Monday, May 26, 2014

Giant ( 1956 )

"Bick, you shoulda shot that fella a long time ago. Now he's too rich to kill"

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 evolving Benedict family symbolizes the state of Texas itself which was adapting and moving away from its agrarian existence. Modern ways of thinking were pushing out old-fashioned notions of bigotry, child-rearing, and woman's place in the home.

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.

Carroll Baker was making her debut film performance as Luz, the Benedict's daughter, even though she was three years older than Taylor. Dennis Hopper had a brief, but substantial role himself as Jordy, their independent-minded son.

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?"

Giant was released at a unique time during the 1950s when America was at its grandest. Texas was huge and booming with energy and so was the rest of the country. When Giant premiered on Nov. 24, 1956, it earned critical acclaim and became the top grossing film in Warner Brothers history. In some theatres it played for three months straight. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards but went on to win only one Oscar ( for Best Director ) competing against Mike Todd's epic Around the World in 80 Days.

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. 


  1. Did you see any of the Winter Olympics from Sochi? Tiomkin's score for "Giant" was used as background for the opening ceremonies. It sure threw me for a second!

    This movie does take a lot from the view, but it gives as much back. Mr. Stevens was absolutely correct. Perhaps it is a movie that could only come from the fabulous 50s.

    1. I did! I was wondering why they had Giant playing for a moment, until it dawned on me that they were paying tribute to Tiomkin...not Texas. I think the score is as much apart of the film as any of the principal actors, I certainly can't imagine Giant being as entertaining as it is without that wonderful music linking each scene.

  2. GIANT! YAY. My favorite Western of all time. When you wrote.. "Just think how many man hours people will spend watching this film over the years." I said out loud, I've devoted at least 30 hours myself and I plan to waste that many more.

    There are just two films I watch every year at least once when they air. Giant and Rebecca.
    This movie has everything. I love seeing them age, the kids, grandkids, how they adjust to the irrepressible, Jett and his rags to riches situation. Even their crazy names. Living in OKC I still see that a lot.

    Rock played a wealthy cattle baron to perfection. What you imagine one to be and hope they all turn out to be. Then there's Elizabeth. I didn't care for her in a lot of her early roles but boy did I fall in love with her via Giant. She was never more beautiful and the way she roamed around that dusty cattle ranch, looking like bronze perfection.

    You've done a wonderful review of the film and it certainly deserved special treatment for our 50s Blogathon.
    All the best!

    1. It always amazes me to think that Liz Taylor was only 23 when she made this film. She certainly was one of the most mature actresses in Hollywood. As a teenager I use to think that when I turned 23 I'd have her maturity, but now I'm beginning to doubt I'd reach that point even when I'm 50. It's hard to picture Grace Kelly doing this part, as much as I adore her. George Stevens certainly kept future generations in mind when he made his films and it is amazing how well Giant stands up after repeated viewing. I told myself when writing this post, that I was going to pop in the DVD just to watch the credits roll....and of course, I got sucked into the entire film again!

  3. A very perceptive review of GIANT, especially in stressing its themes of compromise and personal growth. I am not a big fan of GIANT, but you make me what to watch it again and reassess it.

    1. I hope you do watch it again Rick and give it another chance. Giant hasn't endured this long just because of James Dean or Elizabeth Taylor's presence. It's a movie with a lot of heart and, considering the enormous plot, it moves along at a brisk pace. Glad you enjoyed the review nevertheless!

  4. Giant isn't one of my personal faves, but I do love the look of the film – and Elizabeth Taylor's wardrobe, of course.

    This was a thoughtful review, one that I will keep in mind the next time I see "Giant".

    1. Giant does have a great "feel" about it that sets it apart from other films. So glad you're willing to give it another look!

  5. A great post on this sprawling film, and I like the quotes you've inserted from those involved -- especially Stevens' remark about people watching the film over the years, and making the product as well as he could. He had a sense of the importance of film as creating an indelible image on culture that other directors did not have. So glad Jane Withers got back in the saddle again for this one. Thanks for a swell contribution to this fun blogathon.

    1. Watching Giant was the first time I had seen - or heard of - Jane Withers and so everytime after ( and still to this day ) I associate her as "Vashti"...not Josephine the Plumber. And yes, how true about George Stevens having foresight when he directed his films. They hold up remarkably well.

  6. Love, love, love this movie, and what a great write-up—especially for the '50s blogathon! I certainly have appreciated many man-hours worth of enjoyment due to their hard work. I totally didn't realize everyone was so young in this... there's such a sense of maturity from all of them, especially Taylor as you point out above.

    I'll also share my somewhat embarrassing fact that the first time I watched this movie was on a double-sided DVD... and I watched the second half of the movie first! I thought it was a bit strange and avant garde 'til I figured it out, but still pretty good :)

    1. Oh gosh! That sounds familiar.....I think we've done that once too. Now that's a true sign of a great film, if you can start it midway and no nothing about the characters and still find it entertaining then it must be a winner!

  7. Giant is a film I've come to like less over time, it seems to me mostly surface without much depth - though it certainly does have a moral or two that seem to me a bit too obvious. But it is pretty to look at and it was the last of James Dean.

  8. Wow...Grace Kelly, William Holden and Montgomery Clift...THAT would have been a really interesting version of GIANT to see. Of course, I like the one we actually got just fine. This is a long movie but really captures the sprawl and sweep of a multi-generational family saga, and features some really fine work by its cast and director. I know it owes a lot of its fame and frequent airings on TV to it being James Dean's last film; he's very good in it, as is Taylor, but I think this movie really belongs to Rock Hudson. He makes Bick Benedict's arc over the epic length both convincing and engrossing.

    Great post and choice for the blogathon!