It started as a continuation of the misadventures of the Griswold family; it ended up becoming one of the most surprisingly popular and oft-quoted holiday movies of all time.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is the story of beleaguered patriarch Clark Griswold – played by the inimitable Chevy Chase – who tries to engineer the picture-perfect seasonal festivities: the best naturally procured tree, the biggest and brightest (literally) Christmas-light display on the block, the end-of-the-year bonus from his Scrooge-like boss. It’s the only comedy to appeal to those who live for that deck-the-halls spirit, viewers who are dyed-in-the-wool Grinches (“Well, I don’t know what to say, except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery”) and folks who appreciate the genius of Randy Quaid in his underwear, exclaiming: “Shitter’s full!”
We’ve asked the cast and creators to weigh in on the seasonal classic, which was released over 30 years ago in December 1989. From the intricate planning behind the film’s zany antics to freak snowstorms and cast freak-outs, this is the untold, no-holds-barred story of Christmas Vacation.
A Child Is Born…
Matty Simmons (Executive Producer): The first Vacation movie was based on a short story in National Lampoon; the magazine was so hot at the time thanks to Animal House. There was also a Christmas story in the magazine by John [Hughes], and after reading it, I’d always wanted to make a movie of it. We made [the 1985 sequel] European Vacation and, after several years of pitching Warner Brothers, they finally said they wanted to do the Christmas one. They said, “John wants to produce and he wants first billing, will you take second billing?” So, I said “Okay, I’ll take executive producer.” That’s my title on the picture.
Tom Jacobson (Producer): I was a partner with John at the time, producing movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Uncle Buck with him. When the idea of a third Vacation came up, we went to Warners.
Simmons: Everything John wrote was just great. He was a genius, there’s no question about that.
Chevy Chase (Clark Griswold): I never knew John that well. If you see his films, he had a great vision of teenagers growing up; in a way he was a teenager, still battling those awkward growing years. Maybe he was a genius, and God bless him if he was. There’s so few of us.
Beverly D’Angelo (Ellen Griswold): I was living in Ireland and my agent Rick Nicita said, “John’s got a script.”
Jeremiah Chechik (Director): This was my first feature film …up until then, I had done a lot of sexy, very moody, atmospheric commercials. Long story short, thanks to the commercial work I was going to make a movie about the Apollo Theater at Warner Brothers and had gotten to know them. They started to send me scripts — and one of them sent me was Christmas Vacation. I laughed out loud when I read it. Never mind that I didn’t have any comic chops, as far as I knew. I said I would do it, and met with John, Chevy, and Tom.
Jacobson: John was shooting Uncle Buck at the time [in 1989]. We overlapped prep, but Warner Brothers wanted Christmas Vacation in time for Christmas, so we started shooting it three days after we wrapped Buck.
Chechik: I thought, should I really be doing this?
D’Angelo: I remember on one of the first days Jeremiah saying, “We’re going to figure out how your characters walk,” and I was like, “What? This is Christmas Vacation.” That’d be great if we were doing La Strada or something.
Chechik: John was at the height of his fame, popularity, and power, so for me it was so great to develop a strong relationship with him. He came to the set exactly one day on the first day of shooting. He was very much like, “It’s your movie, man. You do it.”
Simmons: Casting was pretty simple because the whole thing is built around Chevy and Beverly. The rest of the cast was just about getting the top character actors for the older people.
Chase: I think we had the best actors of our time: E.G. Marshall, John Randolph, Doris Roberts, and Diane Ladd. That’s quite a group.
Diane Ladd (Norah Griswold): So you’re writing about the picture that gives me more money than anything I’ve ever done? Every year around this time, I get my own bonus thanks to Christmas Vacation. Isn’t that funny?
Juliette Lewis (Audrey Griswold): My first memory of the movie is being in one of those really generic office spaces with Chevy reading lines from the movie and him seeming excited. The fact that the Griswolds have a new set of kids each time became the thing. Your agents couldn’t explain why it was acceptable; it just is. Of course, I grew up with the Vacation movie with the legendary Anthony Michael Hall. This was this huge exciting opportunity and even at 15, I knew it was a big deal.
Johnny Galecki (Rusty Griswold): At the time, I was in Chicago auditioning for industrial films and regional theater, and I was happy doing that. I didn’t dare to dream to be in a big studio film. But I put myself on tape and sent it in. They flew me out to Los Angeles; it was one of the first times I was ever here. I read with Chevy and Jeremiah — and that alone would have been enough for me. I could have been given my walking papers and sent home on the next flight and it still would have been a dream come true. Chevy told me right there in the room that I had gotten the role.
