Everyone loves a great rivalry: Russell vs Wilt, Ali vs Frazier, Bird vs Magic, Manning vs Brady and the list goes on. Who’s better than who and for what reasons? Some of my favorite sports columns and books ever are based on these matchups. But when it comes to the Holiday season we all celebrate our own way: the egg nog is poured, pies, cookies and gingerbread is baked, presents are opened, and, for many, a Christmas movie is viewed. As the years have gone on we’ve had one underlooked great rivalry emerge before our eyes…a polarizing debate as to what movie is better this time of year: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or A Christmas Story.
We all know these movies inside and out. In Christmas Vacation we have Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold, a human verison of Homer Simpson looking out for the good of his family but hoping his shortsighted goofiness doesn’t stand in the way. In A Christmas Story we have Peter Billingsly as Ralphie Parker an elementary school kid who’s entire Christmas is riding on the hopes of a cherished Red Ryder carbine-action 200 range model air rifle, more commonly known as a BB gun. While most of us hold a preference over the other few will change the channel if the one pops on the television this time of year but the question remains: Which movie is better? I’m here to provide you an answer after we break this down using 6 key categories: Cast, Quotes, Memorable Scenes, Key Props, Mass Appeal and Rewatchability. I’m borrowing the matchup breakdown method first made famous by legendary NBA Coach and commentator Dr. Jack Ramsay but you may also recognize it from recently minted New York Times #1 bestselling author Bill Simmons. Onto the breakdown.
Cousin Eddie proves to be a valuable role player
Cast: The key element to this particular category is not judging on if this movie was a launching point for anyone’s career or which movie had more famous people in it, but rather how the main ensemble worked off each other in these particular films. In Christmas Vacation we had Chevy Chase still consistently hitting the 90s with his fastball bringing the laughs as Clark Griswold. The Griswold family is rounded out by Ellen Griswold (Beverly D’Angelo), Audrey Griswold (Juilette Lewis) and Rusty Griswold (John Galeki). In Christmas Vacation the Griswold’s play host to their eclectic family members in commonly used Christmas movie storyline where dysfunctional in-laws, cousins, aunts and uncles lead to hilarity as the movie plays out. What’s working for Christmas Vacation in this catagory is that even though they went down a road commonly traveled they hit it out of the park. Family dysfunction can often lead to monotony when it comes to movies but for every Clark Griswold classic scene we continue to laugh at Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and Clark and Beverly’s parents as well. If this cast was an NBA Team we’d have Clark as the alpha dog/team leader/superstar (think Lebron James) and he’d be surrounded by a team that fell in line and delivered when they were called upon. Lebron is going to lead a team of garbage to 60 wins this season–now try to imagine Lebron this season if he had halfway decent teammates around him. Pretty scary right? That’s the Griswold cast for you: Clark is Lebron and everyone else is playing key roles contributing to victory.
Conversely to the Lebron James/Clark Griswald analogy in A Christmas Story we have a cast of no-names that still work brilliantly as an ensemble. Darren McGavin ends up stealing the movie as Mr. Parker (Ralphie’s Dad, commonly referred to “The Old Man” by the narrator). So if Christmas Vacation is a cast of Lebron and a bunch of above average teammates think of A Christmas Story as the 2004 Pistons, no one is going to stand out consistently but everyone is going to have their moments. It was a different hero every night in 2004 for Detroit and the same goes for A Christmas Story. Each castmember steals a scene here and there: Ralphie’s brother Randy falling down in the full body snow suit, Ralphie dropping an F-Bomb when changing the tire with his Old Man, the Old Man beaming with pride over his lamp, Ralphie’s teacher in his daydream about her reading his paper, Flick when his tongue gets stuck to the pole…the list goes on and on and on. A Christmas Story didn’t need a star to become a Holiday classic which leads me to conclude that this ensemble cast outplayed those in Christmas Vacation. Slight Edge: A Christmas Story
Quotes: If I were to transcribe all of of Christmas Vacation we could excavate hundreds of classic lines. I have two personal favorites: Uncle Eddie’s delivery on “The sh*tter was full!” and the emotional and jubilant Clark after his Christmas lights finally come on and he throws his arm around his dad then exclaims “You taught me everything I know about exterior illumination!” Kills me everytime. But as I said there are hundreds of lines, for a solid list here’s a link to IMDB’s memorable quotes for Christmas Vacation page.
A Christmas Story brings us a line that is muttered at least 75% of the time a BB Gun is purchased in America and that’s: “You’ll shoot your eye out!” Ralphie hears this from his Mother, teacher and even Santa Claus himself. This line holds more pop culture significance than anything said in Christmas Vacation but the depth of quotes muttered by the Griswold clan takes the cake. Edge: Christmas Vacation
Memorable Scenes: Quick test, name your favorite Christmas Vacation scene…got it? If you said the greased up saucer sled we’re on the same page but it doesn’t end there. Perhaps you cited the arrival of Uncle Eddie, Clark in a department store unloading several Freudian slips to an attractive saleswoman behind the counter, Clark cutting into the Turkey, Clark lighting the Christmas lights and blinding the neighbors, Clark in the attic or the cat getting electrocuted. Regardless, the list is plentiful.
