National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is the third film in the series that began with 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, carried on with 1985’s National Lampoon’s European Vacation, and continued forward with 1997’s Vegas Vacation and the 2015 reboot Vacation. It beings back Chevy Chase all-American dad Clark Griswold. All he wants is to provide wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and kids Audrey and Rusty (now played by Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki) with a perfect, Norman Rockwell-esque Christmas. Typically for him, nothing goes right. And then Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) shows up.
The movie has become a perennial classic, in part because it’s eminently quotable and frequently hilarious. More than that, though, is the fact that viewers respond to the ring of truth within the story. The laughs serve to sell the film’s theme, which is that the holidays can be stressful, but as long as you spend them with the people you love the most, it’s all good.
We are pleased to offer up some trivia about the movie you probably weren’t aware of. We hope it helps you to appreciate this terrific yuletide comedy even more.
Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
15. It was based on a John Hughes short story
It’s fairly common knowledge that the original Vacation was inspired by a short story John Hughes wrote while he was on the staff of National Lampoon magazine. What ended up onscreen was very different from what was on the page, but the basic idea was there nonetheless. Once he got into movies, Hughes was generally averse to sequels. When Warner Bros. called him up and said they wanted a third movie about the Griswolds, he relented, only because he had another story he knew could be adapted well.
“Christmas ’59” was also a National Lampoon piece. It has some elements that several scenes from the movie were directly influenced by: a father named Clark who gets stiffed on his work bonus, an elderly aunt who wraps up a pet as a gift, a Christmas tree with a living animal inside of it, and a turkey that comes apart at the seams. Generally, though, the movie just drew a few basic inspirations from the story and then went its own way. You can read the short for yourself right here.
14. Chris Columbus was originally supposed to direct
John Hughes didn’t direct any of the Vacation movies, but by the time Christmas Vacation rolled around, he was a big enough player in Hollywood to serve in a producer’s role. One of his first tasks was to find someone who could take the helm of the third chapter in the Griswold saga. His choice was Chris Columbus, whose Adventures in Babysitting two years prior made him a hot property. Columbus was set to take the gig, but there was one big problem: he didn’t like Chevy Chase.
In an interview with Chicago magazine, Columbus said he went out to dinner with the actor. “Chevy treated me like dirt,” he claims. “I stuck it out and even went as far as to shoot second unit. Some of my shots of downtown Chicago are still in the movie. Then I had another meeting with Chevy and it was worse.” According to Columbus, he went to Hughes and asked to be let go from the film. Hughes, apparently feeling bad about what happened, accepted the resignation and, shortly thereafter, hired Columbus to direct another holiday comedy he wrote — a little movie called Home Alone.
13. Director Jeremiah Chechik hadn’t seen the previous installments
Replacing Columbus was Jeremiah Chechik, a commercial director who’d never made a feature film before. His ad work, which he has described as “sexy, moody, [and] atmospheric,” attracted the notice of legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who mentioned it in an interview. This got Hollywood’s attention, and before long, Chechik was being courted by Steven Spielberg. He started developing a project about the famed Apollo Theater for Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and Warner Bros. Pictures.
That project never got off the ground. Warner executives liked him, though, and threw a bunch of different scripts at him, and one of them was Christmas Vacation. Chechik, in an interview with Den of Geek, said, “I hadn’t seen the first two, and so I wasn’t influenced by anything other than the fact that it was — at the time — their big Christmas movie, and comedy. And I just felt if I could crack this, maybe there’s a whole other world of filmmaking for me.”
The movie did indeed open up other doors. Chechik went on to direct the Johnny Depp comedy Benny & Joon, as well as the infamous Sean Connery disaster, The Avengers. These days, he works primarily in television, having helmed episodes of Burn Notice, Chuck, and Gossip Girl, among others.
12. Chevy Chase helped write the script
One of the little secrets of the Vacation pictures is that Chevy Chase helped to write them. He and director Harold Ramis dramatically shifted the POV of the original, so that it was told from Clark’s viewpoint rather than from the kids’. They also crafted it to his physical comedy strengths. (One draft of the screenplay even has his name on it as co-writer.) For 1997’s Vegas Vacation, Chase and director Stephen Kessler did a complete overhaul on the script, which is credited only to Elisa Bell.
This tendency to do some behind-the-scenes writing work is likely because he felt very proprietary toward Clark Griswold, a character who brought him a considerable amount of big screen success. Chase told biographer Rena Fruchter that he and Chechik rewrote Hughes’ Christmas Vacation screenplay together, and that it was his idea to make a big yuletide family gathering the heart of the story. That may be an overstatement given Hughes’ short story, but given his penchant for pitching in ideas, it seems very likely that the final product is a combination of ideas from all three men.
11. Beverly D’Angelo clashed with the director
Movie sets can be hit or miss. Put a bunch of creative people, all with strong individual opinions on the material, in the same room and you can get magic. Or conflict. Christmas Vacation offered both. Interviewed for the biography I’m Chevy Chase…and You’re Not, written by Rena Fruchter, Beverly D’Angelo revealed that she and Jeremiah Chechik didn’t get along. “I felt like he kept trying to talk to me like I was an idiot about filmmaking, and it bothered me,” she said.
