IN THE SUMMER OF 1957, MY FATH-er loaded our family into the car and we began an afternoon drive from our ranch near Fort Stockton to Marfa, some 85 miles to the south. A few miles past Marfa, he pulled our Chrysler off the two-lane blacktop and we headed out over a dirt ranch road, across the open country south of the Davis Mountains.
Dividing die road at different intervals were large bumps, called spreader dams by the locals, but my father called them “thrill hills.” Each rime we came to one he would hit the accelerator and die ensuing bump would send my brother and me flying off our seats, up into the air. We would land giggling on die floor, climb back up into the seat and wait for the next bump.
After a few minutes of driving, we came upon a huge, three-story house, standing tall and imposing out in the middle of nowhere. I was only Ave years old, but I can recall it as if it were yesterday. The first thing that hit me was how big it was. The second was that this house did not have a back, just a front. I figured that there had been a fire, and the back of the house had burned down. When my mother told me that it had been used in a movie called Giant, I immediately had visions of a 50-foot man overtaking Marfa and Alpine. My father pulled out a 16 mm movie camera and shot several scenes of the front and back of the house. Then we drove away, back towards Fort Stockton.
That was my first encounter with the mythic landscape of Gaul. Since then I’ve seen the movie at the theater and on home video countless times. I’ve never gotten tired of watching it, because it always reminds me of that five-year-old boy in a Texas that, like the weathered facade of Reata, has nearly vanished from the landscape.
Forty years after its premiere, Warner Bros, is planning a re-release of a restored, enhanced version of Giant to theaters across America and in England. Critics have called it “the national movie of Texas” and “the archetypal Texas movie,” while no less than Joe Bob Briggs once declared, “This movie, without doubt, is our state religion.” The Cattle Baron’s Ball and Neiman Marcus will host the world re-release premiere on Sept. 20 with a party that has more Texas blue bloods and nouveau riche begging for invitations than we’ve seen since Glenn McCarthy, Jett Rink’s prototype, threw his grand opening bash at the Shamrock Hotel in Houston.
lust why does Giant have such a hold on Texans? Why is this movie embraced and loved by Texans more than any other Texas film, even The Alamo?
To answer those questions, we’ve got to quote a line in the film uttered by Elizabeth Taylor’s character, Leslie Lynnton, upon arriving: “Why, you talk about Texas as if it were a state of mind. “
You got it, Liz.
Hollywood has always had a fascination with Texas and Texans. Beginning with Tom Mix in the silent era, followed by countless Gene Autry and Roy Rogers “B” westerns, to classic films like The Searchers and Red River, Texas and “Texans” have inundated the silver screen. With titles like A Texas Steer, Texans Never Cry, Up the Trail From Texas and The Texan, these films had one thing in common-none of them were filmed in Texas. Even the two films considered to be the finest Texas westerns ever made. The Searchers and Red River, were filmed in Monument Valley and Southern California, respectively.
So there was considerable excitement in 1955 when Warner Bros, announced that it would begin filming Edna Ferber’s novel, Giant, on location in tiny Marfa, Texas. First was the anticipation of genuine movie stars, like Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, coming into town to make a movie. Second was the near sense of dread at the kind of movie that they might make from that book.
When Edna Ferber decided to tackle Texas in her novel, she had a captive audience eager to snap up her latest tome. Combining the appeal of James Michener and Danielle Steele today, Ferber wrote best-selling novels that mixed romance (Saratoga Trunk) with historical fiction (Showboat) to paint a portrait of a specific part of the country or a class of people. She had already taken on our neighbors north of the Red River in Cimarron, a novel about the Oklahoma land rush and the ensuing oil boom, so expectations were high for Giant.
And not just because of Ferber’s reputation. In the early 1950s, the rest of America had a love/hate relationship with the Lone Star state. On the one hand we were home to that heroic figure, the cowboy. On the other band, we were a spawning ground for that crass new creature, the Texas oil millionaire. This new class of Texans caught the public’s fancy with their gambler’s attitude and their ability to throw away money-lots of it.
