From the Vault: A look back at the filming of National Lampoon's Vacation
By: Steve Mathie
Harold Ramis’ second film as a director was National Lampoon’s Vacation, and in its 25th Anniversary year, it’s safe to say that the movie has beaten the test of time. At least in my opinion, some of today’s biggest comedies can’t hold a candle to the natural humor that Chevy Chase brought to the screen as Clark W. Griswold in 1983.
When it comes to winning awards and gaining recognition from film critics, comedies tend to get the short end of the stick. The budget isn’t very hefty either, forcing production crews to find ways to save time and money during the course of filming.
Looking back at a film that is the quintessential comedy of its time, one that followed the Griswold family across the county in the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, you realize that at some point in your own life you took a trip that hit just as many road bumps as theirs did – well maybe not quite that many.
Warner Bros. put together a phenomenal cast of characters to keep us laughing from start to finish. In fact, two forgotten players are Eugene Levy (American Pie) and John Candy (The Great Outdoors). Chase is the overacting patriarch that has meticulously planned the voyage, and his wife Ellen is played by Beverly D’Angelo. Then teen phenomenon Anthony Michael Hall was Rusty and Dana Barron plays his sister Audrey. And of course no one can forget Randy Quaid’s roll as Cousin Eddie.
What you probably don’t know about the movie is that the cast and crew that worked on the project had a vacation inside of a vacation. It took more than 55 days to shoot this film, and many of the cast members remember that driving across the country to different locations made it feel like they were actually on their own vacation.
Ramis said that they had planned to shoot at more than 15 locations between leaving Chicago and arriving at Walley World in Los Angeles, a fictional park that was actually Six Flags Magic Mountain.
He also recalls the number of Warner Bros. production trucks that travelled from city to city, including numerous model’s of the family car that had to be used for demanding scenes like a 50 foot plus jump.
The opening scenes of the movie take place in Chicago but were actually filmed in Arcadia, California in a residential neighborhood. The scene toward the end of the film in which the Griswold’s finally arrive at Walley World is shot at the parking lot of Santa Anita Race Track.
Additional filming locations included the Chicago skyline, St. Louis, Colorado, Arizona and Utah. After crossing the St. Louis bridge and not going up in the Arch, the Griswold’s end up in a bad part of town, filmed in Burbank, California in the Warner Bros. back lot.
Along the way filming was done at local gas stations, small motels and hotels, lodges, campgrounds and historical sites such as Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.
Monument Valley was a filming location for many a western movie in the 1940s and 1950s, and while the scene with Clark and Ellen taking a quick gander at the Grand Canyon lasted all of 5 seconds – it was actually filmed at the canyon for authenticity.
This was also Christie Brinkley’s film debut, playing a stunning blonde beauty in a Ferrari that grabs Clark’s attention on more than one occasion during the family trip, inevitably getting him into trouble.
Although her role included only a few outside shots and only one inside, Brinkley went along on location the whole time. During days where she was not involved she would find extracurricular activities such as horseback riding and whitewater rafting.
Imogene Coca, in her mid 70’s at the time, played the role of Aunt Edna, although she struggled with her part because she felt as if the character she was portraying was too mean to the others on set. Her husband travelled on location with her and stayed at the hotels to keep her company.
It’s the small things behind the scenes of a movie that truly make the film magical. National Lampoon’s Vacation was an empirical project that involved authentic locations for filming across the country. The hundreds of cast and crew actually travelled the same road that the Griswold’s did in caravans and trucks, finding lodging across the country – something production companies are doing more and more of as a result of rich tax incentives for production.
The film was well liked during that latter part of the 20th century and has stood the test of time at the start of the 21st. I’ll leave you with some of the interesting and fun facts from behind the scenes that you may not have known, and that made Vacation one of the funniest comedies of all time.
- In the final scene of the movie at Walley World, which replaced the originally written finale, Rusty is clearly taller than he was throughout the vacation. Michael Anthony Hall grew about three inches during filming. He would go on to star in two of the staple comedies of theearly 1980s; Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. He also plays a small role in a scene towards the end of this summer’s The Dark Knight.
- When Clark is showing the family the route on the computer, the pictures in the background are those of Dana Barron’s early career filming commercials in New York. Her mother provided Warner Bros. with the 8x10’s to put on the wall
- The film was done during summer, and most of the locations were extremely hot. Director Harold Ramis recalls temperatures being over 110 for many of the shots.
- The scene in which the Griswold’s are driving at night was done in a car that wasn’t actually moving. An electrician from the crew stood in front of the windshield flashing a big spotlight to appear as oncoming cars, and lights in the distance are only five feet away being dragged slowly on a dolly.
- The hotel bar scene with Christie Brinkley and Chevy Chase was done in one take, much of which Chase adlibbed.
- The actor that plays Wyatt Earp is Richard Dreyfuss’s brother Randy. This scene was filmed at the Strater Hotel in Durango, Col.
- The actor that plays the manager at a campground where the Griswold’s stop is Brian Doyle-Murray, Bill’s older brother. Doyle-Murray had helped Ramis write Caddyshack a few years earlier and also appears in that movie
- A few Native Americans saw roles as extras in the film, and Warner Bros. had a buffet on the set each day in with the Native American’s brought their families to eat with the crew
- The Wagon Queen Family Truckster was actually driven from filming location to filming location to help carry some of the crew
- The final roller coaster scenes were done by putting a camera on the front of the ride, forcing the talent to actually go on the rides over and over again, something few of them actually wanted to do.
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