Summertime is back even though the Delta variant of Covid-19 may make the rest of the year seem like 2020 Redux, so it’s only natural everyone is hitting on the road trying to have a little fun in the sun hoping we don’t go on another lockdown.
National Lampoon’s Vacation was released on this date in 1983 and watching it hits home for all too many people. The family road trip is one of those things that is glamorized as something as American as apple pie. But anyone who’s been on road trips knows it’s not always that great.
That’s the joy of this movie. They say comedy is tragedy plus time. It’s been 38 years since Vacation was released and it seems all the more hilarious the more I watch it probably because everyone has had a tragedy of a vacation gone wrong.
Chevy Chase plays Clark Griswold, the stereotypical model for the All-American father. He’s a food additive designer for a major company in Chicago which means he has to be properly educated with a bachelor’s and master’s and studies in chemistry, organic chemistry and biology.
He’s the ultimate anti-Chase role, which is odd since he’s become most associated with this role and appeared as Clark in five movies. Chase later said after director Harold Ramis passed away in 2014 he based his performance on Ramis and his suggestions.
Clark wants to take his nuclear family consisting of wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and children, Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron) on the perfect cross-country trip to California where they will visit the amusement theme park Wally World, imagine DisneyWorld crossed with Six Flags.
The Griswolds can’t even leave the suburbs of Chicago without running into obstacles. The car dealership doesn’t have his new station wagon ready when he goes to drop off the old one, and they put it in a car crusher as he talks with the car salesman (Eugene Levy). With a gaudy looking Wagon Queen Family Truckster, the Griswolds experience their first set-back when backing out of the garage as their luggage tied to the rack doesn’t clear the garage door opener.
Then, they get lost in St. Louis resulting in no help from directions from the locals who steal their hub cabs and write “Honky Lips” on the side. Clark falls asleep with the rest of the family at night and nearly comes to so many close collisions.
When they go visit their relatives in Kansas, they learn that they’re going to to take Ellen’s Aunt Edna (Imogene Cocoa) and her crazy dog, Dinkie, to Phoenix. In Kansas, they stay with Ellen’s Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid), who is a war veteran but currently unemployed. Guilted into giving them money, they find themselves getting into more trouble and financial hardships.
Dinkie urinates on their picnic basket. And then Clark accidentally ties his leash to the rear bumper while packing up and forgets until pulled over my a motorcycle cop.
Problems keep rising. They lose Ellen’s vanity bag, which she foolishly put her credit cards in so they’ve canceled those but the bank has also canceled Clark’s. They get lost in Arizona and the Truckster flies off the road and crashes. And crooked jerkwater mechanics use good old boy politics to get the rest of Clark’s money.
And then Aunt Edna dies and they put her on the luggage rack. However, when they arrive in Phoenix, Edna’s son isn’t home and they leave her on the back patio.
Along the road, Clark keeps seeing a young blonde woman in a Ferrari played by Christie Brinkley.
When they finally do get to California, they discover Wally World has been closed for two weeks to be repaired. This results in Clark going over the edge and taking a guard hostage so they can ride the rides.
It all seems outrageous but that’s the joy of the movie. Who can relate to the problems the Griswolds suffer. Road trips often have setbacks. You underestimate expenses. You experience mechanical issues. And people assume that since you’re going near where they’re going, they can easily invite themselves along. Do you think Aunt Edna paid for anything?
The movie was originally written by John Hughes based on a piece he wrote for the National Lampoon magazine about a family trip of his when he was young. The script was originally told from the point of view of Rusty and had the Griswolds going from Chicago to Florida, possibly to visit DisneyWorld, which until Covid-19, never closed entirely.
Ramis and Chase felt the script needed to be changed to have the Griswolds go through Monument Valley region of America, even saying there’s not much between Chicago and Florida. I’ve also been along this route from my hometown to family in Michigan and my parents easily made the drive in about 12 hours taking shifts.
They also had to change the ending. As the original ending went, Clark buys a BB gun from a sporting goods store and tracks down Roy Walley, the owner, and forces him and his friends to do a song and dance. It’s later revealed that the blonde is Walley’s daughter and she convinces him not to call the police.
This ending was hated in previews because the consensus was that the Griswolds should’ve at least been able to enjoy the amusement park. So, the ending was rewritten, reshot with John Candy reportedly getting a nice paycheck to play the guard taken hostage.
But there was a problem. Hall had grown six inches in between the time principal photography ended and when he reshoots were ordered. This meant at all possible, Hall was either featured sitting down or not close to D’Angelo as he is much taller than her in the ending. However, his height change is still in the movie in some shots.
There was also an earlier scene after dropping off Aunt Edna where Clark loses it and goes on a profanity laced tirade that the filmmakers tried to censor in order to secure a PG rating. (There was no PG-13 rating in 1983.) However, risking less people being able to see it in the theaters, the movie was released with an R rating.
But Vacation is different from the so many raunchy sex comedies that arose following the success of National Lampoon’s Animal House and Porky’s. It has an intelligence to its comedy. Lampoon often chose writers who had clever wit and ideas even though some good argue all they ever did was write crude humor.
At the heart of the movie is Clark’s pigheaded stubbornness not to admit to defeat when everything falls apart. He’s built this trip up so well that he’s trudging ahead come hell or high water. He’s like one of those soldiers you hear about who refuse to stop fighting even after the war is over.
Clark reminds me of that infamous old cartoon meme of a dog sitting in a bar, still drinking, while flames are around him, saying with a big smile, “This is fine.”
Clark is obsessed with time frames and schedules that he doesn’t really the best part of vacations are the moments you don’t plan for. And it’s crazy the one scene at the Grand Canyon in which the rest of the family seems to be enjoying themselves, Clark rushes them out.
People probably have someone like Clark in their family. He wants to make the most out of things, it becomes “My way or the highway.” But that is the joy of this movie is seeing Clark stumble over himself all the time but keep rebounding with feeling that he’s still superior.
Chase may not be the most likeable person in real life and his comedy schtick over the years has gotten more critics than fans, but Chase is actually a good actor in his role as Clark. I’m not saying he’s Daniel Day-Lewis, but he manages to make Clark a memorable character.
After this, there were four other movies ranging from the good (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation) to the bad (Vegas Vacation) to the ugly (Vacation). I’m not including that TV movie.