Things got worse when D’Angelo’s stand-in claimed to have heard the director blaming the actress for a delay on the set that really didn’t involve her at all. She was so angry about the incident that she walked off for the day. Chechik confirms the strife, telling Rolling Stone that he and D’Angelo “fought like hell” on set. Thankfully, those wounds healed over time, and the two made up while recording the DVD commentary in 2008.
10. It has some crucial differences from other films in the series
Christmas Vacation is, if you include the lame 2015 reboot, one of five films about the Griswold clan. That said, it has two significant differences from all the other entries in the series that provide it with something of a unique feel. For starters, this is the only one of the Vacation movies in which the Griswolds don’t travel somewhere. No Walley World, no Europe, no Las Vegas. They stay at home the entire time.
It’s also the only one in the franchise to not use Lindsay Buckingham’s theme song, “Holiday Road.” (Considering the whole story is set during a major holiday, this is especially unusual.) Buckingham was reportedly asked to record a new song, but declined, saying he didn’t want to do too many soundtracks. Instead, beloved soul singer Mavis Staples recorded the eponymous title tune, which plays over an animated opening credits sequence.
9. The Griswold neighborhood was also used in Lethal Weapon
The Griswold house. It’s a lovely place, even before Clark strings it with enough Christmas lights to knock out the power grid. If something about the house seems familiar to you, there’s a very good reason for that. You’ve seen it before in countless movies and TV shows. Actually, it’s not even a real house. It’s a set on the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank, where a faux neighborhood dubbed Blondie Street is redressed for various productions. (You can take a virtual tour of it here.) The set was designed to look like a typical suburban neighborhood.
Blondie Street has been used on the classic sitcom Bewitched, and has since popped up in American Beauty, Pleasantville, Small Soldiers, and, most prominently, Lethal Weapon. (The home of Clark’s obnoxious yuppie neighbors once belonged to the Murtaugh family in that action hit.) You can currently see it on the hit show The Middle. Of course, updates to the “neighborhood” have been made over the years, so the Griswold residence no longer looks the same as it once did. Still, it remains standing and can be spotted onscreen with regularity.
8. Diane Ladd wasn’t old enough to play Chevy Chase’s mother
A bunch of veteran actors were recruited to play Clark and Ellen’s relatives in Christmas Vacation. E.G. Marshall and Doris Roberts (later of Everybody Loves Raymond) were cast as Art and Frances Smith, Ellen’s mother and father. William Hickey and Mae Questel portrayed, respectively, her Uncle Lewis and Aunt Bethany. John Randolph — who appeared in classics like Serpico, All the President’s Men and Heaven Can Wait — assumed the role of Clark Griswold, Sr. And playing Clark’s mom was Diane Ladd, an accomplished actress known for Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
That last bit of casting is quirkier than it sounds. Although Ladd is terrific in the role, having her play Chevy Chase’s mother stretches credibility. Ladd was born in November 1935. Chase was born in October 1943. Do the math and this would mean that Nora gave birth to Clark one month before her eighth birthday. Making the situation even more amusing is that Beverly D’Angelo was born in November 1951. That’s eight years and one month after Chase, meaning that he’s technically closer in age to the woman playing his mother than to the one playing his wife.
7. It was the last film from a cartoon legend
Certainly, one of the comic highlights of the movie is the performance from Mae Questel, who portrays the doddering Aunt Bethany. The scene where she tries to say grace before the Christmas meal and ends up accidentally reciting the Pledge of Allegiance scores one of the biggest laughs. Questel didn’t appear onscreen very often. She has only a few minor credits in that regard. That said, she had a very successful career as a voice artist.
Starting in 1931, the actress began voicing the cartoon character Betty Boop in a long series of shorts. She also gave voice to Olive Oyl in the Popeye toons of that era and stretching into the ’50s. Her naturally squeaky voice made her a perfect fit for these quirky characters. Questel did other voice work, too, but her stint as Betty Boop is undoubtedly the thing she’s most associated with. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation marked the final performance from the actress, who passed away in January 1998 at the age of 89.
6. An untrained squirrel was used in one scene
One of the best sequences in the movie involves Clark discovering that a squirrel is hiding in the Christmas tree he personally cut down. The frightened animal leaps from within, then runs amok around the Griswold home as everyone frantically tries to catch it. You may wonder how such a scene was accomplished. Despite the best filmmaking preparations, it involved letting a real squirrel go nuts (no pun intended).
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Chechik explained that an animal trainer spent months training a squirrel and the dog that would be chasing it for the scene. It was laborious work, as squirrels aren’t very conducive to training. On the day the bit was scheduled to be filmed, he arrived on set and was informed that the squirrel had died. With no time to train another, the production simply got an untrained squirrel and let it loose. While not the most controlled way to stage a sequence, the misfortune doubtlessly gave it a greater sense of reality in the end.
