Santa Claus knows when you’ve been naughty or nice, and he knows when you’re lying about National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Did you really see it in theaters? Did you actually like it? The film opened in 1989 and the response from critics and audiences alike seemed to be a collective “Bah humbug.” Reviews were middling at best for the Griswold family’s yuletide yuk fest, and though the film grossed more than $72 million upon its release, it didn’t really gain “classic” status until years later. Now, I’m about to share 5 Reasons Why Christmas Vacation Is a Perfect Holiday Movie, but first, let me deck the halls with some background as to why I can vouch for Christmas Vacation’s epic awesomeness.
I saw it at an early screening in a packed theater in New York City – and I laughed my ass off. One other person laughed her ass off. I was seated on an aisle in the center section of the theater, and she was on the aisle on the left side of the theater, probably 10 rows in front of me. We were, basically, the only two people laughing. You’d think you were at a funeral. Utter silence. The movie ended and the lights went up and the woman ran over to me. Why? To thank me for laughing, which made it safe for her to laugh. I told her she did the same for me. And we both shook our heads that no one else seemed to find the movie funny… at all. Even today, 31 years later, I still laugh my ass off.
OK. Phew. Now, here the 5 reasons why Christmas Vacation is (still) a perfect holiday movie.
5. The Story
Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) just wants to give his family – wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and kids Audrey (Juliette Lewis) and Rusty (Johnny Galecki) – the greatest, sparkliest, happiest Christmas ever, with the biggest tree, the best-lit house, the most-colorful sweaters, and the most delicious turkey. Then the in-laws arrive. And the kissing cousins. And that damn squirrel. Of course, it all goes to hell, which only makes Clark try harder, leading to some seriously classic Chevy Chase eyerolls, pratfalls, and manic delivery. Does anyone remember who wrote Christmas Vacation? That’d be the late, great John Hughes, who not only wrote and directed the likes of Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink and Planes, Trains & Automobiles, but created the Vacation franchise.
4. The Animated Opening Credits Sequence
Christmas Vacation kicks off with an animated opening credits sequence that sets the stage for the mayhem to come. In it, Santa arrives at the Griswold house to deliver presents, only to set himself aflame by the fireplace and get shot in the face by an ornament on the family tree, among other indignities. Mavis Staples of The Staples Singers croons the entertaining signature song, not surprisingly called… “Christmas Vacation.” What did audiences NOT hear in Christmas Vacation? Lindsey Buckingham’s uber-catchy earworm, “Holiday Road.”
3. The Cast
Chase and D’Angelo, after playing Clark and Ellen in Vacation and European Vacation, could do no wrong as their respective characters, and their chemistry remained great. I’d argue that this is Chase’s best performance as Clark, with the comedy legend in his prime. Future stars Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki played the latest Audrey and Rusty tandem, itself an in-joke, and nailed their characters. After taking off European Vacation, cousins Eddie and Catherine returned in the form of the brilliant Randy Quaid and Miriam Flynn. Then add to the eggnog: John Randolph and Diane Ladd as Clark’s parents, E.G. Marshall and Doris Roberts as Ellen’s mom and dad, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as the Griswolds’ unrelentingly yuppie, Griswold-hating neighbors. Stealing the show, however, were William Hickey and Mae Questel as Clark’s uncle and aunt. Hickey’s toupee is a character unto itself, and Questel plays Aunt Bethany’s senility to the hilt. Anyone remember Questel’s most famous role? She was the voice of the iconic animated character, Betty Boop.
2. Clark’s Meltdown
Hughes, in the movies he wrote and/or directed, often leavened the comedy with heaps of realism. Christmas Vacation was no exception, as middle-class Clark absolutely loses his mind when, with the whole family around him, he discovers that his cheapskate boss Frank (Brian Doyle-Murray) stiffed him on his expected holiday bonus. Clark’s anger slow burns for a moment before he flies into a minute-long, profane, revenge-seeking, us vs. them, rich vs. poor tirade. And the class-struggle exploration doesn’t end there, as bonkers Eddie, trying to be supportive, delivers the gift Clark most desires amidst his fury: Frank, bound and gagged, and tied up in a bright red bow.
1. It’s Just a Damn Funny Family Movie
Sure, shit blows up, the cat is electrocuted, there’s that aforementioned kidnapping, and Clark seems to suffer more pain than Harvey and Marv in the first two Home Alone movies combined (and, yup, the ubiquitous John Hughes wrote them, too), but Christmas Vacation is all about family and love and enjoying the holidays. For all the craziness, there beats a sweet heart and everyone can relate to at least one member of the Griswold clan.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is available to rent or buy on Apple TV, AMC, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play, FUBU and YouTube.