Riding with the Griswolds: The Exquisite Ironies of National Lampoon’s Vacation

National Lampoon's Vacation poster

Basking in the inaugural adventure of Hollywood’s favourite dysfunctional family


Long before The Simpsons made their mark on modern American culture, Warner Brothers gave us the Griswolds. There had been dysfunctional families before, but as a symbol of America’s faltering moral climate, Clark and his band of three proved something of a landmark in outlining the time-honoured cross-country road trip in all of its failed glory. Time may have diluted the movie’s irreverence, and events may border on the cringeworthy at times, but these are relatable characters caught in an all-too-familiar environment of outdated sentiments and eternal disappointment. The fact that they never give up on attaining the unattainable is what endears us to them so strongly.

Patriarch Clark (Chevy Chase) is the person responsible for spearheading the family’s quest to take in the sights and sounds of the good ol’ U S of A. His beleaguered offspring may have preferred the relatively stress-free option of flying, as might his long-suffering wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), but Clark is all about making memories, and memories they will surely make. In preparation for their monumental trip, old man Griswold visits a car dealership with his son, Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall). He is there to pick up a very specific car in a very specific colour, but instead leaves with an inferior model that looks like a snot rag. The shyster who tricks him is our first example of a society that has slipped into the moral toilet, and as a lowly by-product of that society, Clark has no choice but to eat it.

Of course, this is just the beginning; an injustice perverse enough to ruin a man’s entire year, but a mere thorn in the Griswolds’ deadly cross-country venture. Yes, siree, Bob! Things are about to get a whole lot worse for Clark and his post-nuclear rabble as they visit monument after pointless monument — not because they particularly enjoy it, but because they’re Americans and that’s what they’re supposed to do. For Clark, this is a chance to mingle with the good, honest folk of the country’s vast and colorful expanse, but he seems to recall his own childhood adventures through the rose-tinted lens of adolescence. Ultimately, those people are not as noble or as accommodating as he remembers, a fact that becomes increasingly hard for him to shrug off.

Not only are Clark’s fellow patriots uninterested in vacational good cheer, they’re beset on making his trip a miserable one by making a quick buck at his expense. First they want money in exchange for directions, then they overcharge him for accommodation, car repairs, anything they can attach a dollar sign to, and when he wanders into the vast and unforgiving desert in search of help, the natives neglect to aid his perilous predicament, instead calling him an asshole and leaving him at the mercy of a potentially fateful midday sun. Clark sees America’s open road as a picture perfect postcard built on communal spirit and traditional good cheer, as a chance to escape his humdrum corporate life and 9 to 5 responsibilities, but this isn’t a country united by pride and sentiment, it is a savage landscape of selfish beasts.

Clark: Despite all the little problems, it really is fun, isn’t it?

Ellen: No. But with every new day, there’s fresh hope.

Such themes were very much a reflection of the Reagan 80s, a time of Wall Street opulence, widespread privatization and personal advancement ― an affront to a bygone era of American industry and the everyman morals that underpinned it. In an increasingly global world, the power of the small businessman would dwindle dramatically, thanks in large part to the decline of labour unions and ruthless tyrants in the Gordon Gekko mode. Reagan’s trickle-down economics significantly reduced corporate tax with the promise that everyone would benefit. In reality, US industry continued to dwindle in the face of foreign competitors, poverty increased, jobs became scarce, the government contributing to the demise of its own working class. As a result, Clark’s generation became lost in the wilderness, a proud culture of craftsmanship replaced by endless corporate dogsbodies destined for eternal disappointment. It’s perhaps unsurprising that 80s movies harboured such a fondness for the comparatively quaint and innocent traditions of the rock n roll era.

Reagan’s simultaneous pleas of a “return to traditional family values” showed the hypocrisy of self-serving politics in all of its surreptitious glory, a mantra Clark seems to have bought into wholeheartedly. Denial is a powerful motivator, as is the almost ethereal allure of nostalgia, and Clark is unwilling to let go of the very sentiments he’s invested so much pride in. Not that he’s able to convince his kids of such virtues, a pair of bubblegum-popping gawkers lost in an insular world of Music Television and frivolous technology, the kind that would become all-consuming by the century’s end. Rusty and Audrey’s generation would rather reach level 2 on their handheld video games than drink in the visual splendour of Yosemite National Park. Clark’s antiquated preoccupations are lost on an age group born and bred in a post-Watergate environment of selfishness, suspicion and distrust.

Despite the film’s obvious critiques, National Lampoon’s Vacation derives its sense of comedy from a love-hate relationship with the motherland, tapping into a generation that’s wired to unfulfillment. Though the movie was an extension of National Lampoon magazine, an anarchic, satirical publication which consistently pushed the boundaries of what was deemed decent in the eyes of the American mainstream between 1970 and 1998, it was fairly revolutionary in cinematic terms. Bawdy comedies such as Animal House had already been released to staggering commercial acclaim under the National Lampoon’s brand, but an indictment of the traditional American family in the midst of such a rapid decline was far more biting. Pre-Simpsons, mainstream sitcoms were still treading saccharine territory, presenting the family unit in a morally flattering, largely unrealistic light, and National Lampoon’s Vacation was very much a proponent for the cynical sentiments that would soon leak into the broader mainstream. In 1983, it was pretty radical stuff.