There bad been millionaires back East, like Carnegie and Rockefeller, who had spent large sums of money. But the Texas oil man was different. He would drop millions on a whim, and not have a care or regret, The man who personified this attitude was Houston’s Glenn McCarthy. Born dirt poor, he drilled an oil well, hit it big and used the money to build his own hotel, the Shamrock, at a cost of $21 million in 1949 dollars.
For the Shamrock’s grand opening, McCarthy threw the biggest party that Texas or the nation had ever seen. A gaggle of celebrities was brought in from Hollywood: Pat O’Brien, Sonja Henie, Carmen Miranda, Errol Flynn and Dorothy Lamour. McCarthy premiered a movie that he himself had produced, The Green Promise, starring Walter Brennan and a very young Natalie Wood. A statewide radio broadcast carried the proceedings. McCarthy even flew in a whole planeload of flowers from Hawaii. The opening of The Shamrock landed McCarthy on the cover of Time magazine.
It was against this historical backdrop that Ferber wrote her novel. However, her portrait of the typical Texan was nothing like the John Wayne image we had become accustomed to. Instead of heroic individuals fighting to claim their land from a hostile frontier, many of the Texans in Giant were crude, racist bumpkins who had stumbled onto vast fortunes by blind luck, rather than working hard for them. Mean-spirited louts who had stolen their land from Mexico, they drank too much bourbon and fought at the drop of a hat. A frequent refrain throughout Ferber’s book was, “What littleness is all this bigness hiding?”
Naturally the book didn’t play too well with Texans. Reviews of it were either downright hostile (“A monstrous piece of hokum,” sniffed The Houston Press) or condescending. The reviewer for The Dallas Morning News deplored Ferber’s “inadequacies as a literary stylist, her tendency to overcharge her tales with tabloid newspaper emotionalism.” A common joke was that Ferber had done her research for Giant by flying low over the state in an airplane.
Thus director/producer George Stevens was faced with the dilemma of filming an unpopular book in enemy territory. No stranger to the western genre, Stevens had already directed a traditional western, Shane, which interestingly enough was about change in the West, from the day of the cattleman to that of the farmer, Now he was prepared to take the saga further, detailing the shift in power from cattle to oil in a “modern1’ western. For his cast, Stevens chose an interesting mix of traditional cowboy stars- Chill Wills, Monte Hale and Jane Withers- alongside the cream of Hollywood’s star system-Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and a new kid named James Dean.
Stevens’ first objective was to soften the hard feelings Texans had toward the book. In a series of highly publicized searches, Stevens sent scouts all over the state looking for the location that would best represent the “real” Texas. Although the Reata was modeled after the King Ranch, South Texas was passed up as a location. Weeks later, Stevens settled on the Worth Evans Ranch near Marfa, a small town located in the rugged Trans-Pecos, near Big Bend National Park.
In the summer of 1955, West Texas was in the fourth year of a harsh drought. The terrain was not just as hot and dusty as it looked in the movie, recalls one local: “It was worse.” Like so many other small, rural towns in Texas, Marfa’s economy was dependent on agriculture, primarily ranching. Marfa was so remote that the nearest major airport was more than 200 miles away; people could not watch television because they lived too far out from the nearest station to pick up a signal.
The filming of Giant promised an economic miracle for the isolated town. Anyone who wanted work could get onto Warner’s payroll as a driver, extra or caterer helping out Warner Bros.’ army of cast and crew. Every available hotel room was commandeered. Some of the cast (Dennis Hopper, Earl Holliman) and much of the crew stayed in the EI Paisano Hotel. The bigger stars-Liz, Rock and Jimmy-rented houses in Marfa. Hollywood money flowed freely in the tiny town.
What made Giant so unusual was that at that time very few films were shot on location. Nearly every feature in the early ’50s was cranked out on the back lots of Warner Bros., MGM, Paramount and 20th Century Fox. These were the last days of the old studio system, when the Hollywood film factories held enormous power, owning the stars, directors and even the movie theaters themselves. It was also the early days of a new invention that was beginning to keep people at home and out of the theaters-television. Hollywood’s response to television’s threat was the big-budget epic, with stars and sets that could never be equaled by television’s puny budgets. So The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur and The King and I rolled into the movie houses, luring people out of their living rooms.
