Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Palm Beach Film Festival Diaries
Film in the Sun

by Kathleen Carroll

Palm Beach, Florida
April 17, 1996

The world doesn't exactly need another film festival, but who could possibly resist an invitation to the first Palm Beach Film Festival? Certainly not this roving correspondent. Still reeling from the nasty shock of seeing snow on Easter Sunday, we could hardly wait to experience the balmy ocean breezes of the ever-so-posh Florida resort.

"Do you know about Mar-a-Lago?," asked the limousine driver as he whisked us past the Palm Beach landmark. We knew this much. The shrubbery-enshrouded pale pink castle was now owned by Donald Trump who had preserved the magnificent Marjorie Merriweather Post mansion by transforming it into a private club with a $100,000 initiation fee. The club was scheduled to be the scene of the festival's official wrap party. Unfortunately we had to pass up this golden opportunity to meet Mr. and Mrs. Donald Trump and their daughter, Tiffany.

We were, however, invited to party on with Baby Jane Holzer. The party was held outside a tobacco shop in a charming alley off Worth Avenue, the Rodeo Drive of Palm Beach where the guests polluted the night air by smoking expensive cigars. We honestly don't remember if we met our supposed hostess but we did get to watch the director of programming for the Sundance Institute, Geoffrey Gilmore, puff on a cigar. Talk about a thrill.

In general the parties seemed to attract more people than the hard-to-reach screenings at this particular festival. We did catch the opening night soiree at the Boca Raton Hotel and Club. Decked out in gold lamé drapes and palm tree silhouettes, the hotel's convention hall became a suitably glamorous setting for a $500-per-plate black-tie dinner. The theme was a familiar one - a salute to the glory days of MGM with a special tribute to the late Gene Kelly.

A number of MGM's most beloved stars were on hand. An extremely trim-looking Donald O'Connor served as host. Van Johnson and Kathryn Grayson shared the podium briefly, she wearing a red mohair shawl over black and he presumably sporting his trademark red socks. Cyd Charisse, in a sea-green silk pants suits, put all the other overly glitzy women in the room to shame with her simple elegance and timeless beauty.

But it was Esther Williams who was an instant hit with the benefit audience with her amusingly frank recollections. "Turn off the teleprompter - I'm not through, " Williams warned. She proceeded to tell how her talent for staying afloat helped her escape a $75-a-week job at I. Magnin. It all started when MGM decided "to melt the ice from Sonja Henie (the ice-skating movie queen) and throw her in." In her first meeting with studio chief Louis B. Mayer Williams asked if she could change her name since she didn't think Esther sounded right for a future movie star. "Don't you say anything against Esther," said Mayer. "My mother was named Esther." So much for that idea.

Williams then explained how she, of all MGM stars, found herself cast opposite Gene Kelly in "Ziegfeld Follies." June Allyson - Williams calls her "Little Junie" - had turned down the leading role because she was pregnant. Ann Miller was in Williams' words "dancing God knows where." And so "a swimmer" who describes her feet as "flippers" became Kelly's most reluctant dance partner.

Williams is still an avid swimmer and a real trouper. The entire MGM troupe had arrived in Palm Beach without their luggage due to a last-minute switch in flights. Williams took it well. She simply bought a bathing suit in the hotel gift shop and at 2 AM she enjoyed a nerve-soothing swim in the pool.

There's a lot to be said for chummy brand new film festivals like Palm Beach. For one thing there are very few invited guests and as a result the festival staff treats everyone like Princess Di. Better still you don't have to cope with the terrifying crowds that jam the theaters in hot ticket festivals like Sundance and Toronto. For to be frank they did not have to worry about crowd control in Palm Beach. The first screening of "Midaq Alley," a Mexican film adapted from the novel by Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, drew about ten people but it turned out to be just as well. The screening had to be stopped because the reels were not in the proper order.

Screenings were held in three different theaters, one in Jupiter, another in Boca Raton and the final one in West Palm Beach. It took one visitor an hour to get to the Jupiter theater which was enough to discourage even the most avid film buff.

Mark Diamond, the festival's genial executive director, confessed that he had tried to try everything from MGM musicals to the newest Alec Baldwin release, "Heaven's Prisoner," just to see what local audiences liked. His program also included the work of such promising young talent as Eric Bross whose film, "Nothing to Lose," had caused enough of a stir at Sundance to land him a top agent. Bross is largely self-taught. Like Steven Spielberg he began shooting Super 8 films as an adolescent. That early technical training is evidenced in the ease and confidence with which he tells his funny, poignant tale of male friendship. His leading lady both on and off the screen, Sybil Temshen, seems equally at ease as the film's love interest perhaps because, as she herself explained, she's learned that the most important thing is "to relax" in front of the camera.

Back to Palm Beach Film Festival Diaries

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.