Home Alone (Chris Columbus, 1990)

“This is my house, I have to defend it”

Introduction

There is much more to Home Alone. Much, much more. This film is part of my history – my childhood between ages 8-12. My brother and I watched this religiously. Every sequence, scene and line evokes memory of non-stop jokes my brother and I would make – “look what you did you little jerk!”. After another rewatch, considering how much we quoted, it is suprising how little talking there is – much more watching-Kevin-walking-to-the-shop or montages showing him set-up. Even the two ‘Wet Bandits’ often let out screams, noises or in the case of Harry (Pesci), mumbling to cover up expletives (“you little mummble mummble mummble”)rather than stating distinct lines of dialogue. Clearly, my perspective has changed and though I still love the film, there is much more to Home Alone than mere “family fun” …

You often hear 30-something reviewers endlessly quoting eighties films of John Hughes arguing that these are ‘retro’ movies that, through their nostalgia, are important to cinema. I believe that Home Alone (Jurassic Park et al) for all of the twenty-something bloggers will – in time – replace the obvious-eighties movies that so often claim the ‘retro’ tag. These films are equally iconic and memorable in their own ways.

Solid Structure and No Fat

The film is so strong due to how well-structured it is. Even in the first ten-minutes it establishes everything. We see Harry – and realise he is a ‘bad guy’ (that tooth shine), we see the big McAllister family and how busy it is and how often Kevin is caught in the wrong. Most importantly, we see how Kevin seems to annoy everyone – we see Buzz-the-bully forcing Kevin to be sent to the attic. Over the night, the electricity is knocked out while everyone sleeps  and his dream comes true: the family leave without him. So true-to-life, and worrying too possible – yet within the confines of a family-fun movie.

The same set-up could be shot very differently to present the same frustrations Kevin feels and the mistakes parents make within a family (as busy as the McAllisters) but consequently becoming more sinister, deeply upsetting and traumatic. But we have John Hughes on the script and Chris Columbus directing a family film that deals with some deeper themes in a very subtle manner – but in a way that ensures everyone can access them.

I realised that the subplot regarding Kevin’s Mother (Catherine O’Hara) trying to get back to her son disects a very important aspect of parenting. At what point do you become a bad mother or father? I must admit that leaving your child at home is pretty bad – but then, look at Uncle Frank! This guy insults kids, he backs his chair into his own son – with only the Mother squeezing him out of the squash. Uncle Frank is the example of what a bad parent really is. Whilst Kevin’s Mother is doing literally everything she possibly can – even potentially selling off her wedding ring! – to get back. To get back to make sure he’s safe, to be near her son – to tell him she was sorry so he knows she loves him. That’s what makes a good parent – everyone gets into unwanted situations – its what you do about it that decides whether you are a good parent or not.

Economic Separation and Outlooks

This particular viewing made me also acknowledge the financial divide between the characters. The McAllister family are exceptionally wealthy – a huge house, with enough money to comfortably support a large group of children and even the financial wealth to afford a holiday in Europe in 1990. This appears to be an incredibly unique family within the top-bracket of earners in the US, so it begs the question as to whether the film subtly explores class and economic-separation.

I think if you consider the conversation between Old Man Marley and Kevin in the church within this context, it may answer the question. Marley says “You live down the street from me right?, You know anytime you see you can always say hello, you don’t have to be afraid. A lot of stuff has been said about me, none of it’s true.”. Is it possible that Marley, representing the economically-deprived area of society is trying to bridge that gap? He works on the street, almost on a par with public-servants, and looks dangerous as he looks dirty and dresses in black. This is a judgment of the family that dictates his status – Buzz is who “informs” us of his past. Crucially, this story is not true. Marley and Kevin discuss “being afraid”, Marley saying that “You can be too old for a lot of things, but you’re never too old to be afraid!”. Prejudice and discrimination is rooted in fear, and ultimately begun in a fear often during childhood and through your upbringing. Consider the misrepresentation and fear that middle/upper-class feel towards economically-deprived families – for example, crime is a product that is often associated with a lack of wealth and is easily attributed to the poorer areas of society. Marley “lives down the street” from Kevin, and the potentially huge divide between the two of them is purely through class and economic-advantage. The fear is unfounded and the reality is how both characters can learn from each other – and crucially, help each other. This same sentiment is highlighted in Home Alone 2, whereby a bird-loving tramp is who Kevin befriends.

