Director George Stevens once commented that if he had to remove himself from at least one of the three part equation to making movies (the first part being pre-production – the planning stages – the second, the actual shooting, and finally part three, post-production – the shaping and reshaping of all the raw elements) he would gladly step aside from the middle act and allow someone else to actually shoot his movies for him. Steven’s point was that given the right cast and an ample period to meticulously plan out every last detail, post-production made by a skilled director could salvage even the most remedial content. In some ways, Giant (1956) puts Stevens’ theory to the test.
In retrospect, Giant marks the definitive moment of that split between George Stevens - the expert director of frothy light-hearted entertainments (Swing Time 1936) and rousing action/adventure yarns (Gunga Din, 1939) – and Stevens, the socially conscious and introspective film maker telling stories with a moral purpose. Based on Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel, Giant is a fractured masterpiece about racial prejudice and class distinction; its portrait of Texas as a mighty state of mind unto itself with its own code of ethics not beholding to the rest of the union is, at times rambunctious, unflattering, critical and yet mostly compelling.
The sense of community Stevens was able to foster and represent within Giant began with a decision to pack up the entire company of players and crew and make the train trip from Los Angeles to Marfa, Texas for an extensive location shoot. Elizabeth Taylor and co-star Jane Withers became exceptionally good friends; some existing home movies show Taylor at her playful best posing with some yucca and favoring Wither’s candid camera with a poised and haughty ‘oh darling!’ Jane had met Elizabeth decades earlier while the two were still child stars under contract at MGM. By the time Giant was put into pre-production Taylor had campaigned heavily to do the movie while Withers participation on the project happened almost by accident.
George Stevens was not at all convinced Elizabeth Taylor was right for the part. Indeed, Stevens had harbored something of a strong dislike of Taylor, predicated mostly on her MGM career which he regarded as wafer-thin and playing to the strengths of an overweening princess with little acting ability. Stevens was to have a significant change of heart after Taylor appeared for him in A Place in the Sun (1951) where she managed to eschew almost all of the trappings he disliked from that MGM tutelage. Still, Giant required something more of Taylor that Stevens was not entirely certain the actress would be able to deliver.
Stevens did, however, encourage Jane Withers in her habitual need to play ‘mother, friend and confidante to all. Although Withers’ role in Giant is small to practically non-existent, the part she played behind the scenes – particularly while on location – proved integral to the morale and enduring camaraderie. Withers also managed the minor coup of befriending co-star James Dean who pretty much kept to himself otherwise. Dean is, of course, one of the all-time great, yet deeply troubled – and in hindsight - largely romanticized figures; qualities almost immediately pared down to accommodate his status as an ‘American rebel’ with – or without – a cause, after Dean’s untimely death at the age of 24 in a horrific automobile accident in 1955.
Dean, who struggled to overcome inner demons and triumphed for the briefest of moments as the undisputed ‘new face to watch for’ in the movies; used that impossibly nomadic experience of childhood to trademark himself as the embodiment of his generation. Yet, in retrospect Dean is arguably Giant’s weakest link. In point of fact, Dean never felt comfortable in his aged make-up applications that cause his character to grow from his mid-20's into a man in his late 50's. He also harbored something of a quiet competitive resentment toward Rock Hudson; everyone’s favorite hunk de jour (although no one knew then that Hudson was gay).
The conventional wisdom in Hollywood film making had always been to take established actors in their mid-30's and age them backwards to play the part of a teenager. For Giant, however, George Stevens took the opposite approach. The effects are not altogether convincing, particularly in close-up, where the obvious streaks of gray and added wrinkles to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor’s porcelain smooth skin never look anything but obvious. Ironically, Dean’s receding skull cap and Gable-esque pencil-thin moustache strike a more convincing chord. But Dean’s performance lacks the conviction of an elder statesman, even one as uncouth as Jett Rink.
In retrospect, Giant became a project of compromises for George Stevens who had initially wanted Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn for the part of Leslie Benedict and William Holden to play Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict. Stevens also struggled with the girth of Ferber’s novel; determined that screenwriters Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat should condense - but also squeeze - virtually every character in Ferber’s book into the movie in some sort of meaningful way. In retrospect, Guiol and Moffat’s telescoping is not entirely successful and, in fact, becomes fragmented and episodic during the movie’s last act. Characters like Jane Withers’ Vashti Snythe and Earl Holliman’s Bob Dace become cardboard cutouts at best, while Sal Mineo’s Angel Obregón II – an important secondary character in Ferber’s novel - is now reduced to a cameo that makes Angel’s death and return to Riata as a pine-boxed corpse unremarkable.
