Chevy Chase: Clark Griswold vs. Irwin Fletcher

Time again for you to be the judge. In this court of opinion Brian Sieck and Jason Marcewicz take turns defending two notable roles by Chevy Chase. Brian Sieck is character witness for Clark Griswold. Brian will detail exactly why Clark is more a fan favorite than Irwin “Fletch” Fletcher. Jason, of course, will have something to say about this in his character witness rebuttal. Please be seated. Arguments will now be heard…

Brian’s case for Clark Griswold

It’s time to crank up Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” and get reacquainted with everyone’s favorite dad, Clark W. Griswold. I mean, Jason isn’t really serious with this one, is he? Fletch is a great film. Notice that I stated, “Fletch,” as in singular, because Fletch Lives IS NOT a great film, but I’ll let Jason get into all that. Anyway, the sleuthing master of disguise simply can’t compare to ol’ Sparky. He may not win Father of the Year, and he’ll never be accused of being the smartest man, but at least he’s well-intentioned… well, some of the time. In the first film, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Clark steals money from a hotel when they run out of cash at the Grand Canyon, and holds up a security officer (John Candy) with a BB gun when he discovers Wally World, America’s favorite family fun park, is closed for two weeks to clean and repair (“Sorry folks, park’s closed. Moose out front shoulda told ya.”), but at least he did so out of necessity while trying to show his family a good time. Well alright, he also tried to cheat on his wife with Christie Brinkley, which probably isn’t very respectable, but the guy is only human, after all. My point is Mr. Griswold is the ultimate provider. In fact, he’s so admirable and lovable that his persona was able to survive four different sets of people playing his kids. (This is actually humorously acknowledged in the fourth film, Vegas Vacation, which truthfully isn’t all that good especially considering it’s the only one in the series not sponsored by National Lampoon, so for our purposes here we’ll pretend it doesn’t exist, save for this brief aside).

Now, I know that many also feel that the first sequel, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, isn’t very enjoyable, but I contend that there are plenty of laughs that make it worthwhile in addition to moments that further illustrate my point that Clark is a stand-up guy. How many dads out there would be demeaned by putting on a pig outfit to go on the Pig in a Poke show to win an all-expenses-paid trip through Europe for his family? Sure, once they get there Clark spends an entire day trying to navigate London’s Lambeth Bridge roundabout (“Look kids, Big Ben, Parliament!”), destroys Stonehenge, constantly maims an Englishman (Eric Idle), poorly communicates with the locals (“Excuse me, my family and I are looking for sex”), turns a Bavarian folk dance in Germany into a riot, and inadvertently turns his wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), into a porn star in Rome, but hey, they’re not normal people, they’re the Griswolds. But through it all, Clark is incredibly understanding and supportive of the whole endeavor. For example:

Clark (to Ellen): Honey, the place closes in fifteen minutes, there are 100,000 works of art to see!


Rusty (Clark’s son, while watching a couple making out in a restaurant): Dad, I think he’s gonna pork her.
Clark: He’s not gonna pork her, Russ.
Rusty: I think he’s gonna.
Clark: He may pork her, finish your breakfast.

He even manages to save Ellen after she’s kidnapped. Now, that’s a dedicated husband.

This brings us to the third movie, and perhaps the granddaddy of them all, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. The Griswolds are planning to spend an enjoyable family Christmas at home in this second sequel that tops most folks’ lists for favorite holiday classics (which on its own should be proof enough that Clark is the superior character). However, Clark is as overzealous and oblivious as he always is. This means that the entire extended family, including in-laws and senile aunts, will have to deal with both logistic and animalistic Christmas tree dilemmas, multiple power problems with the Christmas lights, and the improper machinations of the holiday dinner. Of course, there are also the antics of cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid, who just about steals the movie) to contend with, such as his arrival (“Eddie, if I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am now”), his use of a chemical toilet, and his myriad of ignorant and uncouth manners. Through it all, Clark keeps a stiff upper lip and keeps trying to be positive. But, when he’s enrolled in the jelly of the month club—the gift that keeps on giving the whole year—in lieu of a bonus check, it may just be too much to bear. There IS only so much one man can take: Clark loses his temper simply because he wanted to install a pool for his family. However, the Griswold clan may be able to enjoy the “Christmas Star” to the tune of the Star-Spangled Banner, after all, when Eddie gets a last-minute gift idea.