Giant was an epic of this order. With a 1955 production budget of $5 million, it was reportedly the most expensive movie ever made. Of course today that figure would barely get you two episodes of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” but for that time, $5 million was big bucks.
The movie was filmed on an open set. meaning that just about anyone could come out and watch the filming. There was a security guard at the gate, but unlike today’s location shoots, he wasn’t there to discourage visitors. Tour buses drove out to park on the Evans Ranch, so as many as 300 people might be watching a shoot Between takes, the crowds were allowed to snap photos, get autographs and even shoot home movies of Rock, Liz and Jimmy. Newspapers from around the world flew reporters and photographers to Marfa. One of them was a young Billy Brammer, who years later would gain stature as one of Texas’ most promising writers with his novel, The Gay Place. Beholding the shoot, Brammer wrote an article titled, “A Circus Breaks Down on the Prairie,” for The Texas Observer.
” Neither the stars nor the story dominate the location shooting of Giant, however,” Brammer wrote. “It’s the sheer magnitude of the operation that does it. It seems they came equipped for anything.”
Indeed they did. When no turnbleweeds could be found around Marfa, a truckload of them were brought in from California to go dancing past Liz and Rock as they got off the train. Despite Texas’ national image as one huge oil field, there has never been a producing oil well struck in the county around Marfa, so an artificial rig had to be constructed for the scene of Jett Rink’s big oil strike.
While Marfa provided plenty of wide open Texas landscapes, it didn’t have the Reata, the giant house envisioned in Ferber’s novel. The massive facade was constructed at a cost of $250,000 by a Warner’s crew in Hollywood, then placed onto six railway flatcars and shipped to Marfa, where it was assembled by a union crew transported from California. Neither Billy Brammer nor Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert cared much for the design of the Reata. Tolbert wrote that it “looked as if it were designed by Charles Addams,” (of “Addams Family” fame) while Brammer called it, “a macabre structure, which should remain for years a curiosity for West Texas cattle and cowpokes…utterly inelegant.”
Like the novel, Giant is a big film. Rancher Worth Evans had it in his contract to keep 1,000 head of cattle and 300 horses penned and ready for a call. A Douglas fir was cut in the Sequoia National Forest and transported to the set for the Benedicts’ Christmas celebration. A huge crane was freighted in by train to build the Reata facade, then kept on the set to hoist camera crews high for those spectacular long shots. The crane was so large that the McDonald Observatory in nearby Fort Davis borrowed it to lift one of the giant telescope mirrors from its mounts for polishing.
Marfa gave Warner Bros, plenty of genuine Texans and panoramic scenery, but it provided some logistical challenges. With no production facilities, George Stevens had to make the best use of what was available. There was no film lab nearby, so every day, as soon as shooting was finished, the film was loaded onto a waiting airplane. It was flown to Hollywood, processed overnight and flown back to Marfa the next morning. Stevens would then watch the rushes at Marfa’s movie theater. Marfa citizens who had appeared as extras in a scene were allowed to sit alongside Stevens and the crew to watch the dailies.
“The average movie back then shot about 82,000 feet of film,” recalls Earl Holliman, who portrayed cowboy Bob Dace. “George shot over 300,000 feet. He shot every scene over and over, from every different angle, I remember watching the dailies one time and thinking to myself that I had never seen so much footage of a cattle drive in my life.” Stevens would spend nearly a year in the cutting room editing Giant.
Despite the efforts of Texas boosters to have the film’s premiere in Texas, Stevens insisted on the traditional Hollywood and New York openings. When Giant came to the Majestic Theater in Dallas on Nov, 10, 1956, Morning News film critic John Rosenfield, whose word was law in those days, called it “one of the most successful motion picture ventures in decades. “
“Giant as both novel and three-hour, 18-minute film is a story of power as well as hearty amusement,” he wrote. “It merely paints a gigantic picture of a gigantic domain that is a little different from cozier states, no matter what they say.”
Texans may have hated Giant the book, but they loved Giant the movie. The film quickly set a record for one-week ticket receipts at the Majestic Theater. Twirlers performed routines to its theme song at halftime shows. John Connally declared it his favorite movie and used its musical score when he ran for governor in 1961. (More than 30 years later, Clayton Williams even played the Giant music at some fund-raisers during his 1992 gubernatorial bid.) Giant was re-released in 1961,1963 and again in 1970, grossing more than $12 million for Warner Bros.
SO JUST WHAT IS IT ABOUT GIANT THAT CAPtures our Lone Star state of mind, that makes it live on when most films of its era have faded into oblivion? First, most of it was filmed in Texas. The endless skies, striking sunsets and distant Davis Mountains are beautifully photographed. George Stevens was so enamored with the West Texas sunsets that he filmed the burial of Angel Obregon (Sal Mineo) three times, always at sunset.
Giant also contained dozens of real Texans. Fran Bennett, who played Judy Benedict in the film, was a real Texas oil heiress who grew up in Fort Worth and attended Dallas’ Hockaday School before heading to Hollywood and landing her role in Giant. San Angelo’s Monte Hale had made several B westerns for Republic Pictures as a singing cowboy when he was tapped for the role as Bale Clinch, the Benedicts’ neighbor. Chill Wills, from Seago-ville, Texas, played Uncle Bawley, the relative always eager to open the liquor cabinet. Bob Hinkle, a rodeo cowboy who had landed a few bit parts in westerns, answered the casting call for Giant and got an unusual job; George Stevens informed Hinkle that he wanted him to “teach Rock Hudson to talk the way you do. ” Walking back to his car on the Warner’s lot, Hinkle was cornered by James Dean, who also wanted help with Texas diction. The two young men struck up a fast friendship, spending the summer in Marfa shooting jack rabbits, drinking beer and learning rope tricks.
Texans can also feel proud of the portrayal of Hispanics in Giant, which was years ahead of its time. Up until then, Mexicans appeared in movies as banditos and sneaky thieves. When Bick Benedict gets into a fistfight with Sarge, the redneck owner of a diner, he’s doing it for his half-breed son and his Mexican daughter-in-law. Deep down, we’re proud of him for doing what is right, mainly because most of us never had the courage to take a similar public stand.
There’s also the film’s groundbreaking portrayal of women. Before Giant, most women in Texas movies did little more than “stand by their man.” When Leslie arrives from Virginia, she serves notice to the good old boys that she is not going to be a shrinking violet. In a feisty argument with Bick and his cronies after dinner, she declares that she has a mind of her own and will not be treated like a child-pretty bold stuff for 1955, when screen women tended to resemble June Cleaver. Giant portrayed strong women in the ultimate “man’s world”-Texas.
There’s also the last performance of James Dean, who steals every scene he’s in, and a young, gorgeous Elizabeth Taylor. Watching her in Giant will show young people why she was once considered the most beautiful woman in the movies long before her new career peddling perfume.
But mainly. Giant warms the heart because it is a fairly accurate picture of Texas in the pre-Alaska, pre-Kennedy-assassination era. In 1955, Texas was the biggest state in the Union, not the second biggest. Everything was bigger and better in Texas, the home of cowboys, catde, oil and football. Giant also recalls that not-so-distant time when most Texans made their living from the land, whether it was raising cattle, growing cotton or drilling for oil. Today’s Texas millionaires have made their fortunes from developing high-technology (Ross Perot), running car dealerships (David McDavid) or building conglomerates (Harold Simmons), not from oil wildcatting or ranching. We are now in the process of raising a whole generation of Texans who have no connection to the land at all.
