How Tensions, a G-Rating and Keith Richards Hampered ‘European Vacation’
In July of 1985, producers tried to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time with the release of National Lampoon's European Vacation. However, the result wasn't close to the quality of its predecessor, bogged down by the effects of a G-rating, on-set fighting and even a rock star.
After the initial Vacation movie was a huge success in 1983, a sequel was quickly greenlit. The second film’s plot would revolve around another Griswold family vacation, this time through several picturesque European nations. From the get-go, the project had problems.
Studio executives insisted European Vacation be more family-friendly than its predecessor, resulting in a tamer script.
“Very quickly a sequel was written, and it was G-rated, and no one really knew what the formula was,” recalled Beverly D’Angelo in the book I'm Chevy Chase... and You're Not. “It went downhill from there.”
Though D’Angelo would return in her role as Ellen alongside the film’s star, Chevy Chase, as Clark, the sequel saw major turnover from the first Vacation film. The Griswold children, Rusty and Audrey, would be recast - an occurrence which took place before every Vacation film moving forward. Also absent, Randy Quaid, whose hilarious red-necked character cousin Eddie was left out of the second film.
Still, perhaps the most glaring absence was Harold Ramis, the Vacation director who rejected an offer to return for the second installment.
“It was Harold who acted out and gave me the inspiration for the character of Clark Griswold,” Chase would later recall. “I was really copying Harold’s impression of Clark. He was a truly funny and highly intelligent man with great honesty and a great appreciation for the best kind of comedy.”
Ramis’ indelible influence on the first film set a high bar for his replacement, Amy Heckerling. Though she’d previously helmed the successful flicks Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Johnny Dangerously, Chase was unimpressed.
“I had problems with the director, Amy Heckerling - a very lovely person, but I didn’t think her direction smacked of energy and humor,” the comedian explained, adding that his “expectations were higher.”
Heckerling found Chase to be extremely difficult to work with, often fantasizing about leaving the production completely. “It was not a marriage made in heaven,” the director admitted in a 2015 interview with Flavorwire. “I couldn’t go on the set unless I knew I had in my hand a physical ticket to New York, so that I could just go at any time. I had to hold it in my hand so I knew that I had a way out.”
While Heckerling may have received the brunt of Chase’s resentment, she wasn’t the singular cause of it. The star had married his third wife, Jayni Luke, in 1982 after meeting her on the set of the first Vacation film. Filming European Vacation on location in England, Italy and France was difficult for Chase, as it required him to be away from his wife, who was pregnant with their second child at the time.
“I know Chevy really missed being home,” D’Angelo admitted.
Despite these pitfalls, European Vacation pressed forward. Many of the film’s laughs came via cross-cultural humor. In England, the Griswold’s crammed into a tiny rental car, dealt with a Cockney hotel clerk and famously got trapped in one of London’s roundabouts (“Look kids, Big Ben! Parliament!”). A stop in Paris featured rude waiters, a dog jumping off the Eiffel Tower and a thief who stole the family’s camcorder. In Germany, Clark’s involvement in a local folk dance led to a street brawl.
In Italy, the family rented another car, only to get caught up in a robbery and kidnapping scheme involving a man tied up in the vehicle’s trunk. A subplot also included the aforementioned stolen camcorder and some racy videos of Ellen, which Clark had sworn he erased, only to see their images plastered on billboards advertising adult films.
One of the movie’s funnier gags featured Eric Idle, the British comedian best known as a member of Monty Python. His character, a bike rider, gets struck by the Griswolds’ rental car in England, but is too friendly to admit he is hurt or needs help. He then turns up again in Rome, crunched in a revolving door, once again the victim of Clark’s accident-prone ways.
Idle’s presence helped pacify Chase, the two comedy legends becoming quick friends. The duo even reportedly worked on another Vacation idea - which would have taken the Griswolds to Australia - but ultimately didn’t come to fruition. Idle’s involvement, however, was not without incident. The comedian lost his voice during production thanks to a member of the Rolling Stones.
“At one point, my husband had a birthday party for me,” D’Angelo recalled. The actress was living in Italy at the time and was married to an Italian Duke. As you’d expect, the party was lavish. “Keith Richards was there, got everyone singing all night, and Eric Idle ended up so hoarse he had to loop most of the scenes in the movie.”
National Lampoon’s European Vacation hit screens July 26, 1985. Critics were quick to scrutinize the film. Variety called the comedy “tiresome and predictable” and decried its “uneven screenplay.” The Washington Post wasn’t much kinder, describing European Vacation as “messy” and a “new low.” Despite the harsh response, the film still did moderately well, ranking No. 1 its opening weekend and bringing in a total of nearly $50 million at the domestic box office.
Financial success didn’t make the film more palatable to its stars, even if European Vacation did keep the franchise moving forward. “Lots of people love this film, but I didn’t like it and I didn’t like doing it,” Chase explained years later. D’Angelo was more succinct in her assessment. “The script wasn’t that funny.”