In closing, I just want to reiterate that, despite all of Clark W. Griswold’s outrageous behavior, he does what he does because he’s a caring family man. Now, that’s a person to be admired above all others…unless of course, you’re Aunt Edna’s dog.


Jason’s case for Irwin Fletcher

Unlike a lot of his film roles the character of Fletch required Chevy to do some heavy lifting. Chevy was already known for screwball comedy, bumbling slapstick and clever wordplay, “kitsch” as he would call it. He had that down pat. But Fletch was a three-dimensional person. A fully developed character, not a caricature. The Gregory Mcdonald-penned mystery novels featuring reporter Irwin Maurice Fletcher were critically and commercially acclaimed. In fact, in 1975 Mcdonald won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best New Novel (from which the movie was based). So Chevy had some big shoes to fill. While at first Mcdonald did not like the way the script was straying from his source material, in the end he was won over, commenting that “Chevy and [director] Michael Ritchie did a good job with it.”

Known for his multiple disguises, wit and wisecracks in the books, Chevy slipped right into the Fletch role. Years later he would call it his favorite. Chevy mused in a 2007 Time magazine interview:

“[Fletch] allowed me to be myself. Fletch was the first one with me really winging it. Even though there was a script, the director allowed me to just go, and in many ways, I was directing the comedy.”

It is the balance of flippancy and seriousness that endears both Fletch the movie and the character to its multitude of fans. Fletch is a funny guy but he’s also a total pain in the ass. He’s sardonic yet realizes the gravity of his investigations. He plays the fool but is smart as a whip. Chevy pulls it all together. It’s a pleasure to watch Chevy try to solve two mysteries at once while providing us with a laundry list of quotable quips, to wit:

•  Put it on the Underhills.
Why don’t we go lay on the bed and I’ll fill you in.
Oh, you’ve remodeled the garage. Must have cost you hundreds.
[Enduring a proctology exam] You using the whole fist, Doc?
I gotta get this thing up to 95 to, uh, check out the fluorocarbon output.
Time to use the service entrance.
Tierra Del Fuego.

And this now legendary scene:

What I cannot defend is the 1989 sequel Fletch Lives, a distasteful movie which is insulting on multiple levels. Whereas the first film benefitted greatly by a strong script, this time the powers-that-be ditched Mcdonald’s books and shoved a script-less Chevy Chase onscreen and told him to be funny—y’know, like last time. You can see the flop-sweat. Chevy’s like a vaudevillian juggling balls, telling (unfunny) jokes, doing a soft shoe…basically vamping as the hook draws ever closer. That said, Chevy did make the most of the film’s thin plotline, delivering even more classic lines:

All I needed now was a computer. And a ten year old kid to teach me how to use it.
It takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong. I am NOT a big man.
The Reverend Farnsworth was Becky’s father, but I wasn’t going to hold that against her. If I was going to hold anything against her, it wouldn’t be her father.
What can I do to y- …for you?

And snappy dialogue like this:

Fletch: Hey Betty, how about lunch at the In-N-Out Burger?
Betty Dilworth: No.
Fletch: Okay, forget the burger, how about just the In-N-Out?
(Betty sneers)
Fletch: Ok, how about just the In?

Reverend Farnsworth: Erwin, admit that you are a sinner.
Fletch: Uh. Well, I’ve sinned. I didn’t take any Polaroids or anything. But, yeah, I’ve sinned.

As Brian mentioned above, this movie definitely sucks. But the way I look at it (despite Brian’s protestations to the contrary) only two of the four Vacation films are any good. So we’re both batting .500! I’ll concede that two films ARE better than one; Brian’s got me there. However, we’re not talking about films here; we’re talking about character. Fletch Lives may be a terrible movie but Chevy, as Fletch, retains his both his smarts and his smart-alecky nature in the sequel, remaining a such likeable character it is a wonder the series was abandoned. And while a reboot/prequel of the series, entitled Fletch Won, is tentatively scheduled for release in 2013 it is hard to imagine anyone else who could adequately walk the tightrope of funny/serious as well as Chevy—and what does it say about Chevy that as of yet no one has been tabbed to play the lead? It means that Fletch is Chevy Chase, and that is why the character is more iconic than one Clark Griswold. Thank you very little.