Movie rewrites are common. What isn’t common is having to completely redo the end of a movie. That’s what happened with 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation.
As we documented last week, National Lampoon’s Vacation may be the most quintessential road trip movie ever made. Many have followed the same formula (including the films’ sequels/reboot) to various levels of success. But no matter the impact of the film’s approach, no one can argue the comedic genius of the film’s ending. However, the ending seen in theaters and now attached to the film was not the ending the writers originally had in mind. It was an ending which would have completely changed the impact of the film, made it even more risque than it already was, and may very well have eliminated the possibility of any sequels. This is a look at that lost ending.
For those few of you who have not seen this comedic classic, it’s best to tune out now. Spoilers will follow!
In the theatrical/home video ending of the film, the Griswold family finally makes it to their destination, Walley World, only to find out it is closed for repairs. Fed up with all of the challenges the family had to face on their road trip, Clark has a breakdown. He purchases a BB gun and uses it to take the park security guard hostage, demanding that the family would get their opportunity to ride amusement park rides. Eventually, the Police arrives followed by the SWAT team and the owner of the park himself. Roy Walley. Clark explains his frustrations and intent to provide a fun vacation for his family despite everything which has happened to them. In reflection, Roy Walley agrees not to press charges and allows the family and the SWAT team to enjoy his park for the rest of the day.
By all accounts, this ending is a good one. The actualization of Chevy Chase taking John Candy hostage with a BB gun on a roller coaster will always make you smile. It continues the trend of the film where everything goes tragi-comically wrong – this just being the ultimate most tragic, most comic thing to have possibly go wrong when we take into account everything else the Griswold’s had gone through. It is very much The Grapes of Wrath, where the family has given up almost everything to get to the promise-land, for things only to be worse when they finally get there. Roy Walley’s decision not to press charges also leaves the film on a happy high note. We already know the film isn’t realistic, but in this moment it turns into a twisted satire of the wholesome family entertainment it alludes.
The original ending had the same set-up. The Griswold family finally arrives at Walley World, only to find that it is closed for repairs. Clark buys a BB gun, but instead of using it to force the family’s admission into the park, he tracks down Roy Walley at his home with the help of one of those star maps. Walley is having a meeting with the other executives of the company when Clark and family arrive. He forces them to sing and dance as both payback and a last-ditch effort to entertain his family.
The Police arrive to arrest the Griswolds, but at the same time so does Roy Walley’s daughter. She happens to be, you guessed it, the blond/Christie Brinkley in the red Ferrari. She recognizes Clark and is able to convince her father to let them go. The last scene of the film is the family wearing Walley World gear while on a plane back home. They realize they’re on the wrong flight, and Clark ends up hijacking the plane with his BB gun to try and get the pilots to change their destination.
This was the original scripted ending. It was completely filmed. However, test audiences didn’t like it. Their complaint? They never got to see Walley World. They felt as if the entire film was leading up to Walley World, and the original ending was a cop-out. And so the filmmakers re-wrote and re-shot the ending to be what it is today. No one really knows what happened to the footage of the original ending. None of it has ever been published or featured as a deleted/alternate scene. The photos in the credits of the film may be stills taken from that footage. Chevy Chase has claimed he has the footage, but nothing has been released to date.
In the ending that shipped with the film, you can see that Michael Anthony Hall is taller than in the previous scene due to a growth spurt. It was filmed four months after principal photography had already been completed. In fact, for the entire film Hall’s character was supposed to be the younger sibling, but after he grew the writers changed it so he would be the older one. Director Harold Ramis decided to cast John Candy in the cameo role of the security guard after remembering the Canadian comedian’s Wally Wypyzypychwk security guard character he created for his comedy routines. Scenes for the ending were filmed at Six Flags Magic Mountain. It is worth noting that the original ending of the film was essentially re-used for the third sequel, Christmas Vacation.
This original ending is interesting for a few reasons. I think the biggest thing it has going for it is that it finishes the story arc with the blonde woman. She becomes more important to the story than just a comedic bit. It would also make the outcome of the Griswolds not being arrested more believable. To me the original ending does seem like it would be more comedic, and the idea of Clark taking several people hostage makes it seem like it is pushing the envelope a bit more than the ending which shipped with the film.
However, there are also some glaring problems with this original ending. I agree with the test audiences about the disappointment in not seeing Walley World. It does leave something to be desired, and having the scene play out at Walley’s Los Angeles mansion just doesn’t have as much connection with the rest of the film. More importantly though, this would not really be a happy ending. For one, Clark and family get bailed out by a mere circumstance (by the conspirator of his infidelities), not because Mr. Walley genuinely understands Clark’s devotion to making his family happy. In fact, since Mr. Walley would be seen for the first time in a mansion, there would instead be a connotation with his wealth and the fact that it comes from exploiting people’s happiness. The Griswolds’ sacrifices would mean almost nothing to such a man.
The final scene would also be a problem too. While taking people hostage is always frowned upon, taking an entire plane hostage makes you a terrorist. In this day and age, it would not be considered funny; and instead would be offensive. It would also make Clark seem incredibly selfish. He is in this situation because of an error he made, and now he has to make other people suffer because of it. We were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt the first time he took someone hostage, but when he does it again it just seems like a character flaw. This scene would also be after the climax of the film. So all of the emotion which was built up over the course of the film along with Clark would already have subsided. The scene would end up seeming like a cheap gimmick to take advantage of the audience for one more gag, rather than an accurate continuation of his character’s state of mind. Furthermore, if Clark took an entire plane hostage, he would go to jail. There wouldn’t be any opportunity for sequels.