Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Sunday, December 20, 2015

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

We have all had our Clark Griswold moments during the Christmas season. Driving all over the valley to find the biggest, best Christmas tree.  Having the brightest, most colorful display of Christmas lights in the neighborhood. But who is this Clark Griswold I speak of? Why, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) the overly exuberant, cheerfully optimistic father and husband who moviegoers first met in Harold Ramis's NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION (1983). In VACATION, Griswold led his weary family on a cross country summer odyssey to the amusement park Wally World. Clark Griswold, his wife Ellen, and their two children Rusty and Audrey are back to poke fun at the busiest, happiest, most stressful holiday of the year in NATIONAL LAMPOON'S CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989) directed by Canadian Jeremiah Chechik.

VACATION , EUROPEAN VACATION (1985), and CHRISTMAS VACATION were written by John Hughes who started out as a writer for the satirical magazine National Lampoon. Hughes, also a director, was best known for having his finger on the pulse of teenagers. Hughes wrote and directed SIXTEEN CANDLES (1984), THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985), and FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF (1986), comedies that captured the angst and awkwardness that comes with becoming a teenager. But Hughes also understood adults and with the VACATION films, he found his Universal Dad, the Everyman Father in Clark Griswold as portrayed by SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE veteran Chevy Chase. Griswold loves his wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) and kids Rusty (Johnny Galecki) and Audrey (Juliette Lewis). He works hard. He believes in family values and tradition. A co-worker calls Clark the "last true family man." The family car is a station wagon. Clark sees the sunny side of things. He's a glass half full kind of guy. But he's a klutz. He's not very handy. His epic ideas like putting up Christmas lights (and trying to get them to work) becomes an epic struggle, resorting to using a staple gun to secure all 250 strands of light bulbs around his house.

CHRISTMAS VACATION is actually not another Griswold vacation.  It takes place in their neighborhood, at their house, somewhere in suburban Chicago, Illinois.  As Clark proclaims, "It's a Griswold Family Christmas." But it's a hectic time of the year for the Griswolds. Clark is anxious to receive his Christmas bonus from his miserly boss Frank Shirley (Brian Doyle-Murray) as Clark has already put a down payment on a swimming pool he can't afford. Both Clark's parents Clark, Sr. (John Randolph) and Nora (Diane Ladd) and Ellen's parents Art (E.G. Marshall) and Francis (Doris Roberts) are coming to stay with them over the Christmas holiday. And Clark is determined to have the best Christmas tree (it's way too big for the house) and the best Christmas lights display in the neighborhood (the lights draw so much power he nearly causes a blackout in his town).

But the Griswold family holiday gets even nuttier for Clark when Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid from the first VACATION film) shows up unannounced in his RV with his wife Catherine (Miriam Flynn) and their two kids Rocky (Cody Burger) and Ruby Sue (Ellen Hamilton Latzen) to also spend Christmas with the Griswolds. Eddie's out of work and they have no money for gifts for their children. Rounding out the family affair are Uncle Lewis (William Hickey) and Aunt Bethany (Mae Questel) who Clark picks up from the airport.

Christmas Eve arrives and all hell breaks loose. Aunt Bethany's cat (who she absent-mindedly wrapped and brought as a gift) bites into the Christmas tree lights and electrocutes itself. Uncle Lewis accidentally burns up the Christmas tree with his cigar. The Christmas turkey is too dry and implodes. And when Clark's bonus check arrives at the last moment, it's not a bonus at all. Clark goes berserk, cursing his boss which sends Cousin Eddie off to kidnap Frank Shirley from his mansion and wife (Natalia Nogulich) and bring him back to face the Griswold family's wrath.

Writer Hughes likes to have fun with the rites of family (summer vacation, Christmas holiday, a European vacation).  CHRISTMAS VACATION is a bit less vulgar than VACATION. It has some funny physical comedy bits especially with Clark trying to put up the lights or a squirrel running loose in the Griswold household. But underneath some of the crude jokes, cousin Eddie's potty mouth, or Uncle Lewis's bad toupee, there is a sweet Christmas story to be found. There's a heart warming sequence after Clark is accidentally stuck in the family attic as the others go shopping (a precursor to the Hughes scripted 1990 HOME ALONE) where he discovers a box of Super 8 movies including Christmas with his parents back in 1955. It's a wonderful moment amongst the Christmas chaos. And, Clark and Ellen helping out their less fortunate cousins is a very real everyday Christmas moment as millions of people around the world struggle to provide even one gift for their children or loved ones.  CHRISTMAS VACATION does have a heart.

