Keep the Change, You Filthy Animal: How Home Alone Became a Festive Record Breaker

Home Alone poster

Few movies make it onto that special Christmas list, but the record-breaking Home Alone sits right near the top of the tree. And it’s no angel


John Hughes will never win any awards for pure artistry, but with Home Alone he achieves something much rarer. There are films we can discuss on a more cerebral level, films that possess the kind of depth we can derive greater insight and emotional analysis from. It isn’t profound or poetic or imbued with clever subtext, but it possesses its own special magic, the kind almost exclusive to juvenile sensibilities. For all the beauty that comes with maturity, nothing comes close to the innocence and imagination of an unaffected mind, and Home Alone communicates with kids like an enchanted dog whistle bearing the sound of sleigh bells. It’s pure magic.

For the rest of us, that’s where nostalgia comes in. Nothing stokes the sentimental fires like the festive season; in a world of adult constraint, it reminds us of an innocence we are rarely able to rekindle. One of the biggest tragedies of a young life is realising you’re too old to play. It takes a huge toll on the imagination. The ability to escape into a fantasy world of our own making is a precious comfort that we fail to appreciate until it’s too late. When you suddenly realise you can no longer bring your fantasies so ebulliently to life, it’s like something inside you inexplicably departs, something you spend your entire adult life attempting to rediscover. Movies are the most feasible gateway into the long-lost Neverland of adolescence. They may not communicate with us like they once did, but they discover remnants of a juvenile spirit just waiting to be found, and it’s all in the memories…

It’s November 1990. The decadent 80s, smoking at the seams with power ballad burnout, are sputtering to an exhausted halt. A yellow devil named Bart Simpson has taken America by storm, becoming a proponent for the kind of family dysfunction that would lead newly appointed president, George H. W. Bush, to proclaim that American families should be “more like The Waltons and less like The Simpsons.” The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are hammering home the totally radical mantra of brightly-coloured tween culture, spreading surf dude vernacular as corporate rap star Vanilla Ice sits pretty at the top of the US Billboard 100. In theatres, Home Alone is about to pick up where 80s Christmas movies left off, creating an anarchic role model and smashing all kinds of records.

In adorable tearaway, Kevin McCallister, Home Alone forged the flesh Bart Simpson, a postmodern Dennis the Menace who ditched the slingshot for the air rifle and blowtorch, dishing out the kind of unconscionable cartoon violence that made his animated peers seem positively angelic. While Bush rode his family values ethos into the ground like a rodeo bull on its last legs, kids were embracing an era of unbridled mischief, a world of Super Soakers, slime-based pseudo-science and belching ‘talkie’ toys. In 1992, Hasbro’s Talkboy, a prank-friendly recording device first conceived as a prop for Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, was juvenile gold, becoming the most sought-after toy during the Christmas holidays. It’s not a push to suggest that Home Alone‘s booby trap climax almost single-handedly sparked such trends. The popularity and reach of the movie’s multi-million dollar concept was nothing short of phenomenal.

I made my family disappear!

Kevin McCallister

Home Alone‘s box office returns were borderline obscene. Premiering on November 10, 1990 in Chicago, the film managed an incredible worldwide gross of $476,684,675, making it the highest-grossing live-action comedy in history, a record it held for an astonishing 21 years. Hughes’ sleeper hit proved so popular with kids that it long outlived the typical lifespan for Christmas movies, and movies in general, remaining in theatres until June the following year — almost 200 days after its initial wide release. The film spent 12 straight weeks at the top of the US box office charts, remaining a top 10 draw until April 16 and re-entering twice more as late as June 16. It was also the third highest-grossing movie of all time in the US and Canada, trailing only Star Wars ($322,000,000) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial ($399,000,000), and would remain the highest-grossing Christmas movie of all time until The Grinch in 2018. The film was such an unbridled smash that it even coined the insider Hollywood term ‘to be Home Aloned‘, which meant to have your film impacted financially because of Home Alone‘s inexhaustible staying power.