5. The original’s unused ending was recycled
A running bit in Christmas Vacation involves Clark planning to use his work bonus to put a pool in the backyard for his family to enjoy. He gets a rude awakening when his boss, Frank Shirley (played by Brian Doyle-Murray, who appeared as the Kamp Komfort Clerk in the original), decides to forego cash bonuses and instead hand out year-long memberships to the Jelly of the Month club. After Clark rants about wanting to meet face-to-face with Mr. Shirley so that he can demand an explanation, Cousin Eddie goes and kidnaps the man, delivering him right to Clark’s living room. A SWAT team storms the house, but after hearing why Clark is so upset, Shirley opts not to press charges.
This ending is recycled from the first Vacation. Initially, after reaching Walley World and discovering that it’s closed, Clark and family stormed Roy Walley’s house, taking him hostage and forcing him to entertain them via song and dance. Test audiences hated that ending, saying it made the Griswolds unsympathetic. The reshot conclusion, with Clark compelling a security guard to let them get on the rides at gunpoint, tested much better. Truth be told, the kidnapping angle plays better here, as Cousin Eddie’s dim-witted innocence takes the sting out of it.
4. It didn’t hit #1 at the box office until its third weekend
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation opened in 1,744 theaters on December 1, 1989. It came in second place, bested by the second weekend of Back to the Future Part II. It stayed in the same position the following week, narrowly edged out of the top spot by the debut of the Michael Douglas/Kathleen Turner comedy The War of the Roses. It wasn’t until week #3 that it won the box office race. The movie stayed at #1 for the week of Christmas, beating out the debut of Sylvester Stallone’s Tango & Cash. When all was said and done, Christmas Vacation earned a tidy $71 million.
Given that the film is now considered a holiday classic, it’s surprising to look back at the initial reviews, which were mixed at best. Variety and The Hollywood Reporter both liked it. Janet Maslin of the New York Times, meanwhile, panned it. Roger Ebert awarded the film two stars, saying “you have the odd sensation, watching the movie, that it’s straining to get off the ground but simply doesn’t have the juice.” Today, Christmas Vacation only holds a 64% on Rotten Tomatoes. Not a goose egg by any stretch of the imagination, but not a perfect 100% either.
3. The movie spawned a lot of tie-in merchandise
At the time of its release, Christmas Vacation really didn’t inspire much tie-in merchandise. Warner Bros. sold t-shirts and sweatshirts in their studio catalog, but that was about the extent of it. Only years later, after the movie went on to become a thing people watched annually, did anyone realize that there was a market for products branded with the Griswolds.
The Warner Bros. online store has a whole series of tie-ins, from a drinking tumbler, to an apron, to a light-up Santa outfit similar to the one Chevy Chase wears on the movie’s poster. You can even buy a glass Marty Moose mug, identical to those Clark and Cousin Eddie drink eggnog from in one scene. Additionally, Hallmark has a line of Christmas tree ornaments centered around the film. This year’s features Clark holding the turkey everyone will soon find out is way too dry. Toy manufacturer Funko has Clark and Cousin Eddie “Pop figures” that you can buy, and NECA makes this slightly scary-looking Clark doll.
2. A Cousin Eddie sequel was made
Here’s something to wrap your head around. Christmas Vacation is a sequel, but it’s also a sequel that spawned a sequel. In 2003, NBC aired a monstrosity called Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure. The plot finds Eddie (played, naturally, by Randy Quaid) working for a nuclear facility. When the company wrongly believes he intends to sue them for wrongful termination, they offer him a free family vacation to the South Pacific. Through a contrived and painfully unfunny sequence of events, the clan gets shipwrecked on an island.
There’s no two ways about it: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure is excruciating to watch. Eddie makes a great supporting character, but as a lead, he’s kind of a dud. Then again, the screenplay is pretty wretched, so that doesn’t help. The only interesting thing about the movie is that Dana Barron, who played Audrey in the original Vacation, reclaims the role from Juliette Lewis, making her the only Griswold to appear in this sorry sequel.
1. Chevy was filmed watching it for the first time in more than a decade
Chevy Chase has never been shy about expressing opinions on his own films. Over the years, he has openly acknowledged loving Fletch, Funny Farm, and Vacation. He’s also been publicly critical of Nothing But Trouble, Oh! Heavenly Dog, and Caddyshack II. But what does he think of Christmas Vacation? As it turns out, the actor hadn’t seen the movie in more than a decade. He decided to watch it again in 2015 and invited a camera crew from the WhoSay website into his home to record his reaction.
In the video, which you can watch right here, Chase sits down with wife Jayni and daughter Caley for a viewing. He cops to liking the animated credit sequence, joking that seeing himself get above-the-title billing is his favorite part. (He calls such things “the definition of a star.“) Elsewhere in the clip, he reveals that he still owns Clark’s pajamas from the movie and discusses breaking his pinky while filming a scene in which Clark destroys his own front yard display. Chase is seen laughing at Christmas Vacation, proclaiming it in the end to be “a very good movie.” We agree.
What’s your favorite part of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? Do you have any special memories of watching it? Does it help you have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny-freaking-Kaye? Tell us all about it in the comments.
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