A Poem for My Sister (on her heavenly birthday): Born on the day Mary Pickford died But there was never anything silent About you. - Heather Babcock
Before There Was Hudson & Rex, There Was Duncan & Rinty
For almost fourteen years, I lived without television. It was less out of any kind of wannabe-intellectual snobbery and more due to the fact that when I moved into my first apartment, I just never got around to getting a TV hooked up. After my second move, it no longer seemed necessary; I’d already gotten along well without one and besides, I reasoned, I had probably already had my fill of “the boob tube” as a kid: in an attempt to escape drama at home and bullies at school, I crawled into the TV set as a child and stayed there, preferring the scripted scenarios and happy endings to a confusing and unhappy reality.
My TV-abstinence ended on Christmas of 2020 when my partner, Neil, gifted me with a digital antenna. Due to the location of my apartment unit, I’m only able to pick up a handful of channels: a few stations from Buffalo, sometimes PBS and TVO and usually CITYTV. In other words…
“There’s nothing on except Hudson & Rex!”
This was my lament during those early days of winter Covid-lockdowns, referring to Citytv’s homegrown show about two handsome detectives (one of whom happens to be a German shepherd). It hurts to admit it now, but at first I approached Hudson & Rex with a cynical eye (Canadians tend to be skeptical about our own talent). It wasn’t long however before I was admonishing Neil not to change the channel:
“I want to see Rex jump!”
“He always jumps!”, Neil responded.
“And it’s always awesome!” I replied.
Rex does more than just take the bad guys down in slo-mo. In addition to sniffing out clues and solving crimes, he also comes to the aid of victims and the bereaved: carrying boxes of tissues and offering cuddles of comfort. One of my favorite moments happens in a recent episode in which the team finds out that a physiotherapist, whose murder they are attempting to solve, was also a sexual predator. Rex senses that Sarah, the team’s Chief of Forensics, is triggered by this news and he’s instantly at her side. “Our big furry empathy bomb,” Sarah calls him affectionately. This is why I love the show: as someone who struggles with PTSD, Rex is a comfort to me too.
“The dog embodies a rich, mythic sort of heroism, an empathy that is broader and deeper and more pure than what an ordinary human would be capable of,” author Susan Orlean writes in Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. My love of Hudson & Rex inspired me to pick up Orlean’s impeccably researched and immensely entertaining book, thus taking a deep dive into the history of dogs in movies and television.
The first movie to star a dog was the 1905 British smash hit Rescued by Rover, an early narrative film about a collie who saves a kidnapped baby. The movie was so popular that the name “Rover” (which was not a typical dog’s name prior to the film), became synonymous with “dog”. Studios quickly realized that movies with dogs “fetched” big bucks at the box office: there was collie superstar Jean the Vitagraph Dog and then Strongheart, the German shepherd with the sad, beautiful eyes who had a dog food named after him; Charlie Chaplin got a doggy sidekick and so did Harold Lloyd. Pete the Pup joined Our Gang in 1927 and even badass George Bancroft had a canine companion in the 1929 gangster movie Thunderbolt. One of my favorite on-screen dogs from the silent era is in the Nell Shipman Canadian adventure film Back to God’s Country (1919): a Great Dane named “Wapi the Killer”; an abused dog who is described by the title cards as “an alien without friends, hating the men who understand nothing of the magic of kindness and love, but whose law is the law of the whip and the club.” Only after he is rescued from these brutes by Shipman’s heroine does Wapi experience “a new miracle of understanding roused by the touch of a woman’s hand.” In Back to God’s Country, dog and woman rescue one another, thus fulfilling their shared dream of freedom.
