BEHIND THE CAMERA: ‘Vegas Vacation’ had Chevy Chase dodging a lawsuit, Wayne Newton softening a ‘sleazebag’ portrait and the Sands making its cinematic swan song
Films can leave legacies — even the critically pilloried ones.
Under that definition, think of 1997’s Vegas Vacation as the one that sent the Vacation franchise on an 18-year vacation. Among its distinctions: being the lowest-grossing of the film series, bringing it to a screeching halt for nearly two decades until 2015’s reboot, simply titled Vacation.
By the time the Griswold clan of parents Clark and Ellen (Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo) and kids Audrey and Rusty (a series of constantly recast child actors in a running wink-wink gag to the audience) got to this fourth entry in the series — following National Lampoon’s Vacation, European Vacation and Christmas Vacation — the comic bloom was long off this spoofy rose.
Sept. 23 @ 12:15 a.m. and 7 p.m. PST
Scornful critics said it then; a 13 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes says it now.
Cut ’em some slack, though: Everyone endures the occasional lousy vacation, so why shouldn’t a Vacation film series be entitled to a stray stinker? We just wish it wouldn’t have happened here – the champion of vacation destinations. Even so, this one is a Vegas sight-and-sound buffet, so in that spirit, did ya’ know …
- Vegas-area locales were the best things about Vegas Vacation. Whether splayed out in your Barcalounger watching it on your wall-mounted TV screen, or squinting at it on the go on your mobile device, you can take a vicarious tour through: The Mirage, the MGM Grand, the Klondike, the Sands, the Riviera, Wayne Newton’s Casa de Shenandoah, the Siegfried & Roy show, the Neon Museum, the Fremont Street Experience, Chapel of the Bells and the environs of Jean, Nev. Other footage was shot at the Las Vegas Video Sound Film Production Center.
- Oh, and that club where daughter Audrey is discovered dancing, not-so-subtly named Club Areola? That’s our own Club Paradise.
- Somehow, this was the only Vacation film that was rated PG, after the others earned PG-13 or R designations. Can you insult us any worse than making us the tamest of your cinematic adventures? (However, the DVD release was upgraded to PG-13. Gee, thanks.)
- Hapless Clark was reprised by Chase so he could avoid a lawsuit. At the end of a $23 million, three-picture deal with Warner Bros., he contractually owed them one more flick. Chase hated all the scripts they ran by him, so he took yet another Vacation to stay out of court. Not the noblest of motives, which resulted in not-the-funniest of movies.
- Originally, Chase suggested his own idea for a fourth entry, in which the Griswolds wind up stranded on a desert island. Title? The Swiss Family Griswold. He was persuaded otherwise.
- With hindsight, even the actors embraced brutal honesty: Having portrayed the fourth Rusty in Vegas Vacation, Ethan Embry told Business Insider magazine in 2015 that “it’s a horrible film, let’s face it.”
- Despite the awful stories over the years that fellow actors, crew members, producers and directors tell about working with the famously temperamental Chase, Embry begs to differ. “My favorite moment was Chevy teaching me physical comedy up in his dressing room,” Embry told Business Insider. “Sitting there listening to him talk about certain gags and how to pull them off, what the tricks are, it was pretty cool. He was kind to me. I have fond memories of that guy.”
- Self-parody came easily to Newton, who portrays himself as smitten with D’Angelo’s Ellen. “Hopefully it showed a side of me that a lot of people do not realize exists, and that is I’m the last guy in the world to take myself seriously,” Newton told interviewer Jimmy Carter (no, not that Jimmy Carter). “When I saw the script for the first time, it had Wayne Newton, a real sleazebag. And in talking to (the producer and director), I said, ‘I think we can accomplish the same thing by giving Wayne Newton some saving graces.’”
- Keep a keen eye out for 1992 Playboy Playmate of the Year (and Las Vegas resident) Corinna Harney-Jones, who portrays a woman Clark hits on at a blackjack table. (Harney-Jones now owns and performs in the downtown interactive scavenger hunt show, Alibi Las Vegas.)
- Dealing was the name of the game for the late Nick Mazzola, whose turn as a dealer in Vegas Vacation followed playing the same role in Rain Man and Casino. Think of it as method acting: Mazzola dealt blackjack at Caesars Palace in the 1970s and ’80s.
- Films can often be directionally, geographically and logistically challenged. Among many such goofs in Vegas Vacation is that at the film’s end, the Chicago-bound Griswolds are seen motoring down Interstate 15 — toward California. And a road sign claims Chicago is 1,880 miles from Las Vegas, when it’s actually around 1,700. (OK, sure, it was before Google Maps.)
- On the other hand, consider this directional soliloquy from the reception desk clerk at the Mirage: “In order to get to your rooms, you’re going to have to go this way through the casino, veer to the left. Take a sharp right at the first giant palm tree. You’ll see a group of blackjack tables. Not baccarat, not craps — blackjack. Keep going, then wind around to your left. If you get to the pool, you’ve gone too far, back up and take another right. You’ll see a bank of elevators. Those aren’t your elevators, stay away from them. But keep going, you’ll see another bank of elevators, the gold elevators, those are yours. Take them up to the 10th floor, take a right at the end of the hall and you’ll find your room.” Those directions are real — and absolutely accurate.
- The iconic Sands Hotel made its cinematic swan song in Vegas Vacation, as it was filmed for it in June 1996, its last month of operation, before it was imploded in November of that year
- Speaking on behalf of most movie critics, Jack Matthews of The Los Angeles Times wrote: “In the first of National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold drove his family cross-country with a dead relative on the roof. In the fourth episode, Vegas Vacation, the Griswolds head from their Chicago suburb to Las Vegas with a dead script on their hands.”
Well, enjoy the movie’s Vegas landscapes anyway, and remember that the world knows that Vegas Vacation’s take on our city is completely repudiated by — what else? — an actual Vegas vacation.