Last night, my lovely wife announced that she was tired of her work-related stress and that to combat it, she was going to give herself a strong dose of Hallmark Christmas movies medicine. So, about two-thirds of the way through the evening, she disappeared downstairs to our den in the basement and began to take her tonic. A while later, as we lay in bed, I turned to her and asked what movie she had watched. After thinking for a while, she admitted that she couldn’t actually remember the title, because, “They’re really all the same”. Well, today’s post concerns a movie that is definitely not like the others. Today, we put our hands to our faces, let our eyes grow wide as we realize the focus of today’s post is none other than that holiday classic, Home Alone.
Home Alone was released in 1990. It starred a young actor named Macaulay Culkin, who was only ten years old at the time. Culkin’s shocked facial expression at the realization that his family had left for vacation without him has gone on to become one of the most iconic Christmas entertainment images of the last thirty years. Home Alone has grossed almost half a billion dollars in sales since its release, making it the second biggest-selling Holiday movie of all time (just slightly behind Jim Carrey’s rendition of How The Grinch Stole Christmas). In addition to the movie being a box office hit, both Macaulay Culkin and composer John Williams ended up with Academy Award nominations…Culkin for Best Actor and Williams for Best Original Song for Somewhere In My Memory. It is funny how, at times, the inspiration for the most successful movies can originate from the simplest of moments. In the case of Home Alone, the idea for it came from Director Christopher Columbus, who, when packing for a trip with his own family, offhandedly remarked to his wife that they had better remember to pack the kids as well as whatever else they were packing. Apparently, as soon as Columbus had uttered those words, his mind started thinking about the possibilities of what might happen if they had actually forgotten one of their children and had left them behind. By the time the plane that Christopher Columbus was on had landed, he had a complete eight-page outline of the entire movie. Over the course of the next few weeks, he fleshed the story out and was shopping it to movie studios a short while later. Warner Brothers signed on right away, and the process of creating a professional script and hiring the cast took place not long afterwards.
The story of how the movie was made is filled with tidbits of entertainment trivia. For instance, if you have seen the movie, then you know that once Macaulay Culkin’s character, Kevin, realizes that he is home alone and has time to process that information, his mood changes, and he begins to think about all of the things he wants to do that normally he is not allowed to. One such indulgence is being able to eat all of the snacks he wants while watching a violent gangster movie on TV. The movie he starts watching is called Angels With Filthy Mouths. This black and white “movie” was inspired by a real movie called Angels With Dirty Faces starring the great James Cagney. However, the movie that Kevin watches was actually made specifically for the movie by Director Columbus. It is entirely fake. As authentic as the look and the sound of it are, this movie-within-a-movie was shot with different actors while the main movie was being shot with the real cast. It is this kind of attention to detail that helps elevate Home Alone from being “just another kids’ movie” to being recognized as the classic it has become.
According to Columbus, there were a variety of logistical hurdles that he had to overcome during the shooting of the film. For starters, Macaulay Culkin was only ten years old when this movie was made. Because of rules enacted to protect child actors, Culkin’s work day could only be so many hours long each day and could never go past ten o’clock at night. Thus, all night time scenes had to be shot within a very small window of time each day. Furthermore, because he could only shoot for so many hours per day, you will notice that there are many scenes in the movie in which Culkin, as lead character, does not appear at all. His absence was due to time limitation rules in place for him, which forced Columbus to fill in the downtime with tightly planned scheduling that made the best use of the other adult actors’ time. When you watch the movie with this information in mind, it is amazing how rarely Macaulay Culkin actually appears on screen with other adults. Think of all of the dramatic scenes in which the burglars are attempting to enter the house where Kevin lives…there are many back-and-forth action scenes, but almost never is MacAulay Culkin in the same room at the same time as Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, the thieves. All of those action sequences were shot separately: one set of scenes for Pesci and Stern and a completely different one for Culkin. The magic lay with the edits.
In real life, I always maintain that Christmas time isn’t about the presents but is, instead, about family and love. When Christopher Columbus set about finding the right person to create the musical score for his movie, he consulted with fellow director, Steven Spielberg. Having worked a lot with John Williams, Spielberg was quick to nominate his friend for the job. It was a fortuitous choice because Williams instinctively knew from the script that as much as this was an action-comedy movie, it was really a movie about the importance of family. Kevin’s family spends most of the film desperately trying to get back home to find him. Kevin spends most of the movie…while avoiding the bad guys…wishing his family was there with him so he wouldn’t have to deal with so many issues on his own. The emotions that freely flow when the family is finally reunited at the end somehow feel genuine, despite the slapstick nature of the film to that point. John Williams captured that feeling of the importance of being together with one’s family at Christmas time perfectly with a short piece of original music that plays over the opening credits called “Somewhere In My Memory”. The song is a combination of orchestral playing and choral singing. The lyrics are short but poignant and spell out the movie’s theme in a few short lines:
Candles in the window
Shadows painting the ceiling
Gazing at the fire glow
Feeling that gingerbread feeling.
Precious moments, special people
Happy faces, I can see.
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.
As mentioned earlier, John Williams received an Academy Award nomination for this song, to go along with his 52(!) other Oscar nominations for his music, making him the second most nominated individual in Academy history after the great man, himself, Walt Disney.
As I write these words to you, I am alone in the house on an overcast day. I am sitting in the warm glow of the Christmas tree lights. There are presents starting to appear under the tree. Everywhere I look around me, I see ornaments and decorations that remind me of the people who gifted them to me and my family. But, most of all, I feel the presence of my family with me in this room. I have always believed that this time of year is for creating a sense of warmth and of magic for the ones you love. So, I have done what I can to create an environment that is welcoming for all who enter, but mostly, I have tried to make a world for the ones I love, so that they feel safe and protected and, most of all, loved to bits. I will know if I have succeeded by the memories that my girls take with them to adulthood. Once they have their own homes and families, I hope that they will look back upon their childhoods and remember, with warm affection, how Christmas felt in our home. Christmas is a feeling, as much as it is an event. And that feeling is about family and love.
The link to the video for the song “Somewhere In My Memory” by John Williams from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the film Home Alone can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.
The link to the video for the movie trailer for Home Alone can be found here.
The link to the official website for Macaulay Culkin can be found here.
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