A CHRISTMAS STORY
Main Cast: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates
Director: Joe Dante
We had the first technical rehearsal for the big first act finale of Love Potion Number Ten today and things did not go entirely as planned. I had dutifully learned my lines and all my tap steps and I worked at length with the representatives of ‘Flying By Floyd’ to get the wires to fit nicely under my sateen tap shorts with the marabou trim. As we have set our new version of The Elixir of Love in Washington DC, the number takes place on a set representing the tidal basin during the Cherry Blossom festival and with all the flying and the special effects, we needed to rehearse with the hydraulics on stage at the Pantages. It’s a truly thrilling song in which I, as Dulcy Mary, the purveyor of love and liquid happiness, put stumbling blocks in the way of the happy ever after between Senator Nemorino and Supreme Court Justice Adina. The production staff is certain that with a DC setting, a few rap numbers, and some vaguely 18th century costume designs, we should be able to bring in the Hamilton audience. My Q score is much higher than Lin-Manuel’s and the tap shorts look so fetching with the farthingale.
I had finished the first two verses to Smell the Love and was well into the bridge when I did my big trust fall from the top of the upper platform into the arm of a dozen waiting chorus boys who then clip the flying wires onto my harness so I can ascend to the heavens over the heads of an adoring audience through a perfumed petal drop of pink cherry blossoms. I got to the appointed cue, tumbled backwards off the platform but the stage left chorus boys were blocked from getting to their marks by a piece of hydraulic Jefferson Memorial that got stuck in the raised position. The stage right boys did keep me from hitting the stage deck but in the muddle of tangled arms, they managed to get the wires to my flying harness crossed so, as I hit my high B flat on ‘Smell the Looooooooooooove’, instead of rising gracefully into the air in an arabesque, I headed off to the top balcony head down and fanny first, making my high note disappointingly flat and revealing far more of my underpinnings than I desired and bringing back some unpleasant memories of this year’s Oscar telecast. The petal drop also misfired causing all two hundred and seventy pounds of petals to fall on my head at once, completely knocking me off trajectory and forcing me to cling to one of the light stanchions as I flailed past until I could be rescued by some kindly stage crew with a very long ladder.
As the stage machinery was obviously not working, we called rehearsal for the day and I took my car service back to Casa Maine. I have a new driver, Jonathan Tongue, who always makes my trips around town interesting with his stories of his clients over the years. When I arrived, I found Normy hard at work in the garden. He’s gotten very interested in the effect of music on the growth of vegetables and he has planted whole rows of swiss chard to which he is playing Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony to see if he can increase their production. I left him to it during the oboe solo and headed into the kitchen where I made myself a sloe gin fizz and then headed into the home theater to relax with a film. With all the issues with misfiring machinery during the day, I was immediately reminded of Joe Dante’s minor classic Gremlins from 1984 and popped it into the machine for a look. I remember having enjoyed it at the time but had not seen it for some years.
Gremlins, which was one of the big summer films of 1984, along with Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was directed by Dante, written by Chris Columbus and produced by Steven Spielberg, all dominant forces in fantasy film making for Generation X and beyond. In this particular confection, we visit the small New England town of Kingston Falls (obviously modeled on Bedford Falls from It’s a Wonderful Life), home of the Peltzer family. Dad Randall (Hoyt Axton) is the sort of madcap inventor one only finds in films, mom Lynn (Frances Lee McCain) appears to be a housewife, and son Billy (Zach Galligan) is a teller at the local bank. One wonders how they afford their middle-class lifestyle but I digress. It’s Christmas time and the backlot town has a lovely manicured snowfall over all the quaint brick buildings without any slush, soot, or damp spots on the color coordinated winter clothes of the cast. As the film opens, dad is in another city in a Chinatown straight out of a 1930s Charlie Chan mystery where he finds an odd shop full of oriental curiosities run by a mysterious old man (Keye Luke). There, dad finds a mysterious little cuddly creature, a mogwai, and deciding it’s the perfect Christmas gift for Billy, he buys it and takes it home with him, but not before being given three warnings – keep it away from bright lights, keep it away from water, and never feed it after midnight.
Billy takes to the cute little creature who sings like a Moog synthesizer and speaks pidgin English but soon, as expected, all three rules are broken and the mogwai, whom Billy has named Gizmo, turns into a horde of nasty slimy green scaly creatures with a penchant for mischief. They’re soon taking over the town causing as much mayhem as they can devise including commandeering a snowplow, jiggling with the traffic lights, taking over the bar at which Billy’s girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates) works, and terrorizing the town miser (Polly Holliday). Soon, it’s up to Billy, Kate and Gizmo to save the day before the entire town goes up in cartoonish flames.
Gremlins is a time capsule of early 80s culture with feathered hair, excess eye makeup and mood lighting galore. And that’s just on the men. It’s also a great pastiche of a thousand and one film references in terms of shots, character moments, costume details and art direction. Some of them are glaringly obvious (a radio billboard homage to Indiana Jones), some much subtler. This was a film made by a trio of guys enamored by film and they decided to throw all of their favorites into the mix and see what happened. It’s helped along by its quick pace and a game cast who don’t mind playing second fiddle to a bunch of mechanical puppets.
The true stars of the film are, of course, the gremlins (design by Chris Walas). Once they go on their rampage, they swing from utility lines, break dance, recreate dogs playing poker kitsch and ultimately end up at the movies singing along with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Walas and Dante manage to create some unique personalities amongst their creatures and obviously enjoy the mayhem in which they engage. The violence is treated with such dollops of humor that it has the emotional impact of an old Roadrunner cartoon. Even the one on screen death (of a character we hate) happens in a somewhat off-hand manner. The humans are serviceable. Hoyt Axton is such an unusual choice that he helps hold the film together. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates are fine, if a bit bland (and her monologue in the middle about why she hates Christmas has become a camp classic. I don’t know what Chris Columbus was smoking when he put that in there.)
Gremlins is a bit all over the place but there are brilliant sequences that make it still worth watching. Mom defending her home against gremlins with the help of various kitchen appliances. Kate trying to serve a bar full of inebriated gremlins. Hundreds of creatures singing ‘Heigh Ho’. It remains fun and worth showing to older children so that they can see what sort of world their parents grew up in. It’s not necessarily an enduring classic, but it remains thoroughly enjoyable.
Spilled paint water. Broken imported Bavarian snowman. Hanging dog. Gremlin puree. Gratuitous Judge Reinhold. Cat People swimming pool reference. Laundry chute trapping. Smokeless ashtray. Gratuitous Steven Spielberg cameo.