The Summer of ’83: National Lampoon’s Vacation

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie-going by revisiting the films of the Summer of ’83.

National Lampoon’s Vacation

National Lampoons Vacation Movie Poster

Release Date: July 29, 1983

Directed by Harold Ramis; Screenplay by John Hughes based on his short story Vacation ’58

Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, Imogene Coca, Randy Quaid, Jane Krakowski, John Candy, Christie Brinkley

National Lampoon’s Vacation is one of the films that I looked forward to the most going into this retrospective.  Even though I tend to concentrate on fantasy, sci-fi and comic book films I have to include a classic comedy now and then.  There are movies that you enjoy, there are movies that you watch many times over, but every so often there’s that one movie that you just seem to empathize with.  National Lampoon’s Vacation is one of those movies, and 30 years later it still gets an audience to laugh at its classic scenes and cringe at the memories they bring back of our own summer family vacations.  I’m sure most folks over the age of 40 hear a few bars of Lindsay Buckingham’s Holiday Roads on a long distance drive.

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) plans a cross country drive from Chicago to California with wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and teenage kids Rusty and Audrey (Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron).  He’s convinced himself (but not his family) that a road trip to Wally World (a theme park based on Disney World) will allow them to experience the bonding and quality time they wouldn’t experience by flying.  The trip starts on the wrong foot when the Antarctica Blue Sport Wagon they ordered from the car dealership hasn’t arrived and the only car available for them is the frumpy, olive green, wood paneled, eight headlighted Road Queen Family Truckster.  Along the way their car is vandalized in St. Louis, they’re stuck with Ellen’s annoying Aunt Edna in the back seat, money runs out and a wrong turn totals their car.  But, as the ever patient Ellen says, “With every day there’s new hope.”

The film has great cast led by Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, but it’s the supporting actors in their cameos that add the extra layers of humor that keep the laughs going: James Keach as the highway patrol officer that goes from threatening to crying in a scene that is both hilarious and just wrong at the same time, John Candy as the Wally World security guard dragged into Clark’s breakdown, and Randy Quaid as Ellen’s ne’er-do-well cousin Eddie that suckers them into driving Aunt Edna from Kansas to Phoenix.  It was a treat to see comedic icon Imogene Coca as Aunt Edna in Vacation, but her role provided only a fraction of the comedic gold she brought to TV viewers on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows in the 1950’s and I wish there was a little more written for her.  But the scene stealer throughout the film is Clark’s muse of the road played by Christie Brinkley.  Is there anything more 80’s than Christie Brinkley and a red Ferrari?

In under two hours, director Harold Ramis is able to pack in urban plight, teenage drug use, underage drinking, animal cruelty, death and a midlife crisis on the Griswold family’s road trip to Wally World.  John Hughes’ screenplay was based on his short story Vacation ’58, and soon after his career as a director would explode with 80’s teen classics like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The running gag in the subsequent three Vacation films (European Vacation, Christmas Vacation and Vegas Vacation) was the casting of different actors to play Rusty and Audrey.  Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron will always be the Rusty and Audrey movie fans will remember, and it would have been fun to see them reprise their roles in European Vacation.  Barron was supposed to return as Audrey in the second film, but when Anthony Michael Hall had a conflict starring in Weird Science (also directed by John Hughes), the role of Audrey was re-cast as well.

I wasn’t able to see National Lampoon’s Vacation in the theater back in 1983 due to its R rating (although the film is very tame by today’s standards), but it’s a film I watched on many a Saturday night with my friends and cousins throughout the mid-80’s.  Back then we appreciated the humor at face value, but 30 years later we now approach the film with a sense of empathy.  Back then, the farthest my family ever drove on our vacations was Montreal, with most of our summer trips taking place in Lake George, NY.  Our version of the Road Queen Family Truckster was a midnight blue 1977 Ford Granada with burgundy pleather interior.  But as fun as those trips were, without fail, just before putting the car in gear for the drive back home, my father would end the trip with, “Next year, I’m taking a vacation by myself!”

This year, my faithful sidekick and I flew out to Colorado and spent a week and a half driving through Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska before flying back to New York.  It was my first time in that part of the country, and the most surreal part of the trip was the lack of cars on the road compared to the Northeast.  Highlights of our trip included Devils Tower, Custer National Park, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands with a few roadside attractions along the way like the giant Campbell’s Soup Can in Colorado, Dinosaur Park in South Dakota and a giant coffee pot in Wyoming.  This was our first real road trip together, and after 30 years of watching Clark Griswold experience everything short of locusts in National Lampoon’s Vacation I couldn’t help but wonder what lay ahead of us on the road.  But along the way, a miracle happened: nothing.  No broken down car, no bad weather, no short fuses (okay, there was that one time I missed a turn and went nuclear a la Clark in the classic “Can we go home” scene).  But it went as smooth as can be and it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.  Coincidentally, next up is a road trip in Europe…

Overall National Lampoon’s Vacation was as I remembered it, although the pace felt a little slower this time around.  And while each scene made me laugh and gain a greater appreciation for the Ramis and Hughes’ style of humor, my older self began to see Clark in a different light.  He was no longer just that nerdy dad who’s best intentions tend  to make everything worse.  At the end of the day, Clark goes through each of those great lengths, much to the chagrin of his family, just to bring them all closer together and have them experience a little bit of fun that they might remember when they’re older.  And watching National Lampoon’s Vacation again 30 years later, I simply smiled and looked forward to the day I’d be behind the wheel of my own version of the Family Truckster, family in tow, on a quest for fun.

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