Released in December of 1989, the John Hughes penned National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is, literally, the last great screwball comedy of the 1980’s.
Landing just before the final Christmas of the decade, Christmas Vacation closes the book on a school of daffy, slightly vulgar comedies that defined the era — movies like Caddyshack, Stripes, Back to School, etc. The examples are numerous, and they largely share the same cast of Baby Boomer comedy heavies like Chevy Chase, John Candy, Steve Martin, Robin Williams and on and on and on.
Christmas Vacation definitely represents a last hoorah for star Chevy Chase, who had already started churning out junk like Caddyshack II and Fletch Lives to pay the bills, but it also acts as a kind of swan song for Hughes’s career as well, ending a streak of mainstream comedies that’s… unprecedented, really.
Hughes followed up Christmas Vacation with the biggest hit of his career, Home Alone.
Home Alone is, in many ways, a better movie than Christmas Vacation. It’s better directed, has a tighter plot, a better score and is, overall, a much slicker production. It also made close to half-a-billion dollars in box office returns, making Christmas Vacation‘s more modest $71 million pay out seem like a joke.
If you take Hughes’s rather lengthy filmography as a screenwriter and fold it in half, the crease will, more-or-less, fall right between Christmas Vacation and Home Alone. On the left side of the page, with Christmas Vacation, you have all of John Hughes’s good movies — your Vacations; your Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Your Weird Sciences. On the right side of the page, with Home Alone, is a bunch of terrible bullshit — Your Beethovens; Your Dennis the Menaces; your Maids in Manhattans. (Maids in Manhattans? — ed)
Home Alone and Christmas Vacation share a lot of the same DNA — they’re both Christmas movies, they’re both still widely loved worldwide (both movies sold out two shows here at Nitehawk this year), and they’re both about white people living in huge houses.
What differentiates the two is that Home Alone marks the moment in Hughes’s career when he largely abandoned the blue, chuckle-headed Dad humor that rounded out his earlier films, and dove headlong into mass-appeal family-friendly schmaltz.
Home Alone was a game changer for Hollywood. It sky-rocketed up the highest-grossing-films of all time list quickly, settling in at number three, and the generation of Boomer filmmakers that reigned over the preceding decade saw dollar signs in their kids’ eyes. After all, the children of the 80’s were getting to be of theater-going age, and nobody wants to take their babbling toddler to a movie whose main character leaves his wife to go skinny dipping with Christie Brinkley.
Home Alone, at its heart, is a family film; a kind of audience that Hughes hadn’t entirely catered towards previously. Both Christmas Vacation and Home Alone feature untold amounts of slapstick buffoonery, but no one calls their boss an epic string of expletives in Home Alone; Kevin doesn’t have any pointless poolside side-boob fantasies, and no one empties a burping chemical toilet into the street. No pets die!
Home Alone may have that Chris Columbus sheen, but it is in no way funnier or as anarchic as the wild-eyed, defiant Christmas Vacation.
The movies present two warring perspectives on boring, suburban existence. Christmas Vacation takes the perspective of the struggling adult — the dopey father-hero whose entire existence revolves around bonus checks and vying for this mystical, unattainable idea of a perfect family life. The film tears down the superficial trappings of an ideal holiday — the tree, the gifts, the massive corporate bonuses (big enough for a pool and eight plane tickets??) — but shows that attempting to capture this lifestyle can be a fast track to having a yule-tide nervous breakdown.
While Christmas Vacation treats the holiday like a holy jolly brain hemorrhage, Home Alone takes the opposite position, changing Clark’s internal plight into an external threat in the form of dimwitted bandits. The fraught family politics of the Mcallister family takes a back seat to Kevin’s childish mayhem — and that’s entirely because Hughes frames the film from an eight-year-old’s perspective.
While Christmas Vacation calls bullshit on the perfect family Christmas, Home Alone re-enforces those impossible ideals. Kevin gets left home alone for a few days, his family freaks out, and they end up having the perfect Christmas regardless. Clark destroys every hallmark of the holiday and brings his family together in spite of its destruction. It’s a triumph of the every man, whereas in, Home Alone, an eight-year-old is able to put together the perfect Christmas in a few hours after he destroys his house warding off violent intruders.
The divide between Christmas Vacation and Home Alone represents a broad shift in culture, marking a moment when an entire generation went from deconstructing the non-existent Hollywood ideal of family unity, and started blindly grasping for those ideals.
At the dawn of the 90’s, the mainstream, Boomer-produced R-Rated comedy died. It had already started to go in this direction before Home Alone — even Christmas Vacation is cleaner than its previous two entries — but after its wild success (and a decade of accumulating, just, ridiculous amounts of wealth), the generation of filmmakers that defined the 80’s wild streak — a movement that I, probably unfairly, rest on the shoulders of John Hughes — nestled into years worth of complacent, family friendly pap.
So, while Christmas Vacation may not be the greatest moment in John Hughes career, it’s certainly aged well. In an era when living in a house the size of Clark Griswold’s is laughable in its own right, the film’s insistence that none of the superficial bologna that’s built around Christmas matters is an enriching and honest message; and one that I think will remain resonant for decades.
Growing up, man. It’s a bitch.
— Kris King