Q: What do you get when you name a kid after a famous Italian explorer and then send him to NYU film school?
A: Chris Columbus—who, unlike the real Columbus, didn't kill anybody or infect any continents with diseases. The similarities end with the names.
Instead of being credited with discovering America (even though Vikings were the first Europeans to arrive), Chris Columbus did something equally important: he directed Home Alone, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Mrs. Doubtfire, the first two Harry Potter movies, and wrote Gremlins and The Goonies.
Like John Hughes, this guy can pull classic family-friendly entertainment out of thin air, like a magician conjuring up a rabbit. They're also both in touch with their inner child—who is apparently an extremely rich, genius kid.
Like Hughes, Chris Columbus is an expert entertainer: both a craftsman and a salesman. (That's why they got him to direct those Harry Potter movies.) But again, like Hughes, we can see real themes emerge in his work. He's not just spooning out schlock.
Consider two of his mega hits. What, after all, do Gremlins and Home Alone have in common—aside from the first being written by Columbus, and the second directed by him? Yup: they're both about the forces of anarchy and darkness attempting to disrupt Christmas.
In Gremlins, those forces are represented by—you got it—gremlins. These creatures perform mischief that rapidly accelerates into murder, threatening the festive atmosphere of the holidays. As everyone knows, Christmas is about having political arguments with relatives, not killing people. The gremlins must be defeated...
In Home Alone, those same forces of societal decay are represented by two burglars, men who attack the comfortable material basis of life in the plush upper class and upper-middle-class suburbs of Chicago. But Kevin brings the pain, and they lose.
See? These two movies are peas in the same red-and-green-striped pod.
Columbus commented on their shared Christmas themes, saying:
"I set Gremlins, which is a very dark story, against the bright cheery time of Christmas, and I thought it was a good contrast. Christmas is a time when people are at their happiest or at their most emotionally low place in their lives, and I thought that this is a great backdrop for a kid who's left home alone on Christmas. I think what really completely convinced me I had to do the movie was the scene in the church with the old man and Kevin. I just thought that was a beautifully written scene, and that scene on film is exactly as John wrote it. I mean, we didn't change a word of that scene." (Source)
In the same interview with Entertainment Weekly, Columbus explains that he added certain touches to the movie that weren't in Hughes script—like the fact that Kevin looks out the window at the end and actually sees Marley reuniting with his family.
Also, he allowed John Candy to do freewheeling improvisations. As Gus Polinski, Candy made up the speech about accidentally abandoning his kid at a funeral parlor. According to Columbus, "That just came out of nowhere." (Source)
Columbus' work also has a lot to do with the resourcefulness of young people in staving off villains, as evidenced by the Home Alone movies but also his other films. In Goonies, a group of kids foil a family of criminals in order to find One Eyed Willy's treasure (we see absolutely nothing hilarious about this legendary pirate's name), and the Harry Potter movies pit kids against the monolithic evil presented by Lord Voldemort.
Children (or teenagers) generally win out and preserve the stability of their world, whether saving their house from golf course developers in Goonies, or protecting Hogwarts from the Dark Arts.
John Hughes used to be an advertising man—so he knew what the people wanted…even before they knew it themselves.
He could write a movie expressing his own real feelings about adolescence—hello, The Breakfast Club—or a movie purely calculated as a hilarious entertainment machine—hello National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. With Home Alone, he went all in on his less-serious, laugh-oriented side. And he made a lot of money in the process.
Hughes always grasped the idea of having a great logline behind his movies—a sentence or two easily explaining the basic prompt or idea of the movie. In National Lampoon's Vacation, it's "A guy wants to take his family on a trip to a Disneyland-like theme park, but their journey is beset with mishaps." In Baby's Day Out, the logline would be, "A kidnapped baby escapes and makes his way through the big city alone, while being pursued by bungling burglars."
In Home Alone's case, this logline is, "A kid is left home alone by accident for a few days, and has to fend off robbers."
See? You can capture it all in just one pithy sentence.
That's called being "high concept."
While Hughes could get serious and explore actual teenage problems in movies like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, Home Alone is more of an entertainment machine. It takes a childhood fantasy/fear—"What if I was free from my parents, or even made my family disappear?"—and brings it to life.
The characters Hughes creates are immediately identifiable and endearing—the precocious child, the jerk older brother, the caring mothers, the bumbling robbers. Home Alone isn't necessarily an exercise in dramatic depth as a screenplay…but as a sleek entertainment vehicle, it's got a lot going for it.
And what's wrong with making a ton of money and giving the people what they want? (Not a thing, especially not according to Don Draper.)
By the time the 1990s rolled around, John Hughes had gone from being a humble Chicago Ad Man to the angst-ridden but funny voice of Teen America—thanks to movies like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Sixteen Candles.
Not bad, considering that he was in his thirties when he wrote those movies and had to channel the mindset of younger people. At this point he was ready to become more than just a screenwriter/director—he was ready to become a production empire, Hughes Entertainment.
Using this production company, he had rapid success with movies like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)—both of them holiday classics. By the time the swingin' 90s rolled around, John Hughes was in position to produce the holiday classic to outsell all holiday classics: he produced Home Alone—in addition to writing it—while letting Chris Columbus (writer of Gremlins, which also involved holiday mayhem) take the director's seat.
In addition to the unstoppable John Hughes mecha-zoid producer force, Twentieth Century Fox got on board and helped amp up the budget. Originally, Warner Bros. was supposed to be the distributor, but when Fox took over, they let the budget jump from $14 million to $17 million.
This was actually a decent amount of money for a movie that takes place mainly in the environs of a house in Chicago, plus some airports. But the amount they made in box office revenue after the movie was released was staggering: $476.7 million.
