Vintage Cable Box: “National Lampoon’s Vacation, 1983”

“O God, ease our suffering in this, our moment of great despair. Yea, admit this good and decent woman into thine arms in the flock in thine heavenly area, up there. And Moab, he laid its down by the band of the Canaanites, and yea, though the Hindus speak of karma, I implore you: give her… give her a break.”

National Lampoon’s Vacation, 1983 (Chevy Chase), Warner Bros.

There’s no tradition like a new tradition, and I think I’m creating a new tradition. There are holidays, and there are holiday movies, and there are movies we play on certain holidays. We’ll watch A Christmas Carol or Scrooge or even Scrooged on or around Christmas. I know people who love to watch the Star Wars franchise movies on May 4th (we usually run them around New Years), but I have an idea for a Father’s Day tradition: National Lampoon’s Vacation. It is just about the perfect movie to play to commemorate the struggles of loving, responsible dads out there, and Chevy Chase is our embodiment of a hero despite his complete inability to achieve his goal. He has one goal: to take his family to “Walley World” (the most famous “Disney World” analog in the history of cinema).

Clark W. Griswold (Chase) is on a mission; a quest, a “quest for fun.” Roughly three-quarters of the way into the film, Clark sits down with his son, Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall), and shares a beer with him. As Rusty drinks the whole can down, Clark tells him about how he never had fun on all the vacations his father planned. This time, he’s determined to have fun and, at this point, he doesn’t care what he has to do to have that fun. His stubborn-streak and capacity for maintaining his composure in the face of his outright idiocy is truly inspiring to watch. Audiences tend to take comedy for granted: if it’s funny, it works. Chase’s performance is one of his most tragic, and he manages to create a fully-realized character even as the first frames of the film are unspooled. He takes Rusty to a dealership to get the new car, a “little sports thing,” for the trip. Salesman Eugene Levy cons him into buying the Family Truckster in “metallic pee.”

Clark plans out the whole trip on the computer. He has foreseen every contingency, every circumstance, every situation that might pop up, but that’s where the comedy kicks in. Comedy is like God, and we are the chorus. If you want us to laugh, tell us your plan. Of course, nothing works out as planned. They get off on the wrong exit in St. Louis. In one of the funnier (but also politically incorrect) sequences, Clark asks for directions back to the expressway, but is given a ridiculous runaround as his hubcaps are stolen and the words, “Honky Lips” are spray-painted on the Family Truckster. Next up is Dodge City, where he, unwittingly, antagonizes a barkeep who shoots him with blanks that causes their daughter, Audrey (Dana Barron) to go temporarily deaf. After that, they make the requisite trip to their white trash in-laws, headed by Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid).

Staged publicity photograph!

Eddie and his family are there to frighten Clark and his wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and keep them struggling in the middle class, paying taxes and behaving like good citizens. Eddie and his family represent those twisted few who fall between the cracks in a system designed to keep people trapped in collective “caste” systems in our nation. Clark loans Eddie some money to keep his crew afloat. From there, his finances are scuttled. Ellen is no help. While I absolutely adore Beverly D’Angelo (she’s very easy on the eyes, as they say), she is largely unsympathetic. I’m convinced her job, in the film, is to antagonize Clark, poo-poo his plans, and then cut him down when he suffers personal setbacks. Beverly, being a serious dish, makes it hard to stay mad at her. Eventually, she does give in to her husband’s lunacy, but only when she feels less desirable because of Clark’s infatuation with a “Mystery Girl” (Christie Brinkley) in a hot, red Ferrari who flirts with him on the open road.

