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12 Films of Christmas #4: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

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National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned how Home Alone director Chris Columbus was booted off of another Christmas flick due to conflicts with the star and that landing on Home Alone was a pretty good Christmas rebound. Unfortunately, the film he was dismissed from was one of the few this blog thinks is a superior Christmas movie: ┬áNational Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Now to be fair, it’s said that Columbus left this film due to disagreements with lead actor Chevy Chase. We all know that’s lingo for fired, basically, as the studio wasn’t going to side with a director of his stature over Clark W. Griswold. Even if, rumor has it, that Chase was a pain in the ass to work with going back to his days on Saturday Night Live.

Chase is very much the star here as most of the scenes revolve around him. When he’s not around the house, we very rarely get a look at what the rest of the Griswold family is up to. Essentially, we experience virtually everything through Clark, which isn’t unlike the previous Vacation films that came before it. It’s one reason why producer and writer John Hughes didn’t have any interest in directing the film as he viewed it as an outlet for Chase and little else.

Which is kind of a shame because, whatever your thoughts on Chevy Chase happen to be, the film works because Chase is so convincing as Clark Griswold. Unlike the previous Vacation movies, this one keeps the Griswolds at home as Clark is hell-bent on having the perfect family Christmas. He invites his parents and in-laws to stay on holiday at their home and carefully orchestrates everything from the tree to the decorations and probably even the menu. Of course, this being a Vacation film, nothing goes the way Clark plans. He forgets a saw when they set out for a tree, he can’t get his elaborate lights display to work properly, he spends a day locked in the attic, his cousin-in-law Eddie shows up, and worst of all, he doesn’t get a Christmas bonus thanks to his cheap boss, Frank Shirley (Brian Doyle Murray).

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Clark and Ellen are back for this third installment in the Vacation series.

Everything that goes wrong for Clark does so for a reason; to make the audience laugh. Some of the gags are painfully awkward, like when Clark gets caught flirting with a lingerie clerk by son Rusty (Johnny Galecki) or when engaging in a dangerous game of road rage in the opening scene. Others are spectacles of physical comedy with Clark taking a pretty good beating at times by falling off the roof or crashing his sleigh into Wal-Mart. Most of the gags hit home, and the film does a good job of raising the laugh factor as the film goes on. The best is definitely reserved for Christmas Eve, when basically everything blows up in Clark’s face. Some of the bits are a little less interesting, like the sledding sequence which feels like a time filler, or Clark’s day-dreaming of a swimming pool.

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The film opens with a pretty neat little animation of Santa having a hard time making a delivery to the Griswold family.

As was the case with the first film, Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) is a scene stealer as Clark’s hick cousin-in-law. Eddie has little comprehension of how he’s perceived by others and is devoid of shame. He has no problem emptying his chemical toilet in the middle of the street while swigging a beer in his bathrobe. He’s also pretty selfish, though not maliciously so, which makes him hard to resent. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why Clark wants nothing to do with him even if he is well-meaning, as he is at the film’s climax.

And that climax really is a work of Christmas comedy gold. Everyone has Christmas horror stories, but hopefully not like this. And when Clark finds out he’s been enrolled in the Jelly of the Month Club (“It’s the gift that keeps on giving the whole year ’round”) and goes on his rant he creates one of the most quotable moments of any Christmas film. It’s almost a shame that there’s some filler between that scene and Eddie’s “gift” as the momentum the film built up to that point is stellar. The film ends some-what abruptly, but I suppose that’s a good thing as we don’t need to see the family open burnt presents and try to pick up the pieces following the trashing of the house on Christmas Eve.

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“Merry Christmas! Shitter was full!”

There’s a lot of fine role-players in this film. Both Rusty and wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) play the patient, straight-role to Chase while daughter Audrey (Juliette Lewis) is more combative with her father, but not in an over-the-top sense that steals any scenes or derails the film. Doris Roberts and E.G. Marshall are excellent as Ellen’s parents who always point out what Clark gets wrong and not what he gets right. Nicholas Guest and Julia-Louise Dreyfus are scene-stealers as Clark’s neighbors, who put up with his crap for most of the film until the damn runneth over. They’re portrayed as snotty yuppy types and we’re supposed to root against them, even though they never do anything wrong or even mean. In that, the film is sort of mean-spirited in how it treats them, but I laugh at their misfortune anyways.