That made Home Alone the most successful holiday movie of all time (at the time). Not too bad for a Chicago boy who made his name channeling the mindsets of people twenty years younger than himself. (Source)
Obvious statement: Home Alone is funny.
But imagine directing it, and constantly praying that a stunt man didn't just die after falling down a flight of stairs.
That was part of Christopher Columbus' experience while making the movie:
"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. And then they would get up and they were absolutely fine, and then we would watch the playback on video and then we were relaxed enough to laugh." (Source)
Predating the digital revolution, Home Alone was shot on good, old-fashioned 35mm celluloid. But there was an unexpected challenge related to the quality of film itself: the crew had to create the clip from the fictitious, black and white gangster movie Angels with Filthy Souls that Kevin watches.
In order to do it, Columbus said, they had to get the look and feel of those older 40s and 50s era movies just right:
"Thankfully, I'm obsessed with film, so I'd seen enough of them that it was kind of a painstaking task to get it right. And we had to find actors that felt like they lived in that particular time period, as well, which was an interesting thing. People kind of looked a little differently back then. I don't know, maybe it was the camera, but we had to find actors that looked like they existed in the 40s." (Source)
Sometimes, what we see on screen isn't all it appears to be. For instance, the neighbor's flooded basement Kevin wades through when he's trying to escape Harry and Marv—that's actually a set constructed within the New Trier High School swimming pool, near Chicago. (They didn't flood an existing house's basement, since that would damage the house, obviously.) (Source)
Also, the scenes set at Chicago's O'Hare airport were shot at O'Hare—and so were the scenes set at the Paris airport. Despite these apparent location shifts, the entirety of the movie was filmed in the Chicago area. So, we're not really in Scranton, PA, or France—just witnessing movie magic (i.e. actors pretending to be French and Scrantonian). (Source)
According to director Columbus, the film shoot started to irritate the McCallister home's real-life neighbors:
"We couldn't afford to build the exterior of the house on a sound stage, so all of those stunts that happened outside of the house happened at night. We would be shooting from like 5:30 at night to six in the morning. I think that the lights and the actors shouting, and me yelling "Action!" probably got on a few peoples' nerves." (Source)
But, hey—in order to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs. (Or keep a few Chicagoans up all night.)
John Williams brings it. Every time.
These are the movie soundtracks people hum all the time. Williams, one of the most honored and accomplished film composers, is the man who makes the world hum…and whistle. He brings tension, suspense, and feeling—by striking at the audience's core and matching his compositions cleverly to what's occurring on screen.
Williams' "Main Title" to Home Alone is tantalizingly mysterious. It has a feeling of mischief, of Christmas elves sneaking around and messing with things at night. For instance, we hear it when the phone lines get severed at night, which later prevents the McCallisters from phoning Kevin. After about one and a half minutes of this part of the title track, the official recording switches to the other part of the theme song, separately entitled "Somewhere in My Memory." This track racked up an Oscar nomination at the 1991 Oscars. (Source)
"Somewhere in My Memory" is undoubtedly Home Alone's biggest musical hit—a sentimental tune evoking childhood Christmases of yore. It will make you feel "that gingerbread feeling"—which is, uh, apparently the feeling you have when you're smelling gingerbread, or eating it (or, perhaps, cooking it?). Here are the relevant lyrics:
Candles in the window / Shadows painting the ceiling / Gazing at the fire glow / Feeling that gingerbread feeling.
It further hits home with its "Love of Christmas" and "Holiday Nostalgia" themes:
Somewhere in my memory / Christmas joys all around me / Living in my memory / All of the music, all of the magic / All of the family, home here with me.
This is directly commenting on Kevin's own feelings—he wishes his family was there with him, and he remembers past Christmases, and wishes he could experience that family togetherness again.
Also, the movie features pop Christmas songs that weren't composed by John Williams. "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" by The Drifters is featured prominently, with Kevin lip syncing it before burning his cheeks with aftershave (again). He's getting into the Christmas spirit. Also, as the family races through Chicago's O'Hare airport to try to catch their flight to France, we hear Chuck Berry's rock n' roll Christmas song "Run, Run Rudolph" playing. This is appropriate because the McCallisters are—you know—running.
Finally, we'd be remiss if we forgot "Carol of the Bells," which plays as Kevin readies his booby traps. "Carol of the Bells," written by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych, is definitely the most intense of all Christmas songs…and also one of the most metal if you listen to the version by Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
It's a Christmas song that sounds less like it's about Christmas and more about putting on battle paint and preparing a Viking invasion. After all, that's the same kind of thing Kevin is doing as he prepares his House of Pain for Marv and Harry.
People love Home Alone.
And seriously: what's not to like?
We see a famous child star systematically destroying two grown men, all in the service of saving Christmas—naturally, both American and international audiences ate that up, even if critics spit it out (Home Alone has a weirdly low Rotten Tomatoes rating for such a popular movie—only 55% of its critical reviews were positive). (Source)
Critics aside, the movie's popularity hasn't flagged in the decades since its release. Although Macaulay Culkin now performs in a weird indie band that does pizza-themed parodies of Velvet Underground songs, his defining movie remains a perennial People's Choice, shown frequently on TV in between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Even George from Seinfeld had a moment of emotional catharsis watching Home Alone. He cries after viewing it, explaining, "The old man got to me." The fact that Marley turns out to be good (which you can easily guess at the beginning) adds an element of feeling to what would otherwise be a movie focused on zany slapstick—and it cracks through to George Constanza's soul.
So, the movie has fans a-plenty. If it didn't have 'em by the thousands, how could it have spawned a sequel like Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, with the return of most of the original cast? Or fansites (like this one) exclusively devoted to Home Alone-mania?