DURING THE FIRST TWO WEEKS of April I saw over 40 movies. Although I had always considered myself a dedicated moviegoer, those two weeks were less a labor of love than of endurance. Watching movies, after the 24th or 25th one, just isn’t fun anymore. My sleep became tense and fitful; my meals, sticky inconveniences; my stomach, argumentative. My self-image changed in the space of two short weeks from a sassy, temperamental magazine writer to a furtive creep. I am deeply grateful the whole thing is over.
I was originally motivated to see these films by simple curiosity. For the past two years Dallas had played host to a production called the USA Film Festival. Its purpose was to exhibit and honor the best of current American films; to bring to Dallas legions of stars, starlets, directors, producers, screen writers and any other celebrities who would come; and generally to promote an interest in American cinema. This year the USA Festival was to be held again, but it would follow the United States Film Festival, whose aims, purposes, and format were so similar as to be almost identical. What such a glut of American exposed celluloid would mean for Texas, for Dallas, or, indeed, for me, I had no idea.
I arrived in Dallas in time to get settled in a motel and change clothes before going to a party held at an expensive high-rise on Turtle Creek. The party was both a benefit for the United States Film Festival and a reception for Vincente Minelli whose work (An American in Paris, Lust For Life, Home From the Hill, Gigi) would be honored at the US Festival. Walking through the apartment’s well-lighted lot, I saw seated in a red MG a man in a brown leather coat talking with a young woman in white gloves.
As I came within earshot, she asked him, in amazement, “But how many keepers have you had?”
It was with great difficulty that I kept my steps from slowing noticeably down.
“Three,” the man said.
“Three today and you started at noon?”
I have no explanation for any of this. Nothing I heard in any of the 40 movies was as intriguing. Neither the woman nor the man came to the party.
It turned out to be a sedate affair attended mostly by the press (always eager for free food and more eager still for free drinks), by the organizers of the festival and their friends, and by a few people who had paid $25 to help support the festival and meet Minelli. There might have been more paying customers except, as I learned later, the rivalry between the two festivals was intense. The rivalry extended to the film capitals of New York and Los Angeles and deep within the labyrinth of money and power in Dallas. Most of the patrons of the arts in Dallas favored the USA Festival which would follow next week.
Minelli, though not completely the center of attention, became visible from time to time as he escaped from one encircling group only to be quickly surrounded by another. He is a short, dapper gentleman, very unassuming and softspoken, who looks a little like, of all people, Don Knotts. The comparison should not be carried too far, however. One of Minelli’s wives was, of course, Judy Garland; another, Denise, has remarried and is currently reigning queen of San Francisco society; and he is presently engaged to Mrs. Lee Anderson, an exceptionally elegant woman from Los Angeles. Whether from a hard life or from natural inclination that the years have done nothing to change, Minelli’s face is very sad with large eyes like dark pools and slack, drooping cheeks. He seldom spoke at length, never spoke personally. He met each new acquaintance, both at the reception and during the rest of the week, with the same partially extended hand, jerky nod and shy smile. The photograph in the festival program shows him with head bowed and eyes closed, monk-like.
The only incongruous element about Minelli was his tie, a silky pure yellow, whose significance would not be clear until later.
The rest of the partygoers were dressed in that peculiar combination of high fashion and faded, second-hand chic typical of people from the worlds of art and money. The editor of the Iconoclast, Dallas’ underground weekly, working against the trend, had hunted through the depths of a stuffed closet to drag out the one suit he owned. “Thought I’d surprise ‘em,” he said while the rest paraded in everything from jeans and cracked, crusty leather jackets to jewel-studded gowns and rich, dark suits.
Shortly before midnight the festival’s organizers left to distribute handbills to the people waiting in line at the various Saturday night midnight movies around Dallas. These notices said that anyone who arrived at the Municipal Auditorium Theater before 10 a.m. the next morning could attend the festival’s first day for free.
It seemed doubtful, even at the time, that many late movie addicts would bounce out of bed early enough to make it downtown by ten. But the weather added its own discouragement by turning sour during the night. When I arrived, the grey auditorium buildings looked particularly dank. Inside, a few people, their arms folded and shoulders hunched against the chill, milled about in a dark, gymnasium-sized lobby. Minelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis began to play. When it ended, I counted 61 persons who had braved cold and rain and Sunday morning lethargy to watch free movies.
The discussion with Minelli after Meet Me in St. Louis proved as dispiriting as the weather. He had changed his yellow tie for a white turtleneck. He sat on the stage in front of the screen, legs crossed, smoking a cigarette, and responded to questions in a voice so soft and shy that it was difficult to hear even though he spoke into a microphone. Several people wanted to ask about Judy Garland (who had starred in the film), but Minelli’s sense of privacy and decorum, unaggressive as it was, managed