The following year on home video, the film continued to break records. Not only was Home Alone the first Fox video to go directly on sale rather than through the rental market first, it sold 11,000,000 copies worth $150,000,000, becoming the joint highest-selling VHS of all time alongside Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. This inevitably affected the film’s rental performance, but Fox weren’t complaining. In fact, they were so far over the moon they’d entered a brand new stratosphere of self-content, especially since they’d managed to get one over on rival studio Warner Brothers, who were initially set to distribute until taking a hard-line with Hughes for exceeding the film’s meagre $10,000,000 budget.

Having anticipated as much, Home Alone‘s writer and deviser, who would eventually hire Chris Columbus to direct, had set up a “clandestine” arrangement with Fox, who agreed to step in when Warner inevitably pulled the plug. In the end, a paltry $1,200,000, which Warner demanded Hughes cut from the budget, stood between the filmmaker and the studio. Under Fox, the film’s budget increased to $18,000,000 — hardly a bank-breaking sum for Warner, though their decision to purchase Lorimar-Telepictures in order to gain control of the former MGM studio lot while Home Alone was in production may explain their thriftiness. The lot was sold to a cash-rich Sony in 1990, but by then it was too late. Warner would lose out on an incredible $608,684,675, a figure which doesn’t include the film’s merchandise revenue. Add in the prospect of a lucrative sequel and you’re talking about well over a billion dollars. You best believe somebody’s ass got fired for that debacle.

It’s hard to imagine Warner being so short-sighted, particularly since Hughes’ previous outing, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, had managed $72,900,000 just a year prior, almost tripling its budget. Culkin wasn’t exactly a star, despite a precocious turn in Hughes’ similarly well-received Uncle Buck, but he was backed by an all-star cast that included a peak-of-his-powers Joe Pesci. Columbus was a relative newbie, with only the poorly-received Heartbreak Hotel and the fairly successful Adventures in Babysitting to his name, but it was hardly a high-risk venture, and movies tied to Christmas had a solid track record of at least recouping what the studios shelled out. There was also that billion-dollar concept to consider, one that came quite naturally to Hughes as he prepared for a family vacation of his own, “[I was] making a list of everything I didn’t want to forget,” he would explain. “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?'”

With films such as Pretty in Pink, Weird Science and The Breakfast Club, Hughes tapped into the new wave stylings of 80s teen angst with such aplomb he forged a whole generation of admirers. He would all but disappear during the 90s after co-founding short-lived production company Great Oaks Entertainment, retiring from the public eye and making only sporadic contributions during the noughties, but with Home Alone he went out with a particularly loud bang. As a plethora of former collaborators will attest, Hughes had a knack for bringing out the best in young talent, and has he had with Anthony Michael Hall the previous decade, he took a calculated gamble on yet another cutesy newcomer with mischief in abundance. Columbus felt it was his “professional responsibility” to undergo almost two-hundred auditions for the role of Kevin, but Hughes knew exactly who he wanted, and in Culkin he unearthed his last major star.

It was an inspired choice. Culkin is a revelation as the film’s tenacious tearaway, carrying the entire movie at times. He has fabulous support, but some of Home Alone‘s most memorable moments belong to him. Even when he shares the screen with talented veterans, he’s never overwhelmed, exuding effortless charm and confidence in a manner way beyond his years. The moment when he mimes along to “White Christmas” in the bathroom mirror, ending his rendition with an iconic splash of burning aftershave, is so endearing, becoming a truly iconic moment in modern cinema. It helps that he delivers his lines so expertly. The scene in which he ventures to the supermarket, giving the acid tongue to a snoopy store clerk, is priceless comedy, a vicarious victory for watching kids the world over. Kevin has an anarchic quality that really speaks to youngsters without truly leading them astray. He threatens to overstep the mark at times, proving a far cry from the majority of his saccharine peers, particularly when the film’s delusional, cocksure burglars stumble upon Kevin’s little predicament and get much more than they bargained for, but he treads a commercially fruitful line like a juggling tightrope walker in particularly ebullient form. It’s amazing that he was able to project such charm and charisma at such a young age. The kid was a born star.