Lewis: I don’t know the politics at the time, but maybe they had to rush to find the kids, or something.
Chechik: Galecki was just an odd kid. He was very young and so dry. He made me laugh because he has this wack of a sense of humor and that’s what made me really want him. He wasn’t a Hollywood kid who was going for laughs, but he had a nervousness to him that in many ways shows beautifully now as an adult. His comic gifts are absolutely incredible.
Ladd: This movie is kind of a turning point in my life. I went there with a British Academy Award and an Oscar nomination under my belt, but Hollywood was very hard on women. When I did Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, I thought it’d change everything for women – a lot of us did. But it didn’t, and I was spending a lot of time in Florida. People would yell at me, “What are you doing running away from Hollywood?” I came back to Hollywood and the first thing I got was for Christmas Vacation. Meanwhile, here I am going to audition to play Chevy’s momma, and I’m one year older than him! That’s if he was born in 1943, because IMDb lies about everything. They never get it right!
Miriam Flynn (Catherine): I remember getting together to read the script. Randy (Quaid) and I, our characters almost had their own little world, so I knew it was going to be fun.
Ladd: Shelly Winters loaned me her dead mother’s dress to wear, I got some Oxfords and an pair of glasses at the Salvation Army, and I put baby powder in my hair. Here I am looking like an old dog and I thought that if I’m ever up for a sexy part again, I’d be dead. But I marched right over to Chevy and I grabbed his face, pulled open his mouth and played a game: “Knock-knock, who’s there?” That was improvised and something like it wound up in the movie. When I got the call that I had the part, I started to cry. I said, “Oh my god, my career is over!” But I laughed myself for the bank for 16 weeks. That part paid money.
Chechik: Everyone in the cast had different qualities, but they shared soulful natures and a strong sense of quirkiness. At the end of the day, my focus was to try to get these great dramatic actors to trust John’s script and allow the humor to come out of circumstances.
‘Tis the Season…
Simmons: It was entirely shot on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank and in Colorado, but it has a very Chicago look.
Chase: The house we used is on the back lot at Warner Brothers. It was the same house where they shot Lethal Weapon. The toilet that blew up with Danny Glover was actually lying out on the lawn when we arrived there, waiting for the next crew to come in.
Flynn: It was such an interesting world we were in, because we were shooting it in the spring and summer, but they created that whole winter scene on the set. There we all were in our outfits in the middle of warm weather doing this Christmas movie.
Chechik: We went away for 10 days to Breckenridge, Colorado because at that time of year they traditionally had the biggest snowfall. We show up — and there is no snow. We are freaking out day after day, so we set up a convoy of trucks to haul in snow to Breckenridge for those first scenes in the movie. There were a lot of logistical issues and just as these trucks were rolling up, it finally started to snow and continued…and continued. It snowed something like 10 feet in three days. It became near impossible to actually shoot because there was so much snow.
Chase: Well, there was enough snow on that hill to put me in a fucking sled that sped down going about 100 miles an hour. Jesus Christ! It scared the living daylights out of me. I wasn’t that far from the trees and the pathway in the snow had already been made, but it was a bitch. I kept on going faster and faster. [Laughs] I guess it didn’t occur to them to put brakes. My heels were red by the end of it.
Galecki: Breckenridge was at an altitude none of us were used to, so we were panting while tying our shoes. It was cold even for a Chicago city kid up there, but that bonds the cast and crew real fast because it’s like, no matter what my face hurts too. We’re in this together.
Lewis: That first trip to Colorado, I took my boyfriend and caught him in our hotel room talking to another girl on the phone. I didn’t even tell him that I heard him, I just asked who he was talking to. He lied and I said, “Oh, by the way. You’re leaving tomorrow morning.” I booked his flight and then he left, and then I went to go film.
Ellen Latzen (Ruby Sue): I remember filming the sledding scene in Breckenridge and it was brutally cold. They had a crazy snowstorm and we had a hard time landing on the ground. We had to ride snowcats to get to the top of this mountain. The takes were kind of brutal because of the cold. I remember at the end of the scene, Randy Quaid’s line “Bingo” was totally improvised. Jeremiah Chechik said, “That was amazing, say that again!”
Lewis: I remember being freezing in a tent that had a tiny heater. We tried to bide our time getting a tiny bit of warmth. The first scene we shot is when we were on a hill and I say, “My eyebrows are frozen.”
D’Angelo: Juliette was just coming into this incredible charisma and appeal. She was like a ripening peach. Just amazing. She could say, “Who’s at the door?” and it’d be compelling.
