Last week, my partner and I visited beautiful Niagara Falls. Staying over for four nights, we had the opportunity to go exploring past the tourist hotspots and discovered that there are indeed many forgotten treasures to be found beyond the Horseshoe.
Unlike Toronto which, to rephrase Joni Mitchell, paved paradise to put up a condo lot, Niagara Falls has held on to its many interesting historical buildings, such as the vacant Toronto Power Generating System, which despite its name is located along the Niagara River. Built in 1906, the plant shut down operations in 1974 but the impressive, Beaux-Arts style building still stands. We also spotted an iron scow, above the Falls, that has been there since 1918 after a historic rescue.
It was the abandoned Inn on the Niagara Parkway Motel however, which captivated my interest and imagination the most. We spotted this Hitchcock-ian relic on our drive home and I insisted on stopping to take some photos.
Perhaps due to its mouthful of a name (is it an Inn or a Motel? Pick one!), there is frustratingly little information to be found online. The sign and building look to my untrained eyes to be from the 1950s or 1960s and according to AbandonedCanada.com, it seems to have been closed for sometime. In April of 2019, there was a fire at the abandoned inn but I can’t seem to find the cause of it.
Once a quiet and cozy get-away for Niagara sightseers, the Inn on the Niagara Parkway Motel is now a hideaway for tired ghosts.
I recently wrote a blog post for my fabulous publisher Inanna Publications, on why I feel that Jean Harlow is an important feminist icon. Check it out here
I have been a huge fan of TOpoet for a long time now and I am so honored by this lovely and thoughtful review of Filthy Sugar. Please check out the wonderful and insightful blog TOpoet.ca for books & music reviews, poetry, photography and the serialization of TOpoet’s novel Picture Perfect.
Heather Babcock’s Filthy Sugar is a noir window into a Wanda Wiggle’s life in the 30s – the writing is rich in hard-boiled dialogue, descriptions & situations. Set in the Toronto sex-trade of the time it is refreshingly non-judgemental, funny & at times sexy. Wanda does sort of wander through what we se of her […]Dames – Wiggles and Bates — TOpoet
August 31st will mark 124 years since the first “moving picture” was shown in Toronto. This fateful event took place at Robertson’s Musee, a venue located at the corner of Yonge and Adelaide Street East. Robertson’s Musee sounds like it was a pretty lively place: a circus, wax museum, zoo and curio shop all-in-one. The moving pictures, a brand new attraction, were projected by a Vitascope.
I learned this fact from reading Doug Taylor’s fascinating book Toronto Theatres and the Golden Age of the Silver Screen (The History Press, 2014). Full of interesting tidbits – did you know that the Cineplex Odeon Eaton Centre was the first movie theatre to offer buttered popcorn? – and gorgeous b&w photos of Toronto’s long forgotten movie palaces, Taylor’s book is a must for any Toronto film buff. Also enjoyable are Taylor’s own recollections of his movie-going experiences as a child and a teenager in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Reading Taylor’s book in 2020 is a rather bittersweet experience. When Toronto Theatres was published in 2014, many of Toronto’s movie houses were already nothing more than a memory, due in part to Netflix and other streaming and downloading services . Today, the few theatres that have survived are, thanks to Covid-19, in grave danger of becoming extinct.
Taylor’s book has brought back movie-going memories of my own. The first film that I ever saw in a theatre was Gremlins (1984) at the Cineplex Eaton Centre. My sister had been so frightened by the scene where Spike (the leader of the Gremlins) leaps out of a Christmas tree that she jumped sky high out of her seat. “That’s it!” my exasperated 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.
Another cherished movie memory was seeing Jurassic Park at the Sherway Cineplex in 1993. If you were born after 1995, you probably won’t understand but at the time movie-goers had seen nothing like this: we were watching actual dinosaurs! Well, it felt like it anyway. I remember gaping at the screen, mouth open, in wonderment. It was magical and it was an experience that I shared with my best friend and a room full of popcorn munching strangers. Magical. Experience. You won’t get that sitting on your couch streaming Neflix.
It breaks my heart to think that future generations may miss out on this rite of passage. If you are concerned about the future of Toronto’s movie theatres, please visit Save Your Cinema.ca
What are some of your favorite movie memories?
Happy Friday! I thought I’d share with you a very short excerpt from my debut novel Filthy Sugar on this lovely day! Enjoy!
“Unzip me, will you?” I ask, flipping my hair over to one side.
