The Henry Ford and "National Lampoon's Vacation"
Thanks to some digging into our collections, Chicago-based writer and editor James Hughes, son of director John Hughes, discovered some surprising connections between National Lampoon’s Vacation, which his father wrote, and The Henry Ford. In 2017, James joined Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson for a discussion about that connection, his father’s writing inspiration, and the time-honored tradition of the family road trip, both then and now.
Matt Anderson: James, of course it should be noted that your father wrote the screenplay for this picture, and here we are. And, of course when think about your father's films, whether it's Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, right up to Uncle Buck, we tend to think of Chicago. The films are always rooted in that city or that area. But in fact, he's got some connections to southeast Michigan.
James Hughes: My father was born in Michigan in 1950, in Lansing, and spent his childhood in Grosse Pointe. It was probably around junior high age, I want to say around 12, possibly older, when his family moved to the North Shore of Chicago, to the suburb of Northbrook, which became the inspiration for the fictional town of Shermer, Illinois, where my father set many of his films, particularly in the ‘80s. I was thinking about this relation to Vacation—there are several Michigan connections. For one, Vacation was a summer movie, released in 1983. Within a few weeks of it, Mr. Mom was released as well, another screenplay he wrote, which was set in suburban Detroit. The Michael Keaton character, at the beginning of the movie, is fired from his job at Ford Motor Company. But before there was the screenplay for Vacation, there was my father’s short story, titled Vacation ’58. The Griswold family lived on Rivard Boulevard in Grosse Pointe. So, that was where the journey began.
You know, it's interesting, I've said this many times about my dad. He took a pretty significant step back from the movie business in the late '90s and early 2000s. But he continued to write every day. He was a very disciplined writer. And in his later years, before he passed away, he was working on developing his prose style. He was writing hundreds and hundreds of short stories. And there was an interesting series of stories within that about his Grosse Pointe childhood. He made himself the narrator, in much the same way that the Vacation short story was from the point of view of Rusty, the son. To tell his own stories, he created a character based on himself and wrote under the pseudonym JL Hudson, as a nod to the Detroit department store, in much the same way that the Griswold family is a nod to Griswold Street in downtown Detroit.
Matt: Your father, in the early-mid 1970s, he's working at an ad agency, right? For Leo Burnett in Chicago? Really one of the best-known ad agencies in the world, at that point. And he's got a successful career, but as I understand it, he also has kind of a shadow career. He's moonlighting on the side, right?
James: All throughout the ‘70s my father was a freelance humor writer. He got his start at a relatively young age. He was in his 20s, maybe, I want to say 22. And he was writing jokes for stand-up comedians. Rodney Dangerfield was one, Phyllis Diller was another. He would maybe write 10, 20 jokes a day and mail them off to comedians, and would get paid per joke, if that line was used in their acts. He was able to roll that into writing for publications. At the time, in the mid-70s, Chicago had a deeper publishing footprint than it has now. And the big magazine was Playboy, so he wrote a few humor pieces for Playboy, and conducted an interview or two for them as well. Concurrently, he was a copywriter and, ultimately, a creative director at Leo Burnett.
The big prize was to write for National Lampoon, which was, to him, the preeminent comedic voice in the country. He was really honored to contribute to the Lampoon. And he was able to pull this off in part because he often commuted from Chicago to New York. In particular, he was servicing the Virginia Slims campaign for Phillip Morris, which was based in Manhattan. So, either before or after meetings, he was able to sneak off to the National Lampoon offices, which were also in the epicenter of the New York advertising row, on Madison Avenue.
It's common for advertising writers to, say, work on their novel at night, or work freelance on the side. My father actually wrote at work quite often, at his desk. And his boss, Robert Nolan, allowed it because he wanted to keep him working on ad copy. Rob wrote an interesting piece for the Huffington Post soon after my father died, in 2009, where he recounted what it was like to be John Hughes' boss, knowing he was living this sort of double-life as a comedy writer. He likened it to a kind of Ferris Bueller/Principal Rooney dynamic, where my father was always able to stay one step ahead, and somehow get all of his work done, and somehow get to work on time, while also contributing steadily to the Lampoon, where he eventually earned a spot as an editor on the masthead, all while living in the North Shore of Chicago and skirting a move to New York.
