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How Home Alone Became An Essential Holiday Classic

With a hilarious script, an enthralling score, clever needle-drops, and side-splitting comedic hijinks, "Home Alone" embodies the holiday spirit. Let's not forget that iconic scream too! Despite why families rewatch "Home Alone" year after year, the point stands: year after year, they revisit this family-friendly classic.

In a logline that induces immediate anxiety upon any parent while prompting vivid hypotheticals in every kid's imagination, "Home Alone" sees Kevin McCallister's frantic family accidentally leaving him behind for their Christmas vacation. The film's theatrical poster promoted it as "a family comedy without the family."

With a thematic emphasis on familial relationships and an aesthetic embedded into the double-sided whimsy and peace of the holiday season, "Home Alone" earns its place of prominence as an unskippable watch on many Christmastime viewing checklists. Even if you've seen "Home Alone" countless times, how much do you really know about its production? Let's travel to Chicago — the real thing, not on a greenscreen or backlot — to discover what makes "Home Alone" endure. Keep the change, you filthy animal!

Marv's casting changed directions

In "Home Alone," Daniel Stern stars as Marv opposite Joe Pesci as Harry. The robbers blunder their way through Kevin McCallister's booby traps, much to the robbers' chagrin and the audience's enjoyment. While it may be impossible to imagine anyone else playing the now-iconic duo, someone else almost portrayed Marv.

A 2019 episode of Netflix's "The Movies That Made Us" delved into the process of casting Marv. Stern was always the crew's first pick, but the actor turned down the role when the shoot extended its schedule from six weeks to eight weeks. Daniel Roebuck was cast in Stern's place. But during a screentest, Roebuck had terrible chemistry with Pesci. After the crew pleaded with Stern, he agreed. "What an idiot I was to let that almost get away," Stern reflected. "That would've been like, 'Oh, I missed it. Why? Oh, because of my pigheadedness.' Thank God they came back to me."

Other key players in the cast were hand-selected based on their previous work. Writer-producer John Hughes worked with Macaulay Culkin on "Uncle Buck" and tasked him with the heavy responsibility of leading "Home Alone." Casting director Janet Hirshenson previously cast Catherine O'Hara in "Beetlejuice" and thought she'd be perfect as Kate McCallister, Kevin's mom. (She was right!)

Love the Home Alone music? Thank the Rescuers!

"The Rescuers Down Under" may not have acclaimed the powerhouse status like other Disney animated movies in the '90s, but it holds an unexpected place in cinema history. In an audio commentary for "Home Alone" recorded by director Chris Columbus and actor Macaulay Culkin in 2007 and released on the film's Blu-ray in 2008, Columbus reveals a surprising connection between the two movies.

Composer Bruce Boughton was initially hired to compose "Home Alone." However, Boughton had to back out when the "Home Alone" schedule conflicted with his commitment to composing "The Rescuers Down Under." On a whim, the "Home Alone" crew sent their script to John Williams, expecting the Oscar-winning composer of "Jaws" and "Star Wars" to decline. Much to their delight, Williams loved the script and agreed to score the film. "I think I had more chuckles and more fun doing it than a great many other films that I've done," Williams reflected in "The Making of Home Alone," a 2008 mini-documentary.

Years after "Home Alone," Columbus sought Williams to score a movie he was directing called "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Arguably, Williams' rapport with Columbus helped him acquire his talents. So if you enjoy the warm melodies of the "Home Alone" soundtrack or the enchanting refrains of the iconic "Harry Potter" instrumental themes, you can thank "The Rescuers Down Under!"

John Candy filmed his role in one day

Although you'd never know it from his generous amount of screentime, the late John Candy shot all of his "Home Alone" scenes during an extensive 23-hour day of filming. Netflix's "The Movies That Made Us" shares how Hughes asked Candy to portray Gus Polinski, self-proclaimed "polka king of the midwest," after working with the actor on "Uncle Buck."

As Kate McCallister desperately tries to get home, Gus and his polka band offer to give her a ride to Chicago. Gus meets Kate in an airport, then discusses topics as disparate and deep as music, Christmas, and parenthood. Due to Candy's limited availability, the crew filmed all his scenes on the same day. Giving aggravated glances to Hughes on set, Columbus suspected that Candy might not have known what he signed up to do. Candy, an accomplished and beloved performer, did the part as a favor for Hughes and was only paid $414 for the role.

