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The story of Kevin McCallister is one of the most well-known in cinema history, his escapades while home alone making for one of the most successful movies of all time. While there’s a lot of context hidden beneath the simple premise, for this posts, let’s take a closer look at one of the more important but overlooked characters of the film, that of Old Man Marley. He could seem like an easy read, but there’s much more to this mysterious neighbor than meets the eye. In fact, let’s make a case for why Marley and Kevin are more connected than we might think.
Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom) is a quiet man who spends his winter evenings spreading salt on the icy sidewalks up and down the street where he lives in suburban Chicago. He does this with a large metal trash can filled with salt crystals that he drags along behind him with a nefarious screech, using an old, broad snow shovel to disperse the salt. The McCallister Family live right next door and from the second floor window, a few of the kids, including Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), his cousin, and his big brother Buzz (Devin Ratray) are watching. Buzz spins a story of how Old Man Marley, back in 1958, murdered his family using a shovel. He’s now known as the South Bend Shovel Slayer and uses the garbage can of salt as a place to hide his victims, turning them to mummies. Buzz uses this legend, whether he believes it or not, to scare his little brother and cousin, which, after the family accidentally leaves Kevin behind when they fly to Paris for Christmas, becomes one of the many hurdles the little boy has to overcome in order to make it on his own.
Kevin is frightened by the story, as any little kid would be, punctuated by seeing the old man working the sidewalk with his scary can and shovel. The next day however, Kevin’s got other things on his mind. When realizing he’s alone in the house, he is initially happy and ventures out into the world to buy supplies. At a drug store trying to find a toothbrush (that is recommended by the American Dental Association), he is interrupted by Old Man Marley himself who has cut his hand and buying Band-aids. This terrifies Kevin and he runs off, accidentally stealing the toothbrush.
A bit later, Kevin is feeling lonesome and regretful of his behavior towards his family, thinking it is the reason why they left him behind. After seeing a loving family through a window as they celebrate together, he mournfully heads to a church, lured by the angelic voices of a young choir. He takes a seat in the near empty cathedral and listens to the singing as they practice for the evening’s performance. Across the aisle is Old Man Marley himself, who spots the boy and decides to say hello. His first words, with a warm smile, are, “Merry Christmas,” and it surprises Kevin. Marley sits down beside the child and they talk about who is he and why he’s here. He assures Kevin that the rumors are untrue and that it’s okay to say hello when they meet. Kevin tells his new friend that he has been a bad person this year and wishes he hadn’t been.
Then Marley confesses that he feels bad about something he did, too. And it’s not murder. Years before, he had an argument with his grown son and the two stopped talking to each other. Now he can’t spend time with his granddaughter (who is singing in the choir) and it makes him sad, but he’s too afraid to call his son and make amends. Little Kevin listens and then tells a story about how the basement used to scare him with its darkness and funny smells, but he got over and now it doesn’t scare him at all. He uses this story as a metaphor to encourage Marley to contact his family and get past his fear. Marley also affects Kevin, reminding him how family is important and that even if you don’t like them for a bit, they are still yours and they will always love you.
Roberts Blossom built a reputation in films portraying quirky characters, from a UFO-contacted farmer in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) to the cantankerous old judge in Doc Hollywood (1991) to that jarring scene in Escape from Alcatraz (1979) when, as an inmate, his painting privileges are taken away and he does something rather drastic. He is well-cast in Home Alone, setting exactly the right tone as a mysterious, possibly dangerous man in the neighborhood and yet he represents far more than he initially might suggest.
His weathered face and scraggly beard gave him a kind of ghoulish appearance and his long, dark overcoat and unbuckled boots leave him looking like a deranged man. Of course, we as the audience know better, and his revelation is never really surprising, but that is not the intent. Let’s start with that name, Marley. It is derived from Dickens’ classic classic novella, A Christmas Carol. In that famous tale, Marley is the first ghost Ebenezer Scrooge encounters, his former business partner who is forever cursed to walk Earth in chains, symbols of his life living in greed. Marley the ghost visits Scrooge to warn him of the dangers of his current path, and that he will be visited up on by three others in the night.
Like his ghostly counterpart, Old Man Marley serves to help propel the protagonist along his journey. He is an old man, ghost-like to Kevin, wandering Earth, weighted by years of regret, his salt-filled garbage can and shovel, the chains he literally drags along with him. And what can Kevin see and learn from Marley? He is in fact, a reflection of himself decades in the future, a man with no family, bitter and too afraid to fix what he has broken. Marley is Kevin. Keeping with the Dickens theme, he is a ghost of Christmas future, forecasting a time that Kevin will experience if he doesn’t let go of his habits now. And it’s not too late to change.
The things to remember here are the interactions. Kevin is introduced to Marley via his big brother, though a window, being told the urban legend of the man and how he killed his family. Once Kevin learns who he supposedly is, on cue, Marley looks up and makes eye contact with Kevin, and the manner is which he does, with a knowing, judgmental eye clues us to the idea that Marley is in fact, a foreshadowing of the boy.
Kevin is selfishly unhappy with his own family, and when he is sent upstairs for the night by his mother (Catherine O’Hara), he tells her he doesn’t want to see her ever again and more, that he never wants to see his family again for the rest of his life. This is of course the “curse” Kevin casts upon himself and triggers the coming spin, where he kind of does lose his family. We learn later than Marley said some bad things to his family as well, and now lives in isolation.
Let’s consider the sidewalk as well, the ones Marley spends his eternity salting. At one point, while Kevin is alone, he is returning from the market with two bags of groceries. They both burst for seemingly no reason as he walks along care-free and content. The scene feels like just a site gag for a laugh, but in fact, further signals us that he is on a path of ruin, and even if he feels good right now, there is a mess in his life he needs to fix.
He is also on this same sidewalk when he has first face-to-face encounter with the Wet Bandits, who themselves are challenges he must overcome, ironically with the help of Marley in their last meeting before the arc is complete and a new direction is followed.
The moment at the church is the bisection of these parallel lives, when old meets new, and by looking ahead and reflecting back, each learns from the other how to reset their lives. Marley is one of the best parts of Home Alone and one reason the film remains so popular. While the connection to family is the heart of the story, it is the line drawn between a boy and an old man that remains the most fascinating and telling elements of this story of redemption.