Christmas Vacation is, simply put, the perfect Christmas comedy. It spreads the laughs around throughout the brisk 97 minute runtime and does a good job of relying on each supporting actor in equal measures, while putting a rather large load onto the shoulders of Chevy Chase. And at this point, Chase has the Clark Griswold character nailed and it’s hard to separate the actor from the character as a result. This one is definitely worthy of annual viewing, just make sure to catch it on a premium network or home media format as the edited one that airs on Freeform is a disaster.


12 Films of Christmas #5: Home Alone

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Home Alone (1990)

Yesterday we looked at a film that shone a spotlight on how one man can make a difference in the many lives he comes in contact with. Today, we’re looking at a film where an eight-year old boy comes to realize he doesn’t need anyone to make it in this world. Of course we’re talking about Home Alone: the family comedy without the family. Home Alone was released in 1990 to much success. While hardly a critical darling, it raked in the money as kids everywhere lined up to see Kevin McCallister take on two bumbling bandits and show that kids do indeed rule. The film also made a household name out of Macaulay Culken who would have a short reign in the public spotlight before puberty uncomfortably ruined all of that.

Home Alone is a Chris Columbus directed picture that feels like a John Hughes directed one. That’s because Hughes produced it. And it’s probably thanks to Hughes that John Freaking Williams was brought on to score the picture. That’s a factoid that always marvels me, this little picture aimed at children had a Williams score. Even though Home Alone manages to elevate itself out of similar, but lesser films, like Problem Child it probably didn’t pitch any better, so for Williams to sign-on to do it just boggles my mind. And to make it even more incredible, Williams wasn’t even the first choice!

Home Alone was also Columbus’s second attempt at directing a major Christmas production. He was originally supposed to direct National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but he apparently didn’t get along with Chevy Chase. Home Alone feels like a decent consolation prize for dealing with Chevy. The film is very much a comedy, relying heavily on physical comedy and the uncomfortable situations Kevin puts the adults around him into.

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I don’t know if there’s a studio in America that would even try to get away with a scene like this in 2016.

The premise of the film is pretty ridiculous. Kevin’s family, including several members of his extended family, are all going to Paris for Christmas and he, being the black sheep of the clan, gets left behind. I don’t think we ever find out what Kevin’s parents do for work, but the fact that it’s his dad paying for everyone to go to Paris makes it seem pretty laughable that he seems upset with Kevin for using his new fish hooks to make Christmas ornaments. I don’t think a package of three cost as much as a dollar in 1990. Anyway, a power outage and a mad dash to the airport, plus a nosey neighbor, all contribute to Kevin being left home alone. The local police, and Kevin’s own youthful imagination, even make it impossible for anyone to confirm that he’s all right when his mom calls from Paris. This is definitely one of those films that would partially break with cell phones introduced.

Meanwhile, Kevin basically thinks he made his family disappear. He goes on with life, pretty happy at first doing what probably most kids would do. He eats ice cream for dinner, watches R rated films (Angels with Filthy Souls), and goes through his older brother’s room. Eventually, he starts trying to be more responsible as he realizes he actually has to do things now, they don’t just happen. When some burglars start nosing around (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as Harry and Marv) is when Kevin starts to get scared, and actually miss his family. He even seeks out a local Santa about getting his family back, in a scene that is sort of touching, especially if you try to put yourself in the Santa character’s shoes.

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Oh yeah, that’s the one.

The proverbial money shot is obviously the climax in which the Wet Bandits storm Kevin’s house full off booby traps. As far as physical comedy goes, the entire sequence is actually pretty spectacular. It’s easy to forget how hilarious it all was upon the first viewing since this is a film most people reading this have probably viewed a hundred times by now. In particular, the blow torch scene is genius. Some may scoff at an actor like Pesci reducing himself to such a role, but his facial expressions are gold. Stern is arguably just as good as the more aloof of the two bandits.

The film also takes time to highlight the Christmas holiday, and Christmas naturally has a way of making things all better in the end. Home Alone is a terrific ride, even if it’s a bit formulaic and gag-reliant. It was a magic that really couldn’t be duplicated. While several sequels have been made (only one featuring the main cast of the original), none have come close to harnessing whatever it is that made the original feel so refreshing. It’s the type of film that can’t be duplicated, which means a remake is coming to theaters in 2021.


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