The Home Alone series started back in the year 1990, and whether you’ve heard or not, they’re still making movies in this series now. The newest entry, Home Sweet Home Alone, released just a few weeks ago. There are 6 movies in total, but for today, let’s just look at the classic that got this overblown series started. Just a heads up, this blog post will include more behind the scenes information than usual, but mostly because there are a lot of neat stories worth sharing.
The original Home Alone movie is the very definition of lightning in a bottle. Pretty much everything about the movie’s timing, its cast and crew, and even the year it was made, just worked out perfectly. Legendary filmmaker John Hughes conceived the idea at the height of his career – not long after The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and around the time he was working on National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. In an interview, he said “I was going away on vacation, and making a list of everything I didn’t want to forget. I thought, ‘well, I’d better not forget my kids.’ Then I thought, ‘What if I left my 10-year-old son at home? What would he do?’” He wrote 8 pages of notes that developed into Home Alone’s screenplay. When he imagined that robbers are something that kids are naturally scared of, he worked that into the plot.
At first Hughes approached Warner Bros, promising that he could make the movie for less than $10 million. That was considerably less than most film productions at the time. Concerned that the film might exceed that budget, he secretly approached 20th Century Fox to see if they would fund the project if Warner proved to be inflexible. A copy of the script was “clandestinely” delivered to Fox, bypassing legal restrictions that would normally prevent a studio from seeing a script while it was supposed to be produced by another. Early in production, the costs grew to $14.7 million. Warner demanded the budget be cut by $1.2 million. The producers responded by saying they couldn’t cut the budget any further. Warner Bros cut production the next day, but it quickly resumed when Fox took up Hughes’ offer. The production budget ended up growing to $18 million, which at the time was closer to the average comedy.
Hughes asked Patrick Read Johnson to direct, but he was busy working on Spaced Invaders. He then turned to Chris Columbus. Columbus was supposed to direct Christmas Vacation, but he clashed with star Chevy Chase and left after only a couple days of filming. Columbus said that Chase treated him like dirt. Hughes gave him the script for both Home Alone and Reach the Rock, of which Columbus picked Home Alone. He liked the Christmas theme and thought it was funnier anyway. On top of directing the film, Columbus did some uncredited rewrites for the script, adding the Old Man Marley character to give the film a more serious angle and a more emotional ending.
Hughes suggested they cast Macaulay Culkin early in, because of his experience directing the kid in Uncle Buck. Columbus liked that casting idea, but still met with 200 other actors, feeling it was his “directorial responsibility”. He also asked John Mulaney to audition for the role of Kevin, but his parents declined. After he met with Culkin, he agreed that was the correct choice. Macaulay’s younger brother, Kieran, plays his younger cousin Fuller. The role of Uncle Frank was written specifically for Kelsey Grammer (Frasier, beast in X-Men 3), but when he was unavailable, Gerry Bamman joined the cast instead. Although Bamman’s made a number of other appearances on film and TV, this is the role he’s most known for.
After Robert De Niro and John Lovitz both turned down the role of Harry, Joe Pesci accepted the role of the first robber. Daniel Stern was cast early on as Marv, but before shooting started, he was told that production had been extended from 6 weeks to 8. He dropped out after learning that he wouldn’t get paid more for the extended shooting. Daniel Roebuck was hired to replace him, but after two days of rehearsals, Columbus felt he lacked any chemistry with Pesci and brought Stern back. Roebuck later said that he was upset about getting fired, but has since decided the experience was “a little blip of unimportance.”
Chris Farley auditioned for the role of a Santa Clause impersonator, but failed to impress Columbus. John Candy has a fairly important minor role in the film, but was only available to shoot for one day. That day took 23 hours to shoot. He was also only paid $414 for his cameo. Of course he did it as a favour to Hughes, and in return, he was the only actor that Hughes allowed to go off-script. According to Columbus, all of his dialogue was improvised. For a role where all of his dialogue was improvised, a lot of it felt well-rehearsed.
Other noteworthy actors include Catherine O’Hara as Kevin’s mother, who plays the part of a woman determined to get back home to her son quite convincingly, switching between angry, pleading and regretful. John Heard plays Kevin’s father, who tends to be more calm and centered and has a bit of a sarcastic attitude. Devin Ratray plays Kevin’s older brother Buzz, who is a bit of a bully. It’s the role he’s known for the most by far.
