National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – 30 Years of Laughs

There’s no place like home for the holidays! It was the “happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny f-ing Kaye,” and every slightly flawed family rejoiced at the holiday hijinks in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when it arrived to U.S. theaters on Friday, December 1st, 1989.

You know the film, right? In the Chicago suburbs, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase: Caddyshack 1980, Vacation 2015) is hellbent on giving his family—wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo: Vacation 1983, American History X 1998), teen daughter Audrey (Juliette Lewis: Cape Fear 1991, Natural Born Killers 1994), and son Rusty (Johnny Galecki: Roseanne series, Big Bang Theory series)—a “fun, old-fashioned family Christmas.”

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. © Warner Bros.

Of course, the harder he tries for perfection, the further downhill the season goes. Toss in a freeloading cousin (Randy Quaid: Independence Day 1996, Brokeback Mountain 2005), a pair of yuppie neighbors played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Seinfeld series, Veep series) and Nicholas Guest (Trading Places 1983, Madam Secretary series), a Rottweiler named Snots, electrocution, kidnapping, and a membership in the Jelly of the Month Club, and you have the makings for the best-worst family Christmas ever.

Let’s face it, almost all of us have those relatives. What Christmas Vacation did so brilliantly was to take the quirks and struggles that each family suffers during the holidays and turn them into a relatable comedy. From freezing to death while selecting the family tree to finding space for all the relatives to sleep over, the hyperbole of John Hughes’ (The Breakfast Club 1985, Planes, Train, & Automobiles 1987) brilliant script created a Christmas movie that was light-hearted and fun, the perfect stress reliever for the most tension-filled time of year. In a year when the only other Christmas film to appear was the heartwarming Prancer, much to Aunt Bethany’s delight, this was a whole other ballgame.

Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik (Benny & Joon 1993, Gossip Girl series), the Family Comedy was edgy for its time but it also contained an important lesson about taking it all in stride. The film’s exceptional ensemble cast also featured the likes of Miriam Flynn (Vacation 1983, Babe 1995) as Cousin Eddie’s wife Catherine, Diane Ladd (Chinatown 1974, Wild at Heart 1990) and John Randolph (Escape from the Planet of the Apes 1971, You’ve Got Mail 1998) as Clark’s parents, and E.G. Marshall (12 Angry Men 1957, Superman II 1980) and Doris Roberts (Remington Steele series, Everybody Loves Raymond series) as Ellen’s parents.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. © Warner Bros.

Additionally, William Hickey (Sea of Love 1989, The Nightmare Before Christmas 1993) portrayed Uncle Lewis, Mae Questel (Funny Girl 1968, Who Framed Roger Rabbit 1988) was Aunt Bethany, Ellen Latzen (Fatal Attraction 1987, The Equalizer series) was Ruby Sue, Cody Burger (Forever Young 1992, Heavyweights 1995) was Rocky, Brian Doyle-Murray (Caddyshack 1980, JFK 1991) was Mr. Shirley, Natalija Nogulich (Hoffa 1992, 2 Broke Girls series) was Mrs. Shirley, and the cast feature many more talents.

The third installment in National Lampoon’s Vacation series—behind 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation and 1985’s National Lampoon’s European VacationChristmas Vacation is popularly regarded as the best sequel in the series, quite possibly the best film in the entire Vacation oeuvre, and it is the sole selection to have its own sequel, 2003’s TV movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure. On opening weekend, it was No. 2 at the box office behind Back to the Future Part II, though by the next week it would conquer the No. 1 slot. Until 2015’s Vacation, Christmas Vacation was the highest-grossing film in the entire series, which makes sense: fans loved the film and critics were largely favorable, as well.

So, why does Christmas Vacation endure when other Holiday flicks flop? Perhaps due to its blatant honesty and its use of comedic relief in the face of mounting disasteror maybe just the American love of schadenfreude. Decking the halls is no easy feat, nor is the frigid task of putting up the outdoor Christmas lights, and Hughes’ screenplay—which was derived from his 1980 short story “Christmas of ‘59”—utilized the hardships of the Holidays with brilliant simplicity. From the gigantic ball of tangled lights to the burnt turkey, Scrooge-y neighbors to the uninvited guests and even a senile great-aunt, Christmas Vacation touched on a myriad of relatable topics and used them to its advantage, crafting a tale that was guaranteed to make even Mr. Scrooge crack a smile.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. © Warner Bros.

For the die-hard fans, Christmas Vacation had Easter eggs galore that tipped their hats to everything and everyone from Director Chechik (who appears on the cover of the People Magazine that Chase is reading in bed) to the previous Vacation films to the Christmas 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life. But did you know that Questel, who plays senile Aunt Bethany, was the original voice of Betty Boop? How about the fact that Chase broke a finger while beating up a Santa Claus lawn ornament on set? Or perhaps you’re a stickler for attention to detail and have noticed one of the many audio and visual errors in the film?

There is no single quote from the film that stands out as the best or the brightest, no single hilarious moment that rises above the rest—although Chase covered in women’s finery and locked in the attic is always a pleaser. Whatever your experience with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, it’s likely that most children of the ‘80s (and beyond) hold a very special place in their hearts for the film. From a deep loathe of Cousin Eddie’s too-tight polyester suit to a gentle adoration for petite and hunched Aunt Bethany—or a fondness for that poor cat!—there’s no shortage of quirky characters to appreciate.

So, let us all raise our Walley World moose glasses in the air and toast one of the best Christmas comedies to ever grace the screen. Here’s to 30 years of laughs and play ball!

Warner Bros.

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