No. 11: National Lampoon’s Vacation

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

Once again we reach one of the rare 1983 films that I’ve actually seen before taking on this project and it’s probably indicative of the timelessness of the comedy in National Lampoon’s Vacation that it’s one of the few comedies that most people my age (meaning those of us born in 1983 and after) have seen on cable or home video and enjoyed it enough to watch it again. It’s a little astounding to think about an R-rated comedy pulling in this kind of money ($61.4 million would be an impressive take for an R-rate comedy even today) but when you think about this movie’s pedigree, it probably wasn’t much of a risk for Warner Bros. at the time.

Harold Ramis was still a relatively new name on the scene as a director but he had already made a massive impact both financially and in terms of influencing the entire comedy scene at the time. Ramis made his name coming up through Second City and The National Lampoon Show, two institutions that basically defined comedy in the late 1970s and early ’80s. In his time with those two groups, Ramis worked alongside John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chrisopher Guest and Gilda Radner among others and his work as a screenwriter for Animal House and Meatballs almost immediately made him the go to comedy writer in Hollywood by 1980. That year, Ramis made his directorial debut with Caddyshack, a phenomenally successful R-rated comedy that gave Hollywood confidence in not only Ramis but also the film’s star, Chevy Chase. Over the next few years, Chase took on some moderately successful projects, including another 1983 release called Deal of the Century from William Friedkin, but it wasn’t until Vacation that Chase really found his comedic groove.

Chase’s performance as the likably pathetic, affably goofy Clark Griswold is a perfect fit for Chase’s primary comedic persona at the time. He’s a bumbling idiot with what Adam McKay and Will Ferrell would call “unearned confidence”, a comedic device as old as comedy itself and one that still works today with the McKay-Ferrell movies. Clark’s ill-fated cross-country road trip to the Disneyland stand-in Walley World is a series of increasingly disastrous episodes and while each of the episodes is darkly funny in its own weird way, the real comedy comes from Clark’s refusal to admit that anything’s wrong, a move that most moviegoers recognize as classic fatherly behavior.

The screenplay is perhaps the earliest major success for ’80s legend John Hughes, who based the script on his own short story about a family trip to Disneyland in the 1950s. Hughes scored two major hits in 1983 with his screenplays for Vacation and Mr. Mom (coming later in the countdown) and those two highly-successful hits led to his incredible run of 20 commercially successful screenplays over the next ten years, many of which he would direct himself.

The comedy in Vacation is a bit of a mixture of different styles but the constant is that it’s all pretty irreverent. Whether it’s making you feel bad about laughing at something like an obnoxious dog dying (or even an obnoxious relative) or just going for relatively easy laughs about porn and marijuana, Vacation sort of covers the bases of ’80s R-rated humor but most of it is at least done with extremely clever and incisive dialogue that takes what could be a cheap attempt at shock comedy and turns it into really smart satire. This scene between Clark and his son Rusty (played by a young Anthony Michael Hall) is probably one of the best examples of the movie’s ability to walk the fine line of satirizing the traditional family comedy without really mocking it outright. There’s clearly some affection for the sort of “Aww shucks” chat with dad but at the same time Hughes, Ramis and Chase make sure the scene takes a turn towards the irreverent without seeming mean-spirited.

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Randy Quaid’s turn as Cousin Eddie is probably the most memorable portion of the film for most fans today, and for good reason. Quaid, who was already a well-known character actor at the time, gets the film’s scene-stealing lines during a bizarre and uncomfortable stop-over by the Griswolds in a weird, Arizona redneck world and while Quaid gets all the attention, maybe the most outrageous and oft-repeated line from the episode comes from Eddie’s daughter, played by a very young Jane Krakowski (later of Ally McBeal and 30 Rock fame).

Beverly D’Angelo’s performance as wife/mother Ellen is certainly nothing all that impressive and it’s obvious she’s here to serve the classic ’80s role of “hot, older woman”. It’s a little strange how the standards of what’s considered sexy change over time, since she’s supposed to be Clark’s somewhat plain and nagging wife while “Girl in the Ferrari” played by Christie Brinkley is clearly intended to be the real catch of the movie. I think most male audience members today would definitely find D’Angelo more appealing, but that’s just my non-scientific opinion.

Like many of Ramis’ movies, Vacation is scattered with great little single-scene performances from underrated comedy stars like Eugene Levy (as a sleazy car salesman), Brian Doyle-Murray (as a campground operator) and John Candy (who is absolutely delightful as a bumbling security guard at Walley World). Probably my favorite of these small roles comes from Eddie Bracken, a long-time Hollywood character actor who is a dead ringer for Walt Disney here, sweater, mustache and all.

Most of the comedy in Vacation still holds up very well today, in fact there are only really a handful of jokes that probably don’t play as well 27 years later. One would be an early joke involving Clark and his kids playing a video game, something that the filmmakers seemed to think was inherently novel and funny on its own. This is the third movie of the last four on my list that have prominently (and somewhat inexplicably) featured video games so I have to imagine that the idea was something that made filmmakers think they were being particularly timely in 1983.

That’s going to happen with almost any comedy, especially mainstream comedies, but overall Vacation stands up extremely well almost three decades later, a real feat for any comedy that relies so heavily on appealing to younger audiences who are always demanding something new and fresh when it comes to comedy. Ramis and Hughes understood young audiences in the ’80s perhaps better than anyone else in Hollywood and their collaboration was clearly a home run.

Next Up: Tom Cruise and Rebecca DeMornay get up to some Risky Business.