A Brief History is a recurring feature that offers a crash course on some sliver of music or film history. Today, our staff revisit the many films of John Hughes that sent us home for the holidays.
It’s now been a proper quarter-century since Home Alone turned the nightmare scenario of an abandoned child accosted by sinister thieving types into a heartwarming and off-kilter Christmas staple. One of the better reflections of writer John Hughes’ comic sensibilities, the film turned Macaulay Culkin into a superstar and a house full of Rube Goldberg death traps into so many children’s fanciful daydreams. It, along with fellow Hughes creation National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, ushered in a new era of less reverent, less Rockwellian visions of what the holiday season can and should be.
They’re also distinctly locational films, Hughes’ numerous holiday-minded productions. And with the anniversary here, and the holidays more or less upon us (if the overzealous local Target is any indication), we decided to take a quick road trip through some of the local, fake-local, and farther-flung locations traveled to, from, and through in just a few of the filmmaker’s classic movies for the colder, more festive time of year. Come along, and remember, keep your calm when you’re talking to the rental car guy.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
The Route: Hughes’ most expansive by far. Del Griffith (John Candy) and Neal Page (Steve Martin) start off in New York City, are shunted off to Wichita, KS, while attempting to return to Chicago’s O’Hare airport, and pass through St. Louis on their way upstate through Illinois.
The Sights: It’s a more scenic tour of Hughes’ beloved Midwest; anybody from Illinois can tell you how briefly diverting it is to pass through the state’s highways and see the many towns where bits of the film were shot. (There isn’t a lot to do on a car trip through middle-northern Illinois, to be fair.) Woodstock, Coal City, Gurnee, and a host of other towns see the belabored travelers through their quest to come home in time to eat Thanksgiving dinner with family. There’s also the LaSalle St. CTA stop, where their journey very nearly concludes. The spatial chronology is actually pretty faithful here, especially when put against a Hughes feature like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where the Sears Tower and Wrigley Field and Glencoe Beach are all seemingly within minutes of one another. And like most of Hughes’ films, it’s a north suburban mini-mansion that summons the weary travelers home.
The Trip: Of Hughes’ holiday movies, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is by far the most caustic, and probably the most honestly representative of one of the greater holiday taboos: the unbridled aggravation that comes from attempting to travel at a fraught time of year, particularly when it’s alongside someone who’s just insufferable. It’s even worse when they’re as wholeheartedly kind as Del, who just enjoys Neal’s company and has an overwhelming lack of perception of common social signals. (The film’s heartbreaking ending, when Neal finally sorts out exactly why Del so craves companionship, brings this all together as only a Hughes movie could.) It’s the rare odd couple comedy that never talks down to either of its protagonists, even when Del’s blissfully unaware obnoxiousness and Neal’s genuine cruelty make it easy to understand why you could come to despise one or both of these guys. Planes, Trains ends up imparting one of the more practical holiday movie lessons and one that’s genuinely useful in viewers’ day-to-day lives: be nice to people, because you never know what they’re going through. Especially at the holidays, which can be as lonely a time of year as any.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
The Route: Through the mystic coils of memory, back to a simpler time when the National Lampoon name really meant something. Or, alternately, through Chicago by way of California.
The Sights: It’s telling that when Hughes isn’t in the director’s chair (he wrote the screenplay, based on his previous short story “Christmas ’59”, itself an initial National Lampoon publication), the film gets to equivocate the slightest bit from Hughes’ longtime Chicago-minded stance. While locations like the Marshall Field’s (or Macy’s, but really, the Marshall Field’s) and the John Hancock building appear, most of the film’s locations can be found in the greater Los Angeles area. Even the famed Griswold homestead. You can’t help but feel the slightest bit cheated.
The Trip: Christmas Vacation is a much (much) looser production than many of Hughes’ scripts that he brought to life himself. Like the vast majority of the Lampoon films of the ’80s, it’s less a cohesive Christmas tale than a haphazard assemblage of setpieces around the central, Hughesian notion of the hard-working, middle American type attempting to make good even against the most insurmountable odds. It’s that charm that carries the film, along with Chevy Chase’s magnetic leading performance, a reminder of how and why, once upon a time, the man was the comedian to beat. The film at large is the kind of gimmick-heavy comedy so illustrative of the time in which it was made, but then sometimes holiday movies can ladle on the schmaltz to such a point where it starts to get too sweet. When that happens, just enjoy some Cousin Eddie instead.
