“Why aren’t we flying? Because getting there is half the fun. You know that.”
The National Lampoon magazine debuted in 1970, as a spin-off of the Harvard Lampoon. In contrast to its parent magazine, it came out monthly and was distributed — as its name suggests — on a national level. The magazine rapidly grew in popularity, and by the end of the decade was successful enough that the company was able to branch out into movies, with 1978’s Animal House. The film was a comedy hit, especially among the college students who were both the subject and the target audience of the Lampoon’s brand of humor.
A follow-up, however, proved more difficult. Class Reunion, released in 1982, only made $10 million at the box office; by comparison, Richard Pryor’s The Toy made nearly five times as much the same year. Movie Madness was meant to come out in 1981 as the company’s second film, but was delayed — getting only a limited release in 1982. It would eventually get a full release in late 1983, and bomb. But success came with the third film, one that broke a bit from the college-oriented mold of the others. Although it was R-rated, and thus not for children, it nevertheless appealed to those adults with families thanks to its familiar themes. Released in the summer of 1983, National Lampoon’s Vacation became the company’s second hit.
“Who’s the moosiest moose we know? Marty Moose!
Who’s the star of our favorite show? Marty Moose!”
For their third film, National Lampoon went to the same screenwriter as for their second, John Hughes. In this case, Hughes was to adapt a screenplay out of a short story he had written for the magazine, “Vacation ’58”. The story was a fictionalized account of a family’s trip to Disneyland, and was supposedly inspired by actual trips Hughes’ family had made — though greatly exaggerated. For the film adaptation, a few changes were made. The number of children was reduced to two from four, and the year was updated to the year the film was being made. Most importantly, the destination was changed from Disneyland to a fictional equivalent, “Walley World” — although the similarities are deliberately obvious. One reason cited for the change was that Disneyland, unlike the Walley World of the story, is open year-round.
“Sorry folks, park’s closed. Moose out front shoulda told ya.”
Many of the elements from the short story wound up in the screenplay and the final film. The strange relatives they have to deal with on the way, the fate of Aunt Edna’s dog, and the scene when Clark is getting fleeced by unethical repairmen are taken almost verbatim from the story. In fact, although most of the names changed from story to screenplay, the father is Clark W. Griswold, Jr. in both. The screenplay was the third one John Hughes had ever written for film, after Class Reunion and Mr. Mom. It would be his first out-and-out hit… but it would not be his last. Hughes went on to be one of the most successful writers and directors of the 1980s, with his films still being remembered today as some of the most iconic of the decade.
“We’re not from around here.”
There were, of course, changes and additions to the story as well. The ghetto scene, which director Harold Ramis has since said he would do differently if he had to do it over again, was original to the screenplay, replacing a scene in which the station wagon is attacked by Indians. Ramis and star Chevy Chase were on board for the film from the beginning, and had a hand in some of the re-writes. Many of the other added events in the script were based on Ramis’s own experiences driving his family across country. But most of the changes were simply to change the focus of the film. In particular, the short story was told from the perspective of the teenaged son, and the initial script kept Rusty as the focal character — making it one of the coming-of-age stories that would become John Hughes’ trademark. Ramis and Chase felt that Clark, the father who had to work fifty weeks a year and was trying to be a super-dad during the vacation, was the more interesting character. Thus, a thirteen-year-old girl who was supposed to repeatedly encounter Rusty during the vacation was changed to a young woman, played by Christie Brinkley in her film debut, to test and tempt Clark as his frustrations with his family grew.
“This is crazy! This is crazy! This is crazy!”
Playing the role of Clark’s initially-patient wife, Ellen, was Beverly D’Angelo. D’Angelo had some initial reservations about auditioning for the role: “I was twenty eight and I was to play the mother of a fifteen-year-old, but my husband laughed out loud at the script, and I idolized Chevy, so I went in for the audition.” Chase and D’Angelo quickly became friends on the set, which helped sell the characters not just for the film but for the eventual sequels.
“Sit down and shut up! Move outta that seat and I’ll split your lip!”
The kids were played by Dana Barron and Anthony Michael Hall. It was the second film role for each of them. Only 16 and 14, respectively, at the time of filming, their ages were approximately the same as their characters — though Rusty was supposed to be the older one. While Barron would have occasional minor roles as her career went on, Hall would go on to become a star in his own right — thanks, in large part, to more John Hughes films. The film also featured the debut of character actress Jane Krakowski. Krakowski, who would become known for roles in Ally McBeal and 30 Rock, played the part of cousin Vicki, one of the numerous children of cousin Eddie.
“I’m going steady, and I French kiss.” “So? Everybody does that.”
“Yeah, but Daddy says I’m the best at it.”
Cousin Eddie himself was memorably played by Randy Quaid. Though it was a small role, it proved to be a memorable one — perhaps because so many people have that one relative who is just a few cards short of a full deck. Although he didn’t reprise the role for the immediate sequel, European Vacation cousin Eddie was brought back for the other films in the series, even earning a TV movie of his own (although the movie, much like cousin Eddie, isn’t spoken of in polite company.)
