National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation: 10 Behind-The-Scenes Facts About The Holiday Movie

Clark smiling on Christmas Vacation
(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

When absolutely nothing goes according to plan while you are celebrating the holiday season with your family, it is very upsetting. When absolutely nothing goes according to plan when Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is celebrating the holiday season with his family, in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, it is uproariously funny.

Believe it or not, there were actually a number of things that did not quite go as planned for the cast and crew while filming the 1989 comedy (which has since become one of the most popular Christmas movies of all time), such as who was was supposed to direct the film at first. Let’s start our round up of behind-the-scenes facts about the making of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with that intriguing reveal.

Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.

(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

Chris Columbus Was Originally Hired To Direct Christmas Vacation 

The legendary John Hughes is the one who started the Vacation franchise, having written the first two films before penning and producing National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which was inspired by his own short story, “Christmas ’59.” The film is just one of a few holiday favorites from the mind of the late filmmaker, including one that has an interesting connection to Christmas Vacation.

On an episode of Netflix’s The Movies That Made Us that goes behind-the-scenes on Home Alone, director Chris Columbus recalls being offered the chance to direct National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation by Hughes himself and accepting, only to ask to leave the project after butting heads with Chevy Chase. Hughes agreed and, after first-time feature director Jeremiah Chechik was brought on, he sent Columbus the script for Home Alone.

Leonardo DiCaprio in Critters 3

(Image credit: New Line Cinema)

Leonardo DiCaprio Was Considered To Play Rusty Griswold In Christmas Vacation 

There is one noteworthy “what if?” regarding the National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation cast. As fans recall, there is a running gag throughout all of the Vacation movies in which Clark and Ellen’s (Beverly D’Angelo) children, Rusty and Audrey, are played by different actors each time. The festive third installment stars Johnny Galecki and future Oscar nominee Juliette Lewis as the Griswold kids, but the role of the male sibling almost went to one of Hollywood’s most esteemed stars of today.

In a short featurette by the American Film Institute, Christmas Vacation casting director, Heidi Levitt, recalls meeting with future Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio for the part of Rusty and immediately noticing his talents. However, “he wasn’t goofy enough,” so the role went to Galecki, who would also go on to star on Roseanne as David and lead The Big Bang Theory cast as Leonard.

Juliette Lewis in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Juliette Lewis Caught Her Boyfriend Two-Timing Her On The Christmas Vacation Set

Speaking of the Griswold kids, Juliette Lewis has an interesting personal anecdote from her time making National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation that she shared for Rolling Stone’s oral history about the film’s production in 2014. We’ll let her fill you in on how she reacted when she invited her then boyfriend onto the set and found him talking to another woman on the phone with the following quote:

I didn't even tell him that I heard him, I just asked who he was talking to. He lied and I said, 'Oh, by the way. You’re leaving tomorrow morning.' I booked his flight and then he left, and then I went to go film.

Ending a relationship is never easy, especially when you catch your significant other in the act of cheating while you are at work. On the other hand, “work” for Juliette Lewis was starring in a hit movie, so it is clear who won this break-up. 

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation cast

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The Christmas Vacation Cast And Crew Experienced An Earthquake On Set

A then-13-year-old Johnny Galecki, thankfully, never experienced any heartbreak while making National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. However, there was another emotion the young actor was plagued by: fear, particularly when the set suffered an unexpected earthquake.

On a commentary track included on the movie's DVD / Blu-ray, director Jeremiah Chechik asks Galecki what was going through his mind during the scene when Uncle Lewis (William Hickey) and Aunt Bethany (Betty Boop voice actress Mae Questel) first arrive at the Griswolds’ house. His reply was “fear” due to the sudden “groundbreaking” effects that took place seconds later. 

Johnny Galecki in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Johnny Galecki Regrettably Opted Out Of Filming A Scene Of Clark And Rusty Bonding

However, The fear which that earthquake caused Johnny Galecki during the filming of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was really nothing compared to the feelings of regret he would experience long after the camera stopped rolling. Reason being, there was a scene cut from John Hughes’ original script in which Rusty and Clark have a heartfelt moment, that Chevy Chase was interested in shooting, but it still never ended up happening. The following is Galecki’s explanation of why he is to blame from Rolling Stone’s aforementioned oral history:

So they asked what I thought and I said, 'I don't think there's any point. Somebody thought it was worth taking out at some point, so even if we shoot it, it'll probably get taken out again.' I literally talked myself out of what could have been a classic scene with Chevy Chase. Now that I'm a jaded Hollywood fuck, I realize the error of my ways. I still kick myself in the ass for this everyday.

