In the annals of movie history, there are only a handful that can claim to be the greatest Christmas movie of all time. It’s A Wonderful Life. Die Hard. A Christmas Story. A Charlie Brown Christmas. Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever. Okay, maybe not that one.
But to me, there’s only one. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Today, on Dec. 5, 2014, we celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Vacation was the first R-rated movie I ever saw. I think I was seven or eight. My parents were huge fans of road trips, and we would all travel south from Northern California to head for Disneyland. We didn’t get into nearly as much trouble as the Griswolds did, but it was easily relatable. I was hooked.
The Christmas version of the saga took a while to take hold on me, however. Growing up, I was a huge fan of Ralphie’s story where he yearned for a Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle. You also had Charlie Brown’s search for what Christmas was all about, the Rankin stop-motion movies and Frosty the Snowman with Jimmy Durante singing the title song with aplomb. How couldn’t you love those movies as a kid?
But as I grew older, the story of one’s man’s quest to have the perfect family Christmas rang more and more true. The endlessly quotable lines in this movie are easily findable in this Information Age. But as great as John Hughes was writing the quintessential 80’s high school movies or penning the travels of an advertising exec and a shower curtain ring salesman, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation might be his crowning achievement. In fact, even after writing this and going on to write Home Alone, there’s no question that it’s his best Christmas work. And that’s with the most profitable Christmas series of all time staring you in the face.
Twenty-five years after its release, the legacy of Christmas Vacation looms large in American households. The timing of the movie itself was interesting from a setting perspective, as the yuppie culture had become a central theme around the release of the film. The other thing was that even with the release of Die Hard the year before, Christmas movies weren’t a big deal. The only other bonafide Christmas hit in the 80’s was A Christmas Story, and that was a modest success compared to the other two hits of the decade before becoming a classic thanks to TV replays and VHS releases. The success of this film eventually played into the Home Alone movies that followed, as Hughes found yet another Christmas goldmine.
Christmas Vacation, on the other hand, was Hughes going into the bag of tricks he had with the initial 1983 classic and the not-so-classic follow-up European Vacation in 1985, which made many think that the Griswolds would be gone for good. But as the decade he defined came to an end, Hughes gave his platonic upper-middle class suburban family a chance to shine under the bright lights of Christmas, hoping that the Griswold legacy would endure.
And so it did. Clark, Ellen, Audrey and Rusty begin their yuletide journey on the quest for The Griswold Family Christmas Tree and it turns into the well-known comedy of errors you’d expect. Road rage, a journey through a vast snowfield (without a saw), figuring out where to put the tree (Bend over and I’ll show ya!) and failing miserably, and so on and so on.
The early part of the movie sees Clark try to be the master wrangler, gathering parents and in-laws alike under one roof for the good of a Christmas together. Clark’s quest to have the best-lit house in the greater suburban Chicago area plays out like a Greek tragedy. The unexpected arrival of Cousin Eddie and his brood turn the movie in an even crazier direction, complete with perhaps the greatest 75 seconds ever recorded onto film.
And yes, I’m assuming you’ve seen it by this point, because it’s one of the most recognizable movies of all time. It’s become one of the stalwarts of the Christmas movie rotation. And somehow, someway, the movie never loses its luster.
That mainly has to do with both Hughes’ writing (which, as the years have gone by on many of his other films, shows just how well it holds up long after it was first released) and the superb cast. Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo reprise their roles as Clark and Ellen, but the kids, with Audrey played by Juliette Lewis (Yep.) and Rusty played by Johnny Galecki (Yep.), turn out to be the best set of kids in the whole series.
Couple that with Randy Quaid’s return as Cousin Eddie; Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as Clark’s nosy neighbors, the Chesters; Doris Roberts and E.G. Marshall’s turns as Clark’s in-laws; his own parents played by John Randolph and Diane Ladd; Mae Questel and William Hickey as Clark’s crazy Aunt Bethany and Uncle Lewis; Brian Doyle-Murray’s performance as Clark’s boss, Frank Shirley… all parts played as perfectly as they could be. (And who could forget Nicolette Scorsese as Mary, the woman who worked the lingerie counter? Yowza.)
I won’t go into too many spoilers just in case you haven’t seen the movie, but in its 25 years, there have been few movies that are more enjoyable to watch during the holiday season than this one. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation holds its spot amongst the other movies of its ilk by being as unique as the films it’s constantly compared to. Completely different in so many ways from It’s A Wonderful Life, but by the same token, there’s a whimsy to it (along with a couple parts that might actually get you choked up). Without this movie, would Bad Santa have ever gotten made? Probably not.
The movie’s legacy, 25 years later, is cemented. It’s in the Christmas movie Hall of Fame, and for me, it’s on Mount Rushmore alongside A Christmas Story, It’s A Wonderful Life and A Charlie Brown Christmas, with my bias on Charlie Brown being that, well, my parents grew up in the same city as Charles Schulz. Kinda hard not to grow up loving that one.
It’s amazing to think that Christmas Vacation has been around for a quarter century, yet it shows no signs of slowing down. It has stood the test of time, and from the looks of things, will continue to do so. May your snow sleds be slick, your turkeys cooked thoroughly and your lights bright and twinkling. Even if they don’t twinkle.