Chase: I thought Juliette’s performance was brilliant, frankly. Her character was bored the whole fucking time, which is what a teenage kid would be. It’s the stage where they’re thinking, “Well, I’m better than this.” She was wonderful.
Galecki: Juliette was older than me by a year, but she might as well been on another planet. I worshipped her. She was rock and roll even at 15 years old. She had different stories about what she had done the night before and with whom. At that time I was, and still am, in awe of her. It was no surprise that within two years she was up for an Oscar. Nobody questioned that there was something boiling in that girl that was going to come out at some point.
Lewis: Johnny was the littlest thing back then. He was really curious, thoughtful, smart and funny.
D’Angelo: I remember feeling so maternal towards Johnny. Chevy and I would sing a song to him, “Oh, Johnny Galecki was a big, big man!”
Galecki: I hadn’t thought of that in ages! I remember Beverly invited me into her trailer and we called Anthony Michael Hall, which was weird for me, because I didn’t know how he’d feel and I was a fan. We talked on speakerphone for a while. Everyone there was really protective of me as much as they could be.
I’m Chevy Chase, and You’re Not
Chechik: Both Chevy and Johnny have the gift of comic timing without the gloss of it. There was an odd flatness to it that was super funny.
Galecki: One day John Hughes, Jeremiah, Chevy and I were sitting around waiting for a scene to be set up, and Chevy said, “There’s always been kind of a man-to-man scene between Clark and Russ in the previous films — a coming-of-age scene. But there isn’t in this one.” John mentioned that he had something like that in an initial draft, and Chevy said, “We should consider putting that back in.” So they asked what I thought and I said, “I don’t think there’s any point. Somebody thought it was worth taking out at some point, so even if we shoot it, it’ll probably get taken out again.” I literally talked myself out of what could have been a classic scene with Chevy Chase. Now that I’m a jaded Hollywood fuck, I realize the error of my ways. I still kick myself in the ass for this everyday.
Chase: Now Galecki’s making 100 million a year and I’m sitting here.
Galecki: Chevy worked like a puppet master for me in some scenes since I was was young and had never done comedy before. He’d almost cue me for my timing. He would nod, point, or wave a finger. He was so supportive, teaching me comic timing. That took a patience and consideration because the movie would have been funny enough without Rusty having that specific timing. He was terribly generous with me.
Latzen: At one point between takes, Chevy turns and looks at me and says in a very dry way, “Hey Ellen, why do dogs lick their balls?” And I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Because they can.” As a kid I didn’t get it, but as an adult I can totally appreciate the humor of it. With us kids, he was great. That was his way. He was very dry.
Doris Roberts (Frances Smith): On television, Chevy was always falling down on people, so during filming he started to do that with me and I squealed. The crew laughed and he said, “Fire this woman!” He was just kidding.
Chase: Damn, I had some great moves. I still have them, I’m just not using them at home a lot.
Well, there was enough snow on that hill to put me in a fucking sled that sped down going about 100 miles an hour. Jesus Christ!
Jacobson: Chevy was a hard worker, incredibly committed, and wanted the movie to be great. That’s the key. He’d always give you a ton of stuff, even little things. Like him in the office talking to his boss, he’ll give you 20 different things — a look, a stumble, a different entrance, a pause.
Galecki: Chevy would take me at lunch hours to the set of Harlem Nights and Ghostbusters 2. He didn’t need to do that, yet here I am as a 13 year-old right off the bus from Chicago and I’m hanging out with Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Harold Ramis, and Dan Aykroyd. That’s a dream.
Ladd: Chevy’s been a really terrific human being to me. He’s a born talent and the universe gave him wonderful comedy timing and he’s a hard, hard worker. Everybody’s different depending on how they affect you, but he played my son and right away I felt like he was my own flesh and blood. When he didn’t get his bonus, I actually cried. “How could they do that to my son?!?”
Jacobson: There’s a scene in the front hallway of the house when Aunt Bethany, played by Mae Questel, wraps up her cat in a box. If you remember the scene, the cat’s supposed to be jumping around in the box and Chevy is holding it by the twine. Clearly we didn’t put a cat in the box when we were shooting it, but on the screen you’re convinced there’s a cat in there from the way the box is twitching and he’s reacting to it. That’s just a real sensibility for physical comedy.
Chase: You can see the box moving in the film, but you can’t see me doing it. That’s the way cats are. They make sudden, surprise movements.
D’Angelo: Whatever it was that happened with Chevy and I when we first met has never changed. We just have always had some kind of connection, physically and creatively. It’s a current you just can’t stop.
