On December 1, 1989, a new chapter of Griswold family dysfunction was unleashed upon the world when National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation made its debut in movie theaters and an instant holiday classic was born. Here are some things you might not know about everyone’s favorite Christmas comedy.
Like the 1983 original, Christmas Vacation is based on a short story, “Christmas ’59,” written by John Hughes for National Lampoon in December 1980. Its literary predecessor is paid tribute to when Clark is trapped in the attic and pulls out a box of old home movies, including one labeled “Christmas ’59.” (Eagle-eyed viewers might notice that when Clark is watching the film, it actually says “Christmas 1955.”)
If Clark’s childhood home featured in those old movies looks familiar, that’s because it’s the same house featured on Bewitched as well as The New Gidget. Except it’s not a house at all; it’s part of the Warner Bros. back lot, located on what is known as Blondie Street. The rest of the Griswolds’s neighborhood is on a studio back lot as well. And if the home of their snooty neighbors, Todd and Margo, looks familiar, that’s because it’s where Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and his family lived in Lethal Weapon.
Though many of Hughes’s films have spawned sequels, the man himself was not a fan of retreads. “The only sequels I was involved in were under duress,” Hughes once stated in an interview. Though he’s credited as a writer on European Vacation, he said that was only because he had created the characters. “But the studio came to me and begged for another [Vacation movie], and I only agreed because I had a good story to base it on. But those movies have become little more than Chevy Chase vehicles at this stage. I didn’t even know about Vegas Vacation until I read about it in the trades! Ever since it came out, people have been coming up to me with disappointed looks on their faces, asking ‘What were you thinking?’ ‘I had nothing to do with it! I swear!’”
Though the holiday season is usually packed with Christmas-themed movies, Christmas Vacation was one of only two that were released in 1989. The other was John Hancock’s Prancer. Johnny Galecki, a.k.a. Rusty Griswold, starred in both.
In both the original Vacation and European Vacation, Rusty is believed to be the older of the two Griswold children. In Christmas Vacation, Rusty somehow morphs into Audrey’s younger brother.
In addition to footage from the Frank Capra classic actually appearing in the film, Christmas Vacation has another fun tie to It’s a Wonderful Life: Frank Capra’s grandson, Frank Capra III, is Christmas Vacation’s assistant director.
In addition to featuring future stars Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis (who scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination three years later for her role in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear), star Beverly D’Angelo was most impressed with the older actors who came along for the Christmas Vacation ride. “I attribute that to Jeremiah Chechik and his direction in bringing in E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, and Diane Ladd,” she noted. “That was really a special cast.”
Christmas Vacation marked the directorial debut of Jeremiah Chechik, who began his career as a fashion photographer for Vogue then moved into commercial directing. “I had made these commercials that became quite iconic here in the U.S.,” Chechik told Den of Geek in 2011. “They were very dark and sexy and sort of a little bit ahead of their time in terms of style. And what happened was they gained the notice of [Stanley] Kubrick, who had mentioned them as his favorite American filmmaking, ironically, in a New York Times article.” It didn’t take long for Chechik’s phone to start ringing and for studios to start sending him scripts. “And the script that really piqued my interest was Christmas Vacation,” he said. “And the reason is I had never done any comedy—ever.”
“I hadn’t seen the first two [Vacation movies], and so I wasn’t really influenced by anything other than the fact that it was a big—at the time—their big Christmas movie, and comedy,” Chechik told Den of Geek. “And I just felt if I could crack this maybe there’s a whole other world of filmmaking for me.” Following Christmas Vacation, Chechik directed Benny & Joon, Diabolique, and The Avengers (no, not the Marvel one) plus episodes of The Bronx is Burning, Gossip Girl, Chuck, and Burn Notice.
A $27 million budget, to be exact. Which was particularly high considering that the film had no special effects a la Ghostbusters (which was made for $30 million). But it had no trouble making its budget back; the film’s final domestic gross was more than $70 million.
Though it has become a bona fide holiday classic, not everyone was a fan of Christmas Vacation. In his two-star review of the film, Roger Ebert described the movie as “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.”