This argument is supported further in the journey Kevin’s Mum takes. She is initially annoyed and frustrated about not easily achieving her goal – her money amounts to nothing as she is forced to travel alongside characters who, through their economic circumstance, don’t see their familes weeks at a time, as they tour across the country. Her realisation of the difficulties and challenges these Father’s face to support their own families, sharply changes her perspective. Finally, we have the “basement” – for some, unclear reason, scares Kevin. Through the parrallel between fear of the underclass and the under-house basement, it is only through understanding the basement – and the chores, jobs and expectations of a “citizen” in the household, does he realise he has nothing to fear.

Iconic Status

The film still retains an iconic status too by inputting unique features that are memomrable in their own right. Kevin’s chequered shirt and white sneakers combo has a real iconic-ninties look – a credit to the costume department. This becomes so unique that, in the sequel, they expand upon this as Kevin’s unique puffy jacket and hat is easy to spot by Marv and Harry when they coincidentally end up together in potentially one of the busiest places in the USA; New York.

The Angels with Dirty Faces rip-off, Angels with Filthy Souls portrays an Edward G. Robinson-type character, with a tommy-gun to face off against a Humphrey Bogart-type character. He might charm, but he has nowhere near enough strength to save his skin. You simply need to read the script to appreciate how much fun the sequence is:

‘Johnny’: [hears knock at door] Who is it?
‘Snakes’: [Snakes comes in] It’s me, Snakes. I got the stuff.
‘Johnny’: Leave it on the doorstep and get the hell outta here.
‘Snakes’: All right, Johnny, but what about my money?
‘Johnny’: What money?
‘Snakes’: Acey said you had some dough for me.
‘Johnny’: That a fact? How much do I owe ya?
‘Snakes’: Acey said 10%.
‘Johnny’: [smirks] Too bad Acey ain’t in charge no more.
‘Snakes’: What do you mean?
‘Johnny’: He’s upstairs taking a bath. He’ll call you when he gets out.
[Pause]
‘Johnny’: Hey, I tell ya what I’m gonna give *you*, Snakes.
[Johnny pulls out machine gun]
‘Johnny’: I’m gonna give you to the count of 10, to get your lying, yellow, no-good keister off my property, before [shouts] I pump your guts full of lead!
‘Snakes’: [wide eyed and calm] All right, Johnny, I’m sorry. I’m goin!
‘Johnny’: 1… 2… 10!
[starts unloading bullets into Snakes while laughing maniacally]
‘Johnny’: Keep the change ya filthy animal.

Duality and Identity

Finally, we continue to expore the film by highlighting the regular duality of so many characters. Within the jam-packed introduction, we see Old Man Marley the man who murdered his family and hides out in Chicago whilst Harry-the-cop advises families on safety over Christmas. We all realise by the end that both people are not who we think they are – Harry is one of the theives whilst Old Man Marley is just that – an old man, with a family he cares about and loves. Ultimately, Kevin himself may look young and not the type to fend off two grown men, and even he changes expectations and turns out to be more capable then the thieves (and his Mother) realise. He looks after the shopping and looks after the house (except Buzz’s room) and proves how mature he is. Without dealing directly with race (are there any ethnic minorities in this film?), the film centres around judging people and, moreso, not judging people on how they look.

