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CINEMA REMEMBERED: Christmas Vacation and The HOME ALONE Moment

THIS WEEK: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) The next Griswald family vacation isn’t a road trip – it’s the holidays . . . that go perfectly wrong.

HOW IT STARTS: Clark Griswald (Chevy Chase), the head of the family, gets trapped in the attic, but makes a surprising discovery.

Warner Bros.

THE PREFACE: John Hughes is one of the best writers and directors of the genre. This time, the comedic legend pens the screenplay for another Griswald vacation. Hughes is an 80s icon because of his films like The Breakfast Club (1985), Uncle Buck (1989), Pretty In Pink (1986), Weird Science (1985), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). What an impressive roster of comedy gold. With Christmas Vacation, Hughes presents several holiday scenarios familiar to us all. There’s something for everyone to relate to. The laughs range from slapstick and physical pratfalls, to pure asurdity and more than a few play-on-words. Watching this decades later you can definitely notice its influence on animated shows like Family Guy (1999 ~). Actually, Vacation feels like a live-action Looney Toons.

Warner Bros.

Chase isn’t the only one to deliver jokes either. Randy Quaid nearly steals the show as the white-trash brother. Fellow SNLer, Julia Louis Dreyfuss plays the Griswald’s neighbour. Even the younger talent gets in on the fun, with both of the junior Griswalds (Johnny Galecki from Big Bang Theory, and Juliette Lewis) going on to fame.

Beverly D’Angelo once again returns as Clark’s wife making sure some of these jokes are a bit more risque. Vacation might get a little raunchy (like when Clark nearly gets a Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) pool Moment), and the language may be a little coarse; however, the movie really does have a big heart under it all, with a positive underlying message.

Warner Bros.

THE SET-UP: Clark wants have a perfect holiday with perfect everything. He wants the biggest tree, the brightest lights, the juciest dinner, and the fastest sled. He’s also been working hard all year to get a bonus and install a new pool to create the perfect backyard. The pressure really starts to get to him over the course of the story. His dream of a perfect Christmas gets dampened every step of the way. Clark never knew his hopes to make his house the new home for a new family tradition would be so difficult, with so many obstacles.

As the decades have passed, Clark feels like it’s time for him to take the mantle as the head of the Griswald family. Chevy Chase is perfect as the head of the movie as well. The former SNL star was a hilarious leading man in the 80s, headlining the Vacation series as his best. His comedic timing is brilliant, and the man knows how to nail physical gags. A real highlight is reading a magazine in bed with his wife. Clark has trouble dealing with the sticky inserts, leading to a disastrous (yet hilarious) outcome.

THAT MOMENT: Clark takes to the attic to hide some presents. He’s careful to walk on the beams, but not so careful he doesn’t take a few flying loose boards to the head. Chase has perfected the slapstick here. While he’s up there in the attic, a family member withdraws the ladder back into the ceiling, trapping Clark. They head out for brunch before anyone notices what happened, and he’s left home alone (not in a Kevin McAllister kind of way – tune in next week for that).

Clark tries to stay warm in the non-insulated attic. He grabs random clothes from buried boxes. He selects a woman’s fur coat and feminine hat, with some pink gloves. While looking for clothes, Clark also finds old home movies. He runs them through the projector and relives his childhood Christmas memories. It’s an emotional Moment, as tears well-up in his eyes.

Warner Bros.

Hughes is sure to mix comedy with sentiment. He tries to balance the two opposing tones so that neither is overwhelming. Here, the drama plays through, but we are instantly reminded of comedy when we see Chevy Chase in his ridiculous attire. Perhaps this is an 80s point-of-view on acceptable male emotion… in a He-looks-like-a-woman-and-cries-like-one-too sort of way. Maybe Chase was afraid to be vulnerable or scared to be taken seriously? While the Moment could have been embellished more, it still lands with impact.

The scene ends just before it gets too sweet and mushy, as Clark’s wife returns to free him from attic captivity. She pulls on the rope to make the ladder descend . . . too bad that’s where Clark is sitting to watch his home movies. When she opens the door, he crashes down to the floor, immediately falling out of the Moment. This was a definite reminder of what genre this movie is really in.

THAT MOMENT REMEMBERED: Although Hughes’ movies can be crass and rude, R-rated and naughty, they always have a big heart. Most holiday movies have that negative connatation attached to them of being too cheesy, sappy, and manipulative. Hughes balances the comedy with a family-based message rather well. There’s a quiet little scene that demonstrates what kind of man Clark/Hughes is. His niece is anxious and worried about Santa not coming this year. Actually, in the sentiment and comedy double whammy, she says she’s “sh*tting bricks” about it. Clark tells her that’s a bad word. She corrects herself saying she’s “sh*tting rocks.” Jokes aside, Clark realizes her father (Quaid) can’t afford to buy presents. He guarantees Santa will come this year. And we know what that means. If the kids have a good Christmas, it’s the perfect holiday. Once again, the scene doesn’t hit you over the head with drama, it hides it instead.

Warner Bros.

This Vacation may be focused on Christmas, but it certainly isn’t religious. However, it is infused with the holiday spirit – that is to say, the time of the season to spend with family and friends. Hughes says this beautifully with the final scene when Clark looks at a shooting star. When one of the children asks about the Christmas star, the head of the Griswald family doesn’t give them a definitive answer. Clark gives them the perfect answer: It means something different to everyone, and now he finally knows what it means to him.

Clark reminds us that family is the most important thing of all, not gifts, or enough lights to blackout the whole neighbourhood.



Jeremiah S. Chechik (as Jeremiah Chechik)


John Hughes


NEXT WEEK: The definitive 90s Holiday movie . . . HOME ALONE

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  1. David December 19, 2015
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