From the first time I saw it (first run, in a theater in December 1989), I knew that “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” would be the best Christmas film I would ever see. I would come to appreciate “A Christmas Story” (click here for my review) as the classic that it is only after several viewings and I would enjoy others, but none can compare to “Christmas Vacation.” It is simply perfect and there isn’t one thing that could be changed to make it a better Christmas movie. Our daughter once pointed up that the legendary John Hughes wrote “Christmas Vacation.” I had forgotten that. No wonder it is so good (and check out its comedy roots in my review below).
‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’
(1989; 97 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by Jeremiah Chechik and starring Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quaid and Johnny Galecki)
HERE’S THE REAL ‘JOY TO THE WORLD’
(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion, more trivia and the updating of links on Dec. 24, 2017.)
I didn’t always like “A Christmas Story.” It came out in 1983 and was OK, but I thought, “Ho-hum, just another Christmas movie.” Those were saccharine and predicable and they didn’t score points with me. However, just as I would with watching “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” a few extra viewings could lift the fog and make it clear that it was a classic.
Not so with “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” I knew it was a classic from the opening credits rolling when I saw it in the theater and I have grabbed it on every medium since and watch it multiple times throughout each Christmas season – and now with free on-demand, you’ll be able to watch it anytime throughout the month of December.
“Christmas Vacation” has it all: a wonderful story (perfectly written for the screen by John Hughes – see a full explanation of this later), a great headlining cast with Chevy Chase in his best-ever performance on screen; a very competent and special supporting cast; and just all the little things that make a great holiday film. Check my blog here on Christmas Day for an overview of my take on Christmas films.
The story of “Christmas Vacation” is simple: “Clark Griswold,” played by Chase, is always the happiest at the Christmas season and wants the whole family to come to his house for the holiday. So, he and his wife “Ellen Griswold,” played by Beverly D’Angelo, invite both sets of parents over and the Christmas season is off and spluttering with karma, fate and everyone’s foibles coming out in full-force in some twisted attempt to thwart Chase’s good intentions to have the perfect holiday. He even gets screwed by his company on his Christmas bonus.
From cutting down their own tree (forgetting a saw) to problems with the Christmas light to the tree drying out, the Griswolds stagger head-first into every door they have to open for the season. Their family members are quarrelsome, critical and demanding; the kids are sullen; and the neighbors are yuppie scum. The funniest family member, cousin “Edward ‘Eddie’ Johnson” played by Randy Quaid, shows up unannounced (and uninvited) and quickly stakes claim to again being the quirkiest of them all (we were introduced to him as a bit of a perv in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “Christmas Vacation” is the franchise’s second sequel).
Yet as you expect, Chase perseveres and the Christmas spirit prevails and everyone has a wonderfully merry Christmas at the end. Of course, they’re all more than somewhat and literally bruised from the bumpy ride, but, hey, who’s complaining now? Except the squirrel, of course!
Here’s a look at the principal cast members:
- Two-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Chase is absolutely pitch-perfect in the role of “Clark Griswold.” He’s the right age; has the correct demeanor; and has a slightly dark side that peeks out on occasion, but in a humorous way. Chase conveys the part well and simply becomes the overzealous lover of Christmas. He was also in the golf comedy classic “Caddyshack” as well as the delightful comedy “Foul Play” with Goldie Hawn (click here for my review – and he got his two nominations for this one), “Seems Like Old Times” again with her (click here for my review), the iconic “Fletch” (click here for my review) and I’ll only mention one stinker: “Dirty Work” with Norm MacDonald – click here for my review.
- Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) D’Angelo holds her own easily with Chase and doesn’t have to rely on any R-rated shower scenes to make an impression here like she did in “Vacation.” She’s good at making every attempt to be the balance to Chase’s energy for the holiday and pretty much has to clean-up each mess after him (she even solves the Christmas light problems). However, at the end of the day she just can’t be as good as Chase. D’Angelo has also been in “Hair” and “American History X” and was also in the little-remembered “Maid to Order” with Ally Sheedy (click here for my review). She was nominated for “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
- Oscar nominee Quaid is still quasi-sleazy and looking to mooch off the family. He does this so well I don’t believe he was welcome at his real family’s celebration that holiday season. Quaid has also done good work in “The Long Riders” (click here for my review), his nominated role in “The Last Detail” with Jack Nicholson and “Independence Day.” By the way, check out “The Last Detail.” I’m sure you don’t remember it, but it is an outstanding flick.
- Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Johnny Galecki, currently on top of the TV world with his megahit sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” does OK work here as son “Rusty ‘Russ’ Griswold,” but doesn’t distinguish himself. He doesn’t disappoint, but he doesn’t make his character outstanding, either. Galecki also did “In Time.” He was nominated for “The Big Bang Theory.”
- Oscar nominee (not for this one) Juliette Lewis was daughter “Audrey Griswold” and while better than the two actresses who played the role in the first two films, isn’t very special here. She’s OK – even solid – but does her best as being arrogant and then turning to defend Chase when he’s criticized by one of the adults. She has also been in “From Dusk Till Dawn” (click here for my review) and “Natural Born Killers.” Lewis was nominated for “Cape Fear,” but I’ve never been much impressed with her as an actor.
- Veteran actor and Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) E.G. Marshall plays “Arthur ‘Art’ Smith,” who is Chase’s father-in-law. Marshall does a good job as the tough, critical family member who likes talking about his various ailments. Marshall was excellent in “The Caine Mutiny” as the prosecutor (click here for my review) and “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (click here for my review). He was nominated for TV’s “The Defenders” and died in 1998 at 84 of lung cancer.