Where the film excels is in its initial setup of the fiery and conflicted central figures. Regrettably, these increasingly get lost in the shuffle after the intermission. Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict’s (Rock Hudson) arrival in Maryland to look over a mare at the stud far owned by Dr. Horace Lynnton (Paul Fix) leads to a cute meet between Jordan and the Lynnton’s rather headstrong daughter, Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) who is sort of engaged to Sir David Karfrey (Rod Taylor – thoroughly wasted in a thankless part). Leslie is immediately smitten with ‘Bick’ but rubs him the wrong way after she suggests that America ‘stole’ Texas from Mexico. Nevertheless, a romance stirs and Bick woos Leslie into a proposal of marriage. She has no idea what she is getting herself into. For upon her arrival in Texas, Leslie is appalled by the starkness of it all – the Benedict ranch a sprawling farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and presided over by Bick’s spinster (and rather mannish) sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge).
The relationship between Leslie and Luz is strained from the start with Luz misperceiving Leslie as a threat to her own authority on the ranch. This includes managing the infrequently flaring tempers between Bick and his hired hand, Jett Rink (James Dean) who is backward, awkward and motivated by pent-up frustrations that have remained subservient to the Benedicts; a balance of power that will shortly shift. Luz decides to throw a picnic in honor of Bick’s new bride; the decision hardly altruistic but rather predicated on Luz’s desire to see Leslie fail to make new friends. Sure enough, the mood between Leslie and the neighbors is frosty, particularly between Leslie and Vashti Snythe (Jane Withers) who had once hoped to marry Bick herself but has since settled on his cowhand, Bob Dace (Earl Holliman) instead. Worse, unaccustomed to the stifling heat, Leslie succumbs and is carried back into the house by Bick. None of this seems to bode well for Leslie’s longevity as the mistress of Riata. However, only a day later she has reconfigured her outlook on this new world; having risen at dawn before the rest of the household to show the servants how to prepare ‘a proper breakfast’. “I can’t be just a guest in my husband’s home,” Leslie tells Luz, a move that causes Luz to go on a tear with a stallion not yet properly broken in. The horse bolts and Luz is thrown to her death.
During Luz’s wake Jett learns that Luz has left him her patch of Riata – a small, unremarkable stretch of land with a single derrick that has yet to produce any oil. Bick offers to buy back the property for a fair price. But Jett is genuinely touched by Luz’s gift and refuses to sell. It is a fortuitous decision. For after toiling day and night for weeks on end the well does indeed produce a gusher, one that will ultimately establish Jett’s supremacy on that Texas landscape but also serve as the basis for his undoing much later on. Charging up the steps of the ranch to confront Bick, Jett makes a spectacle of himself – accosting Leslie and assaulting Bick before tearing off to cap and register his claim. “You should have taken care of him when you had the chance,” Uncle Bawley (Chill Wills) tells Bick, “Now he’s too rich to kill!”
Indeed, from this moment on even the vast expanses of Texas will prove rather constricting for Bick and Jett’s adversarial relationship. But just as the narrative begins to gain momentum Stevens and his screenwriters inexplicably choose to fast track through the rest of Ferber’s story. We all but skip through the birth of Bick and Leslie’s two children: Luz II (Carroll Baker) and Jordan III (Dennis Hopper). A rift between Bick and Leslie over the way he regards his Mexican servants leads to Leslie briefly retreating to her family home in Maryland where she learns that her sister, Judy (Fran Bennett) has since become engaged to David. Bick pursues Leslie and the two reconcile at Judy and David’s reception with Leslie returning to Riata a short while later.
After the intermission the movie’s timeline advances by some twenty years. Luz II and Jordan III are grown and Texas has morphed into an enterprising state of vast and diversified business opportunities with Jett at its forefront. Luz is attracted to Jett – a school girl’s fascination that infuriates Bick. Leslie encourages her husband to be tolerant. But Bick’s anger overwhelms after Jordon announces he intends to marry Juana Guerra (Elsa Cardenas); a Hispanic. Incapable of reexamining his own racial prejudice, Bick makes ready the family to attend a convention in Dallas where Jett is scheduled to be the keynote speaker and honored member. Luz is girlishly excited at the prospect of seeing her hero so honored. But the event is marred by Jett’s drunkenness. After passing out at the head table, Jett is confronted by Bick in the hotel’s wine cellar, collapsing under his own self-indulgences and shattering Luz’s fantasies about what a great man she thought he was.
