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1989 US family comedy film directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a 1989 American comedy film, it is the third installment in National Lampoon’s Vacation film series, and was written by John Hughes, based on his short story in National Lampoon magazine, “Christmas ’59”. The film stars Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo and Randy Quaid, with Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki as the Griswold children Audrey and Rusty, respectively.
Since its release, Christmas Vacation has often been labeled as a modern Christmas classic. It is widely regarded as the best sequel of the Vacation series, and is the only sequel to have its own direct sequel: a 2003 made-for-TV release titled National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure. Christmas Vacation is the last theatrical Vacation film to carry the National Lampoon label and to feature a screenwriting credit from Hughes.
Chicago resident Clark Griswold plans to have a great Christmas with his entire family. He gathers his wife Ellen, daughter Audrey, and son Rusty and drives out to the country to a tree farm. After walking through the snow for hours, Clark finds the largest tree he can. Realizing too late that they did not bring any tools to cut the tree down, they are forced to uproot it instead, before driving home with the tree strapped to the roof of their car.
Soon after, both Clark’s and Ellen’s parents arrive to spend Christmas, but their bickering quickly begins to annoy the family. Clark, however, maintains a positive attitude, determined to have a “fun old-fashioned family Christmas.” He covers the house’s entire exterior with 25,000 twinkle lights, which fail to work at first, as he has accidentally wired them through his garage’s light switch. When they finally come on, they temporarily cause a citywide power shortage and create chaos for Clark’s yuppie neighbors, Todd and Margo. While standing on the front lawn admiring the lights, Clark is shocked to see Ellen’s redneck cousin Catherine and her husband Eddie, as they arrive unannounced with their children, Rocky and Ruby Sue, and their Rottweiler dog, Snots. Eddie later admits that they are living in the RV they arrived in, as he is broke and has been forced to sell his home and acreage. Clark offers to buy gifts for Eddie’s kids so they can still enjoy Christmas. Soon afterward, Clark’s Aunt Bethany and Uncle Lewis arrive as well.
Clark begins to wonder why his boss Frank Shirley has not given him his yearly bonus, which he desperately needs to replace an advance payment he has made to install a swimming pool for the coming summer. After a disastrous Christmas Eve dinner, along with Uncle Lewis accidentally burning down the Christmas tree, he finally receives an envelope from a company messenger, who had failed to deliver it the day before. Instead of the presumed bonus, the envelope contains a free year’s membership for the “Jelly of the Month Club”. This prompts Clark to snap and go into a tirade about Frank, and out of anger, requests that he be delivered to the house, wrapped in a bow, so Clark can insult him to his face.
Eddie takes the request literally, drives to Frank’s mansion, and kidnaps him. Frank admits to have cancelled the Christmas bonuses, and Clark chastises him for it. Meanwhile, Frank’s wife, Helen, calls the police, and a SWAT team storms the Griswold house and holds everyone at gunpoint. Frank decides not to press charges and explains the situation to his wife and the SWAT leader, who scold him for his decision to scrap the bonuses, and he decides to reinstate them (with Clark getting a bonus equal to last year’s amount, plus 20% as compensation).
The family heads outside when Rocky and Ruby Sue believe they see Santa Claus in the distance. Clark tells them it is actually the Christmas Star and that he finally realizes what the holiday means to him. Uncle Lewis says the light is coming from the sewage treatment plant; reminding Clark that Eddie had been dumping his sewage into the nearby storm drain. Before Clark can stop him, Uncle Lewis tosses a match used to light his cigar into the drain, triggering an explosion. The explosion sends a Santa’s sleigh decoration flying into the sky. Aunt Bethany starts singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and everyone joins in as the flaming decoration flies into the distance. The entire family and the SWAT team members then celebrate inside the house, while Clark and Ellen happily share a Christmas kiss, and Clark stands outside satisfied that he has the Christmas that he always wanted.
