The greatest character in cinema history is Cousin Eddie from the “Vacation” film franchise.
I’ll concede my choice is unorthodox.
But then so is Eddie.
Anyway I refuse to confine my options to the conventional, critically endorsed cadre.
“Best Of” lists are clogged with the likes of Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine and Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone and Judy Garland’s Dorothy Gale and Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara.
Fine performances all.
But so far as I can tell, none of those actors has ever delivered a line that compares, for sheer piquancy, with Randy Quaid’s “You better take a rain check on that, Art — he’s got a lip fungus they ain’t identified yet.”
Or this one: “Only problem is, he’s got a little bit of Mississippi leg hound in him. Mood catches him right, he’ll grab your leg and just go to town. You don’t want him around if you’re wearing short pants, if y’know what I mean!”
And as accomplished as those other performers are, I’m convinced that only Quaid could pull off the scene in which he is clad in a ratty bathrobe, chugging a can of Meister Brau and smoking a cigar while emptying the septic tank from his RV into a storm drain.
Unfortunately, decorum, and the standards of a family newspaper, preclude me from quoting verbatim Cousin Eddie’s infamous statement in that scene. The edited version: “Merry Christmas! (Receptacle for an RV’s toilet) was full!”
That scene probably is the best known from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” one of the three “Vacation” films in which Quaid portrayed Cousin Eddie.
(The character is absent from the second in the series, “European Vacation.” I always presumed this was because Eddie was unable to fly due to the plastic plate in his head.)
“Christmas Vacation” was on TV the other evening, as it so often is this time of year. We own a DVD version and I checked the fine print on the back of the case to verify what I thought to be true. Indeed, the movie turns 30 years old this year.
(It was released in U.S. theaters on Dec. 1, 1989, to be specific.)
I was taken aback just a bit by this.
Partly this is a matter of personal history. I graduated from high school in 1988, and whenever I come across a reference to some cultural event that happened 30 years ago it strikes me as improbable that more than three decades have passed since I was handed a diploma.
But “Christmas Vacation” also doesn’t seem to me to betray its age as obviously as some films do from that era.
The absence of modern accoutrements such as cellphones isn’t especially jarring, since technology — aside from imported Italian twinkle lights, sewage treatment plants, and a nuclear power reactor — doesn’t factor into the plot. And because the film is set during that most venerable of holidays, the soundtrack and other potential giveaways to the passage of time are muted.
My family adopted “Christmas Vacation” as our official Christmas movie well over a decade ago. My DVD was a gift from my parents, and one year my three siblings and I also received one of the glass moose mugs — the handles look like moose antlers, an homage to the first “Vacation” movie and to Marty Moose — from which Clark Griswold and Eddie sip egg nog.
(Or gulp it, in Eddie’s case.)
Cousin Eddie would rank near the top of my favorite film characters even if his contributions were limited to his memorable quotes.
But what elevates him to the top is how he interacts with Clark.
Eddie’s purpose, or so it seems to me, is to occasionally make Clark, whose disastrous failures to be the ultimate family man define the “Vacation” movies, appear not quite so abnormal by comparison.
Clark falls from ladders, staples his shirt sleeve to fascia boards, plugs 36 appliances into a single outlet and does much else of an idiotic nature.
But he also lives in a nice suburban home rather than a decrepit motor home.
And although Eddie, according to his immensely patient and cheerful wife, Catherine, is “holding out for a management position,” Clark already has a white-collar job in a downtown skyscraper where he creates food additives including a non-nutritive cereal varnish, something I suspect actually exists.
(His boss is played by the inimitable Brian Doyle Murray, whose slurred pronunciation of “Griswold” sounds suspiciously like “Greaseball.”)
While Clark is depending on his Christmas bonus to pay for the swimming pool he has already hired a contractor to build, Eddie is impressed when the bonus turns out to be a one-year subscription in the Jelly of the Month Club.
“That’s the gift that keeps on giving the whole year,” Eddie says after Clark opens the envelope.
Indeed it is.
But my favorite scene, and the one that I think best illustrates the dichotomy between the two characters, is the Christmas Eve dinner.
As Clark, the very picture of fatherdom as he sits at the head of the table, prepares to plunge his carving knife into the turkey, Eddie, displaying the leer that is his trademark, utters the immortal line: “Save the neck for me, Clark!”
Later in the meal, after Eddie has proved that he enjoys lime Jell-O regardless of whether it’s sprinkled with cat food, Clark announces — to the children — that an airline pilot had spotted Santa’s sled.
The kids, of course, are enchanted.
But Eddie pauses in the middle of a mouthful and looks at Clark with a puzzled expression.
My older brother Michael once repeated Eddie’s line while we were eating breakfast at a restaurant, perfectly mimicking the deadpan and earnest delivery, and I almost hyperventilated on my pancakes.
“You serious, Clark?”
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.