In this week’s episode of “Frame of Mind,” we explore the changing forms of Texas beauty – and all the grit, glamour, and glory that comes with it.
We feature three films that attempt to grasp these moments: Elliot Erwitt’s “Beauty Knows No Pain,” Mary Megan Kennedy’s “America’s Queen of Queens,” and Phillip Thomas’ “The Debutante Film.” Whether it be hair-spraying your child’s leg for a beauty pageant or smiling until your face hurts, these North Texas filmmakers dive deep into what it means to chase beautiful.
In “The Debutante Film,” we follow former KERA filmmaker Phillip Thomas through his look into high-society customs. Thomas dove into Dallas’ elite debutante scene in 1972, filled with dancing, drinking and the passing down of long-time courtship traditions. Thomas’ film captures the identity and allure of these tight social circles.
I talked to the filmmaker about debutante parties and their place in society both past and present.
What was the process leading up to the film?
This all happened in part because I met a girl from Dallas. She became a debutante and I would come up [to Dallas] for the debutante parties. Even though I wasn’t part of the men’s clubs, I still got an invitation and still got to go to most of the parties.
Nobody else at Channel 13 had ever been to a debutante ball or even knew a debutante. I thought, ‘I’ve got an inside deal here to this really weird scene’. It came about that I needed permission. David Wynne, Angus Wynne’s brother, was president of one of the men’s clubs so I just approached him and said, ‘We’re with Channel 13. We’d like to make a documentary. What do you say?’ He OK’ed it, much to my total astonishment. And then, I said, ‘could we interview you?’ and he said, ‘send me a big list of questions’. I sent him a list of probably 30 questions and he said, ‘alright come back in a week or two with a camera and we’ll go through them.’
Once I got that in the can, I said, ‘OK, I’ve got a film.’ So we went to some of the debutante parties. Because I knew a lot of people already, I wasn’t a weird outsider. A lot of these people knew who I was. Of course, I was with my wife and she was guiding me through it all. I had an experience in my life that was unique and when I got a chance to make a film about it, I just decided what better topic could I make a film about than this unique insight to what is a very private thing?
What was the experience like filming these parties? * (I didn’t ask this question, but put it in for the clarity since he switched to this topic abruptly in conversation.)
These parties were real dark and film wasn’t advanced at that time. Lenses were crummy. It’s not like it is today. We didn’t just have all these wonderful super high-speed digital things we have to today that have filmed that today. But it is what it is. It’s amazing that I got as much film as I did in that course [of time].
If you watch the film, you can see that we relied a lot on photographs as well. There were a lot of photographs of older past debutante events that we relied on. That really helped the film a lot in terms of talking about the history of men’s clubs and how they formed and how this bizarre thing got started in the first place.
You were quite familiar with the debutante scene before this. Was there a different being in the midst of that versus filming it behind a camera?
I, by this time, really felt comfortable around those people. If I had just some news crew there, it might have been different but because I had been around and I was with my wife, who had been a debutante, we were just part of the party. We just blended in and we were having a party with everyone else – we just had this clunky thing on a tripod. That was part of our presence there.
What was your vision going into this film? Did it change over the course of filming?
From a documentary standpoint, I didn’t know what to expect. I just said, ‘well let’s just take it step by step’. I didn’t think they’d even approve it. I just couldn’t picture them letting me into these parties. But when David said it was OK, then I started getting excited and he did such a good job answering all those questions.
It’s just one of those things and think, ‘OK, I’m going to look at this subject and see what I can get out of it and kind of hope for the best. To me, there’s nothing better than that documentary experience of just discovery. I knew what was there. I knew what I was going to film- the bows, all the heckling and the humor that they roll around with each other. So I knew what the scene was. I was just curious if I was actually going to be able to capture it or not. I was astonished at how well it got put together in terms of actually catching it.
Debutantes are an extremely exclusive group. Do you think there is still a place for debutantes today?
I do. There’s nothing wrong with people that have money and want to throw big parties for each other and their friends. We have the freedom to do those kinds of things. That’s OK to do that if you feel comfortable around those people. I’d like to think that everyone, no matter how rich they are, have friends of different economic [class], but I’m not really sure that’s the case. But if they want to party on, party on.