Merry Christmas! Shitter was full!

christmas vacation posterNational Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation arrived six years after the original Vacation and four years after the sequel European Vacation. The first movie, like Animal House in 1978, was the cinematic extension of the edgy, irreverent comedy brand begun in the magazine that provided a stark contrast to old-time comedic standards. These were powered by drugs and sex and the sense of freedom prevailing in youth culture coming out of the 60s and 70s, when the Baby Boom came of age.

In Christmas Vacation we once more follow Clark (Chevy Chase) and Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) Griswold, the parents of Russ and Audrey, played in this movie by Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis. This time the family is staying close to home instead of traveling elsewhere. But with extended family coming to stay as well as the tensions common to the holiday season, as well as Clark’s tendency to build up expectations while also bumbling through things, it doesn’t mean the chances of hijinks are diminished at all. As with the first Vacation, it was based on a John Hughes short story that first appeared in National Lampoon.

Anyone who’s seen Christmas Vacation knows it’s not nearly as edgy as the first two installments, a reflection of how comedy had become “safer” over the course of the 80s in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience. There were still raunchy comedies, but “family-friendly” was the watchword of the moment, a change largely pioneered by Hughes himself. That audience expectations should be set differently is apparent immediately upon seeing the theatrical poster.

The first two Vacation films had positioned Clark as the conquering hero in a fresco-like painting, Ellen clinging to his leg like a woman holding on to the man who just saved her. That was indicative of the way Clark saw himself, as the champion of the family. So we see that Chase’s Clark is even more of the focus of the story, or at least that the other characters weren’t deemed as necessary to the success of the movie as showing Chase solo.

The theatrical trailer starts with the Griswolds on a family drive singing Christmas carols as the narrator reminds of their previous misadventures and promises this time they’re staying at home. It’s explained that all Clark wants is an old-fashioned Christmas, but life has other plans.

After that it’s a collection of pranks and other sequences from the movie as the narration keeps talking about how things are going to go awry, no matter what Clark has in mind. There’s no real narrative flow or arc to what’s presented, it’s just a montage of what would go on to be classic scenes and bits. The message to the audience is clear, that the problems the family encounters may be outrageous but the emotions and situations are relatable to anyone.

One thing that jumps out is how the trailer actually kind of downplays, or at least doesn’t overplay, Randy Quaid’s performance as Cousin Eddie. Considering that’s cited as being among the most memorable elements of the movie, its absence is notable. Sure, he’s there, but he could have easily been the focal point and not just a supporting character who throws a monkey wrench in the works.

All in all, Warner Bros. was making sure to sell this as a much more family-friendly entry in the series, one that wasn’t nearly as outrageous as the first two. That makes sense given it’s a holiday movie. That tone, combined with the much more singular focus on Chase, presents quite a shift from the marketing of the first two movies. It obviously worked, as the movie has gone on to be a Christmas classic, even if it doesn’t continue the same attitude and style that would have been more in line with the National Lampoon brand, both on- and off-screen.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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