It is easy to see why this choice is something that would continue to haunt Johnny Galecki decades later. However, in retrospect, he at least got to be in a hit movie. So, at the end of the day, it’s still a win!

Chevy Chase in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Chevy Chase Broke His Pinky Punching The Griswolds’ Christmas Decorations

Fortunately, no one in the cast or crew got hurt when that aforementioned earthquake occurred while National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was in production. However, there was one notable injury that happened as another classic scene was being filmed.

When Clark Griswold takes out his frustration over his 25,000 Christmas lights malfunctioning on a plastic front-yard diorama of Santa and his reindeer, you’ll notice he begins to punch the decorations before pausing and resorting to kicking them instead. That is because, as the cast members featured on the commentary track reveal, Chevy Chase actually broke his pinky when he punched the reindeer but managed to stay in character, resulting in the take you see in the theatrical cut.

Beverly D’Angelo in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Beverly D’Angelo Feared The Artificial Snow During The Christmas Light Scene Was Flammable 

Chevy Chase’s pinky was the only casualty from filming the holiday light scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. However, Beverly D’Angelo was particularly wary of everyone’s safety in that moment. This is what she had to say about it during an exclusive interview with Fandango in 2014:

When we shot the scene…where Clark turns a switch and finally does turn on the lights of the house, I know we were surrounded by artificial snow and it was about 80 degrees and I remember thinking, 'Is this stuff flammable?'

The remains of Aunt Bethany's cat from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The Death Of Aunt Bethany’s Cat Was Hated By Studio Execs, But A Hit At Test Screenings

Beverly D’Angelo’s concerns while filming the Christmas light scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation would ultimately amount to nothing. However, the people at Warner Bros. had a few concerns over an entirely different scene and the safety of the cast and crew had nothing to do with it.

On the film’s commentary track, Jeremiah Chechik recalls how the studio wanted to cut the scene in which Aunt Bethany’s cat “uses up all her nine lives” when she gets electrocuted after fiddling with the Christmas tree lights. The director begged to leave the scene in - a decision that proved to be the right one when it was the most beloved moment in the film for test audiences.

Squirrel from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

An Untrained Squirrel Had To Be Used For The Squirrel Attack Scene

Another fun National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation fact regarding animals was also revealed by director Jeremiah Chechik on the commentary track. In the scene in which the family is frightened to learn that Clark brought a squirrel into the house with his replacement Christmas tree, the furry woodland creature you see was not actually the one initially hired and trained for the scene.

On the day the sequence was meant to be shot, the production’s resident animal handler informed Chechik that the squirrel had died of natural causes that morning. In order to keep up with the production schedule, the crew had to find a replacement squirrel that was not trained for film sets, which gives one a whole new perspective on the chaos that unfolds.

The house from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Roger Murtaugh’s House From Lethal Weapon Doubled As The Griswold Home

This last National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation fact revealed by Chevy Chase during that previously mentioned Rolling Stone oral history will be an especially fun holiday treat for movie buffs. If the Griswold Family’s house looks familiar to you, it is no coincidence. The house is located on the Warner Bros. backlot and was also used just a couple years earlier as Roger Murtaugh’s home in Lethal Weapon - another holiday themed movie of a different sort, entirely.

Thinking about it, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is also a Christmas movie of a more unique variety by comparison to other flicks associated with the season. Instead of celebrating what makes the holiday a joyful time, it sheds light on the all the ways it can be a real pain in the ass. As a laugh-a-minute comedy classic and a reminder that things could always be worse when, we are thankful.  

Jason Wiese
Content Writer

Jason Wiese writes feature stories for CinemaBlend. His occupation results from years dreaming of a filmmaking career, settling on a "professional film fan" career, studying journalism at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO (where he served as Culture Editor for its student-run print and online publications), and a brief stint of reviewing movies for fun. He would later continue that side-hustle of film criticism on TikTok (@wiesewisdom), where he posts videos on a semi-weekly basis. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.