Lili Belle’s fingers fumble with my zipper. “I–I can’t, Wanda.” She turns away from me, her face burning. “You better do it yourself.”
“Why?” I let my dress fall to the floor. “What’s wrong, Lili Belle?”
She glances over at me shyly as I stand naked before her. I recognize the longing behind her glance and yet it is markedly different than the lust of Eddie, Mr. Manchester, or even Brock. Hers is a desire without entitlement. I take both of her hands and lead her to the bed.
“Come sit with me, Lili Belle.”
She keeps her head bent; her thick-mascaraed eyelashes casting shadows along her cheekbones, like the wings of a broken butterfly. She reminds me of a stray kitten. I can sense that she wants me to pet her, but if I do, she’ll run away.
“I should go, Wanda.”
“Do you want to go?” I press my open mouth to the spot where her shoulder meets the base of her neck, inhaling her apricot scent. “Is that what you want?”
The neighbour next door cranks up the phonograph. Piano teeth and trombone lungs, marshmallow clouds and upside down skies: suddenly Lili Belle is kissing me or I’m kissing her. Oh! What difference does it make? Her mouth is a chocolate cherry cream: messy and sweet, scrumptious and sticky. Kissing Lili Belle is devouring an ice cream cone in July; it is a hotdog at the ballpark; it is Jean Harlow slipping into something more comfortable, and it is better than all of those things.
Kissing Lili Belle is better than the movies.
Want to read more? The best place to get a hold of some Filthy Sugar is with Inanna Publications or ask for it at your local bookstore!
Note: Inanna Publications is currently having a summer sale! Use the coupon code summer20 at checkout and get 30% off!
Every Wednesday evening as a child, my mother would force me into an ugly, itchy brown polyester dress and thick woolen stockings and take me – no doubt kicking and screaming – to the local community center for my weekly Brownies meeting. (For those not in the know, Brownies are a version of Girl Guides for younger kids). I’d spend about an hour or so with a bunch of seven year old frenemies, sitting around a musty smelling stuffed owl (no, this is not an unflattering description of our group’s leader; it actually was a stuffed bird) while sewing badges on our fugly uniforms and reciting the group’s “motto, promise and law” as we raised and held our right index and middle fingers together tightly. I have no idea why we made this hand gesture – my only guess is that it was meant to symbolize what we were expected to do with our legs come puberty. (“Keep ‘em together, ladies!”)
Our most important promise was to “always think of others before” ourselves. I remember being puzzled by this – why were other people’s needs so much more important than mine? Didn’t I matter too? Nonetheless, I took the promise to heart – as a girl, I learned, this made life easier. As a woman, I learned, this only made life easier for everyone else.
No wonder as a teenager I always gravitated toward “the feisty ones”: the girls in the tight clothes; the ones who wore too much make-up; the girls who gave out plenty of cut-eye but never minced words.
Girls like Jean Harlow.
I was once asked, while volunteering for a film review website, to list the “Top Ten Greatest Films of all Time.” Of course, a “great film” is subjective but that wasn’t the only reason why I found the task daunting: cinematographic motion pictures have been around since at least the late 1890s, leaving us with – what should be – an almost limitless scope of films to watch and choose from.
I say “what should be”, because many Silent (an estimated 80-90%) and Pre-Code movies are now considered lost.
Most Silent films were made using cellulose nitrate film stock. Nitrate stock flares up quickly – a lit cigarette nearby is enough to set it off – and can even spontaneously combust if stored improperly. The film is so flammable that it burns even when immersed in water. In 1949, nitrate was replaced by acetate safety stock but by then innumerable silent movies had already burned to death – their filmmaker’s stories forever extinguished by flames.
And sometimes they were destroyed on purpose.
Studios, not believing that future audiences would have any interest in “old” movies, junked the films to free up vault space. Not all were set on fire though: several tons of Silent movies were dumped into the Yukon river while others were used as filler for swimming pools and ice rinks.