Matt: Fantastic. Well, let's talk about that short story, Vacation ‘58. This is a real defining moment. Sort of a milestone in your father's career, right? He makes this decision now to move away from Leo Burnett and commit himself to writing full time.
James: This story was published in September 1979, which was about six months or so after I was born. So he was a young father of two and had all the commitments that come with that. But he enjoyed writing and contributing to the Lampoon so much that he took the risk and quit his job at Leo Burnett. He was on the verge of becoming a VP, though he quit to pursue writing full-time. Fortunately, for him, the release of National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978 was such a smash that several Lampoon writers were being poached by the studios or offered development deals. And without my father even knowing, his short story was optioned by Warner Bros., pretty much upon publication. And though he had to work in the trenches on several projects between, let's say 1979 and 1983, when Vacation was released, it really did help launch his career.
Matt: Let's talk for a moment about the short story. The movie is a fairly faithful adaptation, going from that short story. But there are a few changes here and there, and one of the major changes, in fact, was quite a big change to the ending. And I should, just to do it justice, read the opening line:
"If Dad hadn't shot Walt Disney in the leg it would have been our best vacation ever."
I think that pretty much sets up the story beautifully. But that gets to the ending, which is quite different from what we see in the film.
James: Of course with the film, they weren't able to have Walt Disney portray himself—that might've been a bridge too far. The Roy Walley character was created for the purpose of the film. And yes, the ending of the short story is pretty rough, as much of the humor in the Lampoon was back then. Clark uses live rounds, it’s not a…
Matt: Not a BB gun?
James: No, not a BB gun. But when Clark arrives at the park, only to find that it's closed for repairs, he snaps and takes the family to the Bel Air home of Walt Disney and shoots Walt in the leg. Walt’s security dog doesn’t fare well, either.
Matt: Just the happy ending everyone wants. My understanding is they originally shot something like that for the film, and then realized it didn't play all that well with the test audiences.
James: True, yes. You know, perhaps because of my father’s advertising background, he was open to the test-screening process—the kind of diagnostics you learn from test audiences, and how you can adjust the picture accordingly. Of course, he wasn't the director of the film, but he was, as a result of the rather rough ending, which audiences rejected, brought back in to write an entirely new ending at the request of Harold Ramis, the director.
Matt: Speaking of that, when you think about your father's films, really starting in the mid-80s and on—films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off—these are movies where you really see a large degree of creative control. He's writing the story, then directing, very much able to bring his vision to the screen. And that's not the case, of course, early in his career. He's written the screenplay for Vacation and adapted it from his short story, but he's turned over control, at some point, to Harold Ramis. And I wonder if you had any insight on that experience. If that was difficult for him?
James: I think the process of changing the ending, that might've been an area of difficulty. As a young writer for hire, he didn’t have much power in the industry. But I think time has certainly proven that Harold was a great choice to direct this picture. And casting is such a big part of the process, and I know my father was pleased with the cast that Harold and his team put together. I know they worked closely, but in terms of being on set, I don't believe he was there very much. Obviously with it being a road picture, the majority of which was filmed in Colorado and out west, I don't believe he was actually physically present for much of it. Though, I would imagine, because of that triage situation with the ending, he was brought closer into the fold.
Matt: This leads me to my next question, of talking about the road picture. From what I understand, it was more or less like a vacation for the cast. They were traveling to these places. The whole crew and support trucks, depending on the outfit. But, I was curious about your own family vacations. Did you take trips with your father, your parents? Have you had any wacky adventures or stories to share?
James: I was raised in Illinois, but my father's career demanded we move out west, to Los Angeles, from the mid- to late 80s. So much of my childhood was about alternating between Illinois and California. We kept our house in Illinois and went back often, so that meant a lot of air travel. I don't have any major road-trip stories to offer, unfortunately. As I grew older, we did travel by car with my grandparents to the Northwoods. My father, to some extent, rolled some of those experiences into his screenplay for The Great Outdoors, along with his own memories of traveling and exploring the Upper Midwest when he was younger. Or perhaps it was just him longing to revisit that corner of the world after being stationed in Los Angeles for years.