In her book, Susan Orlean interestingly connects our affection for animals with the rise of industrialization:
“The invention of cinema came at the moment when animals were starting to recede from a central role in human civilization; from that moment forward, they began to be sentimental — a soft memento of another time, consolation for the cost of modernity.”Susan Orlean, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend
But of all the canine cinema superstars of the silent era, not one was more beloved, influential or enduring than Rin Tin Tin.Continue reading “Before There Was Hudson & Rex, There Was Duncan & Rinty”
Yesterday’s Treasure Box
“April is the cruelest month,” T.S. Eliot wrote and I would add “most fickle” and “untrustworthy” too. A month that tends to make more promises than it keeps.
My father died on April 10th, thirteen years ago. The day before, I had been comfortably wearing a light, pink spring jacket. But it began to snow the morning my father died. Waiting outside for the bus to take me to the hospital, I shivered in my thin clothing. I had not expected the cold. I was unprepared.
Grief tends to take the form of the one we are grieving. Therefore the grief I experienced in the wake of my dad’s death was quiet, pensive and even comforting; like the man himself. And giving. Thirteen years gone and he still gives to me: like this musical box of his that my mother gifted me with last summer. A box that plays the tune to the Beatles’ “Yesterday” when it is wound. A box that contains nothing more than a couple of old pennies, a cat’s veterinary card from 1983, my grade two class photo, an old watch and a badge from his Navy uniform.
A reminder that we never truly lose the ones we love.
Thunderbolt (1929): The Good, the Bad and the Cuddly
When you think of a Prohibition-era gangster, what image immediately comes to mind? Is it Al Capone and the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre? Is it John Dillinger being shot to death by federal agents outside the Biograph Theater? Or is it Edward G. Robinson, a cigar anchored between his lips, imploring us to “Be Somebody!”; is it James Cagney shooting his words out quicker than bullets from a Tommy gun?
For me it’s Robinson and Cagney, in Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931) respectively, who best embody the slick anti-hero in all of his brutal brilliance, better even than the real-life gangsters themselves.
But before Cagney and Robinson shook up the game, there was a different kind of on-screen gangster.
And he was mighty cuddly.
In Thunderbolt (1929), George Bancroft plays Thunderbolt Jim Lang, a gangster sentenced to death, who bides his time in prison by plotting revenge on the bank teller (Richard Arlen) who stole his moll (Fay Wray). If this sounds gritty, it isn’t – the intensely likable Bancroft is a cross between James Cagney and Oliver Hardy and the hijinks he gets up to in Thunderbolt have more in common with the latter’s comedy shorts with Stan Laurel than they do with The Public Enemy. In the New York Times’ 1929 review of the film, writer Mordaunt Hall describes Thunderbolt as “a musical comedy plot striving to masquerade as a drama.” But it isn’t the film’s plot that makes it interesting but rather when it was made: during Hollywood’s turbulent transition from silent movies to “talkies” (sound films), a period which has been well documented in films such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and most recently in Babylon (2022).Continue reading “Thunderbolt (1929): The Good, the Bad and the Cuddly”
Joan Ambition: Crawford in the Words of Her Contemporaries
During Hollywood’s classic age, the MGM studio boasted that it had “more stars than there are in Heaven.” Even so, not one of their stars shone brighter – or harder – than Joan Crawford.
Just like Sadie Thompson, the character she expertly portrays in the drama Rain (1932), Joan Crawford was both passionate and fearless. Fiercely independent, unapologetically ambitious and proudly bisexual, Joan challenged society’s expectations of ideal womanhood. The more of her work that I discover, the more that I come to admire her.
Born Lucille Fay LeSuer (her name was changed by MGM publicity head Pete Smith for obvious reasons), Joan Crawford was – no doubt about it – gorgeous, yet her perfect bone structure is not what I think of when I think of Joan; rather it is her strength and inexhaustible career drive which first come to mind. Still, her beauty was so intoxicating that in the 1927 Tod Browning film The Unknown, in which Joan plays a carnival worker who is terrified of being touched by a man, it’s totally believable that Lon Chaney amputates both of his arms in the hopes of scoring a chance with her.