But while Eddie would become iconic as the relative who causes Clark the most inadvertent grief, in the original film he only introduces Clark to his nemesis for much of the film: Ellen’s cantankerous Aunt Edna. The Griswolds are talked into taking Edna with them for part of their trip in order to take her back to her home after she was staying with Eddie and his family, and she tries the patience of Clark and Ellen and both children. Imogene Coca, who had been a famous comedienne on Your Show of Shows, played the shrewish old woman, and had to be talked into taking the role because of how mean the character was. Even during filming Coca would express sorrow over how malicious she had to be to her co-stars during scenes.
“Is this your idea of a good restaurant, dog killer?!”
Aunt Edna’s death scene, which culminates in the family driving with her corpse on the roof in order to drop her off at her son’s, underwent one small change during filming. Originally, Coca was to wiggle her fingers some while on the roof, to indicate that she was actually still alive. However, the idea of driving with a live elderly person on the roof, even one as mean as Aunt Edna, was deemed to be too cruel.
There was one other change made to the script in order to make it more palatable to audiences, and it was a big one. The final sequence, where the family finally arrives at Walley World only to find it closed for repairs, originally culminated with Clark breaking into the home of Roy Walley (Eddie Bracken) and holding him hostage. The scene was filmed, and shown to the test audience. According to Ramis, “It didn’t play at all. The audience was with us for seventy-five minutes, embracing the film, and then dead silent — not another chuckle.” Ramis brought Hughes back for a rewrite on the ending. The original ending, however, was not completely discarded — it served as an inspiration for the ending on the third film, Christmas Vacation.
“If you were me, wouldn’t you do the same thing for your children?” “No.”
Ramis realized that the funnier ending for the film would be if the family hijacked the park itself. Due to the scene being shot several months later, sharp-eyed viewers can notice a small difference, as Hall’s growth during the intervening months now left him taller than D’Angelo. John Candy was brought in to play the role of the security guard that Clark takes hostage. Ramis was a fan of Candy’s, and thought he and Chase would work well together. For the theme park, they filmed at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Although the Walley World backdrop is a matte painting, the rides shown are real, not props, and the actors are actually riding them in the film. Because the shots required multiple takes, it was a difficult experience for the cast. Dana Barron suffered from motion sickness and had to take pills for it, which left her passing out between takes. Anthony Michael Hall has said that his expressions of fear on the roller coaster scenes are genuine.
“That’s not a real gun, is it Clark?”
“Are you kidding? This is a Magnum P.I.”
What makes Vacation work — and what makes the better of the sequels work — is a combination of absurdity, sympathy, and familiarity. It takes the common hassles of vacations that most families can relate to, and elevates them to comic levels. Meanwhile, even as Clark gradually loses his mind, the audience maintains sympathy with him because they know why he’s losing his mind. It’s not just that the audience has been there, it’s that they can see that, despite it all, he really is trying his best to do what’s right by his kids. He just doesn’t always know how to go about it, and life keeps getting in the way. It provides a bit of balance to the film’s zaniness, as although the whole point is to watch Clark fail repeatedly, some part of the viewer wants to see him succeed in the end.
“We’re not really violent people. This is our first gun.”
The film was a major success at the box office, taking the #1 spot and earning $61 million — four times its production budget. It went on to be considered a classic family comedy even despite the R rating. Aside from Animal House, it is the most popular film film in National Lampoon’s line-up. Total Film‘s readership ranked it as the #46 greatest comedy of all time in a 2000 poll, and it has a 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Vacation spawned a number of sequels. Two years later, it was followed up with European Vacation, and in 1989, Christmas Vacation. Both films were successful, with the latter being a comedy classic in its own right (and another of my favorite films). In 1997, a more belated sequel, Vegas Vacation was produced, and 2003 brought a TV-movie spin-off focusing on Cousin Eddie’s Christmas. Though neither was as well received as the 1980s originals, the brand remains vital, being referenced in more than one ad campaign in recent years. And work is currently underway for another sequel, featuring Ed Helms as a grown-up Rusty taking his own family to Walley World one last time before it closes its gates for good. Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo are reprising their roles as Rusty’s parents.
National Lampoon’s Vacation is one of the touchstones of 1980s comedy. It’s a film which has had lasting popularity, and it remains relatable to new viewers due to its strong sense of humor and its familiar problems. It cemented Chevy Chase’s popularity by creating a character who was instantly recognizable — we all know someone like Clark Griswold because to some extent, we’re all a bit like Clark Griswold. And it created a formula, the family vacation comedy, which is still frequently imitated today — from The Great Outdoors to RV — though most of the successors have been less successful. It’s a film which is instantly relatable and always funny, and it’s one of my favorite films.
“This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest, a quest for fun.”