Home Alone is available to rent, buy or stream.
By 1988 John Hughes had become one of Hollywood’s most powerful screenwriters and directors with a back catalogue full of classics ranging from Trains, Planes and Automobiles to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club. In August 1989, Hughes’ success appeared unstoppable when Uncle Buck hit cinema screens. Buck was Hughes’ third film alongside John Candy and his 17th writing credit since 1982. But Uncle Buck was also the staging ground for what would become his biggest ever hit, Home Alone. Here John Hughes would discover the pint-sized Macaulay Culkin, with several of Culkin’s key scenes sparking an idea that would grow into a Christmas classic.
Meanwhile, as Hughes began writing the first draft of a Culkin-led movie, his friend, writer and director Chris Columbus was also breaking new ground, with credits ranging from Young Sherlock Holmes to The Goonies and Gremlins. However, Columbus struggled to find his next directorial adventure despite initial success with Adventures in Babysitting. But his interest peaked when Hughes sent him a rough draft of Home Alone. With both men on board, Columbus and Hughes began tweaking the screenplay together, agreeing that Columbus would direct if they found studio finance.
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With the screenplay complete, Hughes began the job of searching for finance and a potential distributor, but by the late 80s, family/comedies were seen as money pits with little box office potential. However, one studio did still invest in family features; Warner Brothers. Hughes immediately approached the studio, and Warner agreed to finance and distribute for a maximum ten million dollars investment. Hughes accepted and began work on the production, knowing that the budget would be extremely tight. To reduce costs, Hughes hired a crew who were all in the early stages of their filmmaking careers while reaching out to friends and colleagues from across the industry for cash-free help.
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Pre-production work and casting began during the Christmas of 1989 with the production offices and studios housed in the abandoned New Trier High School, Chicago; the location for The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Trier’s empty gym would become a sound stage for Home Alone, reducing costs. While John Muto and set decorator Eve Cauley would search for the perfect external house in leafy Winnetka, Illinois, for exterior film work.
The limited budget would prove challenging in casting Home Alone; after all, while the film already had its young hero, the roles of Harry and Marv were essential in making the screenplay work. Here Hughes needed two actors who could form a formidable double act. Hughes would strike it lucky with gangster film stalwart Joe Pesci. Pesci had been looking for something different, and Home Alone offered him the rare opportunity to do a kid’s movie. His involvement would open the door for Daniel Stern; however, while initially agreeing to play Marv, Stern was concerned by the salary on offer and stepped down.
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The role of Marv would go to ‘Dudes‘ star Daniel Roebuck. However, there was a problem: Roebuck and Pesci didn’t gel, which showed on screen. So after much persuasion, Stern returned to the role just weeks after the production had started. Culkin, Pesci and Stern were then joined by Catherine O’Hara, John Heard, Roberts Blossom and John Candy, with Candy appearing free of charge as a favour to Hughes.
But as the production started, problems were beginning to mount with the Warner Bros budget, and by Christmas 1989, Home Alone was already 4.5 Million dollars over the Warner agreement. Ultimately, Warner was unprepared to exceed the 10 million dollar budget agreed upon and pulled the plug on production during the New Year of 1990. But Hughes wasn’t about to allow his movie to vanish and had been holding secret talks with a close friend at 20th Century Fox even before Warner stepped away. Therefore just weeks after Warner stepped out, Fox stepped in, offering a slightly larger budget as part of the deal.
With the backing of 20th Century Fox, production continued throughout the first three months of 1990, with a first cut of the film on the table in the spring. However, while the movie looked good, there was a significant problem; Home Alone had no score. The film’s original composer Bruce Broughton had become unavailable to write the score needed due to production delays, so Columbus tried something bold. Having previously worked with Steven Spielberg on a range of projects, Chris Columbus picked up the phone and asked if Spielberg would send a rough cut of the movie to the legendary John Williams. The rest, as they say, is history!
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John Williams would offer Home Alone a rare orchestral score for a small-budget family feature, his rousing symphony providing a gravitas that placed Home Alone in a unique cinematic space. As the premiere in Chicago neared in November of 1990, early reviews proved less than kind, with Roger Ebert stating, “The plot is so implausible that it makes it hard for us to really care about the plight of the kid”. As a result, nobody, including Hughes and Columbus, expected a big box office haul with the film only playing in 1,202 theatres across the United States.
However, Home Alone exceeded expectations, achieving a gross income of $17,081,997 on its first weekend, followed by a remarkable rise to $48,287,152 on the second. Within weeks Home Alone would become one of the highest-grossing movies of 1990, its global release in December matching its American popularity. Home Alone would gross $285.8 million in the United States and Canada and $190.9 million worldwide, totalling $476.7 million by the end of its theatrical run. This small budget Christmas miracle would earn the accolade of becoming the third highest-grossing film on its departure from cinemas, just behind Star Wars and E.T.
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Watching Home Alone today, it’s hard to see why expectations were low; after all, it’s a timeless family movie that has earned a place in all our hearts. But what made this small film so successful? From its first scene to its last, Home Alone is bathed in the colours of Christmas, with the sets, clothing, and locations reflecting our Victorian-built view of the festivities. For example, the McCallister home is a cornucopia of red and green, from wallpaper to rugs and ornaments. Here the house is a living and breathing Christmas wreath with Kevin, the mischievous Christmas elf at its heart.
Meanwhile, Home Alone cleverly embraces a child’s viewpoint in its camera work with low-level camera shots ensuring everything looks big and daunting. The result is a movie that fully embraces a child’s imagination through themes of childhood wish-fulfilment, games and home-bound adventure. Here we see Kevin bouncing on his parent’s bed, eating junk food and watching violent videos while longing for someone to share his experiences with. – Home Alone explores what freedom looks like from a child’s perspective.
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Finally, Home Alone also plays with the classic Christmas themes found in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. In Capra’s movie, George Bailey explores the world that would have existed for his friends and family if he had chosen to commit suicide. Home Alone equally explores themes of loss, as Kevin wishes for his family to disappear. This reverses the narrative path of It’s a Wonderful Life by removing the family, not the individual, as Kevin learns the value of family, and his place within it, through isolation.
Like all good Christmas films, Home Alone understands the need to balance the magic of Christmas with a darker exploration of isolation and fear. It talks to the memories we all hold of childhood innocence, wonder, frustration, jealousy and the confusion and comfort of family life. Here Kevin’s adventure is one of discovery, imagination and vulnerability as Hughes and Columbus take us back to being an insecure eight-year-old who longs for excitement and freedom.
Director: Chris Columbus