Home Alone‘s plot is a simple one, though the unlikelihood of such a concept meant that a certain level of contrivance was necessary, something for which the film was widely criticised. In the movie, Culkin’s spoilt brat-come-independent hero is banished to the horrors of the third floor after a run-in with his butthead older brother Buzz. This is the eve of a chaotic family holiday to Paris, a veritable zoo of adolescence, stolen pizzas, cheap uncles, and the prospect of a pre-flight bedding-wetting from Kevin’s younger cousin Fuller (an exceedingly young Kieran Culkin). In their haste to make the flight Kevin is lost in the shuffle. First a storm causes an electrical problem that cuts the power that kills the alarm clock that makes them late. The next morning, a nosy neighbour ends up in the family headcount in place of a sleeping Kevin, a boy of almost identical appearance who buzzes around like a bee pepped up on pollen, and by the time Mrs MaCallister realises her son is missing, the family are already 38,000 feet in the air. This being Christmas, it isn’t exactly easy for them to get home with any immediacy. Thank god for telephones, eh?

No such luck. Remember the storm that caused the power outage? Well, phones in the area are scheduled to be down for at least a couple of days. Not only that, the whole neighbourhood are away on their own luxury vacations (this is a particularly wealthy neighbourhood). When Kevin’s mother, played by an exquisitely frustrated Catherine O’Hara, finally gets hold of the cops, they (rightly) think she’s hysterical, immediately smothering her with the lazy nonchalance of modern American bureaucracy. The cops at least agree to send a patrolman to the house to check up on Kevin, becoming extremely concerned by the prospect of an 8-year-old home alone at Christmas, so much that they kick down the door and take him into custody while they wait for his parents to return in time for milk and cookies.

Ma’am, I’m eight years old. You think I would be here alone? I don’t think so.

Kevin McCallister

Don’t worry, there’s isn’t a long-lost directors cut you haven’t heard of. I’m just being facetious because it’s all rather ludicrous through adult eyes, and it goes on like this. It’s no wonder critics made a meal of the movie’s sheer implausibility, but those are adult concerns, and Home Alone knows its target audience. Children are all about imagination. They believe in magic, fairy tales and conjuring the impossible, something a young Kevin MaCallister, who in a moment of petulant spite wishes for the disappearance of his family, is proof of. When Kevin zombies out of bed the following morning, he believes that his wish has come true. He’s happy about it too, gorging on mountains of ice cream, putting his parents’ bed springs to the test and raiding his older brother’s personal belongings ― all the taboo preoccupations kids dream of away from older, bossier siblings ― but soon enough he has to face the imaginary demon in his basement, the grisly neighbour and fabled serial killer, the previously forbidden gangster flick ‘Angels With Filthy Souls’ (a glorious parody of Cagney’s Angels With Dirty Faces shot specifically for the film). In true adolescent fashion, Kevin quickly realises that losing his parents isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

That’s the thing with kids, they’re not concerned with consequences. They’re myopic and only see the immediate benefits. That’s another advantage of having an unaffected mind. You don’t understand the gravity of emotional pain or death, you don’t question your own mortality, and therein lies the great paradox of adolescence. You long for absolute freedom but are completely and utterly dependent on those who deprive you of it. You hate your parents but love and miss them more than anything in the world. It reminds me of a hilarious moment in The Simpsons in which Bart receives a phone call explaining that Homer has been locked up in a mental asylum and needs his help. “You don’t want him to get a lobotomy, do you?” a Michael Jackson impersonator asks. “Hmm… lobotomy,” he ponders, imagining his dad helpless and unable to curb his mischief, but somewhere in the recesses of his mind reality bites. “There’s probably a downside I don’t see,” he concedes. It’s such a dead-on analysis of how a child’s mind works.

Home Alone is similarly deft in this department, and it only gets better. Despite such naivety, kids are highly adaptable. something Hughes and Columbus quickly tap into. Kevin begins as a helpless brat who gulps at the thought of packing his own suitcase but grows into a self-reliant protector and wizened guide as the film progresses, going shopping, doing the laundry and preparing dinner in-between death-defying leaps on a staircase-driven sled and a particularly earnest meeting with Santa Claus’ helper (a pricelessly cynical impersonator who gets caught without his beard and offers 2 Tic-Tacs having run out of candy canes). With the help of the most breathtaking choir ever confined to a local church, he even finds time to offer fatherly advice to Roberts Blossom’s lonely and misunderstood Old Man Marley in a humorous and genuinely heartfelt scene. Ultimately, the film tackles the great paradox of adolescence head-on, forging a character who is self-sufficient but still a mischievous little scamp at heart, a kid who’s smart and independent enough to fool the grown-ups in a distinctly childlike way that is absolutely relatable to anyone under the age of 10. Back in 1990, every kid wanted to be Kevin MaCallister, and with good reason.

