Photo: Robbie Caponetto
In 1948, Metro Goldwyn Mayor arrived in Oxford to film “Intruder in the Dust” with a budget of $250,000. Pappy’s stock shot up. “Count No-Count,” it seemed, was nowhere to be seen and in his place a benefactor of unimpeachable generosity. I was living in Clarksdale, and was eaten up with jealousy that [my step-cousin] Vicki was living at Rowan Oak, basking in the glitter of Pappy’s “sudden fame.” (If Hollywood knew who Pappy was, we reasoned, then shouldn’t we be famous, too?) We made plans that as soon as I got to Oxford, we would set up a card table in the driveway and charge people a quarter to see Rowan Oak. We were going to be rich. Meanwhile, for every minute that I remained in Clarksdale, I fretted that Vicki was cutting school and going to the movie set. I knew [Pappy’s daughter] Jill would be a part of it. That was okay. But Vicki…without me! I could hardly stand it. I figured by the time I got to Oxford, she would have a BIG PART in the picture show. She’d probably get to kiss Claude Jarman, Jr. I was absolutely green with envy after I found out that Vicki had been cast as an extra in a mob scene. Her role was “Little-Girl-Eating-An-Ice-Cream-Cone.” It nearly killed me.
Finally, Pappy drove to Clarksdale to get me, promising to show me movie people in action. We returned to Lafayette County where a scene was being filmed at a pond with a wooden bridge. The scene was the one in which veteran character actor Porter Hall, playing the villain “Nub Cowrie,” was caught in quicksand. We watched for hours, fascinated, as the crew dumped boxes of oatmeal into the pond to simulate quicksand. After each take, Porter Hall would towel off and change into an identical dry outfit for the next take. My interest never flagged. If they had kept shooting I’d still be there.
During the filming Pappy and Aunt Estelle gave a party for Jill and invited members of the cast and crew. For once Vicki and I were too intimidated by the sight of Claude Jarman, Jr., to come all the way downstairs. The older teens were dancing in the front parlor. We watched from the landing, goggle-eyed, as Jarman danced with Jill, and Mil’Murray, and most of the girls at the party. Vicki and I were giddy with excitement, but grateful for the safety and anonymity of the staircase. We knew when we were out of our league.
A year later, the premiere of “Intruder in the Dust” was held at the Lyric Theatre. [My mother] Wese and I had moved back to Oxford and I was happily in the thick of things. Vicki and I found out much later that the grownup world had been in a stew when Pappy threatened not to attend the film debut. If we had known, we’d have died. If Pappy didn’t go, nobody, including us, could have gone! Unbeknownst to us, pressure was brought to bear by Nannie and Aunt Bama (Mrs. Alabama McLean), who came all the way from Memphis for the occasion. These formidable ladies beat down Pappy’s resistance until he agreed to attend the premiere.
The night “Intruder” opened we rode to town in Pappy’s station wagon. As we left Rowan Oak, beams were arcing across the sky from kleig lights outside the Lyric Theatre. The Ole Miss band was playing and hundreds of starstruck fans had gathered. As we came closer to the square we could hear them cheering and screaming as each car pulled up and a star emerged. The entrance had been cordoned off. Vicki and I were in the back seat, silly with excitement, checking our (first-ever) nylon stockings, and smoothing the skirts of our new dresses. Vicki’s was iridescent orange taffeta with a wide sash that had been made by Aunt Estelle, and mine was midnight blue velvet, sewn by Wese. We thought we were gorgeous. When a tuxedo-clad attendant opened the door for us, we were sure of it.
With spotlights shining in our faces we entered the Lyric behind Pappy and Aunt Estelle, Jill, Nannie, and Aunt Bama. After being escorted to our seats near the front we saw that some of the stars were already present and being introduced. They gave brief speeches, then Pappy was introduced. It was his second time in fifteen years to appear at the Lyric at a premiere. His public statement at the 1932 premiere of his first film, Today We Live (“This movie bears no relation to the story I wrote!”), was all but forgotten. When Pappy was introduced he stood up, bowed, and sat back down. The crowd continued applauding. He rose again. I held my breath, hoping that he would say something, anything, so that people would keep looking at us in our new dresses. I was far too young to know what a courageous and avant garde statement on civil rights Pappy had made in “Intruder.” I had not even read it when we went to the premiere. Vicki and I had huge crushes on “Chick” (Claude Jarman, Jr.). We cheered for Miss Habersham, who reminded us of Nannie. We feared for Lucas Beauchamp (pronounced “Beecham” in Mississippi) and yet like most of the theater audience we were white southerners entrenched in racial division without a trace of irony in our souls. All I knew was that for the first time, Pappy’s light was shining on me and I was dazzled. To my dismay he only nodded and sat down again. After the showing of the movie, when the lights came on, the spectators began shouting, “Author, author!” Pappy ignored them and quickly ushered us out to the waiting car.
Back home at Rowan Oak, Vicki and I lay awake and whispered and giggled, too excited to sleep. Finally she asked the question we both knew she had to ask. “How did I look in the movie, you know, Little-Girl-Eating-An-Ice Cream-Cone?” I pretended to be asleep, but she knew me too well. So I yawned and said, “What kind of ice cream was it?” She hit me with a pillow. Then we snuggled down, listened to the grownups talking downstairs and dreamed our Technicolor dreams.