Chase: Bev and I have been close friends since the very first Vacation. She’s very close to my wife and me. We even live near each other in Los Angeles. She’s one of the best actresses in the world. I’ve always felt that way.
Lewis: Chevy and Beverly’s chemistry… everyone on set could really feel it.
Chechik: During the filming, Beverly and I really fought like hell. But when we did the DVD commentary several years ago, we had the greatest time together ever. Who knows how this all works?
D’Angelo: There was nothing that would qualify me as a suburban housewife. That wasn’t me. But my mother was devoted to her family and husband, and her motto was “It has to all add up to 100 percent. So it doesn’t matter if you give 99, just as long as it adds up to 100.” And that was the source for me.
Flynn: Randy and I always said that all you have to do is put those clothes on us and we were ready to go. Once I remember the costume person said to me, “Randy thinks it’d be funny to have his underwear show through his white pants. What if you did that too?” And I went, “Um, no. That will be just Randy.”
Chase: I loved working with Randy on all of the Vacation movies. I never even got a hint there was anything going on emotionally or physiologically with him. He just gets right into it. When we’re in the grocery store and he gets that huge 100 pound bag of dog food and slams it down. I don’t think anybody wrote that. That was just Randy reaching out and grabbing it.
Flynn: There’s one scene that didn’t make it to the film and I so wish it had. It’s a scene where Randy and I are in the infamous motor home and you get to see what our lives are like inside. That was a riot, but at the time it had to be cut.
D’Angelo: I remember there was a big discussion on whether Bill Hickey’s cigar should be called a cigar or a stogie, because he says, “Get me my stogie.” [Hickey played Uncle Lewis.] They weren’t sure people would know what a stogie was, because research showed that our average audience was nine years old or something. I thought, “What!?”
Flynn: The turkey scene with it exploding has become somewhat classic. I always get comments whenever I go to buy a turkey around the holidays.
Chase: That dinner sequence was my baby. I remember working out the way it should go, with the camera going around the table filming everybody. Then the turkey, looking like that: “Here’s the heart!” [Laughs] It’s just wonderful, because it’s not so outlandish. The story is about the possibility that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
Lewis: All of the gags in this film, and there’s a lot of them, are all really laborious to shoot. They take hours, if not days.
Chechik: The studio was really against electrifying the cat. They really didn’t want to do it. I would always go, “Well, check with John and see what he thinks.” And then I’d called John immediately after said, “They’re going to call you to try to get rid of the cat!” John protected me.
Jacobson: John was a master of describing comedy. Look at the intricacies of Ferris Bueller and Home Alone; the details of the action are all right there on the page. Even in this one when the squirrel jumps out of the Christmas tree, it’s written in a very detailed way that you can see it on the page.
Chechik: For the dog and squirrel chase, we hired an animal trainer who trained them everyday for months to run through the set. When it came time to finally shoot what we’ve been planning, I got out of my car and saw everyone standing in a huddle shaking their heads and I knew something was terribly wrong. I asked them what was going on and they said, “We have a problem.” Okay, what? “The squirrel’s dead.” I said, “Holy fuck, we’re shooting that today!” And the animal trainer turned and said, “Ya know, they don’t live that long.” We still had to shoot the scene, so we used an untrained squirrel. It was just total chaos.
Lewis: We probably shot the stuff with the squirrel for a week. That’s the magic of moviemaking.
Ladd: I did my own stunt for the scene when the squirrel jumps from tree. I was in pretty good shape, so I jumped up and backwards onto the couch all by myself. Then, I’m supposed to pass out on the floor and the squirrel runs past me. And the director said, “Diane, please get closer to the squirrel!” Meanwhile, the squirrel wrangler was saying, “Diane, please don’t get closer to the squirrel. If someone screams or scares one, their claws are like razor blades.”
D’Angelo: Did you catch when the police came in and there’s a freeze frame where my hand was (on Chevy’s crotch)? I did that spur of the moment and told Chevy, just to see if anyone on set noticed. But we did a couple takes and no one mentioned it.
Chechik: I always wanted the animated opening you see in the film, but Warners balked at the cost of doing an animated title. So rather than get into a fight, I designed another title sequence with a Christmas song sung by a Jamaican who sounded like he had no teeth and you can barely understand the words. Then the replacement title sequence looked like an old French art film, with white titles on black. When I proposed this to Warner they said, “We think the animated titles are great.” For the theme song, Prince was a Warner artist and he produced it. He’s the one who brought in Darlene Love.