Filming took place between mid-February to early May. All of the house exterior shots were filmed on location in the North Shore village of Winnetka, Illinois. It’s a house that was used in a number of Hughes’ productions, including Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles, and Uncle Buck. The only interior shots filmed in the house included the main staircase, the basement, the attic, and most of the first floor landing shots. All other interiors shots were duplicates on a sound stage, allowing the crew more room to work. Most of these sets were built in the gym and empty swimming pool in what used to be the west campus of the New Trier High School, which closed in 1985. The tree house was specifically built for the film in the actual house’s backyard, and was taken down after filming concluded. Most other locations in the film were also shot at Winnetka, while the church interiors were shot in Oak Park.
For the film within the film, Angels with Filthy Souls took one day, on the final “test day” of the main film’s production. It was shot purely in black and white, featuring props from the 30’s. The film is itself a parody of the 1938 crime film, Angels with Dirty Faces.
Crewmembers commented that out of the entire cast, Pesci was the most difficult to work with. He believed some of his dialogue was beneath his acting ability, and he resented the early unit calls. These early starts prevented him from starting his day with 9 holes of golf, which he preferred to do. After he complained to the assistant direct, grabbing his collar in the process, the daily call times were moved back from 7 am to 9 am. On the other end of the spectrum, the crew’s ability to shoot at night was limited, as Culkin legally couldn’t work any later than 10 pm because of his age. Both Pesci and Stern found it difficult to refrain from swearing. Pesci found this annoying, since Culkin was also on set. Pesci’s “cartoon cursing” of gibberish was frequently compared to Looney Tunes character Yosemiti Sam.
Some of the stunts proved to be stressful to the crew as well. According to Columbus, “Every time the stunt guys did one of those stunts it wasn’t funny. We’d watch it, and I would just pray that the guys were alive.” The stunts were originally prepared with safety harnesses, but they had to film without them because they were clearly visible on film. Apparently, Culkin got scarred on one of his fingers because during a rehearsal for the scene where Harry tries to bite off Kevin’s finger, there was contact.
According to Senta Moses, who played one of Kevin’s cousins in the movie, said that the most difficult scene to shoot was when the family was running through the airport. It took several days to film this one-minute sequence. It involved thousands of extras that needed to be choreographed so that nobody would collide with the main cast. “We ran at full speed. Sometimes we’d bump into each other, like a multi-car pileup on the expressway, and just crack up laughing … There were so many setups and narrowly missed moments of disaster, but to my knowledge, no one got hurt.”
Originally, Columbus wanted Bruce Broughton to score the film, and early posters even mentioned him as the composer. However, Broughton was too busy working on The Rescuers Down Under and needed to cancel last minute. Seriously, the more of these blog posts I write, the more all these movies become interconnected. Anyway, Steven Spielberg helped Columbus get in touch with John Williams. Williams took over soundtrack duties. The movie’s main theme, “Somewhere in My Memory”, is very effective. The film also features traditional Christmas Carols like “O Holy Night” and “Carol of the Bells.” “Oh Holy Night” is actually my favourite Christmas song, and this movie is where I first heard it.
Home Alone released in mid-November, 1990, and earned $476 million on its initial release. Again, that’s on an $18 million budget. It remained the number 1 movie for 12 weeks, when it was finally overtaken by Sleeping with the Enemy. It still remained in the top 10 well past Easter, and still entered the top ten both the weekend of May 31 to June 2, and the weekend of June 14-16, before finally starting to fade away. It remained the record holder for the highest grossing live-action comedy until The Hangover Part II in 2011, holding the record for 21 years. That in itself is impressive. It was at the time of release, the third highest grossing movie in history, and remained the highest grossing Christmas movie until Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch in 2018.
Critically, the movie didn’t perform as well as you might think. It holds a 66% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 5.8/10. Roger Ebert gave the film 2.5 out of 4, writing of the traps, “they’re the kind of traps that any 8-year-old could devise, if he had the budget of tens of thousands of dollars and the assistance of a crew of movie special effects people.” He also criticized the plot as “so implausible that it makes it hard to really care about the plight of the kid.” He did praise Culkin’s performance though. The New York Times review complained about the first half being “flat and uninspiring,” but praised the second half of the film for its slapstick humour. She also praised the dialogue between Keven and Old Man Marley, and the film’s final scenes. Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D”, for its “sadistic festival of adult-bashing.” The Los Angeles Times criticized the movie, saying “there is a reason why this film plays better as a trailer than as a full-length movie.”