But National Lampoon’s Vacation is almost four decades old, and some of its humour has no place in the modern world, an irony that the Griswolds would no doubt be able to appreciate. Aware of its anarchic qualities, director Harold Ramis was concerned that the National Lampoon style of comedy would prove too edgy for his directorial style, particularly since ‘Vacation’ was the first R-rated film of the series, calling the infamously racial scene in St. Louis,“the most politically incorrect sequence I’ve ever shot.” The scene in question sees the Griswolds getting lost in the East St. Louis ghetto, the black community portrayed as pimps and thieves in broad and deeply unflattering terms. It didn’t help that the film arrived during Reagan’s War on Drugs and America’s ‘crack epidemic,’ a period that made addicts out of a generation of poor minorities, changing the black community, and its perceived image irrevocably, as well as further highlighting the class and racial problems inherent in American culture, and it doesn’t end there.

If the sight of a gang of inner-city hustlers stealing the family’s hubcaps is borderline offensive, then an incestuous revelation from Audrey’s ‘hillbilly’ cousin is the kind of discriminatory gag that makes for some unpleasant viewing all these years later. In a PC environment where such terms have been radically redefined, National Lampoon’s Vacation can certainly be considered classist as well as racist, but it’s mostly good-natured fun that, at least by the standards of the time, has its heart in the right place. In fact, the film fails to discriminate when it comes to dishing out the discrimination; every character is fair game, its seems. In an era of increased enlightenment and borderline-extreme cancel culture, it seems that everything has the capacity to offend when viewed in hindsight. Sometimes you just have to take the rough with the smooth, I suppose.

Other ‘poor taste’ jokes are much more palatable. A scene in which Clark is pulled over having driven off with Aunt Edna’s dog tied to the bumper is cringeworthy but harmless, and still zany enough to raise a smile. There’s also the iconic image of a dead Edna tied to the roof of the family station wagon, which is still absolutely hilarious all these years later. Comedy has evolved tremendously since the early 1980s, and National Lampoon’s Vacation can seem dated beyond its discriminatory quirks, but some gags have a timeless appeal that can never be erased, and as a puerile visual gag this is certainly one of them. In yet another irony, perennial crank Edna’s portrayer, Imogene Coca, would suffer from an actual stroke during filming, resulting in the kind of short-term amnesia that would force her to re-learn her lines, prolonging a production rife with trials and tribulations which reflected the film’s onscreen chaos.

For one thing, the movie was shot in excruciating temperatures, the kind that would see a 14-year-old Anthony Michael Hall rushed to the hospital with heatstroke. Since the production genuinely embarked on something of a cross-country trip, it took a physical and emotional toll on all involved, the process of travelling from state to state on a strict schedule that was rarely met a testing experience for the entire cast and crew. Thanks to an abundance of re-shoots, including a roller coaster scene that inevitably resulted in real-life sickness, there were days when it seemed like the gods were against Ramis and his postmodern rabble. For the most part, the sense of anxiety captured onscreen has at least one foot in reality.

Production wasn’t all doom and gloom. Just go back and watch the scene in which Chase and James Keach’s patrol officer confer at the side of the road as a now dogless lead suspiciously trails the family station wagon. The two improvised much of what we see, and the thought of one of the most memorable sight gags of the era was just too much for them. What we get is one of those wonderful instances where the film’s actors are visibly trying to suppress their laughter. I love those moments in movies. They make us feel like we’re part of something special, that there’s a life and humour beyond what we’re presented with.

National Lampoon's Love Me

Despite its magazine affiliations, National Lampoon’s Vacation was actually based on the short story Vacation ’58 by cult director John Hughes. Hughes was relatively unknown back in 1983, his original screenplay altered to shift the focus to Chevy Chase’s character, which may go some way to explaining the somewhat surreal introduction of Clark’s Ferrari-sporting admirer, a blonde bombshell who was initially meant for the hormone-afflicted Rusty.

The story was initially told from Rusty’s perspective, which would have been more in-tune with the National Lampoon’s brand, but it was a smart and somewhat brave decision from Ramis to shift the movie’s focus. Chase’s career had suffered something of a downturn following commercial bombs Class Reunion and Movie Madness, but this is very much his film, its themes more relevant to the head of the family. Nobody delivers that particular brand of dry wit like Chevy, one that explodes in a side-splitting torrent of bad language as his idealist dreams threaten to implode in a heap of exhausted cynicism, resulting in a brief flirtation with infidelity and a ludicrous, cops-and-robbers style stick-up that pangs of midlife crisis.

I think you’re all fucked in the head. We’re ten hours from the fucking fun park and you want to bail out. Well I’ll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun. You’re gonna have fun, and I’m gonna have fun… We’re all gonna have so much fucking fun we’re gonna need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles! You’ll be whistling ‘Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah’ out of your assholes!

