CINEMA CLASSICS: Christmas Vacation (1989)

Liam catches up with the Griswolds for a holiday favourite. 

Who made it?: Jeremiah S. Chechik (Director), John Hughes (Writer/Co-Producer), Tom Jacobson (Co-Producer), Warner Bros.

Who’s in it?: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, Randy Quaid.

Tagline: “There’s no place like home for a holiday!”

IMDb rating: 7.5/10.

Twenty-five years ago, my favorite all-time Christmas film was released in American theatres and, in the proceeding years, it has proven to be as traditional as turkey and tinsel in our household. Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without it!

Based on a short story titled Christmas ’59 by the late, great John Hughes (The Breakfast Club/Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation would be the third instalment in the series after the successful Vacation (1983) directed by Harold Ramis and the less-successful European Vacation (1985) directed by Amy Heckerling. This time around, Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase) has got the holiday spirit in a big way and is determined to deliver “a good old-fashioned Christmas,” inviting his entire family and in-laws to spend the season at the Griswolds’ large suburban residence in snowy Chicago. This is much to the chagrin of his wife Ellen (Beverley D’Angelo), daughter Audrey (Juliette Lewis) and son Rusty (Johnny Galecki), who know all too well what can happen when their enthusiastic yet accident-prone father attempts to follow through on a plan.

As Christmas edges ever closer and family members arrive in bulk, Clark’s attempts to stay positive begin to erode when he realises that maybe this wasn’t the best of ideas. His family members are let-loose in his house and squabble between each other, damage his goods, drain his finances, and have a very blasé attitude towards his honest attempts at creating a magical atmosphere. That includes covering his house with 25,000 imported Italian “twinkle” lights that continuously fail to work, adding to Clark’s ever-growing frustration. Then, to compound matters, an uninvited guest arrives in the shape of “bull in a China shop hillbilly” Eddie, the cousin-in-law played by the brilliant Randy Quaid, who appears in a battered old camper van with wife Catherine (Miriam Flynn) and two kids; mute son Rocky (Cody Burger), daughter Ruby Sue (Ellen Hamilton Latzen) and a large Rottweiler dog aptly named Snot.

In a sub-plot, Clark is relying heavily on receiving a Christmas bonus from his job as a food additive designer, which will hopefully cover the costs of this holiday. He also has another bold plan to have a swimming pool installed in the back garden, for which he has already written a check he can not cover. Little does he know that his Scrooge-like boss (Brain Doyle-Murray – real life brother of Bill Murray) has cut the bonus. Clark finally cracks under the stress of it all in a hilarious rant that leads to Eddy kidnapping his boss as a Christmas present and a SWAT team being called out, smashing up what’s left of the Griswold residence before the inevitable happy ending.

Christmas Vacation would be helmed by first-time director Jeremiah S. Chechik. Chechik started out as a fashion photographer and later moved into commercials where his dark and sexy stylistic approach caught the attention of Hollywood heavyweights Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. The latter requested a meeting with him to discuss directing one of Spielberg’s productions of the period, which kick-started the careers of many up-and-coming young directors such as Joe Dante (Gremlins, 1984) and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, 1985). Spielberg then hired Chechik to develop a film based around the Apollo theatre in New York that would be distributed by Warner Bros. However, the project was seen as too small and got shelved. Meanwhile, Warners and Hughes were looking for a director for their latest Vacation movie after Chris Columbus (Home Alone/Harry Potter) left the project. The studio liked what they saw of Chechik during the pre-production on the failed Apollo film, and after a meeting with Hughes and star Chase, he was offered the job and production began with a rather large budget of $25 million.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is brilliant from start to finish, with laugh-out-loud moments throughout and excellent comedy set-pieces that range from Clark unknowingly driving the family car under the load of a huge eighteen-wheel truck, to covering a sled with a super-slippery polish that propels him down a slope at supersonic speeds, to being trapped in a freezing cold attic. As well as the obvious humour, there are also many heartfelt moments that really help drive home the meaning of Christmas, in particular a scene in which Clark watches a home video whilst trapped in the attic that features him as a child during the 1955 festive season.

What’s especially great about this film for me is that its like watching an exaggerated version of a real family Christmas. It captures the uneasy, sometimes awkward atmosphere of mixing with people, albeit people that you are related to but don’t necessarily know that well or like. People you’d only be caught dead with on the holidays. The point where Cousin Eddy arrives unannounced always makes me laugh the most, as it reminds me of one Christmas Day as a kid when we heard a car pull up outside. My dad jumped up with a mouth full of Xmas dinner and peered through the curtains before turning to my Mum and saying, ”Ah no! it’s your brother and his clan!” As the old saying goes, you can choose your friends but not your family!

Chase was at the very height of his career here. The character of Clark Griswold was perfect to showcase his talents. He was a master of physical comedy, and coupled with his natural charm, he delivers one of his very best performances. It is a shame that his star faded during the 1990s and now he is rarely seen at all. The supporting cast are all on top form, too, especially Quaid who almost steals the show in this his most memorable role. The Griswold kids here are my favorite of all the various incarnations throughout the series. Galecki, now appearing on The Big Bang Theory, plays Rusty as the quiet type who is humouring his more childlike father, and Lewis, who went on to carve out a successful movie career, plays the typical teenage American girl embarrassed by all the antics that Hughes wrote so well in the 80s. Finally, D’Angelo is always great as the long-suffering wife in a more toned down version of Ellen than the one seen in the previous Vacation films. Chechik sadly went on to make the not-so-great adaptation of TV’s The Avengers (1998) and has since worked mostly in television, notably directing several episodes of Chuck (2009-2012)

The film got mixed reviews on general release and actually went straight-to-video in the UK, but in the intervening years, it has become a classic. It made back over $71 million, which was the best return of the series. There has been two further sequels: Vegas Vacation (1997), which was not a National Lampoon film and really just a TV movie, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Uncle Eddies Island Adventure (2003), which was unspeakably terrible.

On National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, director Chechik is quoted as saying, “I decided that I would try and make a movie that, believe it or not, would have some lasting effect – never expecting it to do so.” He achieved just that. An instant holiday classic for all times.

Best Scene

Let’s face it, we’ve all wanted to freak out at Christmas.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Chevy Chase appears in some scenes wearing a black Chicago Bears ball cap. He wears the same Chicago Bears cap throughout all four Vacation movies.
  • The Griswolds’ neighbour’s house is the same house Murtaugh and his family lived in all the Lethal Weapon movies. The houses on this street are on the Warner Brothers Studios back lot.
  • According to Randy Quaid, many of cousin Eddie’s characteristics (most notably the clicking of the tongue) were based off a guy that Quaid knew from when he grew up in Texas years ago who had similar traits.

Liam Brennan

Film buff, aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker.

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