Home Alone (1990)
The Route: Only written and not directed by Hughes, Home Alone still retains the Hughes spirit due to its primary setting of the Chicago suburbs. After eight-year-old wiseacre Kevin McAllister gets accidentally left behind by his family when they travel to Paris for Christmas, he views his three-story home as his own personal fortress, soon filled with horseplay, R-rated movies, and cheese pizzas just for him. All goes well until two burglars, who believe the house to be uninhabited for the holidays, try to take what’s his.
The Sights: Unlike its New York-bound sequel, Home Alone remains fairly insular since it takes place almost entirely in Kevin’s neighborhood of Winnetka, Illinois. You can view the house itself at 671 N. Lincoln Ave., with most of the other filming locations in neighboring suburbs: the green with the bandstand and pharmacy (now a Panera Bread) are both one stop north in Hubbard Woods, and the church where he watches the choir sing on Christmas Eve (and discovers Old Man Marley didn’t actually murder his family with a snow shovel) is in nearby Wilmette at 1024 W. Lake Ave. That’s just the exterior, however. Anyone who wants to see what the inside looks like has to venture to Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park, closer to Chicago.
Even the Paris scenes were shot stateside through a mix of stock footage and redressed sets. For example, the O’Hare International Airport, where we see the McAllisters rushing through in the beginning of the film (Terminal 3, to be exact), was also used as a substitute for Paris’ Orly Airport. That means you can go to pretty much every one of Home Alone’s locales — even the international ones — over a few hours in the greater Chicago area.
The Trip: Let’s face it, Home Alone’s central conflict sounds pretty dark when you describe it, and the Wet Bandits exhibit some truly threatening behavior. The fact that they spend the final third trying to harm — possibly kill — a little boy is bad enough, but Joe Pesci takes it one step further by attempting to bite off Kevin’s fingers(!) one by one at the climax. Luckily, he’s stopped by Old Man Marley, who up until right before then, was rumored to have chopped up his wife and kids and converted them into snow salt. Yeesh!
Despite these shady characters — rumored and otherwise — Home Alone has become a bona fide Christmas classic. This largely has to do with Culkin’s charisma, but also the locations mentioned above. Winnetka, Wilmette, and the rest of the villages exude the same Midwestern charm: all snow and walkable streets and windows draped with deep-green wreaths. It’s worth noting that a large part of Hughes’ childhood was spent in the very similar suburb of Northbrook, and although he didn’t direct Home Alone, it’s safe to say his script treatment and adolescent stomping ground had a huge influence on director Chris Columbus. That, combined with an embracement of yuletide traditions such as sledding, ice skating, and choir music, keep the film from coming off like Black Christmas (also an excellent holiday movie).
The Route: Dutch (Ed O’Neill) and Doyle (Ethan Embry) share a unique and painful bonding experience when Dutch, in an attempt to cheer up his new girlfriend (Doyle’s mother), volunteers to drive Doyle home to Chicago from his Georgia boarding school for Thanksgiving. That’s roughly 600 miles of time to relax, reflect, and get to know one another — that is if they don’t murder each other before they even leave Georgia. Think I’m exaggerating? Well, just keep in mind that Dutch gets buttonhooked in the face by a textbook, clobbered by a golf club, karate kicked in the chops and testicles, and shot twice by an air gun — and that’s before they leave Doyle’s dorm room. Happy trails, boys.
The Sights: At one point, Dutch turns to Doyle (who has just recently been unbound and de-gagged) and says, “These are the Cumberland Mountains. Beautiful, aren’t they?” Doyle looks out into the pitch black of night and rolls his eyes at just how little majesty can be made out. That sort of sums up the sightseeing prospects of Dutch. You won’t find many awe-inspiring glimpses of the American heartland — unless you count a blur of gas stations, a gross diner where the menus stick to your hands, or Dutch’s racy playing cards as must-see attractions. While director Peter Faiman stays true to the duo’s journey by filming in Georgia, Tennessee, and even Hughes’ favored Illinois suburbs, Dutch remains more focused on the trials of travel than the sights. In other words, it’s not about what you see out your car window, but who you’re strangling as you pass it.
