Thomas A. Christie is the author of numerous books about Christmas-themed movies and the career of John Hughes, including The Golden Age of Christmas Movies (Extremis, 2019), A Righteously Awesome Eighties Christmas (Extremis, 2016), The Christmas Movie Book (Crescent Moon, 2011), John Hughes FAQ (Applause, 2019), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Pocket Movie Guide (Crescent Moon, 2010), and John Hughes and Eighties Cinema: Teenage Hopes and American Dreams (Crescent Moon, 2009).
The United Kingdom-based Christie has written several other books, among them Contested Mindscapes: Exploring Approaches to Dementia in Modern Popular Culture (Extremis, 2018), The Spectrum of Adventure: A Brief History of Interactive Fiction on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (Extremis, 2016), Mel Brooks: Genius and Loving It! (Crescent Moon, 2015), The James Bond Movies of the 1980s (Crescent Moon, 2013), and The Cinema of Richard Linklater (Crescent Moon, 2008).
He is a member of The Royal Society of Literature, The Society of Authors and The Federation of Writers Scotland.
Christie kindly spoke to The Bits about the appeal and legacy of Christmas Vacation.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think Christmas Vacation should be remembered on its 30th anniversary?
Thomas A. Christie: Christmas Vacation is a perfect blend of festive nostalgia and domestic anarchy. It’s intriguing to consider, as we look back on it thirty years after its initial release, just how focused it was on a past golden age — we see Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold desperately trying his best to recreate the kind of magic Christmas experience he had enjoyed as a child, partly so that his own son and daughter can benefit from it but also because his “perfect family Christmas” is a way of recalling happier times before his life was centered around mundane, middle-aged preoccupations. Thus watching it today, a Gen-X audience can enjoy reminiscing about a distinctively eighties holiday season — before the inescapable cultural domination of the Internet, social media and smartphones — while older viewers will no doubt raise a smile at Clark’s doomed attempts to resurrect his A Christmas Story-style childhood Christmas from the early 1950s (as briefly depicted in his impromptu attic-bound home movie session) in spite of the unabating cynicism of his curmudgeonly relatives. The result is a delightful mix of pithy one-liners, yuletide warmth and strained domestic bonhomie, and a highlight of eighties festive filmmaking that is still attracting new fans even now.
Coate: What do you remember about the first time you saw Christmas Vacation?
Christie: I first saw Christmas Vacation in 1990, and I’ve never tired of watching it in the years since. The late eighties had no shortage of offbeat Christmas-themed movies — Lethal Weapon and Scrooged among them — but what most impressed me about Christmas Vacation was the perfect balance that it struck between knowing, tongue-in-cheek humor and genuinely well-observed sentimental moments. It can be knowing, but never sneering or misanthropic. It’s also emotionally affecting in a few places, but doesn’t stray into the realms of the mawkish or saccharine. It says a lot for John Hughes’s screenplay that even the nominal antagonists — such as the insufferable yuppie neighbors or the grouchy, bad-tempered boss — are still never less than fun to spend time with. Yes, it is undeniably a much more family-friendly outing for the Griswolds than other entries in the Vacation series, but the film is far from overtly schmaltzy and contains more than enough sharply-observed dialogue to make it the perfect antidote for festive cinema’s more treacly moments.
Coate: Is Christmas Vacation a significant motion picture in any way?
Christie: It almost certainly was never intended as such, but Christmas Vacation actually performed an important transitional function for the Christmas movie genre at the time of its production. While Christmas Vacation engages with the customary eighties theme of the philanthropic nature of the festive spirit conflicting with commercial self-interest — which we see in other films of the decade like Trading Places, Santa Claus: The Movie and Scrooged, amongst many others — it also laid the foundations for what would become the predominant concern of Christmas films in the nineties, namely the ageless value of the family unit. Looking back, the festive cinema of the 1990s was acutely concerned with the way that Christmas could reconcile family differences and bring people together (initially focusing on the nuclear family, including All I Want for Christmas and Jingle All the Way, but eventually becoming more inclusive and examining less conventional family structures, as in films such as A Midnight Clear and Mixed Nuts). The seeds of this thematic preoccupation were sown in the late eighties, however, and Christmas Vacation does an admirable job of providing a stepping stone between one era and the next.
Coate: The screenplay for Christmas Vacation was written by John Hughes. Where do you think this movie ranks among Hughes’s body of work?