“Crawford was weaned on abuse and rejection,” Mick LaSalle writes in his excellent book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. “Two daddies deserted the family before she was ten. While still a child, she cleaned toilets in a boarding school for girls and was disciplined with a broom handle.”
Joan’s career spanned five decades and five important periods of film history: silent movies, the Pre-Code era, the Code era (aka “classic Hollywood” or “Hollywood’s Golden Age”), television and finally, the so-called “hagsploitation” and B-movies of the 1960s.
Of them all, her silent movie period is my favorite, probably because these films seem to exist in an impenetrable bubble, safe from the slings and arrows of Mommie Dearest. Yet even in the B-movies that she starred in at the end of her long career – films that she later admitted she knew were mostly terrible – Joan always gave it her all, never once phoning it in; as if she still had something to prove. Perhaps she had never really left Lucille behind.
The following quotes about Joan, from some of her contemporaries, reveal the complexities of a woman whose legacy is as complicated as her star power is enduring.Continue reading “Joan Ambition: Crawford in the Words of Her Contemporaries”
Gremlins (1984): A Modern Christmas Classic
Editor’s Note: Although “Meet Me at the Soda Fountain” tends to focus on films from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, I do sometimes let a film from the later part of the 20th century slide through – hey, if TCM can do it, so can I! 😉
Gremlins (1984) will always hold a special place in my heart: it’s the first film that I ever saw in a movie theater. My parents took my sister and I to see it at the old Cineplex Eaton Centre when we were kids. At ages four and six respectively, we were so young that our sneakers barely touched the sticky floors and when Spike (the leader of the Gremlins) leapt out of a Christmas tree, my sister literally jumped out of her seat.
“That’s it!” my father exclaimed. “We’re going home!”
I feigned annoyance at my sister for causing me to miss the rest of the movie but the truth was that I was petrified of the “little green monsters” too. For at least the next five years, I would sleep with the covers pulled tightly over my head so that “the gremlins couldn’t get me”. (And to this day the Johnny Mathis Christmas song Do You Hear What I Hear? fills me with unspeakable terror).
“I thought it was supposed to be a kid’s movie,” my dad grumbled on the drive home. Well, Gremlins is kind of a kid’s movie and it also kind of isn’t. The film tells the tale of Billy (Zach Galligan), a wide-eyed teenager whose father gifts him with a mysterious (and adorable) pet for Christmas. The creature is a “Mogwai” (Billy’s father names him Gizmo) and he comes with three rules:
1. No bright lights, especially sunlight as it can kill him.
2. Keep him away from water: don’t get him wet.
3. Don’t feed him after midnight. *
Needless to say, the good-intentioned but slightly clueless Billy breaks all three rules and before you can say “holy night”, hordes of little green monsters, with a penchant for junk food and wreaking havoc on electronics, have descended upon the sleepy town of Kingston Falls on Christmas Eve.
Gremlins is one of those rare instances where contrasting (even conflicting) ingredients work together to create a compelling and satisfying treat: it is both a horror movie and a comedy. Its biting social satire works in spite of the fact that the movie contains a ridiculous amount of product placement (“Milk Duds…”) and was released on the heels of a huge merchandising campaign that included Gizmo dolls and Gremlins’ gummy bears (hence why my dad expected a warm and fuzzy kid’s flick).
The film has also proven itself to be prescient. Some of the characters in Kingston Falls express a fear of machines and redevelopment – today those fears are being actualized in self-checkout machines, automation and job loss and lack of affordable housing. Then there’s the very real horror of the disastrous effect that all of that post-World War II consumerism has had on our environment. “With Mogwai comes much responsibility,” Mr. Wing (Keye Luke) admonishes near the end of the film, “But you didn’t listen. And you see what happens! You do with Mogwai what your society has done with all of nature’s gifts.”
The movie closes with Billy’s father (Hoyt Axton) warning the audience: “If your air conditioner goes on the fritz or your washing machine blows up or your video recorder conks out…before you call the repairman, turn on all the lights, check all the closets and cupboards, look under all the beds. Because ya never can tell – there just might be a gremlin in your house.”