Family


To conclude, the focus is – obviously – family. Kevin’s arc is at the start wishing his family would dissappear and, by the end, realising that he didn’t and would never want that to happen. But this is not due to his close-calls to capture by Harry and Marv – he doesn’t want his family back to keep him safe (he can look after himself!), but it is because of his meeting with Old Man Marley – the snow-plough man. Marley has actually lost his family through his choice. Kevin shouted to his Mom at the start that he wanted to live alone – Marley lives alone and look at him. Poor fella. It is upon realising how lonely Marley is, that Kevin realises his mistake. He misses them a little bit too. This also shows how the moral of the story is not just unique to kids – the entire attitude of not-needing-your-family is an attitude anyone, anywhere can feel – not just pre-teen, argumentative boys. The line quoted should be changed from ‘This is my house…’ to ‘This is my home…’ with all the family stuff included. This makes it accessible and timeless – and with a stunning soundtrack by John Williams alongside an insightful, accessible script, it creates an unforgettable Christmas movie which, interestingly enough, does not feature in Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies to See Before You Die. That needs to be addressed.
Nb.
1. Kevin, at no point in the film, utter the words ‘Holy Cow’
2. Think of Edvard Munch’s Scream and look at then look at the poster…

This was orginally published in Christmas 2009, but I have made some significant changes for this write-up, crucially the paragraph on the economic status of characters.

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12 comments

  1. Wow – a deep analysis of Home Alone. That must be a first. 😉

    Though I'm a tad older, I love HA as well; it's a great Xmas movie, ripe for rewatching again and again.

  2. Simon, clearly this is a post to be proud of. It’s a wonderful dissection of a film on levels I’d never considered. Of course I’ve only personally seen it once or twice. Though nowhere near a favourite film of mine, Home Alone was a master phenom of its time and absolutely deserves a large footnote in the history of cinema that is 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, alongside E.T. and as you said, Jurassic Park.

    In fact, the last couple sentences of your post particularly struck a chord with me as quite topical. I just this week put up a review of Donnie Darko, knowing full well that it was on the list. Imagine my surprise when I learned it wasn’t. This and Home Alone are most likely 2 of 100 upsets deserving to be in the great tome that is out guide. It makes me think about a ‘Why Isn’t This In The Book’ blog-O-Thon. I think I already know which film you’d pick 😀

  3. I hate to break it to you, Simon, but this film is much more of an extension of those 'retro' 80s classics that I and my peer group love than the beginning or an entity within something else. Credit that to the involvement of Hughes, a guy know much more for his 80s works than anything else. Even most of Columbus' work (save Harry Potter) feels like 80s leftovers. Plus, as we all know, the years of 1990-1993 were inducted into the late 80s a few years back.

    I love love love your “Economic Separation” section, if only because it certifies you as one of the all-time film conspiracy theorists. It's interesting stuff to chew on, and the McCallisters are certainly a wealthy (spoiled) family, but I have a really hard time believing that Hughes implied any kind of social commentary as it pertained to OM Marley. It's an awesome idea, but I can't quite get on board.

    Solid post, as usual.

  4. A fantastic article. I don't really think of Home Alone in that way but maybe next time I watch it I will.

    John Hughes has used economic separation in many of his other works, though I think this has more to do with defining his characters than anything else. Worth looking into, I think.

  5. @filmsuish – I remember JURASSIC PARK is in my book – and DONNIE DARKO, I'll bet was in the edition following 2003. My edition is the one with Indiana Jones on the cover (must be 2008 to coincide with crystal skull) and I have no intention of 'updating' it. The later ones from the 2000's I take with a pinch of salt, the films prior are unlikely to change too much. But if JURASSIC PARK and ET are not in there … that seems nuts. I'll bet they simply have a limit on certain filmmakers…

    @Dylan – In fairness, you are probably right about the 'late eighties' tag.Watching HOOK, it has more in connection to THE GOONIE's than the family films post-Jurassic Park. Reg. the “Economic Separation|”, it is worth noting that John Hughes may not have been aware of what he was doing – simply writing a story about a huge afflujent household with a “creepy” working class man may say more about his perspective, whether he considered it or not. Why is John Candy forced to be on the road so often? Why is Old Man Marley sweeping the roads? Marley could be simply sitting on a bench -consciously or uncosciously, Hughes must've believed that by having him as a sweeper he looks more sinister and, as we all know, these jobs ae generally taken by the working class.