This is clearly a case where the critics got the movie wrong. Home Alone is considered a holiday classic. It was nominated for two Academy Awards, for both “Best Original Song” and “Best Original Score”, John Williams nominated for both. Williams ended up winning the Film Music Award at BMI. Culkin won multiple awards for his acting, including The Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture award at the American Comedy Awards, the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards for Most Promising Actor, and the Best Young Actor Starring in a Motion Picture award at the Young Artists award, among other nominations.
I first saw Home Alone back when I was around 6 – don’t remember exactly when. I thoroughly enjoyed it back then, and I still enjoy it quite a bit now. Sure, the core plot isn’t exactly a realistic scenario when you’ve got two parents who clearly care about their children, and it requires a series of coincidences to even work. But that’s not the point. The point is, this movie manages to capture Hughes’ style of comedy along with Columbus’s skilled directing style. It features smart writing, some good foreshadowing, and some genuinely dramatic moments.
The cinematography often uses low camera angels, as if to mimic the viewpoint of a kid looking up at everything. It’s a subtle yet effective technique that helps you emphasize with Kevin’s fear. As the film goes on however, it uses these low angles less often, matching Kevin’s growing confidence. Yes, the traps are both hilarious and iconic. There’s also a good mix of traps that would be genuinely painful and traps that are just meant to humiliate the robbers. Is it unrealistic that an 8-year-old kid could build all of those traps in roughly one hour? Yes, but there comes a point where you need to forgive these things. The traps inspired all sorts of rip-offs throughout the 90’s, including the likes of Blank Check, 3 Ninjas, Remote and Mr. Nanny. There are other comedic elements that work in this movie too, including the writing, the brilliant chemistry between Pesci and Stern, and Culkin’s surprisingly brilliant acting for his age.
As entertaining as this movie is, what really makes it stand the test of time is its dramatic value. Old Man Marley starts the movie as a character that all the kids are scared of. He lives alone, doesn’t seem to have many friends, and is often seen shoveling sidewalks. There are stories about how his family disappeared years ago. In reality, he’s a lonely man who had a fallout with his son, and still hasn’t met his granddaughter. The scene where he and Kevin finally meet is a very heartfelt scene, one that not only shows how kids’ imaginations can often get in the way of their logic, but also shows how much Kevin has grown in a matter of days of being alone. It’s a scene where he shows that he’s fairly wise for his age, but not unrealistically so. There’s also clearly a lot of love in Kevin’s family, even if he doesn’t realize it in the opening scenes. John Williams’ score is also brilliant.
This movie isn’t just a Christmas movie, it’s a tradition for many. There was actually a large outcry when the Polsat channel in Poland didn’t air the movie on Christmas eve, causing over 90,000 people to complain on Facebook. It often airs here in Canada back to back with Home Alone 2 around this time of year. It’s still often referenced in modern films, including 2016’s horror Christmas movie Better Watch Out. Although Culkin took a long break from acting, he did make some appearances here and there referencing his role in Home Alone, including appearing in an episode of The Angry Video Game Nerd, looking at Home Alone video games, the inaugural episode of the web series DRYVRS, where Kevin is now a disturbed adult (of which Stern uploaded a video acting as a terrified Marv in response), and he’s even reprised his role as Kevin in a Google Assist commercial in 2018. Pesci also cameos in that commercial. This movie has 5 sequels, the most recent released last month, and we’ll get to those.
There’s a reason Home Alone is considered a holiday classic. It really is lightning in a bottle, with the perfect cast and crew at the perfect time. Although the story itself is very unlikely, it’s not entirely unrealistic. The comedy is mostly slapstick in nature, but it’s intelligent slapstick. Kevin’s development as a character works quite well, as being alone forces him to grow up and become self-reliant quickly. Williams’ soundtrack is very memorable as always. But most importantly, Home Alone manages to capture the spirit of Christmas without being preachy or obnoxious about it. In a lot of ways, this movie could never happen today, with all of the advancements we’ve made in communications and home security technology, tightened airport security, and even alarm clocks with batteries so they don’t lose power when the rest of your house does. As such, it’s both a timeless movie and a time capsule. If you somehow haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favour and watch it.
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York is next, obviously. It’s the one sequel to include pretty much the entire main cast from the first movie, and only one of two that even received a theatrical release.