Program Notes: Vacation (1983)
A pebble thrown into a pond may create just a tiny splash. But the ripples it generates can seem to go on forever.
What, you ask, has this got to do with the 1983 film comedy Vacation?
Simple. Vacation – which chronicles the disastrous summer road trip of the fictional Griswold family – created lots of ripples. We’re still experiencing them today.
Ripple No. 1: Vacation saved the National Lampoon brand.
In 1978 the National Lampoon, the celebrated humor magazine, got into the movie business in a big way with National Lampoon’s Animal House, a comedy set on a college campus in the early ‘60s. It was a huge hit, thanks in large part to the clowning of John Belushi.
Attempting to capitalize on Animal Houses’s success, the Lampoon in 1982 made two more comedies: National Lampoon’s Class Reunion and National Lampoon’s Movie Madness. The former was released to critical carping and miserable ticket sales. The second was deemed so bad it wasn’t released at all.
The Lampoon brand appeared to be dead in the water. Which is why Vacation – though made by the Lampoon people – did not carry the words “National Lampoon’s” in its title. At that point it was feared that associating the film with the National Lampoon would actually scare away moviegoers.
As it turned out, Vacation was a big, big success. So much so that it encouraged the Lampoon bunch to finally release Movie Madness and initiate a whole bunch of new Lampoon movies.
To date the Lampoon crowd is responsible for nearly 40 theatrical movies (including the Vacation sequels National Lampoon’s European Vacation and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), 11 made-for-TV movies, and more than 20 straight-to-video movies. It’s a regular industry.
Ripple No. 2: Vacation made a star of John Hughes
Vacation was written by the soon-to-be-famous John Hughes, who based it on a comic story he’d written earlier for the Lampoon magazine. Hughes had also scripted the earlier Class Reunion, a notorious flop. He needed a hit movie. He got one.
His Hollywood profile was so increased by Vacation that within a year Hughes was directing his own movie, Sixteen Candles. In subsequent years he became our most popular chronicler of contemporary teendom by writing (and often directing) films like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, not to mention comedy classics like Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Ripple No. 3: Vacation cemented the career of director Harold Ramis.
Ramis was not unknown, having already co-written Animal House, Meatballs, Stripes, and Caddyshack (which he also directed). But Vacation made him a bankable director. He went on to direct films like Analyze This and its sequel Analyze That, Multiplicity, and especially 1993’s Groundhog Day, one of the best comedies of the decade.
Ripple No. 4: Vacation made possible the entire Simpsons universe.
Think about it. Vacation treats the members of its nuclear family as idiots. It was released at a time when much of America still clung to a Father Knows Best view of the American patriarch. Yet Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) became iconic by being the biggest dolt imaginable.
Moreover, Vacation is shot through with some very dark humor. Clark leashes a pooch to the car bumper and then, forgetting all about the animal, drives off. Result: Dead dog.
And let’s not forget Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca). When the aged Edna dies, Clark, not wanting to delay his family’s arrival at the Wally World theme park, ties her corpse to the roof of the family station wagon and hurriedly deposits the body in a lounge chair on the patio of her son’s Phoenix home.
This was four years before Homer Simpson’s clan first showed up in brief cartoons on TV’s Tracey Ullman Show. You could argue that Clark Griswold laid the groundwork for America’s acceptance of the whole father-as-moron ethos of The Simpsons.
Ultimately, though, the most important ripple made by Vacation is this: Nearly 30 years after its initial release, it continues to make us laugh.
Other films in the series “Road Trip”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- August 4: It Happened One Night (1934) Not Rated
- August 11: Badlands (1973) Rated PG
- August 18: Little Miss Sunshine (2006) Rated R
- August 25: Thelma & Louise (1991) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- August 6: Harry and Tonto (1974) Rated R
- August 13: The Straight Story (1999) Rated G
- August 20: Vacation (1983) Rated R
- August 27: Broken Flowers (2005) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.