By Richard Roeper
Signal Contributing Writer
When John Hughes was working as an advertising copywriter at Leo Burnett in Chicago in the late 1970s, he was also freelancing for National Lampoon magazine — and one of his first published works was a rather long short story titled “Vacation ‘58,” which started:
“If Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever!”
Told from the point of view of Clark Griswold’s son, and very loosely based on a cross-country road trip Hughes took with his family as a child, “Vacation ‘58” chronicled a wild journey filled with setbacks and misadventures and dark comedic developments, including the fate of a certain elderly aunt and, prior to that, her beloved dog.
Four years later, when “Vacation ‘58” was turned into a Warner Bros. feature film titled “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” with Hughes writing the screenplay and Harold Ramis directing, a good number of major plot points from the original work were integrated into the story — but there was no way Disney was going to lend its brand to the film, leading to Disneyland becoming Walley World, and the POV shifting to Chevy Chase’s Clark.
On the cusp of the 40th anniversary of the beloved classic comedy (back in theaters on Sunday) that spawned a number of sequels and made household names of those suburban Chicago Griswolds, we’re taking a look back at the making of “Vacation,” remembering some of elements from the film that resonate to this day — and catching up with Anthony Michael Hall, the original Rusty Griswold.
Buying the Family Truckster
With Lindsey Buckingham’s catchy “Holiday Road” setting the tone, “Vacation” opens with a montage of old-timey travel postcards before taking us to “CHICAGO, ILLINOIS” and the lot of the seedy Lou Glutz Motors, where Clark is with his son, Rusty, expecting to pick up “the Antarctic Blue Super Sports Wagon with the CB and the optional Rally Fun Pack.” Alas, Clark is no match for the oily salesman Ed (Eugene Levy), who manipulates Clark into taking home the ungainly, tanklike and wobbly Wagon Queen Family Truckster.
Speaking with us via Zoom from his home in California, Anthony Michael Hall said that was his first day of shooting the film after being cast as Rusty. (Lou Glutz Motors was actually a car lot in Burbank, California.)
“I was 14 years old,” says Hall, 55. “I grew up in New York City, and I had had this great meeting with [National Lampoon Inc. CEO] Matty Simmons and Harold Ramis, and they were just very kind and paternal with me as I was reading these scenes.” He got the job.
“Even as a kid, it wasn’t lost on me that I was standing on the shoulders of giants, as the saying goes. In the 1970s, I had to get permission to stay up late to watch ‘SNL.’ Now I’m in a movie with Chevy Chase, Eugene Levy … the talent pool [in the film] was amazing.”
Hall’s ‘Surreal’ Adolescence
In addition to the Griswold family, which included the marvelous Beverly D’Angelo as Ellen Griswold and the wonderful Dana Barron as Audrey, “Vacation” featured memorable supporting turns from Randy Quaid as the horrifically disgusting Cousin Eddie; John Candy as Lasky the security guard; showbiz legends Imogene Coca and Eddie Bracken as Aunt Edna and Roy Walley, respectively; Brian Doyle-Murray as the clerk at Kamp Komfort — the list goes on and on.
Says Hall: “I, like Rusty, was literally and figuratively looking up to everybody. That whole period of time [in the 1980s], when I look back on it, it’s like a yearbook coming to life. My life was kind of surreal, from the age of 14 through being cast on ‘Saturday Night Live’ [at 17, the youngest cast member ever]. I was on admittedly one of the worst seasons in the history of ‘SNL,’ but nonetheless, to be a part of that was incredible.
“I never met John on ‘Vacation.’ John was nowhere in sight. Then I did the trilogy of films with him after that [‘Sixteen Candles,’ ‘The Breakfast Club’ and ‘Weird Science’], and he was just so kind and good to me. It’s always important to me to tip my hat and acknowledge what he and Matty and Harold did for me.
“John would always tell me he believed in the adage, ‘Write what you know,’ and when you see his film ‘She’s Having a Baby,’ which is about his life in Chicago at a certain point, it comes full circle, because the main character in ‘She’s Having a Baby’ would have been writing ‘Vacation ‘58’ right around that time.”
Drinking Beer with Dad
With cast and a crew of almost 100 going from location to location in sometimes brutally hot conditions, the making of “Vacation,” in a way, mirrored the plot of “Vacation,” with stops in Colorado and Arizona and eventually California. The house belonging to Cousin Catherine (Miriam Flynn) and her husband, Eddie (Quaid), is an actual house in Boone, Colorado, and was the site of scenes with such memorable dialogue as the pregnant Catherine saying, “Eddie says after the baby comes, I can quit one of my night jobs,” and their daughter, Vicki (Jane Krakowski in her first role), boasting, “I’m going steady, and I French kiss. … Daddy says I’m the best at it.” Good. God.
As for the famous scene with father and son where Clark says, “I spent the last 15 years of my life developing newer and better food additives; I guess I’ve missed an awful lot” and hands Rusty a beer, Hall says he’s constantly asked if there was actual beer in the can.
“It was empty. I tell people there’s a thing called a foley editor, and they’re the ones who do that great job of adding all those sound effects, like downing a beer.”
When the Griswolds hit the road again, they’ve got Coca’s Aunt Edna and Aunt Edna’s dog Dinky in tow. Neither gets out alive.
“There’s so much of that humor that by today’s standards wouldn’t get made,” acknowledges Hall. Yet with all this sometimes tasteless and occasionally pitch-black comedy, the R-rated “Vacation” is still embraced and revered by generations of fans.
“The writing was also so on point,” says Hall. “With Harold and later with John, there was also such a joy in the process. They were great comedic writers and had great comedic minds, but they were never overly precious about their scripts or their words. … They’d let us try things.”
The Unseen Ending
The original ending of the film was a lot closer to the Hughes short story. After the Griswolds arrive at Walley World, only to learn the park is closed for repairs, Clark takes the family to Roy Walley’s house and demands Roy and his friends entertain them. When that cut was shown to test audiences who had been laughing uproariously throughout, the mood instantly died.
Ramis asked Hughes to write a new ending, John Candy was brought in to play the security guard — and the rest is comedy history.
Cut to Anthony Michael Hall (who was born Michael Anthony Hall), who notes he often sees Chase, D’Angelo and Christie Brinkley at various Comic Cons, and he remains close with his movie sister Dana Barron, who lives just five minutes away and often visits.
Just six weeks ago, Hall’s wife, Lucia Oskerova, gave birth to a son, named Michael Anthony Hall II. Is Dad looking forward to having a “Good talk, son,” as Clark did with Rusty in Arizona all those years ago?
“I’m definitely looking forward to having my ‘good talk’ moment,” he says. “And I really look forward to showing him some of these films when he gets older.”
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