Marv (Daniel Stern) delivering the iconic line in Home Alone (Christopher Columbus, 20th Century Fox, 1990)
Marv (Daniel Stern) delivering the iconic line in Home Alone (Christopher Columbus, 20th Century Fox, 1990)
Stories & Ideas

Sun 01 Nov 2020

Home Alone – "Why the hell’re you dressed like a chicken?"

Edit Line Film Pop culture
Matt Millikan
Matt Millikan

Senior Writer & Editor

This short, comedic moment joins the ranks of the best ad-libbed lines in movies.

Just over 30 years ago, Kevin McCallister (Macauly Culkin) got left behind but learned independence, compassion and the importance of family while defending his home from the Wet Bandits. Aided by a charming lead performance from Culkin, John Williams’ iconic score, sadistic fun and life lessons wrapped up in memorable dialogue from writer John Hughes, Christopher Columbus’ Home Alone is one of the best Christmas movies ever made. It’s certainly one of the most successful, earning $476.7m USD to make it the highest selling live-action comedy for 21 years until The Hangover II knocked it off. While it may no longer hold that record, it’s held in the hearts of cinemagoers around the world.

For kids growing up at the time, Kevin was a perfect 90s hero – sarcastic, plucky and resourceful. He has to be, because he’s bullied by his siblings and dismissed by his parents. They literally abandon him when they jet off to Paris, though to be fair, during an argument with his mother (Catherine O’Hara) the night before, Kevin does wish that his family would disappear. Then they do.

At first, it’s all cheese pizzas, ice cream and brother Buzz’s nudie magazines – freedom from family, rules and responsibilities. But instead of teasing Kevin, someone should’ve told him to be careful what he wishes for. While he’s terrified of the furnace in the basement – imagining it a growling monster – prowling the streets outside are Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern), the Wet Bandits. Seizing on the vacation season, they rob the vacant houses in Kevin’s affluent, achingly white suburb, but Harry covets Kevin’s house – “the silver tuna” – above all else. Realising he’s in danger, and with no one to help, Kevin has to defend the house, which he does with ingenuity and an array of elaborate traps. From booby-trapped door handles and blowtorches to selectively placed Micromachines, nails and Christmas ornaments, Kevin turns domestic objects into sadistic inventions that would make Jigsaw from the Saw series proud.

After being scalped by a blowtorch, Harry breaks through the backdoor, baying for Kevin’s blood. Meanwhile, Harry has attempted entering through the basement, where he’s lost his shoes and found a nail on the stairs before being pummeled by a scorching iron for his troubles. Then he sees a conveniently open window, but there’s no solace for the soles of his feet waiting inside, just jagged Christmas ornaments carpeting the floor. After crunching his bare feet over the ornaments, he encounters Harry, who’s just been smothered in cling-wrap and covered in feathers. Seeing each other for the first time since their assault on the house began, the two are perplexed at each other's state.

“Why the hell’d you take your shoes off?" Harry demands.

"Why the hell’re you dressed like a chicken?" Marv asks back, flabbergasted.

It’s a short, comedic moment that alleviates the violence and offers the audience an exhalation disguised as a chuckle, along with a wink to the absurdity of the situation. Here they are, the Wet Bandits, two hardened criminals, being tarred and feathered by an eight-year-old boy. By coating Harry in feathers, Kevin also renders him farcical, the preposterousness of his appearance diminishing the fear Kevin has felt towards him the whole film. Instead of grinning menacingly with his shining gold tooth, Harry’s blowing feathers out of his mouth.

The line also seems to upend the dynamic between the Wet Bandits. Throughout the film, Harry has berated Marv for his idiotic behaviour, like leaving the taps on in houses they rob, and Marv is generally the sidekick, played for comic relief. In the chicken scene, the tables are finally turned, and Harry’s delivery of the “dressed like a chicken” line finally gives him the upper-hand on his partner – this time Marv is the idiot. While the delivery of the line suggests Marv has tables have turned, the idea doesn’t hold up longer than the beat lasts, as the audience realises that Harry, despite the torture he's experienced at Kevin’s hands, seems to think Marv has deliberately dressed up as a chicken. The exchange lasts about 10 seconds, and you might think it's John Hughes’ knack for dialogue that imbues it with so much memorable character insight and comedy – after all, he was the legend behind hits like The Breakfast Club (1985), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) and Pretty in Pink (1986) – but the line was improvised by Daniel Stern, joining the likes of "You talkin’ to me?" in Taxi Driver and Pesci’s “Funny how?” rant in GoodFellas as ad-libbed lines that’ve entered pop cultural consciousness.

Home Alone itself needs no help in that regard. Screenings are held during the festive seasons in cinemas across the world, it’s made lists on the best Christmas movies, had its enduring legacy contemplated, and been parodied in countless other properties (or remixed from them to make unofficial sequels that sometimes reimagine Kevin as the aggressor), as well as by fans around the world. It’s even been remixed and reimagined for the COVID-19 era. But it’s not just Christmas that Home Alone touches now, with Harry’s feathered costume a new Halloween costume hit.

– Matt Millikan

The Edit Line at ACMI (image credit: Gareth Sobey)

This essay was written for Edit Line

Create your own iconic film and TV moments in real time with Edit Line, an interactive experience in The Story of the Moving Image exhibition at ACMI.

Move physical blocks around to create a story from selected clips. Save your mini masterpiece with your Lens device and take it home with you.

You might also like