(The 1919 film version of Anne of Green Gables, starring a pre-scandal Mary Miles Minter, is now considered lost)
North American society has always been “out with the old, in with the new”, but Hollywood in particular took an almost sadistic pleasure in denigrating Silent movies – essentially eating its first born. Take for example the popular musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952), a film which slanders the reputation of Silent movies as much as it celebrates the music of early talkies. In Singin’ in the Rain, Silent films are portrayed as ridiculously melodramatic period dramas. The film takes the same view as its female lead, the squeaky clean, all-American chorus girl Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who, while exaggerating pantomime, sums up silent movie actors this way: “They don’t talk, they don’t act – they just make a lot of dumb show.” She goes on to state that “real” acting means “wonderful lines, speaking glorious words!”. But any creative writing instructor worth their salt will tell you that it’s better to “show” than “tell”. Kathy Selden has obviously never seen Lon Chaney’s heartbreaking performance as a depressed circus clown in the deliciously demented He Who Gets Slapped (1924) or John Gilbert’s anguished soldier in the glorious WW1 drama The Big Parade (1925). Clara Bow did not need sound when she defined the roaring twenties as a vivacious shop girl in the romantic comedy It (1927). Sometimes talk is just…noise.
So why did Hollywood desecrate its early work? Well, the dominance of sound on film coincided with the stock market crash of 1929 and talkies, in comparison to silent films, were damned expensive to produce. My guess is that Hollywood was trying to justify the expense.
When the amended Production Code “to govern the making of motion and talking pictures” took effect on July 1st, 1934, many talkies suffered a similar fate to their silent sisters, such as the popular Pre-Code sex comedy Convention City (1933). Convention City, which its star Joan Blondell called “the raunchiest thing there has ever been”, was condemned under the amended Code and its studio, Warner Brothers, ordered that all prints be destroyed. Today, Convention City (1933) is considered the Holy Grail of Pre-Code films.
“We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts because, otherwise, we are going to have these pictures stopped in a lot of places. I believe in showing their forms but, for Lord’s sake, don’t let those bulbs stick out.” – Studio memo from Jack L. Warner to Convention City’s producer Hal Wallis. (The lovely Joan Blondell pictured).
Still, many films – such as Paramount’s Clara Bow collection – were left to languish in locked vaults for decades; celluloid dreams disintegrating into dust.
So although I know that there are still plenty of great movies that I have yet to see, I sadly fear that there are many more that I will never see, such as Cleopatra (1917) a film which, thanks to the surviving still images of a wickedly wanton Theda Bara in the title role, has managed to achieve iconic status in spite of being considered lost.
It is heartening to remember though that films considered “lost” are sometimes “found”. For example, in 2015 a complete reel was discovered of The Battle of the Century (1927), Laurel and Hardy’s ultimate pie fight, after the original film had degenerated. In April 2017, The Toronto Silent Film Festival screened the film (complete with live musical accompaniment by Ben Model and a real pie throwing!) at the Revue Cinema. I consider myself very lucky to have been in attendance (and doubly lucky not to have gotten hit by one of the pies!).
Check your attics and basements – you never know, you might just find a lost cinematic gem!
Written by Heather Babcock, 2020
Please check out Zoe Krainik’s wonderful review of Filthy Sugar on her fabulous blog “Hollywood Genes”.
Heather Babcock’s debut novel, Filthy Sugar, is a hot fudge sundae that doesn’t skimp on the cherries. Delicious and rich in detail, with a heroine to match, Filthy Sugar seamlessly incorporates the best parts of the naughty and rule breaking Pre-Code Hollywood film era with the author’s own flair for imagery and language.
Redhead Depression-era bombshell Wanda Whittle is straining in her corset to escape her limited rooming house existence in the slums behind the Market, where she lives with her world-weary mother and pro-union sister Evelyn.
While modeling fur coats in a department store, Wanda’s body positive confidence and zigzag curves make an impression on wealthy patron Mr. Manchester, the owner of the Apple Bottom burlesque theatre. A smitten Wanda accepts the job as a performer alongside peach scented cutie Lili Belle and smoldering sophisticate Queenie. Now dubbed Wanda Wiggles, she must navigate this sexy new world, where…
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As my heroine Wanda Wiggles would say, this sure is swell!
My debut novel, Filthy Sugar, has been chosen by All Lit Up as a Summer Reads 2020 staff pick!
Filthy Sugar takes place in a sexy burlesque theatre in the early 1930s and is my homage to the feisty dames of Pre-Code Hollywood film. If you’d like to order Filthy Sugar, now is the best time to do so: my fabulous publisher Inanna Publications is having a summer reading sale! Order Filthy Sugar here and get 30% off when you enter the coupon code summer20 at checkout!
Filthy Sugar goes great with a flirty summer cocktail…or a bottle of bathtub gin! 😉