Clark Griswold

The object of Clark’s fleeting desire comes in the form of American actress, model and entrepreneur Christie Brinkley, who had all the prerequisites to star as National Lampoon’s time-honoured bombshell. Back in 1983, Brinkley was on the brink of becoming a catwalk superstar, which is presumably why she refused to appear naked in the scene where she and Chevy take a midnight dip in a hotel swimming pool. Brinkley would compromise by agreeing to do the scene in her underwear and would ultimately reprise her iconic role as ‘the girl in the red Ferrari’ for 1997’s belated sequel National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation, though she would turn down a similar reprisal in 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation on the advice of her father, who was afraid she would become typecast. Brinkley would later regret turning down the hugely popular ‘Christmas Vacation’, explaining, “Of course I should’ve [done it] because it’s so much fun to hang around with a comedian. I mean, I love nothing more than to make people laugh.”

A more unexpected MVP came in the form of the precocious Anthony Michael Hall, a future ‘Brat-Pack’ headliner who would become John Hughes’ go-to star thereafter, appearing in cult teen movies Sixteen Candles, Weird Science and The Breakfast Club. Hall was an immense talent, a real-life ladies man with an incredible aptitude for comedy. Here he slips into the disenchanted teenager role that came so naturally to him, delivering a performance that is brimming with adolescent exuberance. If Ramis had stuck to the original plan, there’s every chance this movie would have worked just as well with Hall as the main focus.

During an ABC reunion interview, D’Angelo recalled her time with the up-and-coming actor. “He came to life,” she would beam. “This was a 14-year-old, and he’d do a take and [you’d] just go, ‘Oh my God.’ And then he became John Hughes’ star. I mean, it was really amazing.” Hall would further live up to his rapscallion reputation when caught sneaking a peek at Beverly D’Angelo during a nude scene, an attraction that went against the movie’s family theme. “I was totally trying to sneak a peek…” Hall would later admit. “Was I conflicted that she was playing my mom? At times I was.”

Of course, boys will be boys, hormones will be hormones, and asides from Hall’s understandable discrepancies there is a real sense of cast unity that is essential to our sense of familiarity and connection with the Griswolds’ anti-nuclear family. Dana Barron, who would play the family’s uptight teenage daughter Audrey, would describe her time with her fellow cast members as “the best family and rapport of actors I’ve ever seen,” revealing that the four of them have always remained in touch. “Michael and I had the funniest time [onset].” the actress would explain. “[Chase and D’Angelo] were going on and on, and they tried to do the Mockingbird song from the movie, trying to remember the words. Michael and I were just doing bunny ears behind them and rolling our eyes when they got to bickering. I felt all of a sudden like we’re brother and sister again, dealing with our parents and their issues.” So natural was the cast’s rapport that Chase still refers to D’Angelo as his second wife.

‘Vacation’ would also benefit from another future John Hughes go-to star in the incomparable John Candy, who would bag an eye-watering $1,000,000 fee for his incredibly brief, yet memorable turn as a theme park security guard. Fictitious Disneyland clone Walley World is the Griswolds’ final destination, a trip that patriarch Clark is determined to fulfil as his dream vacation threatens to crumble into dust. The original ending, which Chase claims to still have on videotape, saw Walley World owner Roy Walley and his family taken hostage in their home. This was ultimately scrapped due to an underwhelming reaction from preliminary audiences, which is why Ramis turned to Candy to help salvage the final act. Incredibly, the final ending was shot four months later, which explains why Hall is taller than D’Angelo during those final scenes. Before the young actor’s astonishing growth spurt, Rusty was set to be the younger sibling, resulting in yet another off-the-cuff alteration that makes for such wonderfully chaotic viewing.

Ultimately, and against all odds, National Lampoon’s Vacation is about the importance of family ― not the contrived, Christian kind that Reagan continued to flaunt long after that myth had begun to reveal itself, but the real, warts-and-all family unit, the very same that transcends all notion of inner conflict and emotional turmoil, that overcomes the pressures and disharmony of divided generations. In reality, life is far from perfect, as are those who fill it. Clark may envision the great outdoors, the perfect picnic, a vacation that goes exactly to plan, but the real memories are forged during those moments that don’t go to plan, that in fact go horrifically wrong, instances that will one day be looked upon as the good times.

For the man attempting to hold it all together, there seems to be something more at play. In a newly globalised world of long working hours and growing technological advancement, Clark rarely sees his wife and kids, who would much rather smoke pot than explore what the great outdoors has to offer. In their ill-fated trip he sees a chance for redemption, but Clark is a middle-aged father who has begun to feel that the world is passing him by, and to some extent his trip seems to be about rediscovering his own youth, if not from the make-believe sentiments he initially clings to, then from the thrill of freedom and female attraction, superficial desires that only serve to strengthen the notion that family is everything, no matter how overbearing or dysfunctional.

National Lampoon's Vacation logo

Director: Harold Ramis
Screenplay: John Hughes
Music: Ralph Burns
Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper
Editing: Pembroke J. Herring

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