But don’t be disappointed if you didn’t know that. Or haven’t seen it. The 2003 film, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure, was made for television. It finds Randy Quaid and Miriam Flynn (as Eddie and Catherine) stranded on an island in the South Pacific for the holidays. Yes, really. It currently holds a 12 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Dana Barron, who played Audrey in the original Vacation, reprised her role for the Christmas Vacation sequel. Eric Idle, who appeared in European Vacation, also makes an appearance, playing “English Victim.”
At least it’s the role that gets him the most recognition. In a 1989 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Quaid admitted that he was amazed by the impact the character made. “People still come up to me and quote lines from that part. I get a lot of recognition from that role—probably as much, if not more, than any other.”
Quaid borrowed many of Cousin Eddie’s mannerisms from a guy he knew growing up in Texas, most notably his tendency toward tongue-clicking. But Eddie’s sweater/Dickie combo? That was an idea from Quaid’s wife.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation Collectibles is a website dedicated to all things Christmas Vacation (obviously). Among the many fun items are Cousin Eddie wardrobe staples, moose mugs, and punch bowls.
Nope, not a word.
Christmas Vacation marked the final film of Mae Questel, who began her career as the voice of Betty Boop in 1931. She passed away at the age of 89 in January of 1998.
Turns out Aunt Bethany isn’t the only voice actress in the family. Miriam Flynn, who played Eddie’s adoring wife in four Vacation pictures, voiced Taz’s mother on the animated Warner Bros. series Taz-Mania. She’s also lent her vocal talents to The Land Before Time franchise and voiced Maa, the elderly sheep in Babe.
At the same time the production filmed the arrival of Uncle Louis and Aunt Bethany at the Griswold home, a minor earthquake struck. The camera shakes slightly as a result of it as Bethany walks through the front door.
Though the movie is a popular holiday film in the UK, it was never actually shown in theaters there. Instead, it went straight to home video.
Christmas Vacation is the only film in the Vacation series that doesn’t feature Lindsey Buckingham’s song, “Holiday Road.” Instead, a new song—the aptly titled “Christmas Vacation”—was written for the film by married songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. A cover of the song appears on the 2007 Disney Channel Holiday album.
Which may just sound like a random fact. But at the end of the film, when the police raid the Griswold home, the version of “Here Comes Santa Claus” being used is Autry’s.
In the scene above, Ellen Griswold apologizes to Mrs. Shirley—the wife of Clark’s boss/Eddie’s kidnapping victim—assuring her that “This is our family’s first kidnapping,” when, in fact, it is their second. At least the second that we know of: In the first Vacation film, the Griswolds force Lasky, the security guard at Wally World (played by John Candy), to open the park for them.
The trio got together to film a series of Old Navy commercials for the holiday season. Though Johnny Galecki wasn’t there, two previous Rustys—Anthony Michael Hall and Jason Lively—were. As was Dana Barron.
In a 2012 interview, The Sydney Morning Herald asked Johnny Galecki whether he had kept in touch with Chevy Chase since the film. He said that “the only time I’ve seen him since that movie, which was 21 years ago I think, is when he presented us with our People’s Choice Award, so that was really neat. If you’re going to run into Chevy again it may as well be as he’s giving you an award.”
On July 29, 2015, the latest film in the Vacation franchise—simply titled Vacation—made its debut. And it couldn’t have happened soon enough for Chase and D’Angelo. In 2011, Chase told Ain’t It Cool News that “I just got off the phone with Beverly D’Angelo. We are trying to work up a new Vacation and apparently Warner’s is working on one with grandchildren, but the one that Bev and I want … You know, we are just trying to think of ideas, because she is very funny and very brilliant, so when you get her in a writing mood and me in writing mood, it’s good, but it’s very hard to get the time.”
Chase and D’Angelo may have had their own ideas, but the studio moved ahead with that whole “one with grandchildren” thing. Written and directed by John Francis Daley (Sam from Freaks and Geeks) and Jonathan M. Goldstein (who wrote Horrible Bosses), Vacation featured a grown-up Rusty (played by The Office‘s Ed Helms) taking his own family on a road trip.
Take a good look at the Griswold clan after one of the SWAT leaders yells, “Freeze!” During the mayhem, Ellen plants her right hand firmly on Clark’s crotch—and keeps it there. “I did that spur of the moment and told Chevy, just to see if anyone on set noticed,” D’Angelo told Rolling Stone. “But we did a couple takes and no one mentioned it.”