Too often in today’s media and pop culture, fathers are given short shrift, treated as annoyances, regarded as morons with impossibly beautiful, open-minded, ethereal wives. It makes you wonder how these couples found each other in the dating pool, and then what made them decide to marry and have children. While Chase makes easy work of Clark Griswold, he also provides moments of reality and introspection in his wacky world. He bursts into tears at the thought of missing out on his children growing up. He wants to be desired, loved, and trusted, and he barely holds onto his sanity by way of the trip to “Walley World.” Director Harold Ramis directs a very funny script from John Hughes, with inspired bits from Levy, John Candy, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Imogene Coca that compliment the madness of his original source material: a short story he wrote for National Lampoon titled “Vacation ’58.” Released 34 years ago on July 29, 1983, National Lampoon’s Vacation is still one of the funniest movies ever made.

Sourced from the original 1983 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release, which was among our first movie purchases on tape. The movie continued to receive different format releases, and is available in Beta, DVD, Laserdisc (using the same art design as the clamshell release) and Blu Ray formats. The accompanying essay gives us a crisp synopsis while promoting the National Lampoon legacy. “After 2,000 miles of madcap calamities, the Griswolds ultimately arrive at Walley World. Again, alas, their quest for “fun” is riotously derailed in an action-packed comedy finale.” I have both the original Warner clamshell, and the recent Blu-Ray release. This is very interesting to me, because while I complained about the pan-and-scan format of a movie like Sudden Impact (filmed with the Panavision process), what we see in Vacation is what was shot; an open-matte format that gives us more visual information than the Blu-Ray release, which crops the top and bottom of the image in order to fill the 16:9 viewing area of modern televisions.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

Vintage Cable Box: Sixteen Candles, 1984

“You grabbed my nuts.”

Sixteen Candles, 1984 (Molly Ringwald), MCA/Universal

If ever there was a filmmaker so attuned to the yearnings, the vulnerabilities, and the desires of young people (specifically teenagers) in the 1980s, it had to be John Hughes. Initially a Chicago-based freelance writer and advertising copywriter, Hughes dived into assignments for the Harvard and National Lampoon, indirectly transitioning to screenwriting and then to directing with his remarkably self-assured debut, 1984’s Sixteen Candles. Hughes would have a corner on the market of teen angst for roughly the next five years before transitioning to films about children, starting with Home Alone. He would disappear almost completely from the public eye by 1998.

Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) has just turned “sweet sixteen”, but because of the chaos surrounding her older sister Ginny’s (Blanche Baker) upcoming wedding to the “oily variety beau-hunk“, Rudy (Hughes regular John Kapelos), her parents and visiting grandparents have forgotten. At school, she lets it slip that she has a crush on hottie Jake Ryan (Matt Dillon lookalike Michael Schoeffling), which arouses geek Farmer Ted’s (Anthony Michael Hall) curiosity and Jake’s interest. While fending off Ted’s unnervingly amorous and oddly confident advances, Jack’s annoying perfect girlfriend, Caroline (Haviland Morris) throws an after-dance party at Jake’s house. Jake corners Farmer Ted to get more information about Samantha.

Samantha goes home, dejected, only to be woken by her guilt-ridden father (Paul Dooley) so he can clear his conscience and apologize to her for forgetting her special day.  She confesses her crush on Jake.  He tells her, “If it’s any consolation, I love you. And if this guy can’t see in you all the beautiful and wonderful things that I see, then he’s got the problem.”  It’s a beautiful father-daughter moment and rings so true, for me, in the complex and frustrating relationships children can have with their parents even if their years create gaps in their understanding of each other.  Sixteen Candles stands apart from similar teen epics by analyzing Hughes’ sympathy for his characters, including Farmer Ted, Jake, even Ginny and Caroline.  Indeed Hughes’ themes extend to other works such as National Lampoon’s Vacation, Mr. Mom, The Breakfast Club, and Uncle Buck.

Populated with vividly written supporting characters, Sixteen Candles stands in strict defiance of the overused chick-flick designation.  This may be a movie about a young woman trying to learn and master the cues and clues of teenage anxiety, but it has a message that plays for boys and young men as well.  It speaks the ever-evolving language of youth and occasional rebellion, and it never insults the film’s demographic or the viewer’s intelligence, even with some easy throwaway gags.  This movie and the following year’s The Breakfast Club showcased Hughes’ propensity and talent for mixing moments of high hilarity with heart-wrenching drama and, in my opinion, he would never achieve that level of success with his work again.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: Class, 1983

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“The dog died.”

