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The Most Classic Christmas Vacation Moments Ranked

Chevy Chase came very close to being a cinematic footnote. For every still-somewhat-watchable Chase picture, such as Funny Farm or Fletch, there are a dozen debacles like Deal of the Century, Under the Rainbow, and the infamously execrable Nothing But Trouble. Given this, it would have been reasonable for an '80s cinephile to conclude that the controversial star was not destined for greatness. Said movie fan definitely wouldn't have predicted he'd star in one of the decade's most enduring films, a movie arguably more popular today than it was 30 years ago: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

The first two Vacation movies send Clark Griswold (Chase) and his family on the road to the fictional Walley World, and then to Europe. With this third film, writer John Hughes came up with the inspired idea to keep the family home and let their extended clan come to them. Some of the material has grown dated: Like most of Hughes' work, it severely lacks diversity, and the yuppies-are-evil subplot with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, then just getting started in Seinfeld, is embarrassing. But the bulk of the movie is still hilarious and heartfelt, featuring a truly good performance from Chase. The movie earned so-so reviews when it opened, and was a moderate, if not huge, hit. But in the decades since, it has become as enduring a part of the holiday season as Bing Crosby and spiced rum. We're here to rank the cherished film's most classic moments, one mishap at a time.

Clark watches home movies while trapped in the attic

This scene is important because it signals that Christmas Vacation is going to be more than just a farce. As the entire family leaves to go Christmas shopping, Clark sneaks into the attic to hide some presents. Naturally, he becomes trapped up there with no one to rescue him. As he tries to free himself, the movie indulges in some classic physical comedy, with Clark busting holes in the ceiling and smacking himself in the face with loose planks. Chase was (and still is, to a lesser extent) known for this sort of slapstick, especially in his famously clumsy portrayal of Gerald Ford on Saturday Night Live.

But then the scene settles down into something else altogether. Looking for clothes to keep him warm, Clark discovers a projector and some old 16 mm film reels. The movies record Clark's childhood Christmases, and as he loses himself in nostalgia, tears stream down his face. The spectacle borders on the maudlin, but it gives the film an extra dimension beyond crassness and physical comedy, and shows how much Clark loves his family. Only this intense devotion will get him through the movie's escalating crises, which form a harrowing holiday journey that leaves the family questioning his sanity. Of course, just as the viewer is accepting the film's turn toward sentimentality, Clark crashes through the ceiling into the floor below, projector and all. He is Chevy Chase, after all. And you're not

Clark endangers the family to cut down a Christmas tree

One of the reasons Christmas Vacation works so well is because it deftly balances both high and low comedy. The movie particularly satirizes traditional middle class American ideals, like the insistence that a devoted husband and father must give his family the perfect Christmas. Aspiring to such patriarchal holiday idealism has arguably done more harm than good, which is evident in Clark. Clark is depicted as a man so obsessed with achieving the ideal, he has no sense of the collateral damage he is doing.

The movie skewers this tendency right from the first scene, as he drives the family (wife Ellen and kids Rusty and Audrey) out to the middle of nowhere to cut down their own tree, as trees from Christmas tree lots have "no special meaning," according to Clark. Of course, Clark's egotistical need to one-up some jerks in a truck gets them engaged in a road rage incident, during which they almost die spectacularly several times. 

Do they regroup? Call it a day? Why, that's hardly the Griswold Christmas spirit! And so Clark (forgetting a saw) forces his family to trek into the snowy wilderness while Audrey slowly succumbs to frostbite. This elaborate opening sets the stage for Clark's ever more unhinged attempts to make the season as perfect as possible at any cost. Will the man ever reject social pressures and embrace the true meaning of Christmas? Yes — but not yet.

SWAT crashes the Griswold's Christmas Eve

The climax of Christmas Vacation comes when Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) kidnaps Frank Shirley (Brian Doyle-Murray) and brings him back to the Griswold's house just as Clark has managed to restore some peace and tranquility with a reading of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Turns out, Mr. Shirley has withheld the yearly Christmas bonus and Eddie wants to serve him up to Clark for some kind of comeuppance. All seems lost as Shirley threatens to fire Clark and arrest the others. But because a happy ending is a mandatory element of any good farce, Shirley has a Scrooge-on-Christmas-morning about-face and pledges to restore the bonuses. But not, of course, before a SWAT team kicks in the doors and windows in a rescue attempt. 

Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo), ever the apologetic host, tells the cops, "It's our family's first kidnapping," evidently forgetting that they kidnapped John Candy's security guard in the first Vacation. D'Angelo doesn't get many standout moments in the Vacation movies, but her reactions and double takes are indispensable to the comedy. Ellen is the sane point-of-view character, a good-hearted, long-suffering woman with endless reserves of patience and empathy — probably the only kind of person who would put up with Clark's outlandish schemes. At one point, with great, weary acceptance, she says, "I don't know what to say, except it's Christmas and we're all in misery!" which serves as the movie's message in a nutshell.

Clark and Cousin Eddie share an eggnog

Christmas Vacation probably never would have become a success, let alone a treasured classic, without Cousin Eddie. Randy Quaid appeared as Eddie in the original Vacation, but only Christmas Vacation saw him make a moonshot into the zeitgeist. The character's popularity eventually led to the disastrous TV movie, Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie's Island Adventure in 2003. Eddie is the ultimate foil for Clark, testing the limits of his tolerance and inclusivity. At 6'5", Quaid is probably also one of the few actors tall enough to go toe to toe with the 6' 3" Chase.

Eddie and family (including their Rottweiler, Snot) show up uninvited to the family Christmas, upsetting Clark's quest for an ideal holiday. Clark is especially mortified by Eddie's dilapidated RV — which he memorably describes as a tenement on wheels — sitting in his driveway, ruining the house's Christmas aesthetic. "Can I refill your eggnog for you?" Clark asks him, "Get you something to eat? Drive you out to the middle of nowhere and leave you for dead?" One wonders if the upper-middle class Clark's real problem with Eddie is not that he's uncouth, but that he's poor — the real threat to a "good old-fashioned family Christmas." When Eddie shows up at the movie's midpoint to deflate Clark's pretensions, Christmas Vacation goes from funny to inspired.

Clark at the department store lingerie counter

Chevy Chase certainly has his share of detractors, but let's face it — the man can be funny, especially when he channels his shtick into a strong character. Christmas Vacation contains some of his funniest on-screen bits. One of the most hilarious scenes comes early on, when the actor gets to engage in some of his patented mugging. While Christmas shopping at the department store lingerie counter, Clark goes gaga over a sales clerk who asks him if she can "take anything out for him." Practically hyperventilating at the thought, Clark mops the sweat from his face with a pair of underwear, then mistakenly says "hooter" when he means "hotter," "nipple" instead of "nippy," and so on.

Sex comedy was big in the 1980s. Because the true subject of the Vacation movies is the heterosexual American male's fragile ego, Clark, like so many men, must imagine himself as desirable to beautiful young women. This, of course, results in his occasional humiliation, as he falls all over himself trying to make himself appealing. In the original Vacation, Ellen famously catches him in a swimming pool with Christie Brinkley. Here, Rusty catches his dad in a compromising position with the clerk. Chase can certainly come across as pompous in some of his roles, but the fact that he allows Christmas Vacation to lampoon his character so thoroughly is one of the reasons why the movie remains charming and funny.

Clark fantasizes about a new pool

Clark's big holiday surprise for the family is to put in a swimming pool, but as Christmas nears, he's unsure whether his annual bonus check is going to cover it. As he gazes forlornly into his backyard, he begins to fantasize about the family enjoying the pool, allowing him to feel secure in his role as family hero. But then the family fades away, and the young lingerie clerk from the mall appears, beckoning to him in a red bathing suit. The scene is memorable not only for Clark's stunned reaction, but for its inspired musical choice: Bing Crosby and the Andrews sisters crooning, "'Mele Kalikimaka' is the thing to say on a bright Hawaiian Christmas day." The jaunty tune has become so associated with the movie, it's likely that most modern viewers don't know it from anywhere else.

Of course the whole bit, right down to the bathing suit hitting Clark in the face, is a throwback to a similar scene in the original Vacation, where the temptress is Christie Brinkley at the height of her fame, seducing Clark into the motel pool. That scene ends with Clark's humiliation, but this one concludes with him comforting his little niece, Ruby Sue, who confesses that she is "sh***in' bricks" that Santa might not be coming. It's another example of how the film, in its best moments, can deftly turn from crass and overblown to warm and endearing. Kind of like Christmas itself.

