The structure has changed! Now, in the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th, 30th or 40th anniversary of initial release this year — four from 1983, four from 1993 and four from 2003. The self-imposed rules of the column remain the same: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.

In 1983, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) was a borderline psychopathic father so flustered and frustrated by the suburban-Chicago life he’d settled for that he nearly committed infidelity while on a trip with his wife and kids. By 1989, as one of Clark’s coworkers put it, he had morphed into “the last true family man” — less likely to hold security guards at gunpoint to gain access to a closed amusement park, more inclined to build a pool with a bonus from his job in food additive design.

Chalk it up, perhaps, to the very ’80s allure of slick and simple transfiguration that Clark Griswold’s R-rated prickishness in National Lampoon’s Vacation could so easily morph into cuddlier PG-13 perturbation in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (which has, of course, become appointment yuletide viewing for many families). Indeed, Christmas Vacation’s enduring appeal has burnished the legacy of the original Vacation. Perhaps to a lesser degree than some of its contemporaries, the progression of time and taste has ravaged it. 

Clark’s attempt to avoid arrest for dragging a dog behind his car would not fly today, even as mean as the mutt can be to him and his family. Years later, director Harold Ramis said he should’ve axed a detour to inner-city St. Louis in which the Griswolds’ car is vandalized. And Christmas Vacation’s lovably dopey depiction of Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) entirely papers over this film’s punchline about praise for his daughter’s French kissing. (Yes, that’s a 13-year-old Jane Krakowski delivering this punchline, perhaps cementing her journey to 30 Rock way back when.) A sort-of sluggish second half complements the occasional cringe, en route to an ending largely salvaged by a short appearance from John Candy. (The finale was reshot when test audiences zotzed a more pointed hostage situation, which was resurrected for the finale of Christmas Vacation anyway.)

And yet Vacation’s blend of ugly American behavior in the middle of America, the scourge of suburbanite selfishness and the humiliation hurled at Clark as punishment for both helps Vacation scoot past its problems. 

Take the St. Louis scene, where Black men rob the Griswolds’ Wagon Queen Family Truckster of its hubcaps and paint it with graffiti that reads “Honky Lips.” First, the build on the Family Truckster, which Clark accepts instead of the new car he ordered, has already delivered a few good laughs — namely its obnoxiously overwrought eight-headlight grill. “You think you hate it now, wait’ll you drive it!,” Clark says. His capitulation to an unctuous car salesman played by Eugene Levy is the first hint Clark feels like he’s stifled and settled in suburbia — financially with whatever this car cost, paternally with aging kids Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron), sexually with wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo). The family vacation Clark has planned — to the proxy Disneyland of Walley World — is about asserting confidence to control something and not the quality time with family to which he pays lip service.

As presented, the scene in St. Louis indulges in lazy, lousy stereotyping. At the same time, it’s a quick rewrite away from working if it leaned harder into another enduring archetype — that of the smug classism and social supremacy Clark expresses when he stops to ask for directions.

As Ellen expresses terror at the thought of pulling over, Clark replies: “We can’t close our eyes to the plight of the cities!” Turning back to Rusty and Audrey, he adds: “Kids, you see all this plight?” On the surface of Chase’s gomer enthusiasm, Clark’s efforts to engage help by addressing someone as “bro” and “my man” are easily sliced white-bread laughs. A bit deeper, and you find even more hints of Clark’s self-serving disinterest in anything, or anyone, beyond himself. 

That notion gets deeper play in a far less racially loaded interaction with a bartender at a watering hole in Dodge City, Kansas. Again, Clark is ostensibly maintaining the performative parlance as a customer in a rootin’, tootin’, Old West-style saloon. But peel back his blathering insults like “knucklehead,” “yella belly,” “tenderfoot,” “turkey” and, as the last straw for the bartender, “underpants,” and you see a privileged presumption that persists today: Well-to-do folks often treat service professionals like shit because they know money will wipe up their mess. Obviously, the double-barrel buckshot blasted at Clark turns out to be blanks, but the server’s scowl sells the seething sentiment.

Even as Vacation’s singularly episodic shapelessness takes hold, the self-aware satire mostly stays in the script. It’s debatable whether it was in the initial draft from John Hughes, who based the movie on a short story he had written years earlier for National Lampoon and his own trip to Disneyland as a kid. By the time Christmas Vacation came around, Hughes had enough clout that what he wrote was probably what was shot. But for Vacation, Ramis and Chase did an uncredited rewrite to shift the protagonist’s perspective from Rusty to Clark. That doesn’t mean you don’t see the seeds of spite in Clark’s kids; at Eddie’s farm, Rusty and Audrey show dismay and disdain for their cousins’ leisure activities until they turn toward weed and porn. The cruel context of the Griswolds’ collective behavior could even power a modest defense of dead dog Dinky (a tag-along with Aunt Edna, whom the Griswolds pick up at Cousin Eddie’s farm).

James Keach plays a motorcycle cop who pulls Clark over on a desert highway. Perplexed about what he’s done, Clark asks and the cop holds up a leash with gritted teeth. As Clark exits the vehicle to face his fate, the cop asks him if he knows the state’s penalty for animal cruelty. “No, sir, I don’t,” Clark says. After a beat, the cop replies, “Well … it’s probably pretty stiff.” Clark is feigning tears to get out of trouble. Crocodile tears hit the cop’s cheeks, too, upset because of his nostalgia for a childhood dog, not any persistent social problem. (Perhaps the barking-dog sample at the end of “Holiday Road,” Lindsey Buckingham’s delightfully goofy theme-song earworm, provides a particularly piercing bit of foreshadowing.)

Unsurprisingly, Vacation primarily focuses on Chase’s prowess for physical comedy; indeed, Chase was the Fred Astaire of fumble-bumble in his prime, best seen here as he farts around with a gas pump trying to find the tank on the Family Truckster. The TV-game show quality of composer Ralph Burns’ score seems rigged to shoo your mind away from anything meatier than Chase’s doofus-goofus material. And it devotes too much time to Clark’s attempts to score with a hot blonde (Christie Brinkley) in a Ferrari he encounters on the road. That said, you can find the Rosetta Stone to explain why National Lampoon’s Vacation still works — albeit with a less efficient engine than before — in Clark’s ramblings to her: “In order to be convincing, you have to look and act like an ordinary jerk.”

National Lampoon’s Vacation will be screened in theaters for its 40th anniversary on Sunday, July 16, and Wednesday, July 19, as part of the Fathom Events series. Check your local listings for showtimes.