Gremlins manages to be both a critique and a celebration of consumerism. Making it the perfect modern Christmas movie.
*If you can’t feed the Mogwai after midnight, when can you start feeding him? At dawn? At noon? Does anyone know? I annoy my partner every Christmas with this burning question.
Celebrating “Dangerous Dames” at the 29th Vintage Film Festival
On Sunday, October 23rd, I had the pleasure and honor of being the speaker at the 29th Vintage Film Festival’s Brown Bag Lunch Seminar. I spoke on the topic of “Dangerous Dames: Celebrating the Women of Pre-Code Gangster Movies”. My partner and I arrived in beautiful Port Hope on the Friday evening of the Festival so that we could take in some of the great classic films that the Festival had to offer. Trust me, you haven’t seen Frankenstein (1931) until you’ve watched it under the twinkling “stars” of the magnificent Capitol Theatre!
Below, I have posted a condensed and edited version of my speech. I want to thank Rick Hill, Rick Miller, the Marie Dressler Foundation and the Vintage Film Festival Committee for having given me this wonderful opportunity!Continue reading “Celebrating “Dangerous Dames” at the 29th Vintage Film Festival”
Hello, is it Jean you’re looking for?
My partner and I are looking forward to attending the 29th Vintage Film Festival at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope. The Festival runs from Friday, October 21st – Sunday, October 23rd. I am honored to have been asked to be the speaker at the Festival’s Brown Bag Lunch seminar on the Sunday. I will be speaking on the topic of “Dangerous Dames: the Women of Pre-Code Gangster Movies”.
As such, I thought it was a good time to reshare an essay that I wrote a couple of years ago about one of my favorite “dames”, Jean Harlow. The essay, Jean Harlow: My Kind of Dame, was published in 2020 on the Inanna Publications’ blog. You can read it here.
One of the topics that I will be discussing during my talk is the importance of Harlow’s casting in the influential Pre-Code gangster movie The Public Enemy (1931).
Hope to see you at the Festival!
Summer’s Not Over: Buy a Book.
Summer’s not over and neither is Inanna Publications summer book sale! If you’re looking for a summer read that is both sassy and saucy, may I suggest my novel Filthy Sugar, historical fiction set in a 1930’s burlesque house? And hey, once you’re done with the read you can always brush up on your 1930’s slang – there’s a glossary in the back! 😀
From now until September 3rd, use coupon code summer22 at checkout to get 25% off! (Good for BOTH paperbacks and e-books – swell!).
THAT GIRL (Inspired by the 1942 movie Cat People)
Flash Fiction by Heather Babcock, 2022
Even before they found the body, we talked about that girl.
“She looks like a cat,” my husband said, the day that Lola arrived in Gaslight Gables.
He had said it casually, almost dismissively, like the way you’d say “the sun’s come out” or “it’s gone cold outside.” But Lola did look like a cat, with her yellow hair, moon shaped eyes and sharp little teeth. And the way she moved! It was as though her body didn’t really belong to her, like it was just some exotic, fantastically shaped instrument hanging from her neck.
Lola liked to stare – she was always staring at everyone around her and if you smiled at her she’d never smile back, she’d just keep staring. I did see her smile once, only once, and I’d swear to you that when she did, razor blades fell out of her mouth.
On the day that the body was discovered, we clapped our hands to our cheeks like that kid from Home Alone and arranged our faces into Edvard Munch masks of horror.
“Shocking!” we cried, stuffing our fists into our mouths to keep from laughing. “It’s all so shocking!”
And long after the body had gone cold and the reporters went away, we still talked about Lola.
We talked about that girl until the blood dripped down our chins.
(This flash fiction was inspired by one of my favorite movies, Cat People (1942). I may eventually turn this into something longer…a novella perhaps.)