Christie: It’s interesting that Hughes the screenwriter rarely receives the same amount of critical attention as Hughes the director — which is strangely ironic considering how prolific his writing career was. For instance, everyone immediately regards Pretty in Pink as an archetypal Hughes teen movie on account of his literate and perceptive screenplay (even though the film was actually directed by his protégé Howard Deutch), and yet so many of his other scripts for films such as Nate and Hayes and Career Opportunities have now all but disappeared into the mists of memory. Christmas Vacation, along with proximate features in his filmography such as Uncle Buck and Home Alone, marked a gradual shift for Hughes away from mainstream comedies such as Planes, Trains and Automobiles, She’s Having a Baby and The Great Outdoors, towards the broader, more family-oriented features he would be creatively involved with throughout the nineties — films which included Dutch, Curly Sue and Baby’s Day Out. The screenplay for Christmas Vacation is actually one of his most underrated; critics at the time gave it a pretty lukewarm reception on both sides of the Atlantic, even though it almost immediately garnered itself a cult following and remains popular on home entertainment formats even today. It also has significance to Hughes’s career in the sense that it forms part of a loose trilogy of Christmas-themed features which featured Christmas Vacation, Home Alone (including, nominally, its first sequel in 1992), and the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street.
Coate: Christmas Vacation was Jeremiah Chechik’s feature film debut as director. Considering his output over the last thirty years, what do you think made him an ideal choice to direct this film and where do you think the film ranks among his body of work?
Christie: Jeremiah Chechik was an intriguing choice to helm Christmas Vacation, given his initial background in directing music videos for artists such as Hall & Oates and Van Halen. Later features like Benny & Joon, Diabolique and Gossip Girl have all emphasized the breadth of his stylistic range as a director, and of course he has gone on to a successful career in directing for TV in more recent years. I think it would be fair to say that Christmas Vacation might fairly be considered his most commercial work, especially given the frosty critical reaction to the big-budget (but now largely forgotten) adaptation of ITV’s The Avengers around nine years later in his career. Chechik steers Christmas Vacation energetically enough, and provides the film with a good variety of memorably chilly exteriors and invitingly festive domestic scenes. It isn’t by any means his most challenging or thematically complex film, but his approach certainly marks the movie out as being quite different in tone from other films in the Vacation cycle of films.
Coate: Do you have any thoughts on the revolving door of actors who have portrayed the Griswold children in the Vacation series?
Christie: The ever-changing faces of Rusty and Audrey Griswold have become the stuff of pop culture legend, to the point that Clark mentions in Vegas Vacation — with no small degree of irreverence — that even he has some trouble recognizing his own children. I suspect that for many people, the initial pairing of Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron in the original Vacation movie will always be the original and best, but the unlikely combination of Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis in Christmas Vacation make for admirable successors. It’s even easy to forget the fact that Galecki’s Rusty seems markedly younger than the character had been while in his Jason Lively incarnation during European Vacation, even though the previous film had been made four years earlier! I suppose the main thing is that whatever face the Griswold kids happen to be wearing at any given time, they always seem to be united in their humiliation over Clark’s over-the-top antics in equal measure — perhaps proving that “embarrassing dad syndrome” is one of the overarching themes of the whole Vacation series. Thankfully for them, Clark somehow always manages to come through in the end…albeit more by sheer luck than good judgement.
Coate: Where do you think Christmas Vacation ranks among the Vacation series?
Christie: I think, for many people, Harold Ramis’s original 1983 Vacation movie will always be the pinnacle of the series. It took a seemingly-innocent family road trip and gradually conjured an Animal House-style strain of mayhem from this otherwise-innocuous premise, deftly riffing on themes such as overcoming extra-marital temptations, hormonally-charged teenage frustrations and dealing with slightly dubious relatives (not least Randy Quaid’s entertainingly repellent but always good-natured Cousin Eddie). Amy Heckerling’s European Vacation took the same basic principle and applied it to overseas locations, but while the film is nowhere near as poor as its critical reputation sometimes suggests, Robert Klane’s screenplay lacked the serrated satirical bite of John Hughes’s original Vacation script. (Though Hughes was credited as European Vacation’s co-writer, there has been much subsequent debate as to the extent of his involvement.) With Hughes’s pen firmly back in his hand by the time of Christmas Vacation, the film felt very much like a return to form for the series — even including the fact that, as had been the case with the original film, he based the screenplay upon incidents he had originally outlined in stories he’d written for National Lampoon magazine. Later entries, such as Stephen Kessler’s Vegas Vacation and the concluding 2015 Vacation written and directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, had no creative involvement from Hughes and thus went in their own respective directions to varying effect.
Coate: Where do you think Christmas Vacation ranks among Christmas-themed movies?
