Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry highlights what to watch if you like Home Alone.
Home Alone is a lot like Die Hard. Not just because it’s about an average person defending a place against would-be burglars. It’s also the kind of movie that seems so simple in its premise and execution but is actually a one-of-a-kind production so exceptional in its realization that it can never be completely replicated. No matter how many sequels attempt to recapture the magic or how many copycats and knock-offs attempt the same basic ideas, nothing ever comes close.
Of course, this movie — which was the number one box office hit of 1990, worldwide — wasn’t some oddity, either. No more than it was a fluke. While its exact success was the proper ingredients of John Hughes‘ script, Chris Columbus‘ direction, John Williams‘ score, Raja Gosnell‘s editing, and especially Macaulay Culkin‘s relatable performance, Home Alone is also a culmination of certain concepts and conventions passed down through generations of cinema.
Along with a few other more specific inspirations, that is. Below is not necessarily a list of movies that Home Alone fans will equally enjoy. This is a look at the film-historical ancestry of the holiday favorite along with little genetic ingredients pulled from various reference points. It may not represent every influence on Hughes and the rest in the making of the movie, though I think I did a good job pulling from the major components for a clearly defined lineage that birthed this family blockbuster.
A Straightforward Boy (1929)
Elements of Home Alone can be traced back to a famous short story by O. Henry called “The Ransom of Red Chief.” The plot involves kidnappers being overwhelmed by the little boy they’re holding hostage — to the point where the criminals are paying the kid’s father to take him back. Originally published in 1907, the story has been adapted directly many times, and it’s inspired even more unofficial copies. The earliest known film version appears to be an Edison production from 1911, which is unavailable.
Almost 20 years later, the Japanese filmmaker Yasujirô Ozu directed a short film based on Henry’s story, retitled A Straightforward Boy. Less than half of the film survives today, but what’s available is plenty: a pair of criminals kidnap a little boy, who turns out to be more trouble than he’s worth. Plus, he actually has fun with his captors, so it’s extra difficult to get rid of him in the end. In fact, other kids in the neighborhood wind up wanting to be “kidnapped” as well.
A Straightforward Boy is streaming on The Criterion Channel.
Bedtime Worries (1933)
When it comes to classic movies foregrounding kids as heroes, the Our Gang (or Little Rascals) series of short comedies can’t be dismissed. They’re often remembered as just silly live-action sketches, but they’ve inspired everything from copycats and cartoons to more realism-bound dramatic works (see The Florida Project). And it’s no wonder the 1990s brought a Little Rascals movie within the trend of kid-driven family films (including Richie Rich and Dennis the Menace) in the wake of Home Alone‘s success.
One Our Gang short in particular comes to mind when I think of the premise of Home Alone, and that’s Bedtime Worries. The 20-minute film follows the “Spanky” character during his first night sleeping alone in his own room. At first, he’s scared of non-threatening things like a moth, but ultimately he has to face a real burglar invading his home, and he foils the crook’s plan with the help of some of his pals. Adding to the Home Alone connection is a Christmas element: the burglar tells Spanky he’s Santa Claus.
Bedtime Worries is streaming on Pluto TV.
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Fun fact: the old-timey black and white gangster film seen in Home Alone was created for the movie. Everyone knows that, right? It’s a fake film titled “Angels with Filthy Souls,” but it’s so accurately created to look like it’s from the 1930s that it’s understandable many fans still don’t know the truth. The sequence made for Home Alone wasn’t modeled after any specific film but did evoke performances by actors of the period such as James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.
So, when it came to needing a name for the film-within-the-film — for a VHS tape prop — art director Dan Webster went with a parody of the Cagney and Bogart classic Angels with Dirty Faces. The plot of that movie is your typical gangster genre fare with Cagney playing a criminal whose childhood friend wound up on the other extreme side of the law, as a priest. Bogart plays a mob lawyer who owes Cagney’s character a huge sum of money and (spoiler alert) winds up gunned down. Reportedly, the Tommy gun prop used for the Home Alone bit was actually from a different Cagney movie, 1935’s G Men.
Invaders from Mars (1953)
One of the reasons Home Alone works so well is that it trusts in the relatability of a child’s perspective. Chris Columbus probably got that from working with Steven Spielberg, who probably got it from watching Invaders from Mars as a kid. The sci-fi classic follows an alien invasion from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy. He doesn’t wind up defending Earth with slapstick-inducing booby traps, but he does have to take things into his own hands at first, as he’s abandoned when his parents become brainwashed.
In 1986, Tobe Hooper remade Invaders from Mars as more of a horror film and with greater production value. Spielberg, his Poltergeist producer, was actually in talks to direct the project, having been a huge fan of the original (he would later remake another 1953 alien invasion movie: The War of the Worlds). Both versions capture the fear that kids have about being in great danger without their parents around to protect them, and that’s something they share in common with Home Alone.
Invaders from Mars is streaming free on Tubi and Pluto TV.
Sahara Hare (1955)
Many critics have compared the slapstick of Home Alone to Looney Tunes cartoons, but too many reference Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. That would only make sense if the Wet Bandits in Home Alone were the ones creating booby traps. Besides, Joe Pesci was actually inspired by another Looney Tunes character. As he says in an early ’90s CBC interview, it was his idea to have his character, Harry Lime, spout gibberish “cartoon cursing” like “a Yosemite Sam type.”
As it turns out, there’s also a perfect Yosemite Sam short to watch as a genetic precursor to Home Alone. Friz Freleng’s Sahara Hare takes place in the titular desert, where Bugs Bunny accidentally winds up on his way to Miami Beach (wrong turn at Albuquerque and whatnot). About halfway in, Bugs finds himself in a castle-like fort, which “Riff Raff Sam” stubbornly tries to storm only to continually be beaten by numerous slapstick methods, some of them set traps and others just his own buffoonery.
Sahara Hare is streaming on Dailymotion.
The Cat in the Hat (1971)
Speaking of Freleng, he was an executive producer on this animated adaptation of the iconic Dr. Seuss book of the same name. You might wonder why I recommend it instead of the earlier, more classic cartoon of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966). Well, that one literally makes an appearance in Home Alone, so it’s too obvious a choice. (The same goes for It’s a Wonderful Life, which definitely also has a thematic connection in addition to a direct diegetic link.)
But I do think that the earlier special and this one combined equal the main sentiments of Columbus’ hit comedy. You’ve got the villainous curmudgeonly burglar ruining families’ holidays in Grinch, and you’ve got kids left home alone comically dealing with an unwanted invader in The Cat in the Hat. But here it’s a fish who knows best, not the children. Perhaps when reviewers noted the Chuck Jones influence on Home Alone they unconsciously meant these two Seuss shorts rather than Looney Tunes.
The Cat in the Hat is streaming on Hulu.
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