Simmons: There’s a scene in the movie that when I saw it, it just knocked me out… when Chevy goes up into the attic and watches the home movies. I just went crazy over that and I remember telling everybody that scene was our home run.
Chechik: I remember when I showed John the first cut of the movie. It was just him and I, and he turned to me and said, “You’ve got such a great movie here, I don’t want to tell you anything.” The day the movie opened, I was home that weekend and James Brooks — the James L. Brooks, who was a friend of Chevy’s and somewhat of a mentor to me — called and said, “We’re going to see your movie in Westwood. You gotta check it out with an audience!” So I sat with him and experienced the movie for the first time with a crowd. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.
Galecki: I remember at the after party for the premiere, I had sushi for the first time and Juliette was on the dance floor tearing it up. I said, “How did you learn to dance like that?” And she said, “Someone taught me last week.” It was the choreographer for In Living Color or something.
Flynn: The first time I saw the movie I really, really loved it. I was at a party at Marty Short’s house and it was right after it came out. Chevy walked in and, somewhat surprised, said, “We’re number one at the box office.”
Chechik: It was number one for like four weeks.
D’Angelo: I think that there was a little phenomenon with it where it was the third movie in the series, but it made more than the second one. Which is unusual. I didn’t know that was going to happen. The first Vacation was rated R, but then this phenomena happened that people brought their kids and instead of saying, “Look at these people,” the audience went, “This is us.” They laughed with them instead of at them. And it changed things.
Jacobson: Frankly, it’s hard to avoid seeing it on television this time of year.
Chase: I don’t watch it if it’s on TV, but just recently, my wife Jane was showing me some clips of it on her computer. I started realizing, hey — that was really funny! It bucked me up. Do you know what my favorite line is? “Have you checked our shitters, honey?”
Galecki: This was such a seminal part of my career, and understanding of comedy and life in general. I remember practically every day.
Flynn: I always know when it’s getting to be around November and December because people start coming up to me asking, “Did we go to school together or something?” The movie has seeped into people’s consciousness.
Latzen: I haven’t acted since I was a kid but my face is still the same, so I’ll be walking down the street and people will say, “Where do I know you from?” Everyone once in awhile I get, “Oh man, you’re Ruby Sue!”
Galecki: What’s even funnier is that people that I’ve known for 10, 15 years still to this day say to me, “Oh my god, you’re in Christmas Vacation?” There’s a big difference between 14 and 39. I’m able to look at it with very grateful eyes.
Simmons: I would say 1,000 people tell me that they watch it every Christmas. I’m not exaggerating. If I go anywhere and they know who I am, people come up to me and say that.
Lewis: I haven’t seen the movie in 20 years, but I do get to relive aspects of it by other people talking to me about it and I just adore that. I love that I’m part of a Christmas classic. As a youngster, you don’t think past that week. Now, as 40 year-old Juliette, I think back and say to myself, “I was a Griswold. How cute.”
Simmons: Until Christmas Vacation came out, I considered A Christmas Story the best Christmas movie. But now I think Christmas Vacation is better.
Chase: Comparing Christmas Vacation to It’s A Wonderful Life is the silliest thing. That film starred the greatest movie actor of all time and the idea that our movie could ever be connected in some fashion to something so brilliant and beautiful always made feel like, “That’s all they had to write about?” It’s very flattering and I suppose Christmas Vacation is a modern look at Christmas. But James Stewart, my God! What a movie. I could talk about that one all day. Frank Capra’s grandson was a second Assistant Director on Christmas Vacation.
Flynn: There are certain things that become part of the lexicon. Now whenever a house has a lot of lights, it’s called a “Griswold house.”
Chase: There are those contests now, with people trying to light their houses. I’m thinking, “I did that. I fell off a roof.”
Lewis: It highlights the idiosyncrasies between family members. You can call be totally different and oddballs, but everyone tries to make a go of it during the holiday season.
Chase: The little moments are my favorite. When Cousin Eddie’s dog goes under the tree and drinks the water, and Clark says “Stop that!” And Randy, as Cousin Eddie, says, “Don’t worry, a little tree water won’t hurt him.” Not at all concerned that I have to get under there and refill the water.
Roberts: This movie’s going to last much longer than all of us, but unfortunately ghosts don’t get residuals.
Ladd: Last year I had to go buy 20 copies of the DVD to give out for Christmas. I meet new people and they say, “Oh my God, my kids watch you every Christmas!” So I send them an autographed copy of the movie and they jump up and down.
Chase: I have to see it again.
[Editor’s Note: A version of this story was originally published December 2014]