The two idiots tasked with taking down Home Alone‘s resourceful tyke are bumbling cat burglars Harry and Marv, a pair so foolish they leave their victims’ taps running as a sadistic calling card, basically confessing to every crime they ever committed. Joe Pesci’s Harry is the leader of the self-titled ‘Wet Bandits’, which is less a testament to his cunning, more an indictment of his even stupider counterpart. Pesci, who had already cut his comedy chops as Lethal Weapon 2‘s smart-alecy shyster Leo Getz a year prior, was originally displeased with the Home Alone screenplay, feeling that the writing was beneath his considerable talents. He was also concerned with the fact that, having just put in an Oscar-winning shift as unconscionable mafioso Tommy DeVito in Martin Scorsese’s groundbreaking gangster epic Goodfellas, he was unable to use bad language, which saw him devise the distinctive cartoon cursing the Harry character would become famous for.

As predictably excellent as Pesci is, it is Daniel Stern, the actor responsible for the emotive voice-over narration that drives nostalgic, coming-of-age TV drama The Wonder Years, who winds up stealing the show. Harry may be punching above his weight, but Marv plunges brainlessness to unprecedented depths in a flawless, star-making turn. Stern puts in a quite incredible physical performance as the gangly rag of ineptitude who makes swag bag villains look like inconspicuous masterminds by comparison. Whether he’s fleeing Kevin’s firecracker shoot-out, moronically sticking his face through a cat flap (his reaction to getting shot in the forehead is pure comedy gold) or getting smashed in the face with an iron, he never fails to leave you bawling. Stern has a wonderful ability to translate excruciating pain and fear to an audience who will such misfortune at every precarious turn, the kind underscored by an otherwise fugue state of utter foolishness. He’s also responsible for arguably the film’s most priceless moment. His reaction to having a giant tarantula placed directly on his face is a masterstroke of comedic execution that would go down in history. The amount of times I’ve rewound that moment to revel in his terrified screams, the kind so on the nose of creepy crawly phobias it hurts, is borderline criminal. I still rewind at least once with every viewing.

The fact that Harry and Marv feel that an 8-year-old kid is beneath their skills is a running gag that never gets old, even when they wind up traipsing through Kevin’s house of sadistic horrors, the little rapscallion concocting the kind of death trap that would astonish the world’s finest engineers and architects (one that’s mapped out with crayons, obviously). Home Alone was also criticised for its portrayals of violence, which is what the film’s iconic final act hinges on almost entirely, particularly the moment when Pesci’s Harry has his head set on fire with a blowtorch. It’s understandable. Columbus attempts to translate cartoon violence to flesh characters, which is problematic and does seem a bit much in hindsight, especially given the copycat nature of adolescence. As a watching tyke, it didn’t exactly inspire me to set people on fire or smash them in the face with paint cans. I did concoct a comparatively harmless booby trap funhouse for play purposes, re-enacting what at the time was the most ingenious, belly-aching finale I’d personally ever witnessed, but I drew the line at Actual Bodily Harm. Something of an overreaction from some quarters, but I’m sure there were other, less stable kids reaching for the lighters and aerosol cans. It made that much of an impression.

For all its brilliant performances, Home Alone‘s unsung hero is Christmas itself, and the astonishing score that brings it all so majestically to life. The film isn’t exactly Oscar material, but you’ll be astonished (or not) to learn that it actually bagged itself two Academy Award Nominations, both of which can be attributed to arguably the greatest film composer to ever grace the profession, or at the very least the one who has introduced more kids to classical music than the rest of his peers combined. Just a glimpse at the extraordinary catalogue of John Williams is enough to satisfy several careers. He’s the filmic equivalent of The Beatles and just as universal — if not through name recognition then certainly through the movies his name is tied to: Star Wars, Jaws, Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and they’re just the mega franchises that bear his inimitable mark. Williams is just as, if not more important to some of those films than pretty much anyone else involved, and how many composers can you say that about?

