For most of us one of the best parts of Christmas is watching our favorite holiday movies over and over (and over) again. As ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’ turns 30 this year on December 1st, I thought it’d be fun to take a look back at the film and cover some fun information you may not have known about it.
This movie covers everything you could want in a Christmas movie: comedy, drama, the value of family, the stress we all face, and the childlike joy during the holidays. It reminds of all of our own family get-togethers and the struggles for the picture-perfect Christmas.
Who of us hasn’t made plans for the perfect family gathering only for it to slowly devolve into an absolute disaster? Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase) does just that and experiences one disaster after another. It’s extra funny for me because I can remember nearly identical things occurring in some of our own family holiday that befall the Griswold family (minus the whole kidnapping and police invasion thing.) If you can’t laugh at some of the jokes and subtle humor in the film then you haven’t had the true experience of how the Christmas season makes your temporary misery a lifelong memory.
Christmas Vacation opened December 1, 1989, with an estimated budget of $27 million. On its opening weekend, it did a fairly impressive $11.7 million and made $71.3 million during its initial run in theaters. The film was written and produced by 80’s movie legend John Hughes and was directed by Jeremiah Chechik under the Warner Brothers banner. Hughes based the screenplay on a short story from the December 1980 issue of National Lampoon magazine titled “Christmas of ’59.”
Starring Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, and Randy Quaid Christmas Vacation is the 3rd of 4 films in the ‘Vacation’ series. Perhaps you could say 5 or 6 if you count the 2003 made-for-TV sequel “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure” or the truly awful 2015 theatrical reboot “Vacation.” Christmas Vacation is arguably the best of the series, although I’d place it 2nd in a very close photo finish behind the original “Vacation.”
If you’re familiar with the Vacation series, you’ll know the running gag amongst the movies is that the actor and actress that play the children, Rusty and Audrey, change in each film. For Christmas Vacation, future Roseanne and Big Bang Theory star Johnny Galecki plays Rusty alongside Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear, Dusk Till Dawn) as Audrey. Interestingly, in Christmas Vacation, Rusty is the youngest of the children and Audrey becomes the older sister, the only time in the series that this happens. In another fun tidbit about the Griswold children, Dana Barron is the only actress to play Audrey twice. The original Audrey returns in the made for TV sequel “Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure.”
Christmas Vacation’s secondary characters featured quite an impressive cast as well. Who doesn’t have in-laws like the ones played by the legendary Doris Roberts or loveable curmudgeon E.G. Marshall? Diane Ladd and John Randolph play Clark’s parents and Brian Doyle Murray portrays Clark’s grumpy boss (and kidnapping victim), Frank Shirley. Doyle-Murray also appears in the original Vacation as the watermelon eating campground desk clerk at Kamp Komfort. Did you know he’s Bill Murray’s brother? Me either.
Also, Aunt Bethany marked the final role of Mae Questel, the original voice of Betty Boop in 1931. Speaking of voice actors, Miriam Flynn (Cousin Eddie’s wife Katherine) voiced Taz’s mother on the animated WB/Fox series ‘Taz-Mania’. She’s also completed voice roles for ‘Land Before Time’ and played Maa the older sheep in the live-action ‘Babe’.
If you have a good knowledge of classic television you may notice the Griswold house is the same one used in ‘Bewitched’. You may even recognize the yuppy neighbor’s house lived in by Todd and Margo (Nicholas Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) as where Danny Glover’s character Roger called home in ‘Lethal Weapon’. Another thing to look out for in the movie is a real-life earthquake that shakes the camera ever so slightly as Uncle Louis and Aunt Bethany enter Clark and Ellen’s house towards the end of the movie.
Like any good cult classic, this movie is highly quotable. For the past few years on Thanksgiving morning, while we await the turkey, my Dad will help me hang the Christmas lights outside. He always paraphrases Clark’s father and tells me “It’s a beaut!” and I’ll respond by thanking him for “teaching me everything I know about exterior illumination.” Often, my wife will often come out to check on our progress and remind us that “The little lights aren’t twinkling” whether they are or aren’t.
It’s become a tradition to put up our Christmas tree on Black Friday and I will always step back and proclaim “I give you… the Sheldon family Christmas tree.” There also isn’t a start to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner that goes by without someone at the table yelling out “THE BLESSING!” or “Grace? She passed away 30 years ago.”
‘Christmas Vacation’ is an absolute must-watch in my house every year immediately following Thanksgiving right through Christmas Day. My wife and I often have the television on as we fall asleep at night and during the Christmas season we often drift off as the DVD for this film plays. We even play ‘Christmas Vacation’ after our Christmas dinner is over for those that have moved into the living room to loosen the belt buckle and relax.
Some of the gags that go relatively unnoticed to the casual viewer always have me in stitches. Cousin Eddie and Ellen Griswold keep a running joke alive ‘Christmas Vacation’. When the two first met in the original ‘Vacation’ Eddie tries to give Ellen a hello kiss and she literally bends over backward to get away. They do this again in ‘Christmas’ and ‘Vegas Vacation’ (Eddie does not appear in ‘Europe Vacation’). When Clark and Eddie walk through Walmart doing a little Christmas shopping, Clark puts a pack of new light bulbs in the cart and Eddie crushes them with a giant bag of Ol’ Roy dog food. This is a subtle move that’s never addressed by Clark or Eddie but is a funny way of showing how much Eddie, although well-meaning, tramples all over Clark’s holiday season and it cracks me up every time.
Another visual joke that had me spending time on the Google machine were the gifts in Frank Shirley’s office. If you didn’t notice, they are all the same shape and size even though the wrapping paper is different. Every last one, including Clark’s gift, is shaped like the letter “L.” From what I could determine online, a very popular office gift during that time period was a pen and notepad set which would have been shaped like that.
‘Christmas Vacation’ differs from most other holiday classics that rely on Santa or the religious origins of Christmas. Santa Claus only makes an appearance in the very cute opening credit cartoon. Clark and Ellen briefly singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” at the very beginning of the film, and other than that, there are no other religious overtones to the film.
The biggest theme in Christmas Vacation is the importance of family. In what is my favorite scene in the whole movie Clark gets trapped in the attic and stumbles upon old family videos of a Christmas from his childhood. As Ray Charles’s melancholy rendition of “Spirit of Christmas” plays perfectly in the background who can watch this and not get misty-eyed thinking of their own childhood and Christmases gone by? I begin to think of family that may not be with us any longer, the way times have changed, and how life is no longer as simple as the past always seems when we look back. Today, there is the expectation of what we’re supposed to buy each other, what decorations were supposed to hang to beat the neighbor’s display, or how big the tree should be, on and on… but the most important thing to me is the memories of our family being together.
Through the movie, Clark has a tendency to set impossible expectations for everything which I’ve also been known to do. He’s all of us during the holidays as he deals with irritating family, bad neighbors, and plans that go awry but despite all of this, Clark refuses to be cynical even as one thing after another goes wrong. Even after he temporarily loses his mind when they cross the “Threshold of Hell,” he continues to smile and laugh through it all. I think that’s a perfect John Hughes way of telling us all to relax around the holidays and just enjoy time with friends and loved ones. Even though the movie presents all of the ways Christmas can destroy our soul it still shows us what made it everyone’s favorite holiday in the first place… family, togetherness, and love.
Just remember “a lot of help from Jack Daniels” can really help you get through the holiday.