Eddie cleans out the RV's bathroom

As funny as this bit is, its setup is just as hilarious. Clark, attempting to flee the rancor of his in-laws around the breakfast table, takes a gander out the window. When Ellen asks him what he's looking at, he responds, "Oh, the silent majesty of a winter's morn ... the clean, cool chill of the holiday air ... an a**hole in his bathrobe, emptying a chemical toilet into my sewer ... " Only then does the movie reveal a pantsless Eddie emptying the waste from his RV. "S****er was full!" he yells, when he sees Clark. When Clark makes a scathing remark, the kind-hearted Ellen reminds him that Eddie just doesn't know any better.

Whether he knows better or not, Eddie's job is to test every last reserve of Clark's patience, and so we get a closeup of the hose splattering septic waste into the snow, followed by a closeup of Eddie shaking it out with unbridled pleasure. A neighbor briefly appears, only to slowly retreat in horror like Homer Simpson into the bushes. Meanwhile, a tuba-heavy Christmas polka, of the kind you might hear at a carnival sideshow, galumphs across the whole sordid display. Randy Quaid is at his finest here, leaving a legacy of festive joy millions of people have enjoyed over the decades by hysterically emptying a toilet.

Clark gets his "bonus"

At last, Christmas Eve mercifully arrives. With the family settled around the table, Clark cuts into the turkey ... only to have it steam open and wither into a gray husk like something out of a David Cronenberg movie. That's only the first of the evening's disasters. It's followed up by mischievous dog Snot tearing open the kitchen trash, Aunt Bethany's cat electrocuting itself under the Christmas tree, and Uncle Louis burning the Griswold's Christmas tree down while lighting his cigar. What else could possibly go wrong?

 Well, Clark's bonus check finally arrives — the one he plans on using to put in a swimming pool, he triumphantly announces to his excited kin. He also announces that he's already paid for the pool. If the bonus doesn't cover it, he's screwed. He then tears it open to reveal ... a one-year membership in the jelly of the month club. This prompts Cousin Eddie's famous line, "That's the gift that keeps on giving the whole year." 

What Clark really wants for Christmas is his cheapskate boss, Mr. Shirley, brought to him, so that Clark can give him a piece of his mind. He reveals his wish in a giant tantrum, during which he calls Shirley every name in the (PG-13) book. Chase's fellow actors actually wore dialogue cue cards around their neck, so he could remember the long diatribe. The unusual method worked, generating one of the most inspired comedic rants in cinema.

Clark's "full-blown four-alarm holiday emergency" meltdown

Clark does not handle disappointment well, especially if he feels it reflects badly on him. So when the family announces that they've decided to leave rather than carry on with the Christmas catastrophe, Clark won't allow it. Never mind that Clark just went berserk and cut down a tree in his yard to replace the one Uncle Louis burned down, or that they just suffered through an attack by a marauding squirrel. "You're not walking out on this old-fashioned family Christmas!" Clark yells, bug-eyed. The PG-13-rated movie judiciously saves its allotted F bomb for this rant, with Clark memorably yelling, "We're going to press on and we're going to have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny f***ing Kaye!" When Ellen suggests everybody leave before things get worse, Clark sensibly asks how things could get worse. "Look around," he shouts. "We're at the threshold of hell!"

Clark's meltdown leads to a heartwarming moment when his Dad reminds him that holidays are by their very nature chaotic. Here, the movie reveals that part of the reason why Clark feels such pressure to host the perfect Christmas is because the holidays of his childhood were such a mess — he's been trying to make up for them. When Clark asks how he got through it all, his father passes on the crucial wisdom of his generation: "With a lot of help from Jack Daniels." 

Clark finally gets the Christmas lights to work

This might not be the funniest scene in the movie, but it is the most emblematic. Because Clark lives in a middle class fantasy of his own making, he's never really happy if he's not achieving his dream of patriarchal perfection. The peak of that in the movie — in the entire series, really — is when Clark finally gets the 25,000 Christmas lights he has painstakingly attached to his house to illuminate after multiple failed attempts. Of course, it's actually Ellen who saves the day by realizing that there's a switch in the garage Clark hasn't thrown. But she would never dream of deflating his triumph with this information. After all, she long ago hitched her wagon to his happiness.

It really is an epic moment for Clark, and the movie doesn't skimp on the effects. Scored to a majestic rendition of Handel's Messiah, the lights blitz on like a supernova, causing a momentary power outage in the area (the movie inserts a hilarious aerial shot of power draining from the city), and, for good measure, wreaking havoc on the mirthless yuppies next door. The extended family emerges from the house to marvel at the spectacle, and embrace and congratulate Clark for his stupendous achievement. For a moment, Clark has achieved the perfect fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. It's the most classic moment in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.