#215) Giant (1956)
OR “There Won’t Be Blood”
Directed by George Stevens
Written by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat. Based on the novel by Edna Ferber.
Class of 2005
The Plot: “Giant” spans 25 years in the life of Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Rock Hudson), and his wife Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). When purchasing a horse for his ranch, Bick meets Leslie and the sparks fly immediately. They marry and she moves into his ranch in Texas with him and his controlling sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge). There’s multi-generational family squabbles, a contemplation of white Texans’ subtle and not-so-subtle racism towards Mexicans, and increased tension when ranch hand Jett Rink (James Dean) strikes oil and becomes Bick’s professional (and personal) rival overnight.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises this one to the hilt, calling it “a breathtaking example of the American film as spectacle” and singling out George Stevens and the cast.
But Does It Really?: Well I’m not as crazy about this one as the NFR is. I’ll chalk this film’s induction up to “historical significance”/”minor classic”. It’s James Dean’s last film, and was quite the hit in its day. “Giant” is still entertaining, but definitely doesn’t pack the punch it used to, and the slow first half makes this 200-minute epic seem longer. The film is one of those NFR entries that is on here primarily by its reputation.
Everybody Gets One: Most of the main cast show up elsewhere on the list. The only major exception is Fran Bennett as Judy, the Benedict’s least interesting child. Bennett got her role thanks in part to having the same agent as Rock Hudson. She left showbusiness in her mid-20s and is still with us, occasionally recollecting publicly about her time on “Giant”.
Wow, That’s Dated: Given the film’s ongoing plot thread of bigotry, lots of references to “wetbacks” in this one.
Title Track: Characters use synonyms like “big” and “huge” throughout the film, but no one says the secret word.
Seriously, Oscars?: One of the biggest hits of 1956, “Giant” led the Oscars that year with 10 nominations, including Best Picture. It managed only one win, but it was a major one: Best Director for George Stevens. “Giant” lost in most of its other categories to “Around the World in 80 Days” and “The King and I”. James Dean received his second posthumous Best Actor nomination, but he and co-star Rock Hudson lost to Yul Brynner in “The King and I”.
- The exteriors of “Giant” were filmed on location in Marfa, Texas. George Stevens encouraged the townspeople to watch the shoot, participate as background extras, and help out the crew (which surely must have violated some teamster union rules).
- James Dean’s fatal car accident occurred only a week after he completed shooting this film. Thanks to George Stevens’ extended editing process, the final film was released 14 months after Dean’s death. Fellow up-and-coming actor Nick Adams was brought in to dub a handful of Dean’s extra-mumbly lines.
- The opening credits are over a shot of the ranch’s cattle. I guess you could call it “stock footage”. Thank you!
- Shout out to Mercedes McCambridge, who is playing essentially Texan Mrs. Danvers. She doesn’t have a lot of screentime, but she makes the most of it, and managed an Oscar nomination for her troubles.
- Is this a prequel to “Dallas”?
- Among this film’s many character actors are Chill Wills (four years before his way-too-eager Oscar campaign for his performance in “The Alamo”), former Shirley Temple foil Jane Withers, Robert Nichols (aka “Wienie Man” from “This Island Earth”), and Sheb Wooley, two years before his surprise hit single “The Purple People Eater”.
- James Dean is the broodiest wallflower ever. Speaking of, Method Acting plus Texan drawl equals I have no idea what Jett’s saying. This may be the second movie this week where I need subtitles.
- Side Note: The role of Jett is more of a prominent supporting role, but sympathy for the late James Dean (and I’m sure studio politics) put him in the Lead Actor category.
- This is one of those movies where the piece as a whole outweighs any of the individual parts. Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean are giving good performances, but they are all somehow overshadowed by the scope of everything.
- Today in Code era profanity substitution: “no-good wildcatting so-and-so” and “you stinking sons of Benedicts”. Nice workaround.
- Like its Texas backdrop, this film’s first half is big and spacious. Perhaps maybe too spacious. Things really don’t pick up until Jett strikes oil and the kids grow up to become better actors.
- It just doesn’t feel right seeing James Dean in old-age makeup.
- Dennis Hopper! Sal Mineo! Did everyone from “Rebel Without a Cause” catch the next flight to Marfa?
- Carroll Baker must have been pissed when Lee Remick became a thing.
- Apparently “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” is the only song any band in this movie knows how to play. Did Warner Bros. have a falling out with its own music department? [Update: It’s been brought to my attention that the bands are playing the UT Austin fight song “The Eyes of Texas”, which has the same tune. That makes a lot more sense.]
- A weird thing I noticed: Throughout the film there are several shots where Elizabeth Taylor delivers her lines with her back towards the camera. Not monumental, but consistent enough to catch my eye.
- James Dean’s last line in his last film is some drunken mumbling that was probably looped by Nick Adams.
- When you think about it, everything that happens in this movie is the horse’s fault.
- The main takeaway is James Dean’s final performance. His death and its connection to this film is a major plot point in “Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”
- The characters in the 1985 film “Fandango” visit the remains of the original set of the “Giant” mansion in Marfa.
- Here’s a weird one: during the climactic fight at the diner, the Mitch Miller cover of “Yellow Rose of Texas” is playing in the background. Thanks to its appearance in “Giant”, that recording became a hit. I think you missed the point, 1956 America.
- “Giant” was adapted into a musical in 2012. It skews closer to the original novel. I hear good things.