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.

THAT GIRL (Inspired by the 1942 movie Cat People)

Selfie and fiction inspired by Cat People (1942)

THAT GIRL

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.)

Guest Post: Frank Capra, a Master of Comedy and Social Awareness by Jeff Cottrill

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934)

Editor’s Note: Jeff Cottrill is a talented writer and spoken word artist. We met over a decade ago, as youngsters making our way in Toronto’s open mic scene. A fellow film buff, Jeff is one of my favorite people to talk movies with. So when he approached me about writing a guest post for the Soda Fountain, I knew it would be a great fit. Jeff’s debut novel Hate Story is being released from Dragonfly Publishing (Australia) in March 2022 and I was honored to read an ARC. Hate Story is a fresh, funny and original telling of the dark side of social media and internet shaming. Its heroine happens to be a movie blogger so the novel is sprinkled with lots of great references to classic and contemporary films. Read on for Jeff’s essay “Frank Capra: A Master of Comedy and Social Awareness”.

I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness. And a little lookin’ out for the other fella too.

James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

When many people hear the name Frank Capra today, chances are the only title they think of is It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). This movie is a timeless holiday favourite, but it’s a shame its reputation now outshines the rest of Capra’s filmmaking career – especially his pre-World War II movies, which are arguably better. Capra had a streak unmatched by any other director in the 1930s, winning three Academy Awards while helming classics like Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Frank Capra is my favourite director from this era – or maybe tied with Charlie Chaplin. There are two important traits Capra and Chaplin have in common: their impeccable comedic timing, and their passionate social conscience. Many critics have dismissed Capra as a corny sentimentalist, but it’s really the comedy that brings his work to life, propped up by the wit of screenwriter Robert Riskin and the sharp delivery of actors like Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Thomas Mitchell, Lionel Barrymore and many others.

Take the whip-smart repartee that Gable and Colbert lob at each other in It Happened One Night. As Gable’s cynical reporter buses and hitchhikes across America with Colbert’s spoiled runaway heiress, the pair bicker and debate hilariously about everything from dunking donuts to piggybacking, with a speed and timing that surely influenced later romcoms. On the surface, the characters have nothing in common – but the energy they devote to each other reveals a deep connection, one of shared intelligent sarcasm, and you can’t help rooting for them to hook up.

Arthur and Stewart play off each other in a similar way in You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith, and Arthur had a knack for portraying jaded professional women with a hidden compassionate side. In both Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, Arthur’s character starts off mocking and patronizing the naive title hero – but once she gets to know him, she not only falls in love with his sincerity, but also becomes his number-one supporter. It sounds like an implausible fantasy, yet Arthur makes it work by staying smart, funny, fast-talking and worldly even while yielding to her inner sentiment. She’s no pushover; she thinks for herself and owns full agency over her decisions, in a way that may surprise modern viewers who expect dated sexism.

All Capra’s best movies centre on the theme of an ordinary man (the “Little Guy”) winning out against the big guns of the establishment. This theme was especially potent during the poverty and social upheaval of the Great Depression, but I think it’s even more relevant now – in the wake of the recent Occupy movement, and in an era of high wealth gaps and billionaires playing space tourism. Every Capra classic features a relatable lone hero who stands up for bedrock moral values against the corruption, egotism and greed around him – the kind of hero people wished for in the ’30s, and the kind we could use now.

Continue reading “Guest Post: Frank Capra, a Master of Comedy and Social Awareness by Jeff Cottrill”

Raise a Glass: The Soda Fountain has Passed 10K Views!

Artwork by talented Instagram artist @thespiritgone

Woo hoo! WordPress has informed me that Meet Me at the Soda Fountain has surpassed 10,000 views! Now that might not seem like a lot to some of you but I’m pretty thrilled about it. Thank you to everyone who has ever taken the time to visit, like and/or leave a comment.

By the way, just a housekeeping note: WordPress is starting sponsored ad posts on free sites, such as mine. I totally understand – after all, it’s a small price for being able to easily create a free blog. After I take care of some dental and eye care bills, I do plan to upgrade my account with WordPress so that my blog will be ad-free but in the meantime please note that I do not personally endorse any of the ads or sponsored posts that may appear here.

Quotes About WW1 From the Best Silent and Pre-Code War Movies

Remembrance Day is not about glorifying war. It is not about the men, safe in their power, who created the wars. Rather, Remembrance Day is about the men and women who left their homes and their families to fight for the freedoms that we can choose to take for granted today. November 11th is about the Veterans who are not here to tell their stories. It is about the Veterans who thankfully are still here to tell their stories. And it is about those who cannot or could not tell their stories because they are/were too painful to verbalize.

The Granddaddy of war movies and perhaps the greatest of them all, The Big Parade (1925), was released just seven years after the Armistice by the very generation that fought in WW1. Indeed, many in the film’s cast and crew were directly involved in WW1: Canadian actress Claire Adams worked as a Red Cross nurse; actor Tom O’Brien served in the Navy and Laurence Stallings, who wrote the film’s story, had served as a Marine Captain and lost his leg fighting in the “Great War”.

Many of the top directors of early war films, such as James Whale and William A. Wellman, were WW1 veterans. War movies made during the 1920s and 1930s, while in no means shying away from the death and destruction of the battlefield, are not as gory as the war films which would be made in later decades. In particular, war movies made and released during Hollywood’s Pre-Code period focus more on the mental, emotional and financial struggles that the WW1 veterans faced after coming home. Perhaps the directors – who may have experienced PTSD themselves – did not want to exploit the real-life horrors and violence that they had faced on the battlefield for an audience’s entertainment. While modern war dramas focus on battlefield action, Pre-Code war movies focus on humanity and loss (silent movies such as The Big Parade and Wings effectively handled both).

If we can look at old movies as snapshots in the photo journal of time, then perhaps these films speak to the faith, fears, anger and anxiety of the forgotten soldier. As follows are some of the most poignant quotes from the best war movies of the silent and Pre-Code period.

Continue reading “Quotes About WW1 From the Best Silent and Pre-Code War Movies”

Garbo and Walter

Artwork of Garbo and old movie theatre created with public domain photos

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” – Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire

Nostalgia is less a yearning for the past than it is a desire to dream again. My loveliest memories are of days spent dreaming.

Like the summer I turned sixteen. Nothing very tangible happened to me that summer; I didn’t get felt up at the drive-in, nor did I get drunk with the carnies behind the funhouse at the CNE. I was never grounded and nobody ever kissed me.

But it was a quiet, pleasant summer. The air was sticky sweet, like strawberry popsicles, and the skies were full of bumble-bees as plump and lazy as well loved cats. I spent my mornings eating stale chocolate chip cookies and licking envelopes for the Cancer Society, an exciting volunteer job because it required me to take two buses and the subway, even though it was in my hometown of Etobicoke.

In the early 1990s, Etobicoke was a juxtaposition of mom & pop milk shops and corporate Kmarts; of shiny new office towers and oak trees as old as elephants. Substitute “Costco” for “Kmart” and “condos” for “office towers” and it’s pretty much the same today.

Continue reading “Garbo and Walter”