Home Alone (1990)

5th December 2019

Home Alone is available to rent, buy or stream.

By 1988, John Hughes had become one of Hollywood’s most influential 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’ Uncle Buck hit cinema screens; Buck was his third film alongside John Candy and his 17th writing credit since 1982, and it is here that the story of Home Alone begins. In Uncle Buck, John Hughes introduced the world to a pint-sized Macaulay Culkin, and several of Culkin’s key scenes sparked an idea for something bigger. These scenes included Culkin standing on a box at the front door, interrogating Buck’s girlfriend and a simple, memorable discussion between Candy and Culkin as the young whipper-snapper asked a series of questions about Buck’s life. Home Alone began to form from those two scenes, and Hughes quickly penned the first draft of a Culkin-led movie.

However, Hughes was not overly interested in directing another big screen outing, instead handing the rough draft to his friend, Chris Columbus (Gremlins). Columbus had struggled to find his next big directorial project following Adventures in Babysitting and Heartbreak Hotel, but the rough draft of Home Alone hit the spot. Columbus and Hughes would tweak the screenplay together, while Hughes sought studio finance to make Home Alone a reality. But by the late 80s, family/comedies were out of fashion due to the small box office potential they offered major studios. Therefore, Hughes approached Warner Bros., the only major studio still funding small comedies. Warner Bros. quickly agreed to finance and distribute Home Alone for a maximum of ten million dollars. Hughes accepted and, alongside Columbus, began work on the production, knowing that the budget would be extremely tight.

Pre-production work and casting began in November 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 external shots would use the leafy Winnetka, Illinois. However, the limited budget would prove especially challenging in casting Home Alone.

Harry and Marv were essential in making the screenplay work, and Hughes needed two actors who could form a formidable slapstick double act. Early on, Hughes struck it lucky with gangster film stalwart Joe Pesci, who was looking for something different, with his involvement opening the door to Daniel Stern. However, while initially agreeing to play Marv, Stern remained concerned about the salary on offer and stepped down. Instead, the role of Marv would go to ‘Dudes’ star Daniel Roebuck. However, there was a problem: Roebuck and Pesci didn’t gel, which showed in early scenes. So, after much persuasion, Stern returned to the role just weeks after the production had started. Joining Culkin, Pesci, and Stern were Catherine O’Hara, John Heard, Roberts Blossom and John Candy, who agreed to appear free of charge as a favour to Hughes.

As production started, the small Warner Bros. budget was already causing massive issues, and by Christmas 1989, Home Alone was 4.5 Million dollars over the agreement. Warner immediately pulled the plug just before the Christmas break, and Home Alone was put on ice. But Hughes wasn’t about to allow his movie to disappear, and knowing Warner Bros. may back out, he had been holding secret talks with a close friend at 20th Century Fox. As a result, just weeks after Warner Bros. stepped out, Fox stepped in, offering a slightly larger budget as part of the deal.

Production continued throughout January, February and March of 1990, with the film’s first cut on the table in the early spring. However, while the movie looked good, there was a problem: Home Alone didn’t have a score. The film’s original composer, Bruce Broughton, had become unavailable due to production delays, so Columbus did something bold. Having previously worked with Steven Spielberg on various 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! John Williams would deliver a rare orchestral score for a small-budget family feature; his rousing symphony provided a gravitas that placed Home Alone in a unique cinematic space where its look, feel and sound defied its low-budget roots.

However, as the film premiered in Chicago 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”. Hughes and Columbus resigned themselves to a low box office haul for all their hard work in bringing Home Alone to the big screen, with only 1,202 theatres across the United States playing the film.

But Home Alone was about to deliver a Christmas miracle by 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 had become the third highest-grossing movie of 1990. 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. But Home Alone’s legacy would extend far beyond its theatrical run with VHS, TV and then DVD, becoming a timeless family movie and a must-see annual festive event. But what made this small film so successful?

Home Alone is bathed in the classic colours of Christmas, from its sets to its costumes and locations. The McCallister home is adorned with deep reds and luscious greens, from the wallpaper to the rugs and ornaments. The house is a living and breathing Christmas wreath with Kevin, the naughty Christmas elf at its heart. Coupled with this, Home Alone cleverly embraces a child’s viewpoint with low-level camera shots that see the world through Kevin’s eyes. It joyously explores themes of childhood wish-fulfilment and adventure and reflects the moment as children when we strive for some level of independence even if we are not ready to do so without the support of our family.

Home Alone also pays homage to Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, a film on TV when Kevin realises he “made his family disappear.” In Capra’s movie, George Bailey explores the world that could have been if he had chosen to commit suicide. In Home Alone, Kevin explores a reverse situation as he navigates a world where only he remains. As a result, while George Bailey discovers his value to his family, Kevin learns the value of his family to him. Through Kevin’s eyes, Hughes and Columbus take us back to being eight years old as they wrap us in an energetic, slapstick Christmas tale bound in the spirit of adventure and the unrelenting imagination of every child.

This article is dedicated to the memory of John Hughes 1950–2009, John Candy 1950–1994, Roberts Blossom 1924–2011 and John Heard 1946–2017.

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