In the summer of 1955, Marfa Texas wasn't a burgeoning collage of artists. It was just a little ol' cowtown where ranchers gave birth to ranchers and everyone stayed put. Even the one point of outside influence, the local airforce base, had long-since boarded up. Life was predictable, aside from the weather, but all of that changed when James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and the rest of Giant's cast rolled into town.
"That summer was the best party they'd ever went to," said Kirby Warnock, the filmmaker behind Return To Giant, a yarn-spinning documentary about those local Marfa folks who's horizons peaked during the two-month circus."It was like a spaceship came down from Mars, it was so foreign to their existence. They've spent the rest of their lives waiting for it to come back."
The film screens at Texas Theatre for one night on Wednesday, September 26, and is narrated by another lone star favorite, Don Henley. A quilt of interviews, old photographs and heirloom memorabilia, Return To Giant's angle is one that many would have overlooked, but not Warnock. He grew up in Fort Stockton. His roots are tenaciously bound to the rocky West Texas soil.
As a young child, his father drove him out to visit the set. It was after the filming concluded: the image of that giant dusty mansion stuck with him, but he wouldn't identify its importance for another 20 years. See, despite his proximity to the shooting location, Warnock didn't see Giant until the late '70s. It came on television as he was on his way out the door with his college sweetheart - but when he caught a glimpse of that house, he remembered that childhood car ride. He sat down, hypnotized. They watched it from start to finish.
Most "Texas" westerns made between 1950 and early the '70s were actually shot in Southern California. The accents and clothing were often equally inauthentic. But Giant showed it all: the whipping wind, the cracked brown earth, and the resilience of those who dug in their heels, calling the region home. It was special. It was genuine. "It was the West Texas that I knew and grew up in," said Warnock. "The men acted, spoke and looked like men I knew. They reminded me of my father and his friends." That's a tone shared by many who were reared in this state, and it's that familiarity that binds Texans with the film.
A couple decades later, the City of Marfa organized a celebratory Giant festival so Warnock traveled out to volunteer. He was paired up with the Chamber of Commerce and asked to gather memorabilia from locals. And as southern fashion dictates, every good photo had a story attached.
One particular group of gals changed the scope of Warnock's mission. A triad of girlfriends who were teenagers back in '55 were still close-knit and living in Marfa. They told all - or as much as good southern ladies dared - about that summer and what it was like to stop living the lives they knew and party with James Dean. Warnock was uplifted, wooed by their memories. He decided they needed preserving. He grabbed a cameraman and set out to gather a city's worth of accounts from the Hollywood invasion. Then, he long distance-dialed California and contacted Warner Brothers.
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By some spark of chance, the woman who answered his call was a Fort Worth native. She not only understood Giant's importance to Texas, she greenlit his project.
Kirby Warnock is a lifelong storyteller. He wrote for Buddy back in the '70s and kicks the occasional article into Texas Monthly and D Magazine, but this whole "making a movie" thing? Well, that he just made up as he went. Armed with a cameraman and conversational attitude, he visited folks door to door. Some, like those three belles, were just so charming, funny and sweet, that they became narrative cornerstones. "These small town girls, hanging out with this guy who became an icon - I just found their stories so compelling an honest." He wasn't alone. When the filming was complete, Warner Brothers bought it.
Aside from a few screenings on KERA and a showing at Texas Theatre a couple of years back (which brought in folks by the hundreds), opportunities to watch Return To Giant as it's meant to be viewed are rare. The version available on DVD has edited out some of the better content, like the hen-chat conversations between Betty Joe White and her two best girlfriends. This version screening on Wednesday will have it all, right down to the city's reaction to Dean's passing. Warnock, a Dallas resident, will open the evening with a slideshow, setting the scene for the movie itself.
Check it out and take a gander at pre-Judd Marfa, when folks hung out at the feed store instead of art galleries. The film starts at 7:30 p.m. and tickets cost $9.25 in advance. There will be a Q&A with Mr. Warnock following the screening. Texas Theatre is located at 231 W. Jefferson. Visit www.thetexastheatre.com.