30 random observations about ‘Christmas Vacation’ (1989) for its 30th anniversary (Movie commentary)

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ational Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation” came out 30 years ago this month, and it has only grown in status as a holiday classic since. Here are 30 random observations after my latest viewing:

1. “Christmas Vacation” is the third and last “Vacation” movie written by John Hughes — after the 1983 original and 1985’s “European Vacation” (which he co-wrote). It features his trademark mix of absurd gags and emotional heart. On the DVD commentary, director Jeremiah Chechik says this makes it tonally different from the other “Vacations,” which are more joke-centered.

2. Hughes’ screenplay comes from his own short story, “Christmas ’59,” published in the December 1980 issue of National Lampoon magazine.

3. Just one year later, Hughes delivered another Christmas classic, “Home Alone.”

4. And two years before this, he wrote the Thanksgiving staple “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

5. This is the first film directed by Chechik, and it’s still by far his most notable credit. He went on to a steady career as a TV director.

6. “Christmas Vacation” starts with Clark (Chevy Chase) and the Griswold family looking for the perfect Christmas tree in the woods. The first episode of “The Simpsons,” which came out 16 days later, starts the same way.

7. The “Vacation” films don’t care much about continuity for the actors playing the kids, Rusty and Audrey. Here, they are Johnny Galecki (“The Big Bang Theory”) and Juliette Lewis (“Cape Fear”). In the five theatrical films, there are five Rustys and five Audreys.

8. The kids’ presence in group scenes is somewhat sketchy throughout the movie. Although it can easily be explained that they are somewhere else in the house (and I wouldn’t blame them, considering this batch of relatives), the director says on the DVD commentary that child-actor rules limited their involvement.

9. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss plays one of the villainous neighbors. The next summer, her career would never be the same again, as “Seinfeld” premiered.

Chase’s comedic timing of Clark’s awkwardness around the attractive saleswoman sells the whole sequence.

10. The humor of the lingerie counter scene only partly comes from Hughes’ written word. Chase’s comedic timing of Clark’s awkwardness around the attractive saleswoman, Mary (Nicolette Scorsese), sells the whole sequence.

11. Chase’s pratfall comedy – via facial expressions and physical movements — when stapling the lights to the house is also masterful.

12. Here’s another “Simpsons” parallel. Clark steps on several boards in the attic, which then whack him in the face. To this day, “The Simpsons” is still getting mileage out of Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes. In last week’s episode, Sideshow Bob is simply gifted a rake by his neighbor, and that’s the whole joke.

13. For the first part of the movie, Clark goes with the flow whenever something bad happens – when the attic ladder hits him in the face, his only reaction is to rub his forehead. He’s like the opposite of the cursing father in 1983’s “A Christmas Story.” (Clark finally snaps 39 minutes into the film when the outdoor Christmas lights don’t work.)

14. Clark takes almost as much physical punishment as Nordberg in the “Naked Gun” series, which launched one year prior: the boards in the face, the ladder in the forehead, falling off the roof into the bushes, crashing his sled, etc.

15. In 2018, an Austin, Texas, house was decorated with a dummy hanging from the gutter, mimicking Clark in the movie. A Good Samaritan tried to rescue what he thought was a real person hanging on for dear life. The story went viral.

16. I don’t get Cousin Eddie’s (Randy Quaid) “Bingo!” line after Clark crashes his sled into some sort of kiosk in front of a Walmart (“Wal-Mart” at the time). Is it a bingo card kiosk? Another quibble: It seems like Clark has traveled well out of the line of sight of the rest of the group.

17. The TV movie sequel “Christmas Vacation 2” (2003), which features Cousin Eddie and his family, rates a mere 2.7 on IMDB.

18. The two most iconic lines of Quaid’s career are “Shitter was full!” and “Up yours!” (from 1996’s “Independence Day”). There are worse ways to make a living, I suppose.

19. Although we get a few moments showing that Clark’s boss (Brian Doyle Murray) is a Scrooge, the conflict of whether or not Clark will receive his bonus check isn’t introduced until the 52-minute mark.

I wonder if the popularity of Jelly of the Month clubs dropped after this movie’s release.

20. Mary’s red swimsuit scene (as Clark daydreams about getting a backyard pool) isn’t quite as iconic as Phoebe Cates’ in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982), and I’m not saying it should be, but it should be in the discussion more.

21. The cat getting electrocuted scored as the No. 1 favorite scene at a test screening, Chechik says in the DVD commentary. I wouldn’t want to run into that test audience in a dark alley.

22. I wonder if the popularity of Jelly of the Month clubs dropped after this movie’s release.

23. The dog tearing up the kitchen calls to mind a similar scene in “A Christmas Story.” People who are only vaguely familiar with the two films – or who drink too much eggnog while watching holiday movies – perhaps conflate the two scenes.

24. Unless the director is putting us on with this tidbit from the DVD commentary, the film hoped to use a trained squirrel for the squirrel scare and chase. Obviously, that didn’t work. But the clearly fake squirrel stuck to Clark’s back only makes the sequence funnier.

25. “Christmas Vacation” is timeless, but it has a couple of 1989 elements. One is that the neighbors are classic Eighties yuppies, another is that the SWAT team doesn’t shoot anyone, not even Snots.

26. The Griswolds don’t actually go anywhere. Technically, this is a staycation.

27. This is the second-most successful “Vacation” film at the box office, with $71 million, trailing only the $104 million of 2015’s “Vacation,” the fifth and most recent film.

28. “Christmas Vacation” was the franchise’s second-most successful film critically — at the time. On Metacritic, “Christmas” trails the original 55 to 49, and on Rotten Tomatoes the margin is 93 percent to 64 percent. The film’s status has improved with time, though – at least among amateur critics. On IMDB, which accepts new reviews, “Christmas” now leads 7.6 to 7.4.

29. Roger Ebert gave the film 2 stars out of 4, saying the various elements didn’t come together for him. I can understand that point of view as an initial impression. The movie has definitely grown on me with each viewing.

30. The “Christmas Vacation” theme song, written by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann and performed by Mavis Staples, should be on more holiday playlists. A soundtrack was never released, but good cover versions can be found.

What are your favorite moments and bits of trivia from “Christmas Vacation?” Share your comments below.

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