Plot-wise, most Christmas movies blow. Sure, they emanate toasty vibes that prime us for presents and eggnog, but they don’t offer much in the way of substance.
Take the bounty of Yuletide flicks that Netflix cranked out this year. When you get past the ice sculptures and mistletoe, Christmas Inheritance is a disposable yarn about a big city heiress who travels to small town America to see how the other half lives.
Even holiday “classics” tend to lack engaging stories. The payoff in Miracle on 34th Street is a boring court battle over whether Santa Claus is real. Even Home Alone makes us wait for an interminably dull hour before we get to see Kevin bludgeon and electrocute Joe Pesci. But National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is different.
At a glance, the 1989 Chevy Chase comedy—the third movie about Clark Griswold, the unironic idol of suburban dads across America—is an unabashedly stupid and fun series of slapstick gags. This time, instead of planning the ultimate road trip to California or beading off to Europe to circle Big Ben for hours, Clark Griswold wants to host the best family Christmas ever. This, of course, is the setup for two hours of Chase stapling himself to rain gutters and accidentally setting great-grandpa’s toupee on fire.
That’s all that I expected when I sat down to rewatch Christmas Vacation with friends this year. But this time, through the lens of 2018, I came away with a different appraisal of the film. Christmas Vacation is one of the most effective mainstream films to explore themes of corporate greed and class solidarity.
Despite its treacly reputation, Christmas Vacation bristles with the same feelings of economic resentment and vulnerability that have stunted American life over the last decade. What you realize watching this movie today is that the ultimate threat to Clark Griswold’s “perfect family Christmas” isn’t Clark’s habit of falling down ladders. It’s the fiscal era that the Griswold family is entering and the looming demise of the middle class.
The crucial subplot in Christmas Vacation—which starts as an afterthought but slowly overtakes the movie—concerns Clark Griswold’s holiday bonus. (Clark works as a product designer at some big nameless corporation in Chicago. His CEO boss is followed around the office by a squad of goose-stepping executives.) Every year, Clark and his colleagues have gotten bonuses around the holidays. The regularity of this payout has inspired Clark to invest in a swimming pool for the Griswold homestead. But there’s one problem. Clark’s bonus check still hasn’t arrived.
What Clark doesn’t yet realize is that things are changing in the American workforce. Phasing out holiday bonuses, like the one Clark Griswold is counting on, is just one of many steps that corporate America took in the 1980s, and continues to take, towards screwing employees as a means of enriching shareholders. The austerity got worse in the 90s and 00s, to the point where wages and benefits have stagnated in recent decades and the once-prosperous middle class has shrunk. A recent report by The Hamilton Project found that the top 20 percent of earners in America enjoyed wage growth of 27 percent between 1979 and 2016, while the upper middle quintile only saw a 12 percent jump in their pay for the same period. The other 60 percent of earners fared much worse. When Christmas Vacation came out in the late 80s, Americans were only beginning to sense that labor culture might be taking a turn into darker territory.
Clark’s creeping sense of vulnerability is made worse by the presence of supporting characters, who writer John Hughes utilizes expertly. The Griswolds live next door to a married couple who represent the yuppie class of the 1980s. (Hello, Julia Louis-Dreyfus!) They carry matching metal briefcases, jog around the ‘burbs in reflective tracksuits, and make each other shower before having sex. Clark is disgusted by the materialism and arrogance of his neighbors. When the yuppies snidely ask Clark where he’s planning to put the enormous Christmas tree strapped to the top of the Griswold family station wagon, he cordially replies, “Bend over and I’ll show you.”
A lazier movie than Christmas Vacation would have stuck with that dynamic of Middle Class Dad vs. Young Professional Assholes, as a corollary to the film’s commentary on corporate greed. But Christmas Vacation reveals the complexities of its proletariat heart at the halfway point by adding Clark Griswold’s redneck cousins to the mix. Led by Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie, the country bumpkins pull up to the Griswold house (uninvited) in their shit-stained RV, with two cute kids and a nasty dog with chronic sinusitis. The Griswolds, Clark in particular, are visibly repulsed by Cousin Eddie—the kind of guy who empties the RV septic tank into the sewer while wearing a bathrobe and chugging a beer before breakfast.