- John Randolph plays “Clark Griswold Sr.” and, of course, is Chase’s father. He’s calm, collected and very supportive of his son. He’s the role model for Chase, except he doesn’t have the bad luck. Randolph was in “Serpico,” “Prizzi’s Honor” (click here for my review) and is even neat in the wonderful chick flick and one of my favorites “You’ve Got Mail” (click here for my review). He died in 2004 at 88 of natural causes.
- Five-time Primetime Emmy winner and six-time nominee Doris Roberts, most famous as “Marie” on TV’s “Everybody Loves Raymond,” is mother-in-law “Frances Smith” and has a bit of drinking problem. Roberts does her usual great job with a small role. While she doesn’t truly sparkle here, she works with what little she has and makes it better. Roberts went way out of character in the doper classic “Grandma’s Boy” (click here for my review) and has also been in TV’s “Remington Steele.” Four of her five wins were for “Raymond” while the fifth was for “ Elsewhere.” Roberts died at 90 in 2016 after suffering a stroke.
- The often underrated and three-time Primetime Emmy nominee Brian Doyle-Murray plays Chase’s boss “Frank Shirley” and he does a great job being the uptight executive who cancel’s the company’s Christmas bonuses. He runs afoul of Quaid and is also perfect being the victim. He was the caddy supervisor in “Caddyshack” and has also been in “Groundhog Day.” He was nominated and is best-known for his work on “Saturday Night Live.”
- The yuppies next door are played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as “Margo and Todd Chester.” They are narcissistic fools who turn their nose up at Christmas. Chase has a great one-liner for them, shoots a javelin of ice into their stereo and finally knocks a tree through their window. Of course Louis-Dreyfus is best known for TV’s “Seinfeld” while Guest was in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and is the brother of the actor married to Jamie Lee Curtis.
- Finally, I’ll mention that Nicolette Scorsese plays “Mary,” who is a counter person that Chase makes embarrassing comments to while shopping (she’s wearing the thong underwear). Scorsese also is the girl taking off her bathing suit at Chase’s fantasy pool. She was also in “Boxing Helena.”
I’ll stop here by noting only one more supporting actor: William Hickey. The Oscar nominee (not for this one) plays older uncle “Lewis,” who is crusty, sarcastic and demanding. Hickey, another underrated actor despite his Oscar nomination for “Prizzi’s Honor” (click here for my review), was solid in “My Blue Heaven” with Steve Martin (click here for my review) and I’ll also mention he was also in the stinker called “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” (click here for my review). Although he was 62 at the time of “Christmas Vacation” premiere, he looked 20 years older. Hickey died at 69 in 1997 of emphysema and bronchitis.
By the way in a most important footnote, both “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “Christmas Vacation” are adapted for the screen by Hughes from short stories he wrote for the “National Lampoon” humor magazine. For those who were children in the late 1950s, the stories are priceless mirrors and something we can all relate to. You can click here to read Hughes’ original short story titled “Christmas ’59.” The Christmas story was the sequel short story to his original “Vacation ’59” short (click here to read it). Unlike the short story, the movie “Vacation” doesn’t mention that All-American founder of the mouse empire (they didn’t under threat of litigation by that company).
I think it would be a good idea for someone to have Galecki star as a grown up “Rusty” and hosting Christmas at his house in a reboot (remember, they updated the original in 2015 with Ed Helms playing the grown-up “Rusty” taking his family on a vacation.
“Christmas Vacation” was the 15th ranked film at the domestic box office in 1989 with $71.3 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It was made on a $25 million budget, according to Wiki. It edged out “Turner & Hooch” for 15th place and the No. 1 film of the year was “Batman” with $251.1 million. Other films from 1989 that I’ve reviewed are:
- “Harlem Nights” (excellent Murphy-Pryor) – click here for my review
- “How I Got into College” (creative teen comedy) – click here for my review
- “Let it Ride” (excellent Richard Dreyfuss) – click here for my review
- “Major League” (baseball comedy classic) – click here for my review
- “Parenthood” (excellent family drama) – click here for my review
- “Road House” (mediocre Swayze) – click here for my review
- “Uncle Buck” (classic comedy from John Hughes) – click here for my review
- “Weekend at Bernie’s” (great light comedy) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Galecki not only was in “Christmas Vacation,” but was also in 1989’s only other Christmas-themed film, “Prancer.”
- Scorsese obviously has good taste after showing questionable judgment: She is a former girlfriend of Sean Penn. Bad news that she went out with him in the first place, but redeemed herself by no longer being associated with that talentless cretin.
- “Christmas Vacation” is also popular in the United Kingdom, but it never appeared in a theater there (they spell it “theatre”). It went straight to video there.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “The Griswolds’ neighbor’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.”
- Chevy Chase reportedly wore the same Chicago Bears caps in all the “Vacation” films that he starred in.
- “Christmas Vacation” is reportedly the only “Vacation” film not to have Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” song from the original. I write “reportedly” since I haven’t seen the crappy sequels and can’t verify it.
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “According to an article on the making of Home Alone (1990) in Chicago Magazine, Chris Columbus states that he was the original director of this movie. Although he filmed some second unit establishing shots (which he claims are still in the finished film), he left after two meetings with Chevy Chase, and told Writer and Producer John Hughes, “There’s no way I can do this movie. I know I need to work, but I can’t do it with this guy.” He was sent the script to Home Alone (1990) in its place.”
- Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive page of trivia for “Christmas Vacation.”
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