It’s not like the Rockies are within driving distance of the Griswolds’s Chicago residence, but that’s where Clark and the family go hunting for the “perfect Christmas tree” early in the movie. Most of that sequence was shot on location in the greater Breckenridge, Colorado, area. Also, the hillside where Clark and the kids go sledding is a famous Breckenridge ski slope.
Brian Doyle-Murray and National Lampoon go way back. Not only did Doyle-Murray appear in two of the Vacation movies (look for him in the original flick’s Kamp Komfort scene), but he also made frequent appearances on The National Lampoon Radio Hour. And oh yeah—he’s Bill Murray’s older brother.
Clark and Rusty share a heartfelt chat in both of the previous Vacation movies. Yet, in Christmas Vacation, they don’t really get one. A dialogue-driven “man-to-man” scene written by John Hughes never made it into the final shooting script. On the set, Chase wanted to film that scene anyway, but Johnny Galecki felt differently. “They asked what I thought and I said, ‘I don’t think there’s any point,’” Galecki told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I literally talked myself out of what could have been a classic scene with Chevy Chase. Now … I realize the error of my ways. I still kick myself in the ass for this every day.”
When these two first meet in the original Vacation, Christmas Vacation, and again in Vegas Vacation, Eddie tries to kiss Ellen on the lips. He goes 0-for-3.
In a 2018 Variety interview, Galecki said that while the script required Rusty to do “some heavy comedic lifting,” his own sense of timing “wasn’t on point.” “Chevy would help me out, especially with the timing, and tell me some ad-libs to say,” Galecki recalled. Sometimes, during lunch breaks, Chase used to bring his co-star to the sets of Harlem Nights and Ghostbusters 2. “Here I am at 13 being introduced to Redd Foxx and Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray and Richard Pryor and all these incredible, incredible comedic icons,” says Galecki. “[Chase] didn’t have to do that, and it’s still very touching to me.”
Chicago hadn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1961 when Christmas Vacation came out in 1989, but that didn’t stop Clark and Rusty from rocking some Blackhawks merch on-screen. Amazon now offers a replica of the home jersey that Chevy wore in the film; the name “Griswold” is even sewn onto the back of the garment.
The accident happened on-screen while Clark was demolishing Santa’s sled after his (second) failed attempt to get the X-mas lights up and running. Old St. Nick got his revenge: Chase broke his pinky during the assault. Since the cameras were rolling, he couldn’t stop without ruining the take. “I had to keep kicking because it hurt so much,” Chase said in 2015.
Sure they’re wrapped differently, but size- and shape-wise, the gifts are identical. Go re-watch the movie if you don’t believe us.
As D’Angelo explained in a 2015 conversation with The Dinner Party Download, “this particular scene … 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. The rant was divided into sections so that he could go all the way through from the beginning to the end without a chance of forgetting his lines … If you watch it, you can see him. His eyes go from character to character as he’s going on in the speech because we’ve got the lines there.”
Matty Simmons, who produced the movie, is on the cover of the magazine that gets stuck to Clark’s hand while he talks vacation plans with Ellen. By the way, Chase reportedly kept the pajamas he wore in that same bedroom scene until (at least) 2015.
You don’t see much of actress Ellen Hamilton Latzen these days; she’s mostly remembered for her role in Fatal Attraction and her signature performance as Eddie’s daughter in Christmas Vacation. In a chat with Bill Bradley of HuffPost, she spoke fondly of Christmas Vacation‘s family dinner scene. “I remember sitting at the end of the table that was the kids section with Cody [Burger] and Juliette [Lewis] and Johnny Galecki, who I had a massive crush on—a huge crush on Johnny Galecki—and I remember having little marshmallow fights with him and always trying to get his attention,” Latzen said.
Each year, Christmas Vacation superfan Greg Osterland and his family adorn their Wadsworth, Ohio, residence with an exact duplicate of Clark’s over-the-top lighting arrangement. (And in 2019, they added a replica of Cousin Eddie’s banged-up RV.) Visitors are encouraged to make donations to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Great Strides.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2021.