I didn’t watch Christmas Vacation this Christmas season. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a part of my Christmas. Every time my older brother got a text message on his phone I heard Clark’s line from the film about having the “hap, hap happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye” because that’s what my brother set as his phone’s notification noise. At some point along the way, at least one person in my family referenced senile Aunt Bethany cluelessly asking “Is Rusty still in the navy?” or crazy Cousin Eddie saying “Shitter’s full!” in reference to his RV. Of course, it’s not that we have a senile aunt of our own, or a crazy cousin who routinely embarrasses us. The actual biggest similarity between the film and my family is that my oldest brother is just as obsessed with Christmas lights as Clark, turning wherever he’s living every Christmas into a “Griswold home.” More than that, though, we reference the film because we’ve seen it so many times, and it has simply become part of our culture. That’s the type of thing that can happen when you’ve been living with a film for 25 years.
That’s right – Christmas Vacation just turned 25 this year, but Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo have actually been playing Clark and Ellen Griswold since the first Vacation in 1983. They played them again as recently as 2 years ago in a series of Old Navy commercials, which also brought back Juliette Lewis and Anthony Michael Hall, and they’ll play them again next year in the newest iteration of Vacation, which will try to pass the baton to Ed Helms as an adult Rusty Griswold with kids of his own to take on ill-advised family vacations. However, while the original Vacation is a beloved classic, European Vacation the to-be-expected lesser sequel, and Vegas Vacation more forgotten than remembered Christmas Vacation is the version of the Griswold’s I love the most. As such, I was especially delighted to see that Rolling Stone put together an oral history of Christmas Vacation culled from new interviews with Chase, D’Angelo, Lewis, several of the other actors, producers, and the director. It has amazingly been 25 years since that film came out, but this oral history revealed things I never knew or noticed or simply forgot about, such as (all quotes taken from RollingStone):
1. They had always wanted to make a Christmas one
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.
2. The Director had never made a film before, and was mostly known for his sexy commercials
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.
Beverly 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.”
3. Just in case you never noticed before, Yes, that is Johnny Galecki from Roseanne and Big Bang Theory as Rusty
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 […] 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.
4. The actress playing Chevy Chase’s mom was only one year older than him
Sally Field was hired to play Tom Hanks’ mom in Forrest Gump even though she had played his love interest 6 years earlier in Punchline. Anne Bancroft was only 6 years older than Dustin Hoffman when she played Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, the most notorious milf in cinematic history. Angelina Jolie is only 1 year older than Colin Farrell, and yet they still cast her to play his mother in Oliver Stone’s Alexander. These are some of the more well-known, “Daaaaaaamn, it sucks being an older actress in Hollywood!” stories. Well, it turns out Christmas Vacation belongs on that list as well.
Dianne Ladd: Christmas Vacation 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!
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.
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.
6. First, it wouldn’t snow when they needed it, too, and then when they had fake snow on the way it snowed way too muchChechik: 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.
7. Juliette Lewis’ had to dump her cheating boyfriend while filming in Colorado
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.
8. Eddie’s “Bingo” was improvised
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!
9. Beverly D’Angelo arranged a conversation between the old Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and the new one (Galecki)
Galecki: 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.
10. There were no signs that Randy Quaid would someday go insane
Head over to the “Legal Issues” section of Quaid’s Wikipedia page if you want to see how truly crazy Uncle Eddie went, but as of last check Quaid was stuck in Canada with his nutty wife, unable to re-enter the United States without being arrested, and ranting and raving about a group he calls “Starwhackers” who are out to kill Hollywood actors such as himself.
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.
11. Apparently, Chevy Chase wasn’t a horrible person
Community’s Dan Harmon and Tom Shales’ oral history of Saturday Night Live (Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live) have done a lot of damage to Chevy Chase’s reputation in recent years, revealing that a lot of people in Hollywood really, really hate him (and apparently with good cause a lot of the time). So, now you can cynically assume that “Chevy was such a monster!” stories will pop up whenever you stumble upon some look back at one of his old films. However, maybe he’s gotten a bad rap, maybe the people interviewed by Rolling Stone didn’t want to needlessly burn bridges, and maybe it doesn’t even matter if Chevy Chase is king of the douchebags or the nicest guy in all of creation just as long as he’s funny on screen. Either way, the Christmas Vacation people had nothing but nice things to say about him:
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?!?”
Tom Jacobson (Producer): 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 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.
12. The studio didn’t want them to electrocute that cat
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.
13. The trained squirrel died literally the morning they were about to shoot its scenes
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.
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.”
14. That opening sequence almost never happened, and when it did the music came from Prince
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.
15. Frank Capra’s grandson was the second assistant director
Christmas Vacation is now commonly regarded as one of the classic Christmas films of all time, and some have dared tell Chevy Chase they like it even better than It’s a Wonderful Life, the Jimmy Stewart classic directed by legendary schmaltz master Frank Capra. Well, Chase completely disagrees, but it at least turns out a Capra was on the set of Christmas Vacation.
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.