Uncle Bawley's words do not fall on deaf ears, rather they echo the sentiment felt by the entire Benedict family and little do they realize that Jett Rink's solitary oil well on Reata land will launch the emergence of an industry that will change the face of Texas.
Edna Ferber's sprawling western saga of a Texan family comes to life in George Steven's 1956 film adaptation. Giant tells the story of a wealthy cattle baron, Jordan "Bick" Benedict ( Rock Hudson ) who comes to Maryland to purchase a horse from Horace Lynnton ( Paul Fix ), a socially prominent doctor. While staying at his home he meets, falls in love with and marries Lynnton's beautiful daughter Leslie ( Elizabeth Taylor ). Bick transports her from the lush green countryside of Maryland to his dusty isolated ranch called Reata, an enormous 600,000 acre cattle spread run by himself, his sister ( Mercedes MacCambridge ) and his staff of Mexican farmhands.
Once at Reata, Leslie undertakes changes that reflect her well-bred upbringing and stubbornly refuses to let Texan folkways stop her from being considerate and helpful to the Mexican people. We follow Leslie as she grows from a delicate flower from the east into a tough leathered matriarch. We follow Bick as he rises from a cattle rancher to an oil millionaire in his competition against Jett Rink ( James Dean ), a despised ranch hand who first strikes oil on Reata land. Together they build a marriage mixed with tenderness and turbulence to create a dynasty spanning three generations.
At its heart Giant is an intimate story of compromise and adjustment. Leslie learns to adapt herself to her surroundings and become a true Texan without compromising her values. She becomes such a part of the ranch that none of Bick's family, friends or neighbors could imagine what Reata would be like without her. More importantly, Bick comes to accept that life on Reata cannot remain the same as when his father ran the ranch. He comes to accept that his children want to lead lives of their own in different professions and, in the subtle finale, finds that his racial views have been completely changed.
"Honey, you don't act that way towards those people. You're a Texan now"
"Is being a Texan a state of mind? I'm still myself"
The strong-willed Leslie was the instigator to many of these changes but even more so was that substance known as black gold - oil. The oozing stinking liquid was converting humble farmers into millionaires overnight and, with their pockets bulging with more cash than they knew what to do with, they had little desire to hold onto archaic beliefs of the past. It was an exciting time and they were proud to be in the throes of new inventions, discoveries, ideas, and new modes of transportation.
When Edna Ferber's epic novel was first published in 1952 it received much criticism. Texans resented being known as racially intolerant folk and despised the character of Jett Rink. Nevertheless, the book was immensely popular and, like Ferber's previous novels, quickly caught the attention of Hollywood producers who clamored to obtain the film rights. In making her decision, Ferber chose to go with Warner Brothers because George Stevens was undertaking the project. She appreciated his love for the story and his promise to remain faithful to her novel.
Many actors in Hollywood were eager to get a part in the film, predicting what a prestigious production it would be. For the three leading characters, Stevens considered casting Grace Kelly, William Holden and Montogomery Clift. Alan Ladd and Robert Mitchum were also under consideration for the role of Jett Rink, but Stevens chose to go with James Dean, a talented young man who was quickly making a name for himself at Warner Brothers.
The cast of Giant was primarily very youthful. Rock Hudson, only 29 at the time, was given one of his first opportunities to demonstrate his dramatic acting ability and proved to be excellent as Bick Benedict. This was a pivotal film for Elizabeth Taylor as well who, at only 23 years of age, was launched to new heights as a dramatic actress. In Giant she recreates the literary Leslie and gives her a depth which was lacking in the original novel.
Along with these youthful characters, Stevens cast a number of excellent seasoned supporting actors including tough-as-nails Mercedes McCambridge; the delightful Jane Withers as the Benedict's neighbor and best friend ( who had been called out of retirement for this part ); the lovable Chill Wills as Uncle Bawley, a gentle man whom Leslie particularly adores; and Paul Fix as Dr. Lynnton. Also rounding out the cast is Sal Mineo, Earl Holliman, Elsa Cardanas, Rod Taylor ( billed as Rodney Taylor ), Judith Evelyn, Carolyn Craig, and Victor Millan.
"Money isn't everything, Jett"
"Not when you've got it"
Location shooting for Giant began on June 6, 1955 in Marfa, a small town south of Pecos, Texas, where the cast and crew spent two months filming the scenes in and around Reata.
"It was such a happy time", Jane Withers recalled, sharing a sentiment felt by most of the cast. However, tragedy struck eight days after Dean's final scenes were shot, when the cast, assembled in the screening room at Marfa, heard that James Dean had been killed in a car crash. Warner Brothers had banned Dean from racing during the production for fear that he may injure himself while filming was progressing.
In addition to its fine script and cast, a major part of Giant's appeal lay in its magnificent score, composed by the Russian immigrant Dimitri Tiomkin, who was one of Hollywood's most talented western film composers. His score for Giant weaves strains of old Texan favorites such as The Yellow Rose of Texas with classical music ( Clair de Lune ) and heart-thumping melodies of grandeur.
George Stevens invested three years of his life into making Giant, taking no pay for his work as director, instead choosing to have part interest in the final film rights. Stevens had faith in the script, production crew, and his own directorial skill; he had profound respect for his audience and for this reason made certain that every scene was the best it could be, no matter how many retakes or different camera angles it took to get a scene just right.
"Well....after a hundred years the Benedict family is finally a success"
At one point, nearing the end of the long editing stage, George Stevens Jr. grew impatient to complete the picture. Stevens reminded him, "Just think how many man hours people will spend watching this film over the years. Don't you think it's worth a little more of our time making it a better experience for them?"
That extra effort that Stevens and the cast and crew put into making the film all that more special has been appreciated by audiences for nearly 60 years. In its gentle way Giant grows from an intimate portrait of two newlyweds to a film of gigantic proportions, equal to the entertainment it provides. Decades later, other sagas such as Dynasty, Dallas, and The Thorn Birds imitated Giant's scope which drew the audience into the individual characters and the family as a whole.
The film inspires a love for the tumbleweed ridden country known as Texas, its cattle, its oil, its people, and its history. Giant makes you proud to be a Texan, whether you were born one or not, and inspired audiences around the world to share in an admiration for the state that has become so much apart of America's heritage.
This post is our contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's marvelous Fabulous Films of the 1950s Blogathon. Be sure to head over to the main site to check out all the great coverage of your favorite films of the '50s.