion that Chevy headlined, Vegas Vacation, didn’t use National Lampoon in the title. (Although, who came out ahead there because that film isn’t the best on its own terms anyway.) The moderate success of the middling Van Wilder film was the last surprising gasp for the National Lampoon and then…it just withered away.
- It has been a long time where anyone has said what I’m going to say now. Perhaps no one has ever said it, but I’m going to say it now: God Bless Randy Quaid! Yeah, that’s right. I went there. Regardless of whatever the hell he’s doing now or isn’t or if he’s even still on the planet Earth, Quaid’s Cousin Eddie is a godsend in this film. He was great in the first Vacation and even better here. To include him in the Griswold holiday shenanigans was sheer genius. Sure, while Eddie’s a bit crass and has a bit of dirt on him (but not on his white patent leather shoes!), he’s ultimately well-intentioned. Plus, Eddie’s a great foil for Clark to bounce off here. Really only with Quaid does Chase get to lob some sharp and snide asides in the film, but as they aren’t outside of Clark’s character, they all work.***
- ***(Oh, be sure to avoid National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure at all costs. I love Cousin Eddie, but he needs Clark to ground him and even Chevy wanted nothing to do with that sequel. Also remember what I said about the National Lampoon brand being stuck on a bunch of video garbage? Please apply that notion here. Thank you. You’re welcome.)
- Along with Quaid, the supporting cast is solid, with veteran character actor talents like E.G. Marshall, Diane Ladd, John Randolph, and Doris Roberts enjoying screen time. Also, who couldn’t love the toupeed William Hickey as Uncle Lewis and as Aunt Bethany, the voice of Betty Boop herself, Mae Questel in her last film role. Pre-Seinfeld but Post-SNL Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Christopher Guest’s brother Nicholas are a delightful pair of long-suffering yet irritating yuppie next-door neighbors. This is a very solid cast, but I’d be remiss without making special mention of two other members.
- As I’ve mentioned before when talking about Ghostbusters and elsewhere, thank heavens for Brian Doyle-Murray. Granted, his role here isn’t a large one, but as Clark’s crusty boss Mr. Shirley, he shines. Doyle-Murray was welcome in a very brief role in the first Vacation, so thankfully he is given more to do here. His brother Bill might not dig working with Chevy, but Brian apparently doesn’t mind it, so the audience wins! Hooray!
- Beverly D’Angelo as Ellen Griswold, the patient and loving wife of Clark, is great. If it was a Vacation film with Chevy, Beverly was right there with him. She has good chemistry with Chase and her calling him “Sparky” only adds another warm layer to their relationship. Despite the ebb and flow of this series of films in terms of quality, D’Angelo is never a liability. (Well, aside from her incongruous Wayniac stuff in the 4th movie, but as this is Christmas, I’ll refrain from the negativity a smidge.)
- Nothing against the “Christmas Vacation” title song performed by Mavis Staples, in fact, the entire title credit animation scene is rather charming. But I do miss hearing “Holiday Road” in a Vacation film. It’s used in all the other ones, including the sequel/reboot Vacation from 2015. “Holiday Road” was even put on a “Hollywood Christmas” holiday CD I have, even though the song wasn’t in a Christmas movie! What’s going on here?! It’s like not getting the Bond theme in a 007 movie or not hearing the Fletch theme in the recently released Confess, Fletch film. (Don’t think I didn’t notice that!) There are no satisfactory answers to satisfy me on this point.
- There’s always great laugh when it is revealed that Clark had to dig the Christmas tree out of the frozen tundra because he forgot a saw. And those establishing shots of the Griswold clan trudging through the snow to get to wherever Clark’s dream tree is located are terrific! You can feel the cold air, smell the snowy forest, imagine the crisp gusts coming down from the mountains, enjoy the…wait, what? Hold on. What mountains are in Illinois exactly? Did I miss a meeting and the Rockies now suddenly end just outside of Arlington Heights? And I know the Griswolds didn’t drive north to Wisconsin to get a tree because the film never showed the naturally occurring Packers-themed taverns that exist about every 30 feet or so. I can only assume that Clark was so determined to have this be a special Christmas that he took a Saturday to drive the family in their four-wheel drive sleigh to Colorado and back to get a tree. If so, Clark’s like the best dad ever! (Yes, that is still true despite him being the reason his daughter’s eyes froze solid.)
- On this point, might I just mention here that I appreciate Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis as Rusty and Andrey Griswold respectively? Especially after the Griswold kids in European Vacation were…let’s just say, not up to snuff. (I understand that’s a scripting problem to an extent but thank goodness Anthony Michael Hall was busy, so he didn’t sully his resumé with being Rusty in that sequel.) But Galecki and Lewis portray believable Griswold children that are not annoying. I am thankful for that.
