Mischief Gags in ‘Home Alone’

Tom Gunning’s ‘Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths: Mischief Gags and The Origins of American Film Comedy’ suggest that patterns in early mischief gag films can be scene throughout film history and can be applied to film today. According to Gunning, the pattern can be broken down in a ‘predatory action’ and ‘the result and effect of this preparatory stage’ [1]. He uses the example of L’Arroseur Arrosé to explain the concept of ‘the rascal’ and ‘the victim’; ‘The rascal undertakes the preparatory action, while the victim suffers its consequences’ [2].

Screenshot from ‘L’Arroseur Arrosé‘

This structure can be seen in a clip from Home Alone (Chris Columbus, Hughes Entertainment, 1990) [3] in which Kevin pranks a pizza delivery man. In this scene Kevin is the ‘youthful rascal’ and the pizza man is the ‘victim’. The predatory action is Kevin’s manipulation of the television audio to ‘converse’ with the delivery guy. The result and effect is the pizza guy thinking that the voice is attached to a real person and his subsequent exit from fright.

Although this scene captures a gag that provides a ‘quick payoff’, it‘s also part of a longer narrative, that is based on ‘comedy chase’ structure [4]. Unlike the early gag films that this scene harks back to, the characters in the scene are not restricted to the gag, they stem beyond the prank. Gunning explains that gags eventually became more complex than the original films but emphasises that ‘… a large number of them can be seen as elaborations of the schematic and approaches laid down by these early films’ [5].

Poster for ‘Home Alone’

The scene from Home Alone acts as an effective interruption amidst a greater narrative trajectory, and showcases how the film repurposes the structure of early mischief gag films into a more contemporary narrative structure.

Sources:

[1] Gunning, Tom. ‘Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths,’ Classical Hollywood Comedy, ed. Karin I and Jenkins (Los Angeles: AFI/Routledge, 1995), 90.

[2] Ibid, 90.

[3] https://youtu.be/pSnfkLsMagY

[4] Gunning, Classical Hollywood Comedy, 96.

[5] Ibid, 90.

2 comments

  1. Great connection to make, Kevin McAllister is a great modern day example of the young rascal archetype that Gunnings describes in his essay. It’s interesting to see that even a hundred years later our gags still follow roughly the same format as those from early film comedies.

  2. Perfect film to compare to Gunning’s arguments. Kevin McAllister actually offers the spectator something new as having the rascal as an actual child strengthens his misdemeanours. Although the pizza delivery is a brilliant scene, which highlights Gunning’s arguments, it could have been interesting to use an example of the violence Kevin uses upon the burglars as well.

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