- Chevy Chase as Clark W. “Sparky” Griswold, Jr., the patriarch of the Griswold family
- Beverly D’Angelo as Ellen Griswold, Clark’s wife
- Juliette Lewis as Audrey Griswold, Clark and Ellen’s daughter
- Johnny Galecki as Russ Griswold, Clark and Ellen’s son
- John Randolph as Clark, Sr., Clark’s father
- Diane Ladd as Nora, Clark’s mother
- E.G. Marshall as Art, Ellen’s father
- Doris Roberts as Francis, Ellen’s mother
- Miriam Flynn as Catherine, Ellen’s cousin
- Randy Quaid as Eddie, Catherine’s husband
- Cody Burger as Rocky, Eddie and Catherine’s son
- Ellen Hamilton Latzen as Ruby Sue, Eddie and Catherine’s daughter
- William Hickey as Lewis, Clark’s uncle
- Mae Questel as Bethany, Clark’s senile aunt
- Sam McMurray as Bill, Clark’s co-worker
- Nicholas Guest as Todd Chester, the Griswolds’ snobby neighbor
- Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Margo Chester, Todd’s wife
- Brian Doyle-Murray as Frank Shirley, Clark’s boss
- Natalia Nogulich as Helen Shirley, Frank’s wife
- Nicolette Scorsese as Mary, a lingerie counter clerk
- Alexander Folk as Lead SWAT Officer
- Doug Llewelyn as the voice of the Parade Announcer
Development and writing
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation originated from a short story by writer John Hughes called “Christmas ’59,” which was published in the December 1980 issue of National Lampoon magazine. “The studio came to me and begged for another one, and I only agreed because I had a good story to base it on,” said Hughes. “But those movies have become little more than Chevy Chase vehicles.” Director Chris Columbus initially was to direct the film, but due to a personality clash between him and Chase, Columbus left the film and was replaced by Chechik. Hughes eventually gave Columbus the script to Home Alone.
Principal photography began on March 27, 1989 in Summit County, Colorado, with footage shot in Silverthorne, Breckenridge, and Frisco. From there the production moved to Warner Bros. Ranch Facilities in Burbank, California, where the set of the Griswold family’s house and street is located.
The musical score for National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was composed by Angelo Badalamenti. It is the only installment of the Vacation film series not to include Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road”. In its place is a song entitled “Christmas Vacation” that was written for the movie by the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and performed by Mavis Staples of The Staple Singers fame. The song was covered in 2007 by High School Musical star Monique Coleman for the 2007 Christmas album Disney Channel Holiday. Popular Christmas songs featured prominently in the film include Bing Crosby’s Hawaiian-themed “Mele Kalikimaka”, and, during the climax of the film, Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus”. For the latter song, Autry’s re-recorded 1957 Challenge Records version is used.
Despite several popular songs being present in the film, no official soundtrack album was released. In 1999, a bootleg copy containing music featured in the film along with select cuts of dialogue dubbed as the “10th Anniversary Limited Edition” began to appear on Internet auction sites with the claim that Warner Bros. and RedDotNet had pressed 20,000 CDs for Six Flags Magic Mountain employees to sell to customers entering the park. However, while the discs were individually numbered out of 20,000, only 7,000 were sold as a part of an on demand production printed at gift shop kiosks within the park. Forums on movie music sites such as SoundtrackCollector later declared the disc to be a bootleg due to its inaccuracies. For instance, the cut “Christmas Vacation Medley” (claiming to be the work of composer Angelo Badalamenti) is really a track called “Christmas at Carnegie Hall” from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York by composer John Williams and does not actually contain any of Badalamenti’s Christmas Vacation score.
The movie debuted at #2 at the box-office while grossing $11,750,203 during the opening weekend, behind Back to the Future Part II. The movie eventually topped the box-office charts in its third week of release and remained #1 the following weekend. It went on to gross a total of $71,319,546 in the United States while showing in movie theaters. It was the highest-grossing film in the series, until the release of Vacation in 2015.
At the time of the film’s release, the film received mixed to positive reviews; however, over time, many have cited it as a Christmas classic. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 66% of 38 film critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 6.19 out of 10. The site’s consensus reads, “While Christmas Vacation may not be the most disciplined comedy, it’s got enough laughs and good cheer to make for a solid seasonal treat.”
Entertainment magazine Variety responded positively to the film stating, “Solid family fare with plenty of yocks, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is Chevy Chase and brood doing what they do best. Despite the title, which links it to previous pics in the rambling Vacation series, this third entry is firmly rooted at the Griswold family homestead, where Clark Griswold (Chase) is engaged in a typical over-reaching attempt to give his family a perfect, old-fashioned Christmas.” Rita Kempley of The Washington Post gave the film a positive review explaining that “it will prove pater-familiar to fans of the 1983 original and the European Vacation sequel. Only it’s a bit more whimsical.”
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film two out of four stars saying, “The movie is curious in how close it comes to delivering on its material: Sequence after sequence seems to contain all the necessary material, to be well on the way toward a payoff, and then it somehow doesn’t work.”
The film has been released on home media seven different times: VHS and Laserdisc in early 1990, a bare bones DVD in 1997, and a “Special Edition” DVD in 2003. HD DVD as well as Blu-ray editions were released in 2006. In 2009, a second Blu-ray of the film was released as an “Ultimate Collector’s Edition.” At the same time of this release, it was also released on a simple Blu-ray/DVD combo. A steelbook Blu-ray was released in 2015.
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…when Chevy Chase fantasizes about having a pool in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, “Mele Kalikimaka” plays perkily in the background.
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Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” scores the scene when the police storm the Griswolds’ house. Coincidentally, Randy Quaid is Autry’s third cousin.
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