In 1990, when Home Alone was released, it was really the first time his work went truly international. He generally wrote stories that catered to a domestic audience. These were regional stories, particularly about the Midwest. And Home Alone changed the whole paradigm. That franchise played so widely overseas, which meant an obligation to do foreign press and promote the franchise around the world. And then he had a couple productions based in London, which meant going to England quite often. In a way, in the '90s, he made up for lost time. He was simply too busy for us to do any extensive road trips like the one in Vacation. But later in life, he made up for it, particularly by trying to open the world to the family a bit more, with overseas travel.
Model with 1979 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon. THF294571
Matt: Being an automotive curator, we've got to talk about that car. It’s more or less based on a 1979 Ford Country Squire station wagon, and just made up to look as gaudy as possible. You know, why do four headlights when you can do eight, right? I wondered if your father had any input on the design?
James: You know, I can't say for sure if he did. I would imagine, when you go from the page to the screen, there are so many different people making decisions—the art director, production designer, prop master, the director himself—that I don't know if, as a screenwriter, he was able to have input on the model that they chose and customized. I do know that from the short story, it's a Plymouth.
Matt: Right, a '58 Plymouth.
James: A running joke early on in the short story is how long it takes for the Griswold family to actually leave the house, or even just leave the state of Michigan. And one of the reasons is that the Plymouth dies. And Clark laments and kind of kicks himself for the fact that he didn't buy a Ford.
Matt: Right. There you go!
James: In the early '90s my father was working at 20th Century Fox. At that time, one of the hit shows on the Fox network was Married With Children. I remember my dad mentioning, offhandedly, that the opening shots of that show’s title sequence were from Harold's second unit photography on Vacation. That always stuck in my mind, and I never quite knew if it was true. I've seen that noted online here and there, but I wanted to confirm it before mentioning it here. I asked my friend Schawn Belston, head of archival and digital restoration at Fox, if he would ask around the lot on my behalf. Fortunately, there were some people who confirmed that, in fact, yes, Married With Children opens with the footage from Vacation. There was a very kind film stock librarian at Fox, Wendy Carter, who went so far as to track down Carl Barth, the aerial photographer who shot the Family Truckster driving through Chicago, to verify. It was noted that, if you look carefully at the title sequence for the show’s first three seasons, you can see the Family Truckster drive by. I believe it's on the Dan Ryan Expressway. A strange pop-culture afterlife for the Truckster.
Matt: I think they built maybe a total of five cars for the movie. I'm sure there was a hero car that was fully tricked-out, and then of course they had some stunt cars for the jump and so forth. But it's beloved. It's always interested me. I think if this film had been made even just a year or two later, they probably would've been driving a minivan, because this is the tail-end of the station wagon era.
James: That's true.
Matt: Vacation is essentially your father's big break, right? This is one of his first screenplays, and it's a hit film. There's no two ways about it. I would imagine, from that perspective, if nothing else, it would have a certain meaningfulness to him. But also, as you watch the movie, you notice that two of your father's future collaborators, Anthony Michael Hall and John Candy, both appear in this movie as well. I wondered if that's perhaps how he first crossed paths with them?
James: I believe that's the case. I'm glad you mentioned that. I appreciate that, because those are two actors, certainly John Candy, who my father cherished collaborating with. I don't think there are any two actors he gave more latitude to improvise or to develop characters alongside him when he was directing than Candy and Michael Hall. Another actor he admired was Eddie Bracken.
Matt: Yes, Roy Walley.
James: Eddie Bracken was cast to play Roy Walley, and I imagine it must've blown my father's mind at the time. He was a big fan of Preston Sturges, one of the great writer/directors of the 1940s, perhaps best remembered for Sullivan's Travels, which was one of my father's favorite movies. Bracken was the star of two of Sturges' greats, Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. It had to be a trip for him to have Bracken reading his dialogue. And he actually circled back later in his career and hired Eddie a couple of times more. Perhaps most prominently in Home Alone 2, when he was the toy-store owner in New York.