The dreaded Triple Dog Dare
Same test but change movies. What did you say? I always go back to Ralphie beating the red headed bully and unloading an expletive lased tirade as he does so. How do you pick just one here though? We have the aforementioned tire changing scene and swear word brought to life brilliantly by the narrartor, the dogs assaulting the turkey leading to “fa ra ra ra ra, ra ra ra ra”, Flick’s tounge, Ralphie visiting Santa, Ralphie in the pink PJs, the Old Man and the furnace, The “Little Orphan Annie” decoder ring, the arrival of the lamp, the lamp breaking…again we have a swollen list.
How do we possibly give an edge here? Here’s my tiebreaker of these two movies: think of your favorite scene, which one sends you into a more uncontrollable fit of laughter? I love all of the scenes I listed but the Clark Griswold saucer sled scene puts me in stitches every year. When the race is this tight you have to fault back on this question: If you could only watch one scene from either movie once a year for the rest of your life what do you pick? I’m going saucer sled. Slight Edge: Christmas Vacation
The Leg Lamp remains one of the most memorable props in movie history
Key Prop: In Christmas Vacation we’re introduced to the key prop less then 10 minutes in and that is the Griswold Family Christmas tree. This tree produces hilarity when its found, untied in the Griswold home and when its lights are plugged in leading to a cat electrocution. I’ve been known to mutter “I Give you…the Griswold family Christmas tree” around this time of year many times but come on…we all know where this is going.
In the history of cinema the lamp that Mr. Parker wins much to his wife’s chagrin stands alone. A simple google search of “Leg Lamp” will lead you to plenty of options to purchase your own (full size or mini). If you’re a PTI viewer you can see the mini version behind Kornheiser this time of year. Even the opening of the box leads to that classic: “Fra-gee-lay. That must be Italian” line. The subsequent breaking of the lamp and the Old Man’s attempts to glue it back together all add to the Leg Lamp’s legend. While the Griswold family Christmas tree is always good for a laugh the Leg Lamp has carved out its own place in the Pop Culture hall of fame. Major Edge: A Christmas Story
Mass Appeal: Christmas Vacation is ultimately a dysfunctional but altogether hilarious family drama. Many of the film’s key jokes are geared towards the older audience (Clark’s professional life outside of home, his fantasies of the pool, etc). It does carry the PG-13 rating thanks to some foul language but if you see the saucer scene as a kid along with the other physical humor you’ll still laugh. Some of the jokes will go over some people’s heads until they reach adolescence but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A Christmas Story works for all ages: when viewed as a kid you sympathize greatly with Ralphie’s quest for that one Christmas gift. When viewed as an adult you can’t help but admire the wonder the narrator creates with Ralphie’s wild imagination. There is also a Pixarian quality to A Christmas Story in the sense that if you watch it as an adult you’ll “get” some little nuggets and jokes that you totally missed as a kid. So if we’re talking in terms of the masses A Christmas Story can be viewed at any age and still hit home while Christmas Vacation remains slanted towards to adult demographic which slightly isolates Santa’s biggest believers: the kids. Edge: A Christmas Story
Rewatchability: Don’t get me wrong I make it a point to watch both of these movies every Christmas season but this matchup focuses more on which one I would choose if I had to watch only one. Christmas Vacation has one fatal flaw when it comes to this matchup and that’s that it remains an 80’s movie. There are certain scenes that cannot hide this (The Chester’s ridiculous 80’s jogging suits along with their “upscale” stereo system and new wave decor in their place). A Christmas Story was made in 1983 but set in the 60’s. As viewers we do not have to cringe at any of the outfits, cars, or new wave electronics. By making this a period piece its helps the movie hold up–the 60’s had already happened and we knew what came out of the decade. The 80’s were winding down in Christmas Vacation but as viewers we are expected to think the Chesters are this upscale and modern family but now it just comes across as 80’s cheese.
As time has gone on the 60’s are looked back upon as a great time to be alive; you had JFK starting the decade, Beatlemania infusing it with life, the Summer of Love and a Moon landing. The 80’s gave us big hair, glam, synthesizer infused Rock music and MTV. The Parkers bring out the innocence and joy of Christmas spirit…things just seemed simpler in Ralphie’s world. The Griswolds give us laughter but are stuck at the end of a lame decade. Both movies convey messages of trying to achieve the best Christmas ever, only I’d much rather see the world through the eyes of Ralphie than Clark. Edge: A Christmas Story
There you have it, a 4-2 victory for A Christmas Story. So when you settle in with the nog, cookies and stockings hung on the chimney with care, check the guide or your on demand service for A Christmas Story and don’t shoot your eye out. Happy Holidays everyone.