The Christmas film genre has transitioned from classic holiday fare like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) or WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) to dysfunctional families either celebrating Christmas or avoiding Christmas like the recent CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS (2004) or FOUR CHRISTMASES (2008). The success of CHRISTMAS VACATION may have started the trend. For the Griswolds, it's more their relatives who are dysfunctional than them. But Chechik and Hughes don't entirely bail on the traditional Christmas tales we used to. Clark's miserly boss Frank Shirley hearkens back to another well known grumpy Christmas character, Charles Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

It's hard to believe there have been four VACATION films. VACATION (1983), EUROPEAN VACATION (1985), CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989), and VEGAS VACATION (1997). The VACATION series owes its longevity to Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold, the perpetually positive patriarch. Chase's facial mannerisms and gift of physical comedy (a bit with tree sap on his hand is priceless) lift the VACATION franchise above similar family type comedies. The beautiful Beverly D'Angelo dutifully presides as wife Ellen, Clark's partner in all things fun. Ellen goes along with Clark's crazy plans, never blowing her top although she occasionally voices her displeasure.

Incredibly, the VACATION series has had four different Rusty's and Audrey's in each VACATION film. While Clark and Ellen grow older, Rusty and Audrey stay eternally young. Johnny Galecki (now on TVs THE BIG BANG THEORY) plays Rusty in CHRISTMAS VACATION but other Rusty's include Anthony Michael Hall, Jason Lively, and Ethan Embry. Juliette Lewis (CAPE FEAR, KALIFORNIA) who plays Audrey Griswold is probably the most well known of the other Audrey's. Dana Barron, Dana Hill, and Marisol Nichols have played the Audrey part in the other VACATION films.

Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie almost steals the film from Chevy Chase. Chase and Quaid are hilarious in their scenes together. Redneck Eddie is the quintessential relative from hell but Quaid gives Eddie some pathos that I didn't recall in the original VACATION. The grandparents are played by familiar character actors E.G. Marshall (12 ANGRY MEN, CREEPSHOW), Doris Roberts (Ray Romano's Mom on TV'S EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND), Diane Ladd (CHINATOWN, mother of actress Laura Dern), and John Randolph (PRIZZI'S HONOR).

Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill Murray's older brother) does a nice turn as the Scrooge like CEO Frank Shirley. Doyle-Murray also made an appearance in the first VACATION. Look for SEINFELD and VEEP'S star Julia Louise-Dreyfus in an early role as one of Hughes' favorite targets, a young Yuppie neighbor Margo Chester who along with her equally annoying husband Todd Chester (Nicholas Guest) fall victim to some of Clark's holiday festivities.

CHRISTMAS VACATION is uneven at times. The mean boss plot disappears and pop up at infrequent times and the yuppie neighbors almost serve no purpose.  A scene with Clark flirting with a buxom department story clerk Mary (Nicolette Scorsese) is a silly attempt to recreate Clark's flirtation with Christie Brinkley as the Girl in the Ferrari in the original VACATION. The CHRISTMAS VACATION flirtation scene is forced and goes on uncomfortably too long.

If director Jeremiah Chechik's names doesn't ring a bell, you're not alone. I had never heard of him either. Chechik had a brief, eclectic run of feature films with CHRISTMAS VACATION followed by BENNY & JOON (1993) with Johnny Depp and the remake of DIABOLIQUE (1996) with Sharon Stone.  But his run ended with the ill-fated movie version of the English spy TV show THE AVENGERS (1998) starring Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery. Chechik moved to television where he has directed various TV shows including a stint on NBC's CHUCK recently.

You can't keep a good franchise down even with Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo growing older. A new VACATION directed by John Frances Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein came out in 2015 with Rusty Griswold (now played by Ed Helms) grown up and taking his family on the same cross country road trip to Wally World. Chase and D'Angelo appear as Clark and  Ellen. A new generation gets to meet the Griswolds but for CrazyFilmGuy my loyalty lies with the original Griswold family.

I think myself and most adults can relate to Clark Griswold in CHRISTMAS VACATION.  We all build up these amazing traditions that we experienced with our parents to our kids such as drinking egg nog, building a miniature Christmas village, or reading Twas the Night Before Christmas in front of a roaring fire. We think our children will have the same excitement for these traditions that we had but that's not always the case. It takes time. Ultimately, the younger generation learns to embrace tradition while creating new ones as well. CHRISTMAS VACATION makes fun of family and tradition during the holiday season but in the end, that's what's most important. Not fancy gifts or bonuses or the brightest Christmas light.  It's family.

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