A larger-than-life narrative of the making of the classic film, marking the rise of America as a superpower, the ascent of Hollywood celebrity, and the flowering of Texas culture as mythology.
Featuring James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor, Giant is an epic film of fame and materialism, based around the discovery of oil at Spindletop and the establishment of the King Ranch of south Texas. Isolating his star cast in the wilds of West Texas, director George Stevens brought together a volatile mix of egos, insecurities, sexual proclivities, and talent. Stevens knew he was overwhelmed with Hudson’s promiscuity, Taylor’s high diva-dom, and Dean’s egotistical eccentricity. Yet he coaxed performances out of them that made cinematic history, winning Stevens the Academy Award for Best Director and garnering nine other nominations, including a nomination for Best Actor for James Dean, who died before the film was finished.
In this compelling and impeccably researched narrative history of the making of the film, Don Graham chronicles the stories of Stevens, whose trauma in World War II intensified his ambition to make films that would tell the story of America; Edna Ferber, a considerable literary celebrity, who meets her match in the imposing Robert Kleberg, proprietor of the vast King Ranch; and Glenn McCarthy, an American oil tycoon; and Errol Flynn lookalike with a taste for Hollywood. Drawing on archival sources Graham’s Giant is a comprehensive depiction of the film’s production showing readers how reality became fiction and fiction became cinema.
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Long Story Short
The story of Giant the movie begins in May 1952, when George Stevens instructed his secretary to obtain an advance copy of Edna Ferber's new novel. He wanted a big, serious subject, a worthy follow-up to A Place in the Sun and Shane, which he had recently completed editing. Now he was looking for another property, and he thought that Ferber's latest opus might be the ticket. It was likely to be a bestseller, because Ferber rarely missed, and its subject was Texas, a state that Stevens, like many other observers in the fifties, viewed as a unique reflection of postwar America.
But he soon learned that Ferber adopted a tough stance regarding Hollywood, as reported in a May 21 Variety article. She had long used magazine serialization to build up interest in her novels, and she preferred leasing rather than selling the rights to the studios. That is exactly what she was doing with "The Giant," as the press tended to mistitle the novel, and on May 28, Stevens's secretary reported that all requests for "The Giant" were being met with a "blanket 'no.'"
Undeterred, Stevens had his secretary read the first installment (the first four chapters of the novel) in the Ladies' Home Journal, and she reported that the novel would be "based on character sketches of these 'giants'— their intrigues — great wealth — race hatred for the Mexicans — and one central figure called Jett Rink — who is more fabulously wealthy than all the others." That was enough to fan her boss's interest.
In Hollywood, the Ferber name was as surefire a brand as there was among novelists of that era. And there seemed to be an especially strong demand for Ferber films during the Eisenhower years. Five of her works appeared over a nine-year period: A remake of Show Boat (1936, 1951) featured Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, and Howard Keel; a third remake of So Big (1924, 1932, 1953) starred Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden; and a remake of Cimarron (1931, 1960) starred Glenn Ford and Maria Schell. Her last novel, Ice Palace (1958), came out in 1960, featuring Richard Burton, Robert Ryan, and Carolyn Jones. And of course there was Giant in 1956. From the silents through the talkies, Hollywood made twenty-five films from Ferber's works — an astonishing run.
Stevens knew that the book was stirring up a lot of ire in Texas, but he thought all the back-and-forth in the press augured well for bringing the novel to the screen. He embraced the hostile reaction: "All of this bombast meant controversy, a healthy and provocative thing. And as such, it served to add to my enthusiasm for putting the subject onto the screen in the best and most forceful possible form." He felt that the brouhaha over the book would stimulate audiences to see the film, and in early 1953 he took steps to make that happen. He also had confidence that Texans would embrace his film: "Despite their fierce pride in their state, Texans have a great sense of humor — I hope. That's what we're counting on."
For years, going back to his involvement with Frank Capra and William Wyler in forming Liberty Films in 1945 as an independent production company, Stevens had been interested in breaking the studios' stranglehold on deciding which films got made. Although Liberty folded after making only one film, Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, the dream of independent production remained.
In an unusual move, Stevens teamed up with producer Henry Ginsberg and Edna Ferber to form their own production company. Stevens had known Ginsberg for a long time, and although they had clashed when both were at Paramount in the late forties, it was Ginsberg who had offered Stevens the Shane project. A respected figure in the film industry, Ginsberg was also friends with Ferber.
On May 4, 1953, Stevens, Ginsberg, and Ferber signed a partners' agreement to produce a film based on Ferber's novel. They called it Giant Productions and opened an office at 4000 West Olive Avenue, Burbank. The agreement allotted 33 1/3 percent of profits to each partner, and for her story, Ferber would receive no compensation. She had concluded years earlier that it was better to lease her works for film development rather than sell them. That way, rights eventually reverted to her. In this instance, she agreed to a ten-year license, while retaining stage and musical comedy rights. The risk for all three was considerable, but the prospect of riches was also great. They were nothing as much as wildcatters setting forth to drill for oil in the fabled wilds of West Texas.
