For many families, watching Christmas movies is a cherished holiday tradition. Over the last few decades, several films, like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation released in 1989, have become “modern Christmas classics” joining the ranks of bona fide classics like White Christmas, Miracle on 34th, and It’s a Wonderful Life. With each passing year, bumbling Clark Griswold and his quirky family seem to get funnier and more endearing. Bookshelf presents some of the fascinating trivia about this beloved modern Christmas classic.
Christmas Vacation was the first feature film directed by Jeremiah Chechik, who previously directed commercials.
Most of the exterior scenes were shot in Breckenridge, Colorado during late winter (about mid-March). By the time the film crew arrived, the weather turned warm and the crew had to haul snow from one part of town to the other. After the snow had been trucked in, a blizzard hit the town burying it under eight feet of snow.
The scene of the Griswold’s station wagon flying through the air was shot at the Breckenridge Golf Course, in one take, using three different cameras.
The scene of Clark and Eddie shopping was shot at a local Walmart filmed amount local residents who were shopping. Walmart’s parking lot was also used as the destination for Clark’s downhill metal saucer sled ride.
The sledding scene was the most difficult scene to shoot. Filming was done at 4:00 am for about a week., with temperatures reaching 20 or 30 degrees below zero. Due to the resort’s elevation (about 12,000 feet) several crew members suffered from altitude sickness and had to be transported by helicopter for treatment.
When Clark is hanging onto a gutter, he launches an icicle projectile that crashes through the neighbors’ (Todd and Margo Chester) window, destroying a sleek, modern stereo system. Any audiophile who grew up in the 1970s instantly recognizes the distinctive Bang & Olufsen component stereo system that once defined the pinnacle of high-end audio equipment. The company was founded in 1925 in Struer, Denmark by Peter Bang and Sven Olufsen.
In the scene where Clark and Cousin Eddie Johns0n are drinking eggnog from those distinctive moose antler mugs, Cousin Eddie is seen wearing a dickey (also spelled dickie or dicky, also known as a “shirt bosom”). A dickey is a detachable false shirt front, typically with a tuxedo, that appears perfectly pressed. Dickies were introduced in the early 1910s because it was easier to wash, starch, and press a shirt bosom rather than the entire shirt. The most formal dickies were made of celluloid since they were bright white, waterproof, wrinkle-proof and stain-resistant. Another form of dickies is a cloth dickey, most commonly a turtleneck-style dickey that simulates wearing a turtleneck under a sweater. Of course, Cousin Eddie the lovable hillbilly, wears a see-through ivory sweater that reveals the base of the dark green turtleneck dickey, an egregious fashion faux pas.
Mary, the sexy sales clerk at the lingerie department (and later performed a sultry poolside striptease causing Clark to steam up the window) was played by 35-year-old former model-turned-actress Nicolette Scorsese. Although this was the role that made her famous, she went on to appear in several films (Boxing Helena, The Ultimate Lie) and television series (L.A. Law, ER, NYPD Blue). Her previous appearances on television included small roles in The A-Team and Charles in Charge.
The lingerie department scene was filmed at the Bullocks Wilshire department store, built in 1929, located outside downtown Los Angeles. The building, designed by John and Donald Parkinson was commissioned by department store magnate John Bullock who wanted the most elegant and luxurious department store in the area. The store opened on September 26, 1929, enjoyed many decades of success where many A-list actors shopped; however it experienced a downturn in the 1980s and was eventually sold to Macys in the late 1980s. The store finally closed its doors in 1993. Today the building houses the Southwestern Law School.
The titillating black-and-white poster above Rusty’s bed features supermodel Carre Otis, a model for Guess jeans. Oddly enough, the signature on the poster is not hers, but the co-founder of Guess, Georges Marciano.
Built in 1948, the Griswold house and neighborhood (a u-shaped row of houses) sits on the Warner Brothers Ranch in Burbank, California. The house has been featured in several shows and films: the Blondie series (1930-40s), the Lethal Weapon movies (1987-1992), and The Middle (2009). To achieve the look of winter, the crew used bleached sawdust and cotton batting. The interior of the Griswold house was shot on two large sound stages at the Warner Brothers Studios.
The swimming pool featured in Clark’s dream sequence was shot at the aforementioned Warner Brothers Ranch. The pool is located across the street from the Griswold’s house, situated by a large home (the Alan House has been featured in the shows like Bewitched, The Partridge Family, Pushing Daisies, and Small Soldiers) and not far from the water fountain used in the opening credits of the popular sitcom Friends.
Although she has appeared in more than 50 films, Beverly D’Angelo is best know for her role as Ellen Griswold who adores her sweet but klutzy husband. Before she turned to acting, D’Angelo was an illustrator at Hanna-Barbera Studios in Los Angeles and a singer. When she wasn’t playing Mrs. Griswold, D’Angelo’s significant other was screenwriter Neil Jordan (1985-91) and then Al Pacino (1996-2003); Pacino is the father of her fraternal twins.
Mae Questel, who plays Aunt Bethany, did the voiceover work for the animated cartoons Betty Boop (1931-38) and Olive Oyl from Popeye (1933-58).
Randy Quaid, who plays Cousin Eddie, is country star and singer Gene Autry’s third cousin. Gene Autry (1907-1998) was known as “The Singing Cowboy.” One of his more popular holiday songs is “Here Comes Santa Claus” used during the police raid near the end of the film.
Johnny Galecki, who plays Rusty, appeared in two Christmas movies that were released in 1989: Prancer and Christmas Vacation. He now stars in the hit comedy show The Big Bang Theory.
Frank Capra III was the assistant director of Christmas Vacation; he is the grandson of Frank Capra, the director of the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life.
When Clark watches a family movie in the attic, the film is labeled “Xmas ’59” an allusion to the short story, “Christmas ’59” written by John Hughes (1950-2009) that is the basis for the film. Hughes’s films not only defined the teen genre (with films like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink), he almost singlehandedly defined the modern holiday classics. In just under a decade he wrote six memorable films — two about Thanksgiving — Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) and Dutch (1991) — and four about Christmas — National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1998), Home Alone (1990), Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), and Miracle on 34th Street (1994). Hughes grew up near Chicago, Illinois and most of his films are set in the Windy City.
The photo on the cover of People Magazine that Clark is holding (with sticky sappy fingers) features Matty Simmons, the movie’s producer. One of Simmons’s key contribution to the film was to persuade studio executives to leave in the scene when the cat gets electrocuted by biting on the tree lights cord. The executives believed that the scene would offend viewers, particularly animal lovers.
Despite having an incredible soundtrack — original score by Angelo Badalamenti (best known for his evocative score for the surreal ABC show “Twin Peaks”) songs by Mavis Staples, Ray Charles, Bing Crosby, and Gene Autry) — Warner Brothers never released an official soundtrack album. Talk about being a Grinch! A bootleg CD was released in 1999, containing songs and snippets of dialogue; it was instantly criticized for inaccuracies in track listings and poor audio quality.
The Griswolds will be returning to the big screen in the fifth National Lampoon Vacation series titled Vacation to be released October 2015. The film is a sequel to Vegas Vacation, wherein Rusty (played by Ed Helms), who is now an adult, and his wife Debbie (played by Christina Applegate) and their two sons travel across the country to visit Wally World before it closes. Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo have signed on to reprise their respective famous roles.
Read related posts: Twas the Night Before Christmas
A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life
Best Quotes from A Christmas Carol
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
The Story Behind Scrooge
For further reading: AMC’s Great Christmas Movies by Frank Thompson, Taylor Publishing (1998)