On the trip back to Riata the Benedicts are denied service at a roadside diner after the pompous proprietor Sarge (Mickey Simpson) refuses to wait on an aged Mexican couple. The realization that he has been just as willfully destructive in his own son’s marriage suddenly sinks in for Bick, who decides to stand up to Sarge’s racial prejudices. He is beaten to a pulp by this much younger man – losing the battle, perhaps, though arguably having won the war. Leslie’s pride and faith in her husband is restored, the two seated on a couch quietly observing Jordan and Juana’s offspring; one white, one with decidedly tanned skin – the pair representative of the multicultural future of Texas and, indeed, the nation.
Giant makes its points with a heavy brand. George Stevens, a director known primarily for his incredible finesse and visual style elsewhere seems to be struggling with the thematic tome quality of Ferber’s writing. The momentum of the piece just seems off. The first third, roughly concluding with Luz’s death, is methodically paced. But the middle act comes to a virtual standstill as the characters struggle to find themselves, while the last third is episodic at best, some vignettes more successfully realized than others. The last act of Giant is meant to exhibit just how far America had come as a nation circa 1956 and how far it still had(s) to go. Yet the tide of racial inequity overpowering the latter half of the story almost seems to have come as an afterthought, regrettably also at the expense of the other narrative threads begun at the start, but abandoned by the end of the first act. The movie is also shockingly weak on maintaining some of the more adversarial relationships that ought to have been its strength – nee glue – to build upon. As a result, Giant never seems to attain a level of finality but rather continues on its ever-evolving plain of themes and relationships before it just concludes on a morally ambiguous note. The ending is almost obligatory instead of a summation of all that has gone before it.
Despite its shortcomings, Giant’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater premiere drew a crowd of 10,000 spectators and 2000 stars. Viewed today, Giant is an anomaly of the glossy Hollywood melodrama and the message picture, and, never the twain shall meet between these two. At times, Giant has an almost documentarian feel, albeit one with lavishly appointed production values. But as a fictional narrative it tends to lag and lumber along, infrequently rising above mere technical competency and leaving something to be desired in general; a shame indeed.
As a rather fascinating postscript the shoot in Marfa, Texas was ironically book-ended by a pair of auto accidents both involving James Dean. In the first incident, Dean came along a wreck that had already occurred, affording an injured black man lying by the side of the road shade in the stifling heat by standing over him until help arrived. It was an act of kindness later expounded upon in the chapel of a nearby church. But just ten days before the rest of the ‘Giant’ company was preparing to head back to Hollywood, Dean took his ill-fated leave to race his Spyder 550. He would never make it to the event.
Swerving to avoid another car that had jackknifed in front of him on the lonely highway, Dean instead wrapped his own car around a nearby pole and was instantly killed. News arrived in Marfa just as Stevens was about to pull up stakes for Hollywood, the cast and crew in a state of shock and disbelief over the news. As a point of interest, the wreck of Dean’s Spyder was later stolen presumably by souvenir seekers, as was a bronze bust commissioned to augment Dean’s cemetery tombstone. Neither theft has ever been recovered.
Giant was shot in WarnerColor – in hindsight, a less than perfect film stock with exaggerated grain and an inferior shelf life, prone to color fading. The conventional wisdom of the day was to save a few bucks by developing a competitive mono-pack color process less expensive and cumbersome than 3-strip Technicolor. Regrettably, the results are far less impressive too. Giant’s Blu-ray marginally improves on Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer, the image ever so slightly tightening up in 1080p. Warner is still cribbing from digital files derived from a ‘restored’ print made back in 1997.
They have, in fact, done everything possible to resurrect as much of Giant from oblivion, albeit without going that extra step to do a ground up rescan of the original film elements. Colors are faithful to the shortcomings of WarnerColor. Flesh looks more natural this time around. There’s more distinction between greens and blues, browns, black and dark navy blues. Grain is present and, at times, quite heavy. Age-related artifacts have been tempered, though not entirely eradicated. Whites tend to borrow a distinctly yellowish or bluish tint. On rare occasions the image also appears to suffer from a slight softness, particularly the opening sequence.
The audio is a DTS 5.1 remix and exhibits all of the virtues and vices of a vintage soundtrack, Dimitri Tiomkin’s score continuing to sound rather strident. Extras are all imports from Warner’s DVD and include two documentaries on the making of the film, an introduction by George Stevens Jr., audio commentary too, and a host of stills, junkets, and other press and promotional materials. All in all, nicely put together.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)