- After Clark bursts through the attic floor onto the bunk bed below, why doesn’t he just slide down onto the bunk from the attic? Yes, I know that means we don’t get that touching home movies segment paired up with the rather nice Ray Charles “That Spirit of Christmas” tune. However, Clark Griswold is not Jacques Clouseau or Curly Howard, meaning that Clark isn’t your ordinary, everyday fool, okay? I should hope he would think a smidge better, attempt to get out from the attic that way, and would get some comedy out of it through clumsy dismount attempts from the bunk. As a side note: does Clark’s impromptu ceiling entrance/exit mean that E.G. Marshall would then really freeze his baguettes off since the non-heated attic was now wide open to the upper bunk he was using?
- Yes, the sledding sequence is an instance where the movie becomes a cartoon. But without it, we wouldn’t get the conversation about the plate in Eddie’s head. Hmmm… It’s close, but I’ll allow it. My bigger question is wondering why Clark presumably brought the shredded saucer home to throw away? Why didn’t he just toss it at the Wal-Mart? Again, there’s the callback joke to the saucer whilst Eddie is in the middle of his chemical toilet disposal sequence, so once again, I’ll allow it. But you’re on thin ice, movie!
- Speaking of that RV toilet evacuation scene, aside from being the Eddie highlight among his many highlights in the film, why would there be that much buildup of gas in the sewer? Why wouldn’t the sewer keep flowing that shi…I mean, stuff away? And after all, the sewer has grates up and down the block, so the gas should then escape and not just build up outside the Griswold estate without release, right? It isn’t like Uncle Lewis threw that match 15 seconds after Eddie completed his pleasant morning task. Plenty of time had elapsed from when Clark skipped breakfast to see an arsehole in a bathrobe dumping a chemical toilet into his sewer. Hm. Anyhow, I’ll bet Meister Bräu loved the publicity!
- Even though Chateau Griswold was shot on the studio backlot, the fake snow looks good. Far too often, there’s an ineffective cheat with stuff that’s either too powdery or too sudsy. To help cover the fakeness, most of the time the “snow” is shown at night for the exterior shots. When the Griswolds are standing in their pajamas in the yard or when the finale comes into play, the movie magic showing the cold comes across well. (As a soul who experiences the winter season, I consider myself to be an expert on such matters and who am I to argue with myself about my expertise?)
- Oh, yes…the cat incident. I recognize that there are those who might be horrified by the turn of events regarding Aunt Bethany’s cat. But remember that Animal House gave a horse a heart attack (!) and Vacation dragged a dog behind the Family Truckster (!!). With that perspective, the Christmas Vacation cat electrocution is rather tame in comparison. In today’s ever-increasingly whiny climate, I’m sure this scene wouldn’t even see the light of day, even if the cat has been savagely rabid and had slaughtered seven busloads of infant orphans. Yet regardless of however anyone else feels on the subject, I’m completely fine with the scene. Every single bit of it. I could give some highfalutin analysis on the comedy reasons here, but I won’t. My reasoning is far simpler: I just don’t like cats. Go ahead and plug that string in, Clark.
- Clark’s rants are delectable. They don’t top the sheer wonder of his explosion from the first Vacation, but they are still marvelous on their own terms. From the gleeful insanity about tap dancing with Danny fu…well…you know Kaye, to going off about his boss, Clark in these moments speaks for us all who never have the luxury to erupt like this. A hero for our times, this Clark Griswold fellow is!
- That rubber hose comment from that unknown Chicago cop always gets me. Always.
- Is it just me and it probably is, but does anybody else wish for an alternate ending where Clark snaps with the chainsaw and starts the killing spree we all know he is capable of? I know that it would be a legitimately dark turn that the audience certainly wouldn’t see coming. C’mon, you want it just a little, right? We know he already has the hockey mask…
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was a watershed in many ways. The name of National Lampoon certainly didn’t mean as much afterwards, despite this film’s success. Chevy Chase never had as big of a headlining hit afterwards. The 1990s weren’t as kind to John Hughes as the 1980s had been. And I’m not even going to bring up Randy Quaid.
However, this film has rightfully emerged as a durable and fun Christmas classic. It gets so many things right and has cemented itself into the culture. References still abound today. Homes that go overboard on their holiday decorations are still called “Griswold houses”. While the characters might be a bit over the top in this film, every family has a Cousin Eddie or an Aunt Bethany within their ranks. The related merchandising has swung into high as well. Stepping into a local Hallmark recently, I noted that there was a cornucopia of Christmas Vacation related ornaments, board games, glasses, decorations, jelly of the month club subscriptions, everything!
Yet I would never be so fanboyish to go for all that stuff. Then again, I do have a sturdy glass Marty Moose mug so I can enjoy my holiday eggnog. All I need is a nice dark dickey to go with my white shirt and I’m good! Just don’t go falling in love with my RV because I’m taking it with me when I leave here next month.