Christie: Christmas Vacation is certainly a highlight of modern Christmas comedies, and a low-key classic of 1980s festive cinema. It will likely never rank in the top tier of Christmas movies in the opinion of most critics, but such has been its enduring popularity that it certainly seems to be in no danger of disappearing from the public consciousness at any point soon. It is very much a film that is reflective of its time of production, exuding late eighties pop culture in much the same way as The Lemon Drop Kid’s Damon Runyon-esque setting anchors it in the fifties and Black Christmas’s shadowy university campus was so distinctively seventies in its fashions and decoration. It is probably fair to say that as long as there is still affection for the culture of the eighties, there will be a place in moviegoers’ hearts for Christmas Vacation.
Coate: What do you think makes for a good Christmas movie?
Christie: Charles Dickens hit the nail on the head when he wrote A Christmas Carol: the reason that the story was so immediately popular and has been endlessly remade and reinvented is down to the fact that in spite of the strong moral core of the narrative, the reader never feels that they are being preached to because it is the attitudes of the grasping Ebenezer Scrooge, and never the reader, which bears the brunt of Dickens’s derision. When you look at the Christmas movie as a genre, more often than not it is full of moral observations, and yet the films which have proven to be most popular are the ones which strike a chord with an audience without ever being heavy-handed about their ethical motives. It’s a Wonderful Life holds up George Bailey as a paragon of selflessness and community spirit, but we can still relate to him because he is a flawed and often conflicted character. The movie now functions just as well as a timeless celebration of small town America as it does as a festive classic. White Christmas may well take its cue from the holiday season in which it is set, but at its heart it is really a film which is about interpersonal camaraderie, team work and the fact that members of a family can be bound together by more than just blood ties. So in my opinion, the very best Christmas movies are the ones which are able to convey far-reaching moral and ethical themes in ways which transcend their yuletide setting, and which genuinely make people think anew about how they consider their priorities and relate to others. As Dickens himself said, it is important to “keep Christmas all the year round,” and that’s so often what the true classics of festive cinema are able to achieve.
Coate: Can Christmas movies be enjoyed year round, or should they be viewed only at holiday time?
Christie: That’s a really interesting question. Certainly when you look at the overwhelming popularity of Hallmark Christmas TV movies, which have garnered a legion of adoring fans in recent years, there’s no denying that there’s a strong demand for Christmas-themed entertainment at times of the year other than just December. Whether such features still have the same emotional impact when viewed outside of the holiday season, however, is another matter entirely. Just think of the controversy over whether we should consider Die Hard a festive movie just because it happens to be set on Christmas Eve; there’s precious little yuletide cheer in evidence at the Nakatomi Plaza, in spite of the soundtrack teasing us with the occasional riff on Christmas melodies, but few would argue against the fact that it works perfectly as a top-drawer action film at any time of year. Further compounding this dichotomy are films such as Trading Places, which is considered a Christmas film over here in the UK even though that has generally not been a widely-held opinion in the US. On the other hand, people love Home Alone at any time of the year, even though its narrative hinges on being set at Christmas (given that just about everyone in Kevin’s neighborhood has gone on vacation for the holidays, making his necessity for self-reliance all the more tangible). So I suspect it’s very much a matter of personal opinion, but — as I see it — the films situated at Christmas which do best outside of the holiday season are those which exhibit a broader narrative appeal. Let’s not forget that Miracle on 34th Street was a smash hit when it was released in 1947, even in spite of being released at the height of summer that year!
Coate: What is the legacy of Christmas Vacation?
Christie: Christmas Vacation is a prime slice of eighties John Hughes comedy, post his legendary teen movies but before he committed himself fully to kids’ films and family features, and it remains an enjoyable and pleasingly earnest festive experience even now. Individual appreciation of the film may well rest on people’s willingness to trust in Chevy Chase’s comic ability to channel the happiest Christmas “since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny Kaye,” but as a 1980s festive movie its witty mélange of modernity and nostalgia proved to be the ideal remedy for the sugary romanticism of films like Santa Claus: The Movie, Ernest Saves Christmas and One Magic Christmas. The movie lacks the dark edge of Scrooged and the mildly maudlin emotionalism of other films of the period, such as Prancer, but thanks to Hughes it retains just enough calculating humor and perceptive commentary on family dynamics to ensure that it has extensive audience appeal. Plus, of course, it is very difficult to dislike any festive film that features a Christmas Eve SWAT team, an exploding storm sewer and an impromptu squirrel chase!
Coate: Thank you, Tom, for sharing your thoughts about National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.
Selected images copyright/courtesy Hughes Entertainment, Los Angeles Times, Warner Bros. Pictures, Warner Home Video. Thomas A. Christie author photo by Eddy A. Bryan.
- Michael Coate