Enthralling Book about the Making of GIANT
Don Graham is a distinguished Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. Texas and Texans he knows. He has written extensively about them. What is more natural for him than to write about the biggest Hollywood film ever made concerning that state than Giant, from director George Stevens? With his “Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber and the Making of a Legendary American Film,” Graham has written a beautifully detailed book about making this movie in Texas. Filled with humor and a nice smattering of juicy gossip, the narrative holds the reader enthralled with the antics of the Hollywood stars.
“Geographically and economically nature had thrown two hazards at the Texans: unlimited space, seemingly unlimited wealth” --- Edna Ferber.
This epic 1956 Warner Bros. film was adapted from the hit novel by author Edna Ferber (1885-1968). She also was a top author, having written the best sellers “So Big,” “Cimarron,” “Show Boat,” “Saratoga Trunk,” and “Ice Palace.” She collaborated with playwright George S. Kaufman on the classic plays “Stage Door,” “The Royal Family,” and “Dinner at Eight.”
Director George Stevens (1904-1975), himself a giant in the movie industry, having had hits such as A Place in the Sun (1951) starring Elizabeth Taylor and Shane (1953) with Alan Ladd, among other box office hits. He began his Hollywood career as a cameraman on some Laurel and Hardy short films at the Hal Roach Studios in 1930 and 1931. He moved over to Universal Studios for more short films through 1933. He got his big break in directing with Alice Adams starring Katharine Hepburn in 1935 while he was at RKO Radio Pictures from 1933 to 1940. He directed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the hit musical Swing Time in 1936. A couple of his other top films were Gunga Din (1939) with Cary Grant and Woman of the Year (1942) with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Stevens won Oscars® for directing A Place in the Sun and Giant.
Ferber’s novel was about an established ranching empire in Texas attended to by a wealthy family. The Benedict’s were an aristocratic family who believed in their cattle empire and were about to clash with a new breed of wildcatter’s who found oil on the plains. Matinee idol Rock Hudson was cast as Bick Benedict, who created the ranching empire, with Elizabeth Taylor playing his feisty, independent wife Leslie. Bick’s rough, tough sister was played by Academy Award® winning actress Mercedes McCambridge (All the King’s Men). Today she would have been known as an outright lesbian, but in the 1950s things weren’t out in the open.
The third significant lead actor was new to films and had made a sensational debut in director Elia Kazan’s version of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden in early 1955. It was James Dean’s first film under his new Warner Bros. contract. The second film was Rebel without a Cause, a teen angst film that turned Dean into a Hollywood legend. The Nicholas Ray-directed film also starred Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo.
Steven’s was looking for a “Marlon Brando type” to play the part of Jett Rink, the rebel ranch hand who discovers oil on his bit of Texas, and which causes friction between Rink and Benedict. Dean was a rebel, certainly, and was an actor who took things into his own hands. He nearly took over directing from Stevens and had clashes with almost everybody in the cast. Hudson and Dean especially hated each other, and Ms. Taylor had to serve as referee. Sad to learn Dean was not an especially likeable person and caused chaos on the set, as explained by Graham in the book. Dean was undisciplined and uncontrollable, much to the horror of the other actors.
The film pointed out the bigotry rampant in Texas at the time, and the class distinctions. The character of Jett Rink is one of the worst racists in the story. Filmed in the small town of Marfa, the citizens seemed to accept what was being told in the movie.
Author Graham has a great sense of whimsy and humor and lightens the story with some amusing observations. Graham inserts mini-biographies of many crew members and some of the rest of the cast, including young stars Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper and Chill Wills. It’s also interesting that Graham pointed out that the salaries were nowhere near what the stars are paid today. Shocking!
If you want to have a fun, informative, and fascinating look into the making of one of Hollywood’s great masterpieces, then reading this book by Don Graham is the perfect way to spend a summer afternoon.
Title: Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber and the Making of a Legendary American Film
Author: Don Graham
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10010
Photo by St. Martin’s Press