    @Rhys – Yeah, on a rewatch, consider those sides. Notice how Frank defers payment to his brother for the Pizza's – his Brother is CLEARLY substantially richer he. Consider the rudeness of the Mum when the electrician is trying to explain the electricty problem. Think about the difficulty in communication between the police (working during Christmas) and the Mum when Kevin is home alone. What do these aspects highlight, because in the former two cases, it's not simple jokes.

  6. Oh nono. Jurrasic park and ET are in 1001 films. What I meant was Home Alone is as iconic as those epic classics and should be in the book just as much as those two others deserve to be.

  7. I have to agree with Fletcher… I love the economic seperation points but don't think I can jump on board either. Great points but while those themes may seep in to Hughes' writing, I don't think they were planted but it's a hell of an observation.

  8. LOL @ the economic separation theory. I lack the time (and space) to sufficiently make fun of it here, but let me suffice for now by saying that Marley doesn't say “you live down the street from me, right?” but “You live next to me, don't you?” Kevin confirms this and in the final scene the kid looks into his neighbor’s yard where Marley is welcoming his estranged family. Economically, Marley and Kevin’s parents are equals. Next-door neighbors in a rich 'burb. (By the way, Marley never looks dirty and he doesn’t “work on the street”, but simply likes to keep his driveway snow-free.) If Marley represents anything, it’s “thy neighbor” who is (unnecessarily) feared.

  9. Thanks (?) for the comment Marc.

    You don't need to 'make fun' of the theory. It is just that, post-structural or not, its a theory.

    fair point about the slightly different quite, but we never see his house. Clearly Columbus, for one reason or another, didn't want ot show his home. We only every see him clearly his driveway, without seeing his house. Quite a purposeful choice – probably gives the character more 'mystery' not attaching him to a home. Additionally, very fair point about how its not his profession perhaps – but it may represent that type of job. There are additionally parts of the film which equally support the theory – Kevins Mum, the basement. The basement, specifically, has no clear purpose. So why is it in the film at all? Why doesn't the mum simply get into a car with John Candy in a car as he is simply driving home for christmas – there is a very specific point being made about the nature of John Candys work, and how – though he is away from home all the time – he is not a bad parent.

    No?

  10. I do not feel compelled to make fun of the theory an sich, but of how you seem hell-bend on applying it to this film and to Marley in particular. Marley’s accurate quote is only slightly different from yours in terms of wording, yes, but immense in meaning: it negates your suggestion that Marley lives tucked away in a poorer section of the block and works in the richer section. Remember one cousin offering that Marley is salting the streets “to be nice”? Buzz doesn’t volley with something along the lines of “No, he’s poor and this is one of his jobs.” The poor man is old, probably retired, and we already know he is lonely – salting the streets keeps him occupied. And as far as his attire is concerned: the script calls for Kevin – and the viewer – to be scared of Marley. Giving the man a jersey with an embroidered reindeer on it to wear wouldn’t do. Black clothes and heavy boots are Hollywood’s standard “(we want you to think for a while that) this dude is evil” outfit. When Marley is revealed to be kind, he is well-groomed, and the camera position changes from “up angle” (intimidating) to “eye level.” We never get a good look at Marley’s house, true, but this doesn’t mean we’re supposed to believe the man is poor and lives in a rundown shed right next to an expensive detached house. Mind you, we don’t get a good look at the other next-door neighbor’s house either. Columbus is consistent in his use of establishing shots: there’s the “rest of the block” and then there’s the tightly framed McCallister house. A more likely artistic reason for this is that it underpins Kevin’s isolation and symbolizes his “me against the rest of the world” attitude.

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