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The Festive Story Behind National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

Out of the thousands of Christmas movies produced, only a handful have become so beloved that an annual viewing becomes part of the winter holiday traditions people celebrate every year. Of those few movies, "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" is probably the funniest and the most realistic depiction of the modern Christmas holiday season. Chevy Chase reprises his role as ultra-dad Clark Griswold from two travel-centric "Vacation" films. This time, he's dead-set on and obsessed with the idea of staging the perfect family Christmas for his wife, Ellen, kids Audrey and Rusty, and their various, perpetually unimpressed in-laws and cousins. "Christmas Vacation" pokes holes in the fantasy of that special time of cheer, where it's not always so full of cheer as it is stress, turmoil, tension, and destruction. "Christmas Vacation" is so funny and so popular because it's just so relatable.

"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" is a modern movie classic and an iconic screen comedy, but making the film was as long and difficult of a journey as the Christmas season is for Clark Griswold. So put on that Santa hat, string up 25,000 twinkle lights, grab a moose-shaped cup of eggnog, and unwrap the festive story behind "Christmas Vacation."

Why Christmas Vacation is a National Lampoon movie

"National Lampoon's Vacation" was such a massive hit upon its release in 1983 — it out-earned "Superman III" — that Warner Bros. quickly and logically ordered a sequel, and "National Lampoon's European Vacation" arrived in 1985. That was a strictly made-for-the-movies story, as opposed to the original "Vacation" and 1989's "National Lampoon' Christmas Vacation," which were both based on short, fictional, very lightly autobiographical, comedic stories authored by screenwriter John Hughes and published in the titular National Lampoon humor magazine many years prior. 

A story titled "Vacation '58," concerning a hilariously nightmarish road trip, ran in the publication in 1979, according to The Hollywood Reporter. A year later, per BrainstemBob, the Lampoon printed a holiday-themed sequel, "Christmas '59." It was the magazine's publisher, Matty Simmons, who convinced Warner Bros. to not only make a third "Vacation," but a Christmas-themed one based on Hughes' sequel story, according to Rolling Stone.

It took a while for Christmas Vacation to find a director

John Hughes was the producer, screenwriter, and author of the source material for "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," but he wasn't interested in directing as he'd done with many of his other '80s-era scripts. In 1988, he sent the screenplay and an offer to direct to filmmaker Chris Columbus, with whom he shared an agent, according to "John Hughes: A Life in FIlm." Columbus was thrilled to take the job since he thought the script was funny, and he enjoyed Christmas movies. But after a couple of pre-production meetings with star Chevy Chase, Columbus realized that their personalities clashed. "It was fraught with pain and tension with Chevy Chase, but I needed the job desperately," Columbus told Insider. "So it took everything in my power to convince myself to resign from 'Christmas Vacation' because I couldn't make the movie with Chevy Chase." Two weeks later, Hughes offered Columbus a directing gig on another Christmas movie, which he accepted: "Home Alone." 

As for "Christmas Vacation," the director job eventually went to Jeremiah Chechik, marking his first feature film after working in commercials and music videos. According to The Flashback Files, Chechik landed the deal at Warner Bros. following a recommendation from legendary filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, who said he liked Chechik's beer commercials. 

Christmas Vacation, not starring Leonardo DiCaprio or Christie Brinkley

Each of the four initial "National Lampoon's Vacation" movies were filmed so far apart that filmmakers had to cast different teenage actors virtually every time they needed a Rusty and Audrey Griswold. Johnny Galecki inherited the role from Jason Lively and Anthony Michael Hall, but he wasn't necessarily the filmmakers' first choice for the role of the Griswolds' younger child. A just-starting-out Leonardo DiCaprio auditioned to play Rusty. "I remember very vividly feeling that this kid was really special," casting director Heidi Levitt told the American Film Institute. "He just immediately captivated you, but he wasn't, like, goofy enough. He was very thoughtful."

Another big casting could've been Christie Brinkley. The iconic 1980s supermodel made her film debut in the original "National Lampoon's Vacation" in 1983 as "The Girl in the Ferrari." She plays Clark Griswold's dream woman that he keeps crossing paths with on the road trip. She passed on a role offered in "Christmas Vacation" upon the advice of her father. "He said, 'Gee, I would hate to see you get typecast in that kind of ingenue role. You have so much more depth. I don't think you should do it,'" Brinkley told Us Weekly of her decision, which she came to regret. "Of course, I should've because it's so much fun to hang around with comedians."