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Class, 1983 (Rob Lowe), Orion Pictures

Poor kid Andrew McCarthy (not exactly wrong-side-of-the-tracks, mind you) from a steel town (on a Saturday night looking for the fight of his life!) hugs his parents and says goodbye as he advances to prep school.  This is a kid who has obviously had to study hard, and work his way through life to reach the upper stratus of the rich kid’s world.  Upon meeting his new roommate, Skip (Rob Lowe) sizes him up as a complete rube and a naïve mensch who will fall for his practical jokes and ridiculous stories.  On the surface, Lowe’s pranks could be seen as exceedingly cruel (even driving McCarthy to tears), but they are necessary in order to forge the bond between the two young men as they cope with the rigors of encroaching adulthood.

McCarthy manages to bestow revenge upon Lowe (in the form of a fake suicide – not terribly funny, I guess you had to be there) and they become fast friends.  After a couple of episodes, usually involving young women and embarrassing hi-jinks, Lowe (in Christ regalia carrying a crucifix, no less) gives McCarthy a hundred bucks and a ticket to Chicago so he can get laid, or else he won’t be allowed back into the dorm.  McCarthy decides to take him up on the offer.  He goes to a singles club, and ultimately hooks up with a beautiful older woman (delicious Jacqueline Bisset).  While initially chaste, it’s obvious she’s very lonely and prefers to populate her surroundings with young people.  She finds McCarthy’s naïveté charming, and seems to be immediately attracted to him.  They have sex, and it is implied this is McCarthy’s first time.

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Returning to school, he presents a pair of panties as proof of his dalliances, and regales classmates with stories of passion with an older woman, and earns the respect of his peers.  He has further interludes with Bisset.  They have a remarkably easy sexual chemistry (no difficult feat with Bisset), which demonstrates not only the success of the movie’s characterizations (the story takes it’s time in unfolding) but also places an important emphasis on sexuality in general as depicted in the eighties.  McCarthy shows wonderful maturity in his scenes with her (he’s a joy to watch, which is strange for me) even when he lets it slip that he loves her.  Her face goes blank for a moment, because she’s contemplating the ramifications of the statement (as an older women would).  This is a strangely thoughtful screenplay for an eighties sex comedy.

She takes him to New York and shops for him. While he changes his slacks, she spies his wallet, opens it up, revealing that he is, in fact, a high school student. She runs off. What I wonder is – how could she not know? She knows he is rather inexperienced as a lover. His youthful demeanor should’ve triggered something in her, so we approach somewhat controversial territory in that even if we bond with people on an intimate level, how hard would it be to accept that the years are wrong between us? McCarthy is depressed, and his grades are slipping. Lowe invites him up to his parents’ country estate for Christmas break. This is where the fun begins!

They get to the palatial spread, and Skip introduces his parents, Cliff Robertson, and one Jacqueline Bisset!  Turns out she’s a very bad girl.  What follows is stilted, awkward dinner conversation.  Bisset is in an unhappy marriage to a humorless, straight-shooting Robertson, which makes sense given her proclivity for casual sex with strangers.  Robertson chalks up her peculiar behavior to neuroses or a mid-life breakdown.  The movie then turns into a comedy of errors, where McCarthy has to shield Lowe from his relationship with Bisset, and then to provide a sounding board to Lowe’s disillusionment and dissatisfaction with his parents and adult life.

