Setting the Record Straight: East St. Louis and National Lampoon's Vacation

May 26, 2009 at 1:08 pm
This week's feature story on the controversy brewing over nightclubs in East St. Louis includes this reference to the cinematic masterpiece that is National Lampoon's Vacation: 

To many [East St. Louis] will forever be the place where a goofy honky from Chicago named Clark Griswold gets his hubcaps stolen in the movie Vacation.

Caricatures may depict a machine-gun-toting thug on every corner, but the sad reality is that the city is mostly desolate. Virtually every block is dotted with boarded-up or burned-out buildings.

If you've never seen Vacation then you need to update your Netflix queue pronto. In the meantime, here's a clip to give you an idea of the tone of the famed East St. Louis detour:


Even if it makes for great comedy, it's a shame that the ever-struggling Illinois city is forever linked with a brief sequence in a decades old movie, not least because it's a scene rife with negative black stereotypes. In fact, one of the reasons we mentioned the film in our story was to acknowledge East Boogie's big bad reputation in order to break it down.

But what if the good ol' Griswold family express actually ended up on the Northside instead of the Eastside on their trip to Wally World? According to the film's writer and director Harold Ramis, that's actually the case, even though the film's editing suggests otherwise.

Five years ago, Ramis was the subject of an Unreal interview. The Q&A was prompted by another RFT story that made mention of the famed Lampoon's scene. 

At the time, a reader wrote-in and pointed out that the Griswolds are actually shown crossing the Mississippi River from the Illinois to the Missouri side before leaving the freeway and getting lost, therefore they couldn't possibly be in East St. Louis. However, as they're taking the exit, the camera cuts briefly to a freeway sign that says "East St. Louis." This geography mixup is pointed out in the "Goofs" section of the film's IMDB page, which also says the error has been edited out in some versions.

Here's what Ramis (the legend who also wrote and directed Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, and a dozen other classics) had to say about the sequence:

"They go over the [Poplar Street] bridge before it happens, so technically it would be in St. Louis," Ramis says of the scene in which Chase gets lost and prefaces his request for directions from the locals with an incomparably delivered "Excuse me, homes."

Many a moviegoer has misattributed the scene to East St. Louis, including writers at the New York Times and the Hollywood Reporter. Not so St. Louis' own Steve Kratky, who called attention to the gaffe in a letter to the editor (see page 6).

"Nine out of ten people [in St. Louis] project their own image of East St. Louis onto the screen," says Ramis, a Washington University grad. "When I was in college, we used to go there to listen to music. It was always considered an edgy thing to do."

Ramis, who shot the "Excuse me, homes" bit on a Warner Bros. back lot in Hollywood, says he regrets having filmed it in the first place.

"I apologize for the whole scene," says Ramis. "I wouldn't think of doing a thing like that now. It was supposed to be about prejudice, when in fact it was prejudiced."

We said it once, we'll say it again: Excuse us, homes. Now, watch this: