Favorite Films: Christmas Vacation

“We’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny f’ing Kaye!”

For my second “Favorite Films” review, I thought I’d go back to the well I went to in the first one — that of John Hughes holiday movies. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation may have a lot more competition, and much steeper competition, for the title of best movie for its holiday, but even if it wouldn’t take everyone’s top spot, it’s certainly a solid contender. It’s easily the Christmas movie I watch most often, and that’s due to both how funny it is, and how believable it is.

Released in 1989, when Chevy Chase was at the peak of his career, Christmas Vacation has him reprising his role as Clark Griswold, this time trying to ensure the perfect Christmas for his kids and extended family. Of course, it’s not going to be that easy — he’s Clark Griswold, after all, and there’s no such thing as a successful Griswold vacation.

“Mmmm… Looks great! Little full, lotta sap.”

Clark Griswold is Chase’s most recurring character, and probably his most familiar, and it’s for a good reason. Clark is the ultimate everyman, in personality if not necessarily in tax bracket: he’s smart, but not as smart as he thinks; he’s a loving husband, but not without his foibles (such as a wandering eye); he’s a doting father who wants the best for his kids even as they fail to appreciate it. He’s well-off for the middle class (how many of us could put a concrete pool in the backyard even with a bonus check?), but he has a middle class do-it-yourself attitude. He’s unappreciated by his boss, Mr. Shirley (Brian Doyle-Murray). He despises his yuppie neighbors (Nicholas Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfus). And he has an intense enthusiasm for family events, springing from a feeling that his own vacations and holidays as a kid weren’t as good as they should have been, so he wants the best for his kids… and we get to see his sanity start slipping as one thing goes wrong after another. Chase, perhaps the last great physical comic, has some great hits and falls in Christmas Vacation, but it’s his dialogue that really brings the laughs here. Clark seldom says more than three sentences without a bit of sarcasm slipping through, as the people around him keep doing their level best to drive him insane. We may not always say such things ourselves… but we’ve all been in situations where we think them rather loudly.

“Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, kiss my ass. Kiss his ass. Kiss your ass. Happy Hanukkah.”

And boy, do people try to drive Clark insane in this film. His wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo, the only other actor to be in all the Vacation movies) is the voice of reason, knowing how much “Sparky” tends to build things up in his mind, but she’s his sole source of stability among the rest of the family. His kids, Audrey and Russ, are feeling put-upon with the crowd of relatives in the house, Audrey especially. Played by Juliette Lewis, she’s a teenager in this film (the kids’ ages changed wildly throughout the series, including in relation to each other) and she objects to having to share a room with her brother, or go out into a freezing forest for a tree, or the possible damage to her social status from being seen staring at Christmas lights in her pajamas. Russ is a bit more helpful, but his father’s personality is rubbing off on him, and actor Johnny Galecki almost seems like a miniature Chase-in-training with his perfect delivery of lines that wouldn’t be out of place from the senior Griswold (“Look at the time. I gotta get to bed. I still gotta brush my teeth, feed the hog….”)

There’s something just a little sad about only half a car engaging in song.

But although his immediate family is a bit weary of Dad’s enthusiasm, they still mostly support him. And his own parents are similarly supportive; there’s a touching moment when Clark Sr. (John Randolph) reminds him that it’s OK if not everything is perfect. It’s the extended family that drives him crazy. Nothing is ever good enough for his in-laws, especially mother-in-law Frances (Doris Roberts). William Hickey is irascible and inconsiderate as Uncle Lewis, and we can really feel for Clark as he tries to refrain from killing the old goat, even as we laugh at the situation. His wife, Bethany, is played by Mae Questel (the voice of Betty Boop), in her last film role, and she’s one of the highlights of the film, as she amiably dodders along with the cheerful oblivion of senility.

“Is your house on fire, Clark?”

But of course the highlight of the cavalcade of kith and kin is the uninvited-but-nevertheless-here Cousin Eddie, played once again by Randy Quaid. A small role in the original Vacation, Eddie shows up here with his family in tow, and is given an expanded role in this entry in the series. He’s a screw-up, and an unrepentant slob — unrepentant because he’s unaware there’s anything to repent of — but as Clark notes, his heart’s bigger than his head. Even as Eddie provides some of the more low-brow laughs (helped immensely by Quaid’s delivery — he and Chase have their timing down pat in this film) he also provides a lot of the heart in this film. Like Clark, he really just wants the best for his kids and his family, and Clark deciding to help out is one of the film’s real heartwarming moments. The Vacation series is more about laughs than touching scenes, but it only works when Clark remains a sympathetic protagonist; what Vegas Vacation forgot, and Christmas Vacation remembers, is that it’s all about trying to do right for his family. And when he quietly says “I did it” at the end of the film, it’s hard not to give a little internal cheer for him at having a good Christmas despite all the numerous obstacles thrown in his path (most of those obstacles being ambulatory and wrinkly).

“He’s an old man. This may be his last Christmas.”
“If he keeps it up, it will be his last Christmas.”

We tune into Christmas Vacation looking for some laughs for the holiday season, and Christmas Vacation delivers by the sleigh load. Comedies can be a difficult thing, and people won’t always laugh at the very same joke if the rest of the film hasn’t been up to par. There’s a snowball effect, in which the more you make people laugh, the more you can make them laugh. Christmas Vacation puts the audience in the right mood with its animated title sequence, and never lets up from there. Chase gets knocked about the head, Quaid acts like a stupid goof, and everybody delivers near-constant one-liners with perfect deadpan timing (though for my money, the prize-winner for “funniest line” is Alexander Folk as the SWAT officer). Part of the movie’s success is due to how relatable it is; we’ve all struggled setting up the lights, we’ve all had trouble with the tree (though usually just falling over instead of catching fire), and we’ve all had family members who were more irritating than gracious. There are classic scenes here, and it’s not at all surprising that more recent Christmas comedies have patterned themselves after Christmas Vacation, sometimes just in tone, and sometimes swiping gags and even entire scenes (Deck the Halls might as well have been pitched as “Let’s base a movie entirely on the lights scene from Christmas Vacation“.) But the imitators never quite reach its heights.

It’s got the heart, and it’s got the humor. It’s a riot from start to finish, and it’s one of my favorite films.

“Merry Christmas!”

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11 thoughts on “Favorite Films: Christmas Vacation

    • I know. I think it was last year, maybe the year before, when you and I watched it together; first time watching it together since we were kids. The neighbors probably wondered what could have been so funny.

    • Absolutely. A whole movie of Cousin Eddie would probably be pretty hard to watch (which makes me a bit leery of watching Christmas Vacation 2 someday), but as a side-character he’s absolutely hilarious.

  1. John Hughes part deux huh?

    Saw this before I got to comment on it. This is one of the great sequel debates. Is this one better than the original? Which is great because its the THIRD in the franchise, not even the second… A true holiday classic. A big part of that is because its kind of playfully irreverant. As you say, at its heart, its a movie about family and such. But you’ve got to dig through just the right amount of disfunction to get there. :D

    Hope you had a Merry Christmas Morgan.

    • Definitely hard to pick between this one and the first Vacation as to which is better… the other two aren’t really close, but both of those are classics. The irreverence is a big part of it, all right; there’s no idealization of the holiday here, except of course in Clark’s mind. :D

      I did have a good Christmas, thanks. Hope you did as well, Fogs.

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