The Trip: Don’t remember Dutch? (No, not that Dutch!) Don’t feel bad. We almost forgot it, too. The film undoubtedly reigns as the black sheep of Hughes’ “home for the holidays” fare. It’s pretty easy to trace its origins, too. It’s an odd-couple road-trip movie (see: Planes, Trains and Automobiles) paired with Hughes’ timeless spoiled-kid-beats-the-snot-out-of-adults motif (see: Home Alone). Fair enough, but a flick starring O’Neill (at the height of Al Bundy mania) and Embry (following in the Shaq-size sneakers of Macaulay Culkin) really stood no chance at becoming a holiday staple like other films featured here. Again, not unless seamy motels, wallet-pinching prostitutes, and kid-assaulting security guards are what you’re thankful for each Thanksgiving.
However, in retrospect, there’s a lot to admire about Dutch’s unorthodox take on the holidays. Sure, Doyle is spoiled rotten, but he also has legit problems: he’s coping with his parents’ divorce and has made the mistake of siding with his slimy, deadbeat, wealthy father (Christopher McDonald, sporting the sleaziest of mustaches) and pushes his mother away in the process. Enter father figure Dutch, just the right balance of genuinely good guy and childlike idiot that Doyle needs to break out of his world-hating funk. It’s a darker-than-expected film that actually feels like it earns its happy ending. No matter how much guff Dutch might get, there’s no denying the scene in which Doyle turns to Dutch and asks, “Does she [his mother] ever say that she thinks I hate her?” In that moment, the deflector shields go down, and we see not a spoiled punk but a scared little boy who needs a family — and, as we find out, a shot in the ass with an air gun.
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
The Route: Divergent. Kevin McAllister, that rambunctious, golden-tongued scamp, unwittingly flies to New York as his parents (John Heard and Catherine O’Hara) and extended family ship off to hot, not-so-sunshiny Florida.
The Sights: In Miami, buckets of rain drown the run-down Villa de Dolphine motel, where rusted boats pepper the parking lot and the Hawaiian shirt-clad McCallisters gather beneath gaudy pastel decor. Compare that to the ritzy, pristine vision of New York Kevin encounters. There, snow falls in fluffy flakes over regal brownstones adorned with crushed velvet red ribbons as Christmas tunes echo from every speaker.
Majesty, it shouldn’t need to be stated, is not in short supply, especially as we watch Kevin cruise over the Queensboro Bridge, explore Battery Park, and sneak into Carnegie Hall. More than just set dressing, New York’s signature sights play a major role in the action, with the Plaza Hotel serving as Kevin’s home base and Rockefeller Center functioning as the serendipitous meeting place of him and his mother. It’s enough to make your heart ache, honestly, watching Kevin see the best of these landmarks in such short order, but nothing stings more now than the scene where Kevin climbs to the top of the World Trade Center and admires a sweeter, simpler city.
The Trip: Home Alone 2 gets a bad rap. Sure, it’s basically a carbon copy of the original, and, yeah, it lacks the pathos the original gleaned from Roberts Blossom’s Old Man Marley. But there’s something so innocently magical and childlike about Kevin’s trip through Duncan’s toy chest, his first glimpse at the Plaza’s grandeur, or the simple image of a hot cheese pizza glowing against a snowy afternoon in the city. It’s in these sweet, early sections of the movie – before Kevin repeatedly tortures, scars, and tries to murder burglars Harry and Marv – that Home Alone 2 exudes that warmhearted whimsy that so often abandons us as we age out of the holidays.
Even more so, the Home Alone movies remind us of newness, what it felt like to experience things on our own for the first time. In the original film, Kevin saw his own house and the surrounding town through fresh eyes. In the sequel, he experiences the larger world, one of the largest cities on the planet, with no one to tell him where to go or what to do. That’s a fantasy in and of itself, even for adults, especially since, until the Sticky Bandits show up, we never once feel a sense of danger for Kevin. The city is as kind and innocent and magical to Kevin as we all wish it, and the holidays themselves, could be for us.