National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

There was a time before I worried about classism in John Hughes movies and how Chevy Chase became the kind of person Chevy Chase was doing a character schtick about and that was probably 1983 and every time I watch this movie, it reminds me of that simpler time to watch movies.

I saw Vacation at the drive-in which other than cable TV on a hungover Sunday or a drunken Saturday in the middle of the night would be the best way to see this film. At no time in my life have I ever been more excited than when John Candy showed up at the end, completely owning every scant second he gets. I was in the tailgate of my parent’s Astra and just jumping up and down in sheer movie joy.

Written during the Chicago Blizzard of 1979, Hughes drew on his childhood memories for the story Vacation ’58 for National Lampoon. After their film Animal House shocked Hollywood, everything in the magazine became filmable or so it seemed. Well, maybe not all the Hitler stuff, right?

Publisher Matty Simmons said, “When I brought it to Hollywood, the first guy I brought it to was Jeff Katzenberg who was at Paramount. He said it would never make a movie, it was too episodic, too consequential. I said, “Yeah, it’s a road trip. It’s supposed to be episodic. You go from town to town, place to place.” But he didn’t like it, so then my agent brought it to Warner Brothers, and I met with them. Most of them said the same thing, but there was one executive over there—a guy named Mark Canton—who really pulled for it and it got made.”

That’s why this movie works. It’s the perfect hijinks ensue movie. All it takes is a simple concept — family goes on vacation — and hijinks ensue. That’s all you need to know. The journey is more important than the destination, whenever you come into this movie and whenever you stop watching it.

Director Harold Ramis and Chevy Chase moved the story’s hero from son to father as Clark Griswold would become perhaps the character Chase would be known best as. He’s a food additives expert that  has just enough time — he’s planned it — to drive the Wagon Queen Family Truckster — designed by Chuck Barris — to “America’s Favorite Family Fun Park” Wally World. Of course, there may be time along the way to catch some other tourist attractions. This, not flying, will allow him to bond with his family — wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), son Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and daughter Audrey (Dana Barron).

One of those stops is Coolidge, Kansas, where cousins Catherine (Miriam Flynn) and Eddie (Randy Quaid) live in squalor, along with Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca) who everyone is conned into taking to Phoenix. There’s also a wild west town, Kamp Komfort and a picnic with soggy sandwiches, all punctuated by Clark being flirted with at top speed by a girl in a Ferrari (Christie Brinkley).

It’s also a film packed with small roles that are beyond memorable, like Jane Krakowski as Eddie’s daughter Vicki, Eugene Levy as a car salesman, James Keach as the cop that finds a leash hanging from the back of the car, Eddie Bracken as Walt Disney analog Roy Walley and even Ramis as the voice of Walley Moose.

I can’t even count how many times I’ve watched this movie. It works because we’ve all lived it. We had a horrific vacation driving to Florida and back in a big van with extended family that nearly ended with my bad losing his mind at South of the Border when, after fixing that way too big brick of a car in the hundred degree parking lot, everyone started complaining that we had been there too long and my brother started begging for a bullwhip. It wasn’t pretty but it was hilarious.

The original ending of the film had the family going to the Hollywood home of Roy Walley after learning that the park is closed. Clark uses the BB gun to force everyone to sing songs from Walley cartoons before the police arrive. Brinkley’s character shows up and is Walley’s daughter and gets the family out of trouble, but on the way home, they take the wrong flight and Clark hijacks the plane.

Test audiences hated this and the John Candy ending was filmed. Chevy Chase claims to have this ending on videotape.

I can’t even think of this movie any other way. Just writing this makes me want to watch it again.

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