Not much of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation was improvised

According to "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" director Jeremiah Chechik, John Hughes' screenplay didn't require a lot of on-set embellishment. "Very little" of the movie was improvised, he told The Flashback Files, adding that cue cards were strategically placed to help Chase nail his ranting monologue of insults directed toward his boss. Beverly D'Angelo (Ellen Griswold) told The Dinner Party Download that the scene was set up so that Chase could riff on the scripted material. "It was blocked in a way that would allow each of us to have around our necks a piece of rope that was attached to a big cue card," D'Angelo said. "So we didn't have the lines in order exactly." Later in that same scene, when police break into the Griswold home in search of Clark's kidnapped boss, everybody freezes and Ellen places her hand on her husband's crotch. "I did that spur of the moment and told Chevy, just to see if anyone on set noticed," D'Angelo told Rolling Stone. "No one mentioned it."

Some of the other brief, notably funny bits in "Christmas Vacation" were conceived by the actors. Diane Ladd, as Clark's mother, did her "knock knock, who's there" bit at her audition and it was added to the movie. And Randy Quaid, who plays Cousin Eddie, improvised the part when he carelessly drops a giant bag of dog food onto a box of light bulbs while in Walmart with Clark. 

Chevy Chase was injured while filming a pivotal scene

In one of the most famous scenes in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) thinks he's finally got his home's power grid-draining Christmas lights and decorations up and running, only for a snafu over plugs and switches to make him think he's failed. This sends him into a comically vicious tailspin, kicking over and punching various plastic lawn decorations. 

The retaliation on the Christmas lights fiasco wasn't planned. In the midst of the chaos, Chase kicked and smacked his hand on the decorations. "That wasn't in the script, but I was so angry I did it," Chase told the Asbury Park Press. He connected with such force that he broke his pinky finger. "I thought it might melt or something, but no, it was a good, hard plastic." According to Whosay, the take used in the final cut of the film, in which Clark punches a Santa Claus ornament, is the one on which he broke his finger. And then he kept on filming the scene, never breaking character. "I had to keep kicking. Because it hurt so much," he said.

The squirrel sequence was tough to film

In a movie full of wild and zany sequences, the wildest and zaniest part in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" might be when a squirrel shows up in the Griswolds' outdoor-cut Christmas tree and runs all over the place, terrifying humans, agitating Cousin Eddie's giant dog, and leading to lots of messes and property damage. Filming that scene was almost as chaotic as the scene itself. As "Christmas Vacation" was produced in the late 1980s, CGI technology wasn't yet readily available, so filmmakers had to film the scene John Hughes wrote with a real, albeit trained, squirrel.

According to The Ultimate Rabbit, director Jeremiah Chechik and his crew intensely planned out and storyboarded the squirrel scene several days in advance. Meanwhile, the movie's animal trainer worked with the squirrel to teach the animal its cues. But on the day the scene was supposed to shoot, Chechik learned that the squirrel had died overnight. On a tight schedule, they still had to film the scene that day and brought in a brand-new, totally unprepared squirrel performer who was lured into hitting its marks with treats. Chechik improvised the blocking and filming to make the scene happen.

Filmmakers had to work hard to keep the electrocution scene

John Hughes wrote the screenplay for "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" and served as a producer. He also used his significant clout in Hollywood, and within the Warner Bros. studio, to preserve material that he wrote and director Jeremiah Chechik shot that executives were insistent on deleting from the final cut of the movie.

The most shocking scene in "Christmas Vacation," literally, is when the pet cat that senile Aunt Bethany brings as a gift to the Griswold home chews on a tree light wire and violently, graphically, electrocutes itself to death. "The studio was really against electrifying the cat," Chechik told Rolling Stone. "I would always go, 'Well, check with John and see what he thinks.'" Then Chechik would give Hughes a warning that Warner was once more trying to cut the cat. Hughes wouldn't allow Warner to tamper with the movie, even after they attempted to cut the scene one final time after test audiences wildly approved of it, according to The Ultimate Rabbit.

Many scenes didn't make the final cut of the movie

"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" is an episodic movie, so when it came time to edit the film, several scenes were deleted without it having much effect on the overall narrative. John Hughes' screenplay included a post-credits scene, according to John Squires of Bloody Disgusting, that delivered one more destructive indignity to the Griswolds' loathsome, yuppie neighbors, Todd and Margo. The decorative Santa, reindeer, and lights launched into the sky by explosive sewer gas come back to Earth, crashing through Todd and Margo's bedroom ceiling. There's also a segment, per Den of Geek, where Clark tries to finagle a tree-cutting saw from a tree lot seller; a still image of that scene made its way onto the film's home video packaging.

