NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION: Clark Griswold, Best Dad Ever

Celebrating the Summer of '83's screening, BC talks VACATION. 

NBC airs National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation every year, and thus it has sort of become the "favorite" of the series, but for my money nothing tops the original trip to Walley World. Released in 1983, National Lampoon’s Vacation is required viewing for anyone who has ever gone on a road trip with their family (and for comedy fans in general, given its considerable pedigree: written by John Hughes, directed by Harold Ramis, and starring Chevy Chase in his prime), and remains just as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. Indeed, it’s the recipient of a true badge of honor from Hollywood - the upcoming Vacation film starring Ed Helms will not be a remake, but a sequel where Rusty (finally grown up!) takes his own family to Walley World just as his dad did for him. You know something is a legitimate classic when the studios don't have the heart to try and replace it.

It's also remained Chase's biggest ticket seller ever (though Christmas came close), and for good reason - it's the best he's ever been in a film, and yes, I'd include Fletch in that comparison. Irwin M. Fletcher is basically just Chevy Chase, but Clark Griswold is a family man and devoted husband (unless Christie Brinkley happened to be around), played by Chase at a time when he had no children and was only recently married. In other words, he's actually acting here!  And unlike the sequels in which Clark grows progressively stupider as the series continues, he's not just tripping down stairs for laughs. By the end of Vacation he's closer to Michael Douglas in Falling Down than the typical bumbling Chase hero, slowly going insane as the world seems to actively try to stop him from giving his family their perfect vacation. The progression of mishaps is pretty steady; in European Vacation they were knocking down Stonehenge before being mildly inconvenienced by going to the wrong house to visit relatives, but here each disaster is worse than the last. Things start going wrong before they even leave; the Griswolds get the wrong model car and knock all of the luggage off the roof backing out of the garage, and they can't even get out of their own state without another hitch when Clark can't find the gas tank on his new Wagon Queen Family Truckster. Is it any wonder someone ends up dead before they arrive in California?

But while most of us probably can't quite relate to having a family member die in the car, the great thing about the movie is the way it manages to work in nearly every problem one might run into on a vacation without ever feeling too extreme. Credit cards are lost, maps give directions to roads that are now closed, the kids hate your music... you don't have to be a Griswold to sympathize with these moments, and it's a testament to the actors that they keep their annoyance levels consistent throughout the film (which was not shot in order, of course). Beverly D'Angelo in particular doesn't get enough credit for her work here as Ellen, unless you count the fact that she’s the only one besides Chevy to appear in all four movies. Keep an eye on her during any car scene where Chevy is the focus, as she's always giving great eye rolls and confused looks.  So even when things get a bit out of hand, the characters have been grounded enough to go along with it and keep it relatable - a far cry from say, Vegas Vacation, where Clark destroys the Hoover Dam and almost loses his wife to Wayne Newton.

Another thing that elevates Vacation above its sequels is the firm commitment to an R rating. European was rated R at one point, but was trimmed slightly to achieve a PG-13, and Christmas had one F-bomb and the briefest of brief nudity to secure its PG-13, while Vegas was full blown PG mildness.  But Clark's breakdown after Arizona ("I think you're all fucked in the head!  We're ten hours from the fuckin' fun park and you want to bail out?!?") and plenty of nudity from D'Angelo makes this an adult affair, not to mention the much darker story turns than were allowed in the sequels. Snots might have caused more damage than Dinky, but he never got tied to the rear bumper. Both director and star have expressed regret over this (on the commentary track, Ramis claims he wouldn't have made it so dark, and Chase seems embarrassed by his profanity), but with all due respect I think they're "all fucked in the head" - if Clark weren’t quite so driven to get to Walley World that even a death wouldn't stop him, the movie wouldn't work.

Because at the end of the day, we all want a dad like Clark Griswold. He doesn’t let work, finances, extortion, nearly dying in the desert or the death of an extended family member keep his kids from having fun, whereas most of our dads would have given up far earlier. Misguided as he may be, Clark is a hero, and that's why the movie has endured all of these years - and why we can let it slide that he chickens out: if you watch all the way to the end credits, you'll see that the Griswolds opt to fly back to Chicago, presumably leaving the Truckster behind. We can only assume that the Screamin' Mimi and its loop-de-loop knocked some sense into him.

(Originally published in the Summer of '83 Alamo Guide. To find screentimes for Vacation and other Summer of '83 titles, go here.)