Matt: They talk about actors and roles they were born to play. I've always thought that about Eddie Bracken in this movie, you know, just the perfect sort of spitting image of Walt Disney. A great stand-in. There's some other, of course, perfect performances in this movie. Think about Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie. Sort of steals every scene he's in. Imogene Coca, of course, a legend in TV comedy from Your Show of Shows. Brian Doyle-Murray, who plays the campground owner. Slight continuity error here because he returns in Christmas Vacation as Clark's boss, but we'll let that go for now. But I wondered, as we watch this movie, it's full of so many wonderful moments. I wondered if you had any favorite scenes or moments in this movie that you've continually referred to.
James: I'm partial to Clark's meltdown when the family throws in the towel and declares they're ready to head home. I think my father had a particular knack for writing passive-aggressive rants.
Matt: There's so many great moments in this movie. I kind of think of it as America's favorite R-rated family film. It's just so timeless. You think of the short story being written about a trip in 1958, this movie made in 1983, yet the situations are still recognizable to all of us today, taking a road trip in 2017.
Part of the reason we’re chatting is because there is a surprising connection between this movie and The Henry Ford. The collections in The Henry Ford, specifically. We see it right away in the opening title sequence of Vacation. Tell us a little bit about that.
Trout Haven Billboard, Spearfish, South Dakota, 1980. THF239534
James: I was thrilled about this. I was here at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation last year and our friend and colleague Kristen Gallerneaux, Curator of Communication and Information Technology, gave me a private tour of the archive. At that time, a recent acquisition was a portion of the photo archives of John Margolies, a great chronicler of Americana, particularly roadside Americana. He documented the kinds of landmarks that are spoofed in Vacation. You know how Clark wants to see the world's second-largest ball of twine? Well, Margolies was the photographer who would've had an entire portfolio of that. That name stuck in my mind when Kristen first told me about him. Then, a few months later, I came across an interview with Harold Ramis where he mentioned he was friends with Margolies and that he used his images for the postcards in the main and closing title sequences in Vacation. I told Kristen about this and she searched the Margolies archives and found several images that appear in Vacation.
This inspired me to reach out to the title designer, Wayne Fitzgerald, who’s a giant in his field. He’s retired now and lives in the Pacific Northwest. He created the titles for My Fair Lady, Judgment at Nuremberg, Bonnie and Clyde. The titles for the Netflix series Stranger Things are patterned after Wayne's titles for The Dead Zone, which was released a few months after Vacation. He and his son and collaborator, Eric, also worked on the titles for The Breakfast Club and filmed the shot where the title card with the David Bowie quote shatters at the start.
I had a great conversation with Eric, about what it was like putting the Vacation titles together, back when they were cutting to Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” demo tape, which Eric remembered having no lyrics yet, only melodies. At one point, Buckingham riffed on Wayne’s name, to fill space during the verses.
Hat N' Boots Gas, Seattle, Washington, 1980. THF238979
I mentioned the Margolies archive to Eric, who of course remembered his images. What The Henry Ford has in the collection is even more special than what’s in the movie, because you have the slides themselves, John’s original photography. The titles for Vacation were made in the pre-digital era, so they were reproductions that were taken from books, as Eric explained, and then shot as animation cels. Many of them were Margolies’ images, which were doctored by Fitzgerald and his crew to appear as if they were postcards—given captions or a certain trim or border. Wayne and Eric were pleased to hear about this connection to the Margolies archives.
It’s great that Margolies, all these years ago, captured an America that was vanishing. Here we have a movie that's already over 30 years old. So fortunately, some of Margolies’ images live on, not only in the movie on a mass scale, but in the permanent archives of the museum. I think it's this really wonderful connection, and I'm thrilled that it's brought us to this discussion.
Matt: Those are two things we love here: highway travel and roadside Americana. You get both of them in the Margolies collection. James, thanks for chatting with me.
James: I'm happy to be here, thank you.
1980s, 1970s, Illinois, Michigan, 20th century, 21st century, 2010s, travel, roads and road trips, popular culture, movies, John Margolies, cars