After 40 years, Giant’s influence is still felt in popular culture. The Eagles sang about James Dean, and Brad Pitt has made a career of doing Dean knock-offs in Thelma & Louise and Legends of the Fall. The image of the short-lived star reclining in a Dusenberg has been used in countless ad images. And what is the TV series “Dallas” but Giant moved 400 miles east? There’s the large family ranch (South-fork/Reata) that started as a cattle ranch, but went for oil in a big way; the patriarch who has held it together (Jock Ewing/Bick Benedict); the wimpy son (Bobby Ewing/Jordan Benedict); and the gambling oil man (J.R. Ewing/Jett Rink). As a matter of fact, looking at Jett Rink’s initials plastered all over his hotel, it’s not hard to see how J.R. got his name.
Does Giant truly represent Texas and Texans? Perhaps, if you believe that Texas is still a state where a man (or woman) with enough drive, determination and luck can become a millionaire. (Interestingly enough, ads for the Texas Lottery tap heavily into this vein.) However, the real reason we identify with the characters in Giant is because we like their attitude-they do whatever they want, no matter what people think. When Jett strikes oil, he drives right up to the Benedicts’ party in his oil-stained clothes and taunts them, repeating “I’m a rich ’un ! °. When Bick decides to attend Jett’s hotel opening, he flies his private plane low over the lounge so he can rattle everyone’s cocktail glasses. Such gestures are in the line of descent from Crockett, Travis and Bowie at the Alamo, when they said, “We’re from Texas, Santa Anna, and we can do whatever the hell we want. Now get off our property!”
So how will this 40-year-old movie play today? My guess is very well, for two reasons, First, this movie demands to be seen on the big screen. Giant isn’t a linear narrative as much as it is a collection of scenes, or moments, that really show their power on the movie screen: Bick and Leslie driving up to the Reata for the first time, the barbecue scene where Leslie faints, Jett reclining in the Dusenberg, Luz riding War Winds, Jett walking off the boundaries of his new land, Angel Obregon’s funeral and the big fight in Sarge’s diner (one of the greatest movie fights of all time).
Second, the movie should profit from the current generations curiosity about the “old” Texas. When Clayton Williams and Ann Richards squared off for the governorship a few years back, Richards said that she represented the “new” Texas, as if that were somehow supe-rior to the previous model. Clayton Williams said that he represented the “old” Texas, and was darned proud of it. Enough folks were uncomfortable with Williams (“just relax and enjoy it ” ) to give Richards the election, but they still looked at the old Texas with fondness, much like you would a grandfather who was old, cranky and set in his ways, but who had once been a young man worth imitating. The new generation of Texans growing up with inline skates, Green Day and Doc Martens needs to see this film to understand what Texas used to be like. We were different, and that’s why Giant holds the same place in our hearts that Gone With The Wind holds for Southerners.
ANY EXCUSE TO PAY TRIBUTE TO GIANT is a good one, but the Cattle Baron’s evening will not be without its ironies, Scores of successful, proud Dallasites will gather to commemorate a movie whose real-life roots are in (shudder) Houston, not Dallas, The film’s only mention of anything remotely connected to Dallas comes from Luz Benedict (Carroll Baker) when she declares that she is going to Neiman’s to buy the best dress that they have. Of course Dallas has known few flamboyant oil men. H.L. Hunt kept a low profile and never threw a party like Glenn McCarthy. Dallas has usually frowned upon the showy, outlandish displays of money that old Jett Rink loved. Rich Dallasites from A,H, Belo to Stanley Marcus have been more in the mold of the Eastern oligarchy- quiet and reserved. For several years Dallas almost seemed to distance itself from the “cowboy” image of Texas, prefering to tout its white-collar industries of real estate and banking. The only wealthy Dallasite who carries that “I can do any damn thing I want” attitude is Jerry Jones-and remember, he made his fortune in the oil business and is from Arkansas.
But none of this matters. The Texas myth demands that when the legend meets the truth, we must go with the legend. For one evening, the old Texas will reign supreme over the new Texas. And in that Texas state of mind, this will still be a special place inhabited by people a breed apart from the rest of the nation-a place where anything is possible.