A fantasy sequence got cut

At the start of "Home Alone," Kevin fears the furnace in his basement. He imagines a haunting voice emanating from the appliance, calling his name. The visuals of this moment include the furnace grate opening to reveal hot coals inside. Initially, there were more elaborate plans for this "Home Alone" scene.

In the film's 2008 commentary track, Columbus told Macaulay Culkin how he envisioned the scene in his head. "I wanted this furnace to really come alive, to really chase you across the room," Columbus shared. "I wanted it to turn into a CGI furnace that got on all fours and chased you to the stairs." The production's small budget didn't allow for that, so the crew settled for practical effects using "two guys with strings and a couple of lights." But the director noted that the result is just as effective as the expensive version would have been — thanks, in part, to Culkin's relatable performance of a kid terrified by his imagination.

The real heroes of Home Alone are the stuntmen

The last act of "Home Alone" sees the Wet Bandits humiliated as they make their way through Kevin's house. The kid has filled his home with outlandish pranks ranging from slippery floors to booby traps. The stunt doubles for Marv and Harry held nothing back in (literally) throwing themselves into their job. Instead of using digital effects, stuntmen performed nearly all of the film's physical violence.

Troy Brown, Joe Pesci's stunt double, reflected on his performance in "The Stunts of Home Alone," a Blu-ray bonus feature. "It wasn't a big-budget movie, so there wasn't a lot of special-effects rigs and wires and stuff," Brown said. "It was all basic, hitting the ground hard to make it funny. We did everything for real. We never used rubber steps or put rubber down on the sidewalks. We just actually did it."

Which cast member ended up with a battle scar? Macaulay Culkin. The actor shared in "The Making of Home Alone" that when Harry threatens to bite off Kevin's fingers, Joe Pesci bit down a little harder than he meant to and left a permanent mark.

The sequels that almost were...

20th Century Studios turned down the opportunity to keep the "Home Alone" legacy ongoing — twice. In the first film's audio commentary, Columbus revealed that he initially pitched filming "Home Alone 2: Lost In New York" back-to-back with a potential third movie retaining the original cast. But the studio rejected it.

About a decade later, Columbus pitched another "Home Alone" project. "The studio rejected my idea of a sequel, which was now [Kevin] being in jail, coming back to take revenge on Joe [Pesci] and Danny [Stern], who live in the suburbs next to each other," Columbus reflected. "They've got their families. They've gone straight." The reboot-esque movie sounds par for the course for the 2020s entertainment landscape and would have been ahead of its time if it had been made when Columbus proposed it. "I see something there, but for some reason, the studio just won't go for it."

Despite never formally reviving the original ensemble, the "Home Alone" franchise has by no means remained dead. A total of six "Home Alone" films exist — holding varying degrees of relation to the first film. Some have no connection at all to Columbus' film. The only one to welcome back an original cast member is the most recent of the bunch, 2021's "Home Sweet Home Alone," in which David Ratray briefly reprises his role as Buzz McCallister, Kevin's older brother.

The McCallisters' house is on Aibnb

By design, it's tricky to tell whether a production chose to film on location or some elaborate soundstage. Of course, fake neighborhood streets lined with façades of homes exist in Hollywood. However, the "Home Alone" crew wanted an authentic Chicago-area suburb for the film's setting.

The McCallister residence is a real house in Winnetka, Illinois, and has become a tourist attraction for selfie-taking fans (via The TODAY Show). Many fans might not know that the production only used the house for the film's exterior shots. Filming for the interior home shots was done at a nearby gymnasium. But you'd never know it by stepping inside the real house. Today it's an Airbnb, duplicated as closely as possible to its onscreen appearance in "Home Alone" — down to portraits of the McCallister family hanging on the walls (via The Washington Post). Families can rent the home for one-night visits year-round.

An iconic moment came from improv

If any image is perennially associated with "Home Alone," it's the sight of eight-year-old Kevin McCallister screaming with his hands pressed against either side of his face. Since its 1990 poster, this visual has become ubiquitous with the holiday classic. The shot comes from the moment when Kevin uses his dad's aftershave. He slaps his face with the product, not knowing it packs a sting.

While the moment was in the script, Culkin improvised his reaction. In the film's audio commentary, Columbus and Culkin reflect on the spontaneous choice to keep Kevin's hands on his face as he screams. They reasoned that it seemed like something a kid would do. The crew filmed two different versions of the scene, one in which Kevin talks to himself about his day and another in which he lip-syncs to the song "White Christmas." They liked the variations so much that both are in the final cut at different moments.

