There are probably people around today who think that Chevy Chase is just that grumpy old dude from Community. Well, let me tell you that back in the day (ie, when your parents were children) Chase was a pretty big star. He got his start in a comedy TV show called Saturday Night Live, then moved into movies with hits such as Caddyshack, Fletch, Spies Like Us and Three Amigos. But it was the four (with a fifth on the way) National Lampoon Vacation films that Chase is probably best know for now ... apart from Community, that is.
National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)
The original and the best. The Griswold family – dad Clark (Chase), mum Ellen (D'Angelo) and kids Rusty and Audrey (Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron) – take a family holiday and drive from Chicago to Los Angeles to visit Walley World. The kids actually wanted to go to Hawaii, and Ellen wanted to fly, but Clark is keen to get some family "together" time. What seems like a simple road trip turns to chaos as everything that could go wrong does, from ending up in the "wrong" part of town to losing all their credit cards and having Aunt Edna dies in the back seat. The script by 80s legend John Hughes is divine: sharp, clever and subversive (Walley World is a wonderful pisstake of Disneyland). And Chase's performance is sublime. Clark Griswold is a wonderful comic creation – clumsy and clueless, yet still the perfect loving husband and father. This Vacation is a modern comedy classic.
European Vacation (1985)
The Griswolds head to Europe after winning a trip on the TV game show Pig in a Poke. Chaos ensues as Clark drives on the wrong side of the road in London, knocks over Stonehenge, visits the wrong relatives in Germany and gets involved in a bank robbery in Rome. Chase and D'Angleo are back and both on fine form, but this time the kids, Rusty and Audrey, are played by different actors – Jason Lively and Dana Hill. It's not as darkly comic as the first film, but still has plenty of laughs. And there are some terrific cameos from British comedy greats Eric Idle, Mel Smith and Robbie Coltrane.
Christmas Vacation (1989)
New actors on deck to play the kids (Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki) and no road trip this time as the Griswolds stay home and let the rest of the family come to them. The usual chaos ensues. Clark has to have the biggest tree possible, he has to have the most Christmas lights covering his house and he had to have the most obnoxious relatives possible. For me, it's not quite as funny as the other Vacations – probably due to the lack of a road trip. But it does have its moments. And keep your eyes open for the wonderful Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a psycho neighbour.
Vegas Vacation (1997)
The Griswolds are back on the road, this time heading to Las Vegas – a rather strange place to take a family holiday. We have new actors on board as the kids, Ethan Embry and Marisol Nichols (Clark even refers to this running gag, saying: "You guys are growing up so fast, I hardly recognise you any more.") Once in Vegas, as you'd expect, Chaos ensues. Clark develops a bit of a gambling problem, Ellen attracts the attention of Wayne Newton, and the kids ... well, you'll just have to watch to see what sort of mischief the kids get up to. Many critics (and viewers) consider this to be the weakest entry in the Vacation series, but I actually think it's superior to Christmas. It's got a certain darkness to it, we see the return of Brinkley's blonde-in-a-Ferrari and, to be honest, Vegas just seems like such a fun place. Don't dismiss Vegas Vacation out of hand, there's a lot to enjoy here.
As a film series goes, the National Lampoon Vacation movies stand up pretty well. Chase and D'Angelo have strong on-screen chemistry, and it's a lot of fun having different actors playing the kids in each film. We've all been on holidays where things went wrong, so there's stuff here that we can relate too. This is a classy collection chock-full of laughs, and easily some of the best work Chase ever did (until he landed a part in Community).
EXTRAS: For a 30th Anniversary release, the special features are nothing special. Vacation has an introduction to the 20th Anniversary edition by stars Chase and Quaid, and producer Matty Simmons (0:44); an audio commentary with director Ramis, stars Chase, Quaid, Hall and Barron, and producer Simmons; a feature-length making of documentary, Inside Story: National Lampoon's Vacation (1:24:49) which weirdly has all the swearing bleeped (while the film itself doesn't); and the theatrical trailer. European Vacation just has an audio commentary with Chase. Christmas Vacation has an audio commentary with stars Quaid, D'Angelo, Johnny Galecki, Miriam Flynn, director Chechik and producer Simmons; and the theatrical trailer. And Vegas Vacation just has the theatrical trailer.