From the early ‘80s to the mid ‘90s, John Hughes wrote about two dozen films, eight of which he also directed, but he never forgot his roots as a Chicagoan. In a 1986 interview included on the Planes, Trains and Automobiles Blu-ray, Hughes said, “All of my scripts begin with ‘Exterior—Chicago Suburb’ and go from there.” In 1994, Hughes abruptly left the movie business and moved to a farm outside Chicago, where he’d live out the rest of his days. It was a move that shocked Hollywood, given that Hughes was only a few years out from the massive success of Home Alone and still regularly wrote screenplays. No one could say why Hughes had suddenly chosen to become a stay-at-home family man, but the clues had been in his films all along. His trio of holiday movies — Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), Christmas Vacation (1989), and Home Alone (1990) — all had a central theme: home. In these three films, Hughes used the trappings and traditions of the Christmas holiday to make a case for the home as an idealized destination, a status symbol, and a personal fortress worth protecting.
The home was not always a desirable place in Hughes’ films, as his early works seemed to emphasize. In Mr. Mom (1983), being home is a full-time job for Michael Keaton’s beleaguered husband. In The Breakfast Club (1985), the titular five misfit teens create their own home, as their actual homes contain too much strife. The same is true for Molly Ringwald’s Andie in Pretty In Pink (1986), as the pain of loss still hovers over her house. A more pronounced rejection of home can be seen in the travels of the Griswolds in Vacation (1983) and European Vacation (1985), and in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), where staying home is drab and boring.
The holidays, however, are a time when being home becomes necessary, even desirable. No matter how you feel about your family, it’s hard to resist that pull to gather together, to see old faces and take stock of the year. Hughes, canny writer that he was, took that inherent desire to be “home for the holidays” and applied it to an Odysseus-like journey in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Hughes wasn’t just riffing on Greek myth; he was drawing on his own experience of attempting to fly to Chicago for Thanksgiving, being waylaid in Wichita, and taking five days to travel home from there. The idea of home as a place to finally be at rest and away from the stress of travel is instantly relatable, and the film exploits that to an insanely comic degree. But it also exaggerates Neal Page’s home to be a magical place where his cherubic children excitedly anticipate his arrival and his beautiful wife patiently waits for him. It’s the vision that keeps Neal (Steve Martin) going through all the turmoil that Del Griffith (John Candy) puts him through, and it’s the heartwarming, welcoming reality that Neal offers Del when he discovers Del has no similar destination to go to. Essentially, home is a reward for the two weary travelers, a place where they’ll be accepted with open arms, no matter if their watch is a Rolex or a Casio.
The Christmas holiday is rife with traditions. There is often an element of selfishness with these traditions (the phrase “it’s not Christmas without ___” is a sign of this), and that selfishness can turn into competitiveness, a condition that particularly afflicts Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) in Christmas Vacation. It’s significant that Christmas is the only Vacation movie in which the Griswold family doesn’t travel anywhere (save the brief opening prologue to procure the perfect Christmas tree in the wilderness), emphasizing the attractiveness of being home for this particular vacation. Home is certainly preferable to work, as Clark’s boss barely recognizes him, let alone remembers his name. His competitive nature wasted at his job, the “ultimate family man” goes into overdrive, allowing nearly every relative he has into his home for the month and turning his suburban Chicago house into a blindingly bright Christmas light show. Hughes, through Clark, presents the ultimate “fun old-fashioned family Christmas” where traditions both desirable (the family reading of “’Twas The Night Before Christmas”) and exaggeratedly undesirable (the Christmas tree literally exploding) occur. The home is never less than perfect even as it gradually gets torn apart, and at the end still resembles an eternally shining Christmas tree ornament, emphasizing the desirability of a stay-at-home Christmas vacation, warts and all.
For his most financially successful holiday screenplay, Home Alone, Hughes capitalized not only on the desire to be with family during the holidays but also the desire to be as far away from those jerks as possible. Combined with the childhood fantasy of having the entire house to yourself and getting to do anything you want, Home Alone was a delicious cheese pizza of wish fulfillment. The third-act twist, then, in which Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern’s burglars attempt to invade the house and capture Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), turns the McCallister house from a giant playground into a fortress worthy of protection. Kevin draws up a “battle plan,” uses Christmas ornaments as weapons, and outsmarts the bandits at every turn, all in the name of preserving the home. The structure of Home Alone shows Kevin the value of all that he has and all that he thinks he’s lost and makes him fight for it, with the home representing both aspects. Through this, the desire to be with family for Christmas and bury old grudges (as well as any possible evidence of a break-in) is exemplified.
Hughes blends a reverence for holiday gatherings and traditions with relatable characters and gags, and that successful blend allows his holiday movies to endure 30 or so years later. It’s easy to overlook the fact that the bulk of his protagonists are well-to-do, upper class heterosexual white people, simply because the films reinforce feelings many people have during the holidays while still entertaining in a hilariously delightful way. We want Neal and Del to get home immediately because we want to be home as soon as possible; we want Clark to get his bonus for a pool because we all have a gift we want (or wanted) that badly; we want Kevin to stop the burglars because our family may be a handful, but deep down, we love them. Hughes makes a case in these films for the comfort of home, and it’s a good enough argument to make his sudden retreat from Hollywood seem not so crazy after all.
Bill Bria‘s home is in New York City.