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.

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The Classic and the ‘Trash-ic’: 42nd Street (1933) and Showgirls (1995)

One is a (seemingly) wholesome and widely beloved classic Warner Brothers’ movie musical, featuring visually dazzling song and dance numbers choreographed by the now-legendary Busby Berkeley. The other is a crass and tacky soft core MGM porn show whose title became a punch-line even before its release.

On closer inspection however, 42nd Street (1933) and Showgirls (1995) have a lot more in common than one may suspect. To paraphrase Truman Capote, it’s like the two movies grew up together in the same house and one day 42nd Street got up and strutted out the front door, while Showgirls sneaked out the back.

Although only one takes place in Vegas, both films were a gamble.

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From Dreams to Dust Part Two: Toronto’s Movie Theatres

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.

Photo Caption: The Metro theatre opened in 1939, just before WW2. In 1978, the movie palace began showing soft-core “adult” films. The Metro closed its doors in 2013 and I managed to snap this photo of its marquee just before it came down in 2014. Today, the Metro is a rock climbing venue. (P.S. Isn’t my boyfriend cute?)

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.

Caption: Me attending The Toronto Silent Film Festival at the Fox theatre in February 2020 – also known as “the before times”. The Fox – originally known as the “Theatre with No Name” – opened on October 20, 1913.

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?

We Are the Weirdos, Mister.

theda bara

We are the weirdos, mister.”

 After Nancy (Fairuza Balk) uttered the infamous line in The Craft (1996), the audience at last night’s Revue Cinema screening burst into fervent applause.  Many in attendance were in their thirties and forties and probably, like me, nostalgia-tripping former teenage outcasts.

As a lonely, imaginative girl, I loved was obsessed with The Craft and its story of four teenage witches, played by Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True and Robin Tunney, who use their powers to wreak havoc on the dumb jocks and the mean girls at their Catholic high school.  In 1996, there were very few spaces where teenage girls could feel powerful.  We were told (by society, television and YM magazine) that the only way to obtain any sort of power was through our physical appearance and our relationships with boys: two things that were beyond our control since you can’t really dictate how someone else sees or reacts to you. And any “power” based on physical beauty is precarious when we live in a society that equates being beautiful with being young. If beauty is power and youth is beauty, than that power is ephemeral.  I knew that when I was 16 and I know that now. One of the very few media outlets in the 1990s where teenage girls did have a voice was the fiercely fun and feminist Sassy Magazine, which sadly folded in 1996. The Craft filled a void. The vicarious power-fantasy fulfillment was enough to (almost) forgive and forget its disappointingly anti-feminist ending.

The witches in The Craft are direct descendants of Theda Bara (pictured), the silver screen’s first “bad girl” and the woman who made the word “vamp” both a noun and a verb. In A Fool There Was (1915), the film that catapulted her to fame, Bara chews up scenery (and men) as a liquor pushing, sexually aggressive vampire. This vamp doesn’t drink blood though: rather Bara slowly drains the will to live from her male victims by eating away at their dignity. “Kiss me, my fool!” she famously purrs but beware: her kiss renders “respectable” men destitute and depraved. Buried alive under the rubble of their broken lives, still her victims beg her for more. Bara’s appetite for destruction is never satiated and, unlike Nancy in The Craft, she never loses her power.

– Heather Babcock