But still, Eddie and his brood are family, so the Griswolds take them in—despite already hosting four squabbling and nitpicking grandparents. Such is the Christmas spirit! And at first, the movie almost tricks us into identifying with Clark’s discomfort around his sooty, possibly inbred cousins. (“I can’t believe you’re standing here in my living room, Eddie,” Clark says with quiet horror as the two men admire the Griswolds’ Christmas tree—with Eddie’s snot-nosed dog humping Clark’s leg.) But the uncomfortable dynamic between a white collar suburban dad like Clark and an earwax-picking hick like Eddie hints at something truly scary—the looming threat of class warfare.
Clark Griswold is a man without country. His missing holiday bonus and mounting economic anxiety suggest that the cushy trappings of his world are fading away. But where does that leave a white collar, middle class patriarch like Clark? Demoted to the gutter with Cousin Eddie and the rural poor? That’s a demoralizing prospect for someone of Clark Griswold’s class stature. Poverty in America is not only stigmatized, but it’s also more expensive long term and borderline criminalized. This helps explain why so many Americans consider themselves wealthier than they actually are. As Ronald Wright put it, paraphrasing John Steinbeck, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
For a comedy released at the twilight of the Reaganomics decade, Christmas Vacation not only displays an uncannily strong grasp of how class warfare works in America, but it also preaches the gospel of class solidarity. As it turns out, Cousin Eddie and his kids haven’t descended upon the Griswolds for shits and giggles. They’ve lost their farm, and the RV is all they have left. Worse yet, Eddie doesn’t have money to buy his kids Christmas presents. So Clark Griswold, being the great American dad that he is, steps up and offers Eddie financial assistance, so that his kids can have a happier Christmas.
And just like that, Clark embraces class solidarity over warfare—and not without risk to his own economic security. Remember, Clark still doesn’t know where the hell his holiday bonus is, and he’ll soon have to cough up some serious greenbacks for that swimming pool installation. When Clark finally learns what happened—that his jerk CEO boss slashed the holiday bonus program without having the courtesy to tell any of the people working for him—the Griswolds are devastated.
But here’s the cool thing about class solidarity—it’s inherently reciprocal. And in the end, it’s Cousin Eddie who saves the Griswold family Christmas. How? By driving off in his RV, breaking into the mansion where Clark’s boss lives, and kidnapping the greedy old prick! Eddie, still grateful for Clark’s willingness to help him buy presents, frogmarches Clark’s boss right into the Griswold’s living room. (He’s tied up and garnished with a big red bow.) In presenting this “gift,” Eddie gives Clark the opportunity many workers dream of―the chance to look one of our rich overlords dead in the eye, on our turf, and ask, “How can you be so fucking cruel?”
Clark doesn’t put it that way, exactly (it’s a PG-13 film). But it’s a truly powerful scene—much more powerful than the ending of a seemingly-dumb comedy like Christmas Vacation has any right to be—and it works. Faced with the victims of his austerity, the boss admits that he was wrong and reinstates the holiday bonus program. Even when a S.W.A.T. team crashes through the windows to rescue the old bastard, the squad captain is appalled by the boss’ crimes. “That’s pretty low, mister,” he says to the CEO. “If I had a rubber hose, I would beat you.”
Take a moment to marvel at what’s happening here. The events of Christmas Vacation unite the suburban middle class, the rural poor, and even the police against the rich. In America, that’s virtually unheard of. It’s also inspiring and cathartic for modern audiences, who’ve lived through nearly three subsequent decades of economic disparity since Christmas Vacation came out.
Christmas Vacation is so much more than a holiday movie, just like Clark Griswold is more than a personified Dad Joke. The film is a manifesto for a better, kinder America—disguised as a stupid comedy—and its family man protagonist is the comrade that millions of us are ready to rally for.
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