Opposition in Texas appeared as soon as news reports about the deal were published. Upon hearing that the novel might be made into a film, a man in Beaumont told a Hollywood columnist, "If you make and show that damn picture, we'll shoot the screen full of holes." And in Houston, Carl Victor Little, Ferber's most indefatigable critic in the Lone Star State, unleashed an attack at the end of that May. Little had scoffed at the book when it started appearing in the Ladies' Home Journal the year before and had devoted several columns of denunciation when it hit bookstores. Now here he was again. He renewed his mockery of Ferber's insistence that Texans owned DC-6's and flew them everywhere. He applauded the fact that it had taken eighteen months for the author to sell her "shoddy piece of defamatory merchandise." He joked that the film was going to be shot in England and star Charlie Chaplin as "the Big Rich rancher."
The columnist had already upset Ferber over his call for a public hanging of the author. It frightened her, she said, but it was simply an example of the very type of humor — Texas exaggeration — that she satirized in her novel. Faced with hostile criticism, she fought back and called for a truce. She pointed out that there were novels by Texas authors published that same year that were very critical of the state and yet they had drawn no ire at all. But the truce she sought wouldn't happen until the film appeared. When it did, Texans embraced it from the Red River to the Rio Grande.
On December 14, 1953, Giant Productions secured from Warner Bros. a budget of $2.5 million, subject to approval by Warner if it exceeded that figure.
The next step was to boil down the hefty 447-page novel into a treatment and ultimately a shooting script. Stevens signaled his intentions in a lunch conversation with John Rosenfield, a friend who was also the entertainment editor of the Dallas Morning News. Ferber, who also knew Rosenfield, considered him "a man of taste, intelligence, and vitality in writing." According to Rosenfield's column in March 1954, Stevens asked him for advice. "Shall I produce 'Giant' as pure Ferber and make most Texans sore or shall I tone it down and get a pretty story out of it?" But the question was rhetorical; Stevens already knew exactly what he was going to do. He explained to Rosenfield that he intended "to follow the Ferber book, only clarifying and linking episodes for smoother screen narrative." He argued that Texans were "so state-proud that none of them would pay attention to a mere glorification." Finally, he thought that the film, if faithful to Ferber's vision, would have more "impact in Texas and elsewhere."
Ferber's novel told the story of a Texas ranching empire and the clash between old ranch aristocracy and the new breed of oilmen. The head of the vast Reata Ranch (2.5 million acres), Jordan (Bick) Benedict, travels to Virginia to buy a horse named My Mistake to put out to stud. There he meets Dr. Lynnton, the horse's owner, and his lively, intellectual daughter, Leslie, a "tall slim girl. Not pretty." After an almost overnight courtship, they marry and he takes her back to Texas, where she is both fascinated and appalled by the "state of mind" she finds there, along with proud Anglos who like to think of Texas as "a world in itself." She loves her husband but finds his mannish sister, Luz, rude and domineering. What bothers her most, though, is the wholesale discrimination against the Mexican-American workers on the ranch. Besides that, a sullen ranch hand, Jett Rink, shows her something about class structure, as well. He is resentful of the few acres of scrubland that Bick had given him and exclaims at the size of Bick's ranch: "Who gets hold of millions of acres without they took it off somebody!"
As the years pass, Jordan and Leslie produce two daughters and a son. Jett Rink strikes oil and amasses the kind of wealth that surpasses the Benedicts'. During World War II, Jordan finally submits to drilling on his land, and the Benedicts benefit from this new source of revenue — airplanes, a swimming pool. As the Benedict children grow up, it becomes painfully clear to Jordan that his son, Jordan Benedict III, will not follow in his footsteps and take over management of Reata. Instead, "Jordy" wants to become a doctor and open a clinic for Mexican-American citizens living in deplorable conditions. He further frustrates his father's patriarchal desire by marrying a Mexican-American woman, Juana Guerra. They have a baby, Jordan Benedict IV, but Bick can't accept that his grandson and heir to Reata is half Latino. Everything comes to a head when the Benedicts reluctantly travel to the grand opening of Jett Rink's airport in the imaginary city of Hermoso (Spanish for "beautiful"). There Jordy's wife is turned away from a beauty parlor because of her race, and Jordy loses a fight with Jett Rink. The novel ends with Leslie's assertion that "after a hundred years it looks as if the Benedict family is going to be a real success at last." She defines success in human capital, a different kind of Texas that will eventually result from their son's rejection of ranching in favor of medicine and, to cap it off, his marriage to Juana and the birth of little Jordy. Success is not about bigness — ranches, oil, and wealth; it's about racial equality and justice. But Bick is never permitted any moral growth in the novel. He's almost the same benighted patriarchal figure at the end as at the beginning.
This bare-bones outline comes nowhere close to indicating the exhaustive amount of criticism directed against Texas in the novel. Striding into this desert of the beaux arts, Leslie offers opinions on everything. Hardly a day passes without some disquisition on the shortcomings of Texans — their boorishness, their insularity, their arrogance, their addiction to coffee, fried food, and barbecue, their supposed racism, xenophobia, and cultural illiteracy. Texas women are shrill, empty-headed, and dominated by the gigantic oafs they marry — Texas men.
In a newspaper column, Stevens went public on what he hoped to accomplish in Giant. He called Ferber's novel "admittedly a provocative book" and promised to present a balanced view that would "depict the warmth, beauty and nobility of character as well as the weaknesses as we see them." The film, he insisted, would not be a diatribe against Texas, but it also would not ignore the "conditions that many Texans themselves are sensitive about." He never mentioned race in this article, but that was the principal "condition" that his film would confront straight on.
Stevens considered Ferber's novel big and brash, a troubling touchstone of modern America, and for all of her exaggerations and personal pique, the ingredients of an epic film were right there in her book, waiting for lights, camera, and action.