Miriam Flynn (Cousin Catherine) told Rolling Stone that she and Randy Quaid (Cousin Eddie) filmed a scene depicting life in their squalid trailer, while Johnny Galecki told Variety that he nixed a heart-to-heart scene between his character and Clark Griswold, as the previous "Vacation" movies had featured a similar sequence. "Not thinking at all, I said, 'Well, if somebody thought it was unnecessary enough to be cut from a draft at some point, then I can't see it ending up in the movie if we did shoot it,'" Galecki recalled. "And Chevy looked at me like, 'You just talked yourself out of a scene that John Hughes was going to write for you.'"

It's a Wonderful Life has a connection to National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" is perhaps the definitive Christmas movie of the Baby Boomer generation, with those viewers being roughly the same age as forty-something Clark Griswold and able to relate to his triumphs and struggles. The iconic movie of the previous generation is arguably "It's a Wonderful Life," the 1946 Frank Capra-directed, James Stewart-starring classic. The film perennially ran on TV every holiday season for decades in part because it was beloved, and in part because its copyright lapsed and any network could air it as often as it pleased, according to Slate

"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" pays homage to its holiday movie canon predecessor in a number of subtle ways, according to Neatorama. For example, when all the grumpy grandparents descend at once upon the Griswold home, Rusty Griswold is watching "It's a Wonderful Life" on TV. Toward the end of the film, when Clark Griswold has snapped from the pressure of trying to execute the perfect Christmas, he takes a chainsaw to a newel post along his home's stairwell, chopping it off and declaring it fixed. That mirrors a similarly loose newel in the Bailey home in "It's a Wonderful Life." And when the credits roll, a listed second assistant director is Frank Capra III — grandson of "It's a Wonderful Life" director Frank Capra.

How Prince helped make it a Christmas Vacation to remember

According to Billboard, musical superstar Prince practiced the Jehovah's Witness faith, and thus didn't celebrate the Christmas holiday in the traditional, secular manner. For example, he barely ever made any holiday music, just the 1984 track "Another Lonely Christmas" (via Vice) and quietly shepherded the title track to 1989's "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." By the late 1980s, soul legend Mavis Staples, of the Staples Singers, was a signee to Prince's Paisley Park record label, which enjoyed a distribution deal with Warner Bros. Records. As Warner Bros. also produced "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," it was easy to get Staples on board to sing an original song, "Christmas Vacation," written by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, the prolific composing duo who once composed classic hits like "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and "Make Your Own Kind of Music." According to "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" director Jeremiah Chechik, Prince produced the movie's opening tune. 

There's a little-known sequel to Christmas Vacation

"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" was a decent box-office hit, earning $71.3 million in its initial theatrical run, but it became a seasonal juggernaut over time thanks to annual TV airings and being readily available on home video. Actor Randy Quaid's sketchy and odious Cousin Eddie became the breakout star over time, so much so that he got his own spinoff movie more than a decade after "Christmas Vacation" debuted. "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie's Island Adventure," a rare sequel to a sequel, was made for television and home video in 2003 and written by National Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons. The only member of the Griswold family who appears, and briefly at that, is Audrey Griswold, as portrayed by Dana Barron, who didn't play the character in "Christmas Vacation" but had in the previous "National Lampoon's Vacation" in 1983. The plot doesn't really even involve vacation, finding Cousin Eddie, wife Catherine, and a motley crew of others as they're stranded on an island in the South Pacific.

No major critics even bothered to review "Christmas Vacation 2." Viewers, however, found it terrible; it racked up a lowly 12% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Johnny Galecki got schooled on Christmas Vacation

When Johnny Galecki took on the role of Rusty Griswold in "Christmas Vacation," he'd only booked a few small parts. Having his breakout role also be a big character in a major movie series was a daunting task for the 13-year-old actor. "That was a real challenge because the Rusty role was kind of iconic at that point and did have some heavy lifting comedically, and my timing wasn't on-point," Galecki told Variety in 2018. So, Galecki's co-star and on-screen dad, Chevy Chase, volunteered himself to train the young actor in the ways of comedy. "Chevy would help me out, especially with the timing, and tell me some ad-libs to say. He was very patient and giving of his time."

Further, Chase used his lunch hours to take Galecki around to other comedies filming nearby, such as "Ghostbusters 2" and "Harlem Nights" to let him watch the stars at work. "Here I am at 13, being introduced to Redd Foxx and Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray and Richard Pryor."

"Christmas Vacation" launched Johnny Galecki's screen comedy career, and after long runs on "Roseanne" and "The Big Bang Theory," he's set to return to The Griswolds. In 2019, Deadline reported that Galecki would produce "The Griswolds," a comedy television series for HBO Max based on the "National Lampoon's Vacation" movies.