"Christmas Vacation" is a cuckoo clock of a movie, just as loopy, wonderful and fresh as it was 25 years ago this month when we first unwrapped it.
Rippingly rich satire, the seasonal favorite features Chevy Chase as the bighearted dad, with Beverly D'Angelo as his modern-day Donna Reed, luminescent and saintly even as she sneaks a smoke in the kitchen.
The legendary John Hughes wrote "Christmas Vacation." For my money, Hughes' "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" is his masterwork, warm, resonant and comforting. But for belly laughs, it can't match "Christmas Vacation." Few movies can, holiday-themed or otherwise.
Take this delicious snippet of dialogue:
Ellen: What are you looking at?
Clark: Oh, the silent majesty of a winter's morn; the clean, cool chill of the holiday air; and an [idiot] in his bathrobe, emptying a chemical toilet into my sewer.
Twenty-five years later, what dad can carve that first slice of turkey without recalling the Griswold bird collapsing like an overcooked football in front of a dozen guests? And who can scrub the tree sap without thinking of Chase's fingers sticking to the pages while reading in bed, then getting tangled in his wife's hair.
"That one was totally me," Chase told me about the bedroom scene. "We'd just done the Christmas tree, and I said his fingers should be full of sap."
Did he draw on his own father for the role of the befuddled host?
"Actually, I didn't," Chase said by phone from his home outside New York City. "I'm not really much of an actor. I didn't draw on anything. Beverly's the actor. She does that sort of thing."
What Chase did have was Hughes' tightly written script, peppered with sight gags and such a deep arsenal of throwaway lines that new ones emerge with every viewing ("Don't forget the rubber sheets and the gerbils.")
Hughes' work matches up with the cleverest American comedy writers of the last 50 years — Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Buck Henry. The Mark Twain Prize should go to Hughes posthumously. Maybe twice.
At the time, Roger Ebert panned the movie, dismissing two of the older characters' performances as "gothic caricatures."
"You have the odd sensation, watching the movie, that it's straining to get off the ground but simply doesn't have the juice," he wrote in December 1989.
It was a rare misfire for Ebert, who generally had a reliable funny bone and appreciated well-executed populist fare. The movie's enduring appeal is based on real-life experience. Every father has a bit of Clark Griswold in him; every family is a little fractured, especially around the holidays.
The casting was as deft as the writing. The older in-laws — Doris Roberts, E.G. Marshall, Diane Ladd, John Randolph, William Hickey and Mae Questel — repeatedly steal scenes from the younger actors, including the remarkably deadpan Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki.
"Everything in comedy is setup," "Christmas Vacation" director Jeremiah S. Chechik said in a recent interview. "It's pulling back that elastic band tighter and tighter until the laugh is the release."
The family Christmas saga was Chechik's first feature, after a successful run of edgy, quick-cut commercials. Seemingly more suited to small, dark indie movies, he plucked the Hughes script from a pile of features Warner Bros. had sent him and "threw caution to the wind."
"Turns out, I've made something that'll last longer than me," Chechik said.
Chechik and Chase said Hughes was not on set for the movie, which was mostly shot on the Warner lot (snow scenes were done in Colorado).
"But John gave me a tremendous amount of freedom," Chechik said. "We had this tacit understanding that if the studio pushed me about something — 'You don't want to really fry a cat, do you?' — he'd have my back. They'd call me, and I'd say, 'Have you talked to John?' After that it was over."
He said that the studio was mostly supportive and that production went fairly smoothly, except for one morning when he rolled up to the set and saw production people huddling glumly with animal trainers. They were about to film the squirrel dashing through the house. For the scene, animal trainers had worked for months so that the big dog would chase the squirrel, but not quite catch it.
"Overnight, the squirrel had died," Chechik said.
A new, understudy squirrel was brought in. And as with Christmas itself, mayhem ensued in that uniquely Griswold style that made the family so much fun — and so relatable.
Ellen: You set standards that no family activity can live up to.
Clark: When have I ever done that?
Ellen: Parties, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, holidays…
Clark: Good night, Ellen
Ellen: Vacations, graduations....
"It certainly was the funniest family movie I ever made," Chase says now — and he did some hilarious ones. "We had a lovely time doing it. The cast was such a bunch of old pros. John Randolph was perfect as my father.
"And Beverly was so great," he says of D'Angelo, with whom he is currently developing a comedy for ABC. "She's still a very close friend."