Maybe he committed suicide.

Marv

In regards to Home Alone‘s ability to stir the sentimental juices, Williams is THE most important contributor. Due to a slew of horrible sequels that tarnished the franchise irrevocably, it will never live up to some of Williams’ other scores from a commercial standpoint, but it’s just as fitting and majestic, as enchanting a musical accompaniment as you could ever dream of. A lesser composer may have viewed Columbus’ sleeper hit as a film beneath his colossal talents, as just another payday in-between projects, but the score is utterly captivating from start to finish. If it were not for the themes and commercial stature of Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, it may have pipped John Barry’s sweeping epic to the Best Original Score prize. For my money, the absolutely divine “Something in My Memory”, a composition that distils so much magic and emotion into what is essentially a kids’ comedy, should have easily ousted Stephen Sondheim’s “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” from Dick Tracy in the Best Original Song category. Despite Williams’ almost royal prestige, perhaps the Academy felt that Columbus’ film was just a smidgen beneath them.

The cutesy Culkin was sugar-spun gold following Home Alone‘s unprecedented festive success. The actor’s star would shine so brightly he would even land his very own Saturday morning cartoon ‘Wish Kid’, a short-lived venture that is testament to Home Alone mania. That same year he even hosted Saturday Night Live and famously starred in Michael Jackson’s Black or White video. At 1991’s Wrestlemania VII, Culkin was sitting right there, front and centre. With further success in Howard Zieff’s bittersweet coming-of-age drama My Girl, 1991 proved a landmark year for the young actor, but overnight fame of such magnitude is typically a double-edged sword, especially for cutesy child stars in the image-fuelled rocket ship of early physical development.

Culkin, who was paid $4,500,000 to return for Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (a huge increase on the $110,000 he received for starring in the first movie), would face the inevitable commercial backlash. One minute you’re the adorable face who can do no wrong, the next you’re a has-been who’s outstayed their welcome — it’s the American way. Humanity seems to derive a vulgar satisfaction from putting celebrities on a pedestal before tearing it unceremoniously down again, something the mainstream media is only too happy to exploit. Culkin would inevitably shed his cutesy charm as adolescence reared its fickle grin, audiences who had taken the youngster so superficially into their hearts turning just as quickly to stone. A string of high-profile commercial flops that included The Nutcracker (a failed attempt by Warner to make amends for their Home Alone debacle), Home Alone cash-grab Getting Even With Dad, Fox’s failed live-action/animated fantasy The Pagemaster and the widely maligned Richie Rich, put Culkin’s acting career firmly on the scrapheap by the end of 1994. Getting Even With Dad, The Pagemaster and Richie Rich would all earn Culkin Golden Raspberry Award Nominations for Worst Actor — quite the comedown for a kid who’d been nominated for a Golden Globe only three years prior.

Based almost entirely on the success of one film, Culkin is still remembered as one of the biggest stars of the 90s, Home Alone bringing so much joy to so many kids. Today it inhabits a lofty position near the top of a magical niche sub-genre, is part of a time-honoured tradition that very few films of note qualify for. There are countless Christmas movies out there. Some cashed in on the silly season before disappearing into the recesses of bad movies past. Others went straight to video, TV, or in today’s climate, one of a plethora of streaming platforms. Fewer still made a good first impression but failed to stay the course, giving us a good ol’ ride on Santa’s sleigh before vanishing in a slither on the snowy horizon. A select few proved much more resilient, touching us deeply and living on in not only our hearts, but in the hearts of future generations, capturing those qualities that most resonate during the festive season. Not only are they movies that we watch during yuletide, they’re as fundamental as turkey dinners, Christmas crackers and family games by the tree. Heck, they’re as essential as Santa Claus himself, because they bring us together at a time when everything is that more special, a time when we stop to appreciate those who are most important to us. Living somewhere in our memories, ready to be unwrapped at just the right moment, Home Alone is certainly one of those movies.

Home Alone logo

Director: Chris Columbus
Screenplay: John Hughes
Music: John Williams
Cinematography: Julio Macat
Editing: Raja Gosnell

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