Culkin noted that he filmed a new take on this scene for "Home Alone 2: Lost In New York" that featured Kevin shaving with an electric razor. The scene didn't make the final cut, making it just about the only gag from the first movie that doesn't have a callback in the second film.

The director got the job thanks to a different Christmas classic

"Home Alone" debuted in 1990, just one year after "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." Writer/producer John Hughes was the brain behind both productions, and initially hired Chris Columbus to direct "Christmas Vacation." Once things got rolling, though, the necessary chemistry between the director and the lead actor, Chevy Chase, just wasn't there.

Columbus recalled his brief leadership of the film to "The Movies That Made Us," using some choice language in describing Chase's narcissistic personality. "It was a horrible experience," Columbus said, "and I had to get out of it." After Columbus departed, Jeremiah S. Checkik replaced him as the director of "Christmas Vacation."

Hughes kept Columbus in mind, though, for another Christmas-themed project he had on the horizon. Enter "Home Alone." Hughes sent Columbus the first draft of the script, Columbus loved it and added in a layer of family-driven heart, Hughes tweaked a few things again, and a classic was born.

Home Alone had staying power

"Home Alone" debuted in theaters on November 16, 1990, and proceeded to dominate the box-office as the top spot for an astonishing 12 weekends in a row. This means it achieved the impressive feat of not only attracting audiences during the holiday season, but maintained its lead well after the holidays were over. The Los Angeles Times reported in February 1991 that "Sleeping With the Enemy," a thriller starring Julia Roberts, finally dethroned "Home Alone" as the weekend's number-one film after nearly three months as champion.

Not everyone agreed that "Home Alone" was a winner, though. Critics at the time weren't too kind in their appraisals of the movie. Roger Ebert said, "The plot is so implausible that it makes it hard for us to really care about the plight of the kid." The Washington Post called the movie "too crass, too loud, and too violent to be added blithely to Christmas viewing traditions." Not that it mattered, though. The consistently stellar box-office numbers — not to mention the beloved place the film has come to have in popular culture over three decades later — speaks for itself.

Waiting for the perfect shot

Filmmakers utilize moviemaking magic when the weather doesn't cooperate with the desired look for a planned scene. Need it to be raining and it's sunny? Build a rig to create artificial rainfall. Looking too overcast for the optimistic mood the scene should evoke? Structure your lighting in a way that adds sunshine to the space. These substitutes aren't always as satisfying as the forces of nature they're meant to recreate, but they can get pretty darn close!

But for one particular scene in "Home Alone," the crew knew they couldn't fake it. In Netflix's "The Movies That Made Us," the "Home Alone" filmmakers shared that they wanted Kevin to wake up on December 25 to a white Christmas morning to reunite with his family as snow fell outside. What could be more magical than that? Nothing! The crew realized makeshift snowfall wouldn't hold a candle to the real thing.

How do you plan for such an uncontrollable requirement while balancing a regimented production schedule? You plan for the unplanned. Production for "Home Alone" began in Chicago during the winter of 1990, so the crew knew if the forecast predicted heavy snow, they had to drop everything and prepare to shoot the finale sequence. Thankfully, they got lucky and filmed the snowfall scene on the second day of the shoot.

Macaulay Culkin revisited Kevin in 2018

"Home Alone" and "Home Alone 2: Lost In New York" are the only times Macaulay Culkin played Kevin McCallister within the decades-long film franchise. However, in 2018, he unconventionally reprised his signature role in a commercial for Google Assistant.

Seemingly back in Kevin's home as an adult, Culkin inquires, "Hey, Google, what's on my calendar today?" The smart-device replies, "You have one event called 'house to yourself.'" Culkin then recreates many of his famous scenes from "Home Alone." But this time, he interacts with his Google devices as he does so. After running out of aftershave, he adds it to his virtual shopping list. While jumping on the bed, he asks Google to remind him to clean the sheets later. He even automates the illusion of the fake party happening in his living room — and in doing so, finally gets to enjoy his "highly nutritious, microwavable macaroni and cheese" that Kevin never had time to eat in the movie.

A follow-up commercial shows Joe Pesci (seemingly playing himself) watching the Culkin commercial and providing commentary. The ad includes an archival clip of Pesci as Harry. "I nailed it," Pesci remarks watching the clip. "I did. I nailed it."