Problematic Movies of the ‘80s | National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

Problematic Movies of the ‘80s | National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

By Don Hall

I love Clark W. Griswold despite Chevy Chase becoming a huge disappointment as a human being and Randy Quaid losing his mind. I love the Griswold mostly because of the third installment in National Lampoon’s series Christmas Vacation. My family watches Christmas Vacation every Christmas (along with a few other films of the holiday genre) and that movie is so cemented in my mind and history I can quote it from start to finish.

My mom is a bit like Clark. She wants every vacation, every holiday to be “the best one EVER” and tends to twist herself into pretzels of expectation to make sure each one fits that particular bill. Sure, absent from most of our Christmases are the age-ism, the classism, the thinly veiled misogyny, and the comical killing of a cat but if mom is Clark, I’m definitely Cousin Eddie and the shitter is almost always full.

The first film in the saga I’m less familiar with. I think I’ve seen it twice (once in the theater and once on cable) but I just barely recall the details. I vaguely remember Clark being both a family man and a guy who’d fuck a supermodel in an instant, making him basically a middle-aged dude but still. Kind of a creep, right? There’s somewhat of a full sub-plot about Christie Brinkley in a red Ferrari and Clark almost derailing his good old fashioned family vacation to try and bone her.

The only reason this is one the list is because A) I remember thinking it was hysterical and B) because a friend of mine asked if I was covering it (“That movie is awful! Very problematic!”).

I looked up the synopsis and here’s what came up:

The Griswold family are on a quest. A quest to a Walley World theme park for a family vacation, but things aren't going to go exactly as planned, especially when Clark Griswold is losing all thought towards a mysterious blonde in a red Ferrari.

In the Age of #MeToo and the slow retraining of the American male, this plot seems at least somewhat problematic especially considering that a woman I know recently went completely apeshit on a guy on LinkedIn who flirted with her via that platform (“Beautiful eyes? Are you attached?”) and Uncle Joe Biden is being pilloried for a kiss on the top of the head.

National Lampoon’s Vacation
Written by John Hughes
Directed by Harold Ramis

The movie is pretty standard (although I’d suggest that the schtick gets more refined by the time they get to Christmas Vacation). Basically, Clark (Chevy Chase) is taking his family (Beverly D’Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall, and Dana Barron) to Wally World (a stand-in for Disneyland) 2,400 miles away from Chicago to California. He gets shafted on a new car by Eugene Levy, gets lost in St, Louis, picks up his wife’s Aunt Edna (Imogene Coco) at her Cousin Eddie’s (Randy Quaid) house along with her vicious dog, accidentally kills the dog, gets lost in the desert, lets Aunt Edna die in the car and drops her dead body off at her son’s house, loses all his money, tries to fuck Christie Brinkley in a hotel pool, and finally gets them all to Wally World.

It’s closed for cleaning and maintenance so he holds a security guard (John Candy) hostage, rides all the rides and convinces Roy Wally to let them off.

Okay. Maybe it’s more convoluted than the standard but that’s all part of the fun.

Problematic Moments/Themes

The two areas in Vacation that stand out as rough by today’s mores are when it comes to its depiction of black people and the pass Clark gets for nearly boning a random woman in a hotel pool. One is problematic in the 2019 sense, the other is just a goofy take on marital infidelity as a concept rather than a practice.

One of the first road songs Clark decides to sing is “Jimmy Crack Corn.” Do you know “Jimmy Crack Corn?”

Anyway, on the road, Clark gets lost in St. Louis and ends up in a version of town apparently reserved solely for the most broad stereotypes of black people they could create: a pimp, some prostitutes, and a gang of black guys who steal their hubcaps and spray paint “Honky Lips” on the side of their car.

In the film's DVD commentary, director Harold Ramis said he was worried the National Lampoon style of comedy may have had too much of an edge for his directorial style and said he was particularly embarrassed by the scene in St. Louis, calling it "the most politically incorrect sequence I've ever shot."

St. Louis: Where all the stereotypes go to hang out on street corners.

St. Louis: Where all the stereotypes go to hang out on street corners.

Not great representation but it’s a John Hughes script so is anyone surprised?

Sure enough, Clark and his wife get into a fight, he goes to the hotel bar looking to pick up some trim when Brinkley shows up. He lies about being married and an outlandish hotel inspection job he does and Brinkley bites. She takes him to the pool, undresses and hops in. He strips down and they’re gonna go for it but the water is so cold, Clark screams and wakes up the entire hotel. His wife even comes out and catches him in the act. He justifies it several ways: he works hard, his feelings were hurt, he was angry.

Ultimately she takes as much responsibility as he does and the two go get naked and jump in the pool. Not so much problematic but much the same relationship that allows him to fuck up repeatedly during the trip and his dutiful wife just goes along with it. Out of love, commitment or simple exhaustion, Ellen Griswold is the Hillary Clinton of 1980s wives.

Did It Hold Up?

It’s fine. Not nearly as funny as I remembered it and it pales in comparison to the Christmas version but it’s not horrible.


Scale of 1 to 10
1 = Classic
10 = Burn all VHS copies of it

National Lampoon’s Vacation gets a 5.

Next Up: Trading Places (1983)

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