class-photo

Even though they tended to irritate me in later movies, McCarthy and Lowe are just about perfect in this film, playing off each other like a younger variant of The Odd Couple; McCarthy is a straight-laced realist, and Lowe is a bad boy.  The terrific cast is a mix of old (Robertson, Stuart Margolin), new (John Cusack, Alan Ruck, Virginia Madsen), and the still-hot (Bisset).  Class plays as a reverse Blame It On Rio, from the perspective of the young male as protagonist, and also a pre-Brat Pack opus, but given the cast and subject matter (more sexualized) produced by a slightly-older generation of filmmakers than John Hughes, it’s more hard-hitting and less contextualized.  When Lowe’s character discovers the truth, he is mortified.  McCarthy tries to reason with him, but instead, they wind up fighting it out in mud-covered fields, which spills over into their dorm.  After beating the holy hell out of each other, they collapse in a heap and laugh.  This is one of the greatest endings of any movie I’ve ever seen.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: “National Lampoon’s Class Reunion”, 1982

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“Most likely to die crossing the street.”

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“National Lampoon’s Class Reunion”, 1982 (Gerritt Graham), ABC Motion Pictures

This is one of those very rare occasions where I remember enjoying a movie immensely when I was a kid, and then looking back at it as an adult and thinking it has either not aged well, or it was my eleven-year-old brain that supplied most of the guffaws. It could’ve been that I had seen “Class Reunion” right after seeing “Vacation” (now considered the greatest National Lampoon movie ever made) and was not impressed.

I’ve never been to a class reunion. Never been invited. Because of the reckless and impulsive behavior of my mother, we often found ourselves packing and leaving so I never had the opportunity to finish in schools, nor was I privileged to have a stable mailing address. I’ve certainly seen enough movies and television shows about class reunions. My wife was invited to class reunions, but she didn’t have a much of a desire to attend, either. Something about those gatherings seems sad to me. It’s a reminder of age, having to grow up, having to not be what you were when you were young.

Some of those sentiments are touched upon in “National Lampoon’s Class Reunion”, though very briefly because this is a silly comedy/spoof of horror movies. Several movies of this type were released in this time period, notably “Saturday The 14th”, “Love At First Bite”, and “Student Bodies”. Attendees gather for the 10-year class reunion at Lizzie Borden High. The cast is filled with familiar names and faces like Stephen Furst (Flounder from “National Lampoon’s Animal House”), Miriam Flynn (who would appear in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” the following year) and Michael Lerner (from “Barton Fink”).

NATIONAL LAMPOON'S CLASS REUNION, Fred McCarren, Zane Buzby, 1982. (c) ABC/ Courtesy: Everett Colleciton.

The participants in the class reunion festivities are being knocked off, one by one, and suspicion points to a less than popular kid (played by Blackie Dammett) named Walter Baylor, who was humiliated by this circle of kids on one fateful night ten years before. Gary Nash (Fred McCarren), formerly the guy everybody forgot – even his best friend – takes charge and leads the investigation, with the help of a mysterious doctor (Lerner). Along the way he attempts to woo the girl he was in love with: Meredith (gorgeous Donna Dixon look-alike, Shelley Smith).

John Hughes started writing for the National Lampoon print magazine in 1979. His first television credit came in the form of Delta House, the failed “Animal House” spin-off. He wrote “Class Reunion”, which tanked at the box office, but he followed it with three brilliant comedy scripts: “Mr. Mom”, “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, and “Nate and Hayes” with David Odell (a personal favorite of mine), which earned him a three-picture directing deal with Universal.

Looking at the picture recently, I noted that despite the otherwise funny and talented cast, “Class Reunion” lacked true comic timing. There is no focus, no lead character to propel the story, nor someone we can identify with. The director, Michael Miller, shoots everything in wide shots to assemble his cast, and good comedy screams for close-up shots to break up the tedium. The jokes fall flat, which is odd for John Hughes. The warmth and humor of his later work is missing here, and this script would be his only dud in the early eighties. His creative output was astonishing. He worked fast, and his pictures were economical. His unofficial retirement began in 1994, and he passed away in 2009 at the age of 59.

Next time, we take a look back to the classic era of horror movies on Vintage Cable TV, starting with 1983’s “Psycho II”!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.