National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is no Citizen Kane, but for my money it’s perfect. Feel free to shake your head, laugh, throw some insults, or even agree with me if you like, but this is my go-to, feel-good, all-time favorite movie to watch, any time of year. I’ll attempt to rein in my unfettered praise for the re-watch of this holiday classic in anticipation of John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein’s Vacation sequel due out on July 29th. And now, on with the retrospective!
Let’s take a look at the things that have stayed the same from the original 1983 Vacation, through its horrific 1985 sequel European Vacation, to the 1989 fan-favorite that is Christmas Vacation: John Hughes scripted each film, Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo starred as Clark and Ellen Griswold. That’s about it. As for the differences this time around, they abound: Rusty and Audrey are played by, arguably, the best actors for the roles in the series, Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis. Taking the helm this time around is first-time feature director, Jeremiah S. Chechik, who had never overseen a comedy before. With all of that uncertainty, and with the stink of European Vacation hanging over them, it’s amazing that the film ended up being half as good as it was.
Image via Warner Bros.
The few years off between pictures probably helped. The fact that Hughes’ only had one other scripting duty in 1989 – Uncle Buck – couldn’t have hurt, though he was also juggling directorial duties on that film. What’s apparent from Hughes’ work at this time, including the 1990 holiday classic Home Alone, is that he had family matters on his mind, a trend that took him away from themes of teenage angst and into an exploration of the many and varied relationships within a family. This mindset helps to explain not only the spot-on writing when it came to interactions between family members, but also the sweet, touching, nostalgic moments that served to heighten the comedic scenes.
This interplay of comedy and heartfelt moments helped pace the film perfectly, a problem that the rest of the Vacation movies suffer from. Rather than seeing a loose collection of scenes and skits strung together over the hour and a half, Christmas Vacation has both a dramatic and comedic thread that run through its entirety; when one starts to dip, the other picks up the slack. On the dramatic side, we soon learn that Clark has always wanted to have a big family gathering in his home for a Christmas party; that’s his goal in the third film, so he’s already a step ahead of the pointless European Vacation. We’re reminded throughout the picture that Clark has a habit of building up events in his mind to a point that no reality can ever match. This ties into the obvious comedic arc where ridiculous in-laws, absurd events, and a cartoonish Scrooge of a boss continually crash into Clark’s plans. It’s a perfect pairing.
Here’s an example of how the humor at work in European Vacation failed miserably vs the winning jokes of Christmas Vacation. In European Vacation, the only comedic thruline in the entire picture, besides the general anti-American/anti-European thread that pervades the whole mess, is a literal run-in between Clark and a character played by Eric Idle. This happens three times because comedy runs in threes. On the other hand, Christmas Vacation starts the film off with a scene that sets up comedic moments throughout the rest of the film: the Griswold family searching for the perfect Christmas tree. This opening incident bears fruit for the next 90 minutes: Clark forgetting the saw and ripping the tree out by the roots, the tree as a reason to converse with the Griswolds’ yuppie neighbors, stuffing a too-big tree in a too-small house, Snot the dog drinking tree water and the resulting drying out of the tree leading to it bursting into flames (Thanks, Uncle Lewis!), finding a new tree on Christmas Eve, and of course, the squirrel. It’s one of the best running gags in comedy movie history and Hughes gets such versatility out of it, but it’s still only one example of the humor present in this movie.
Multiple generations of the extended Griswold family and Clark’s in-laws are together under one roof for the first time in this film. Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) on his own was a trip, but Uncle Lewis (William Hickey) and Aunt Bethany (Mae Questel) provide another generation of comedy. In fact, the cast is so comparatively massive that everyone gets a moment to slip a joke in, to the point that each individual character’s screen presence feels fresh and helps to keep the energy up throughout the picture. My only gripe – I repeat, my only gripe – with Christmas Vacation is that the saucer-sled scene goes on just a bit too long. If you’ve got an issue with the film, I’d honestly love to hear about it because I just can’t seem to find more flaws.
Image via Warner Bros.
If you feel like you know everything there is to know about this movie, I implore you to watch it just once more, especially if you have access to the DVD commentary. There are so many little jokes, gags, and hidden hilarities in each scene that it’s always a rewarding experience to go back and watch it again “for the first time.” For instance, did you know that the cast was playing a game in which they gave themselves points for being able to say their lines while sitting, reclining, or even sneaking a sleeping scene in? Or did you know that, during the scene where Uncle Lewis and Aunt Bethany arrived, an earthquake interrupted the shoot and freaked young Galecki out? These tidbits are inconsequential in and of themselves, but it’s fun trivia that adds a cherry on top of an already phenomenal film. The new Vacation is going to have a hard time topping this one, but at least Christmas Vacation manages to set a respectable benchmark.
Let me know your thoughts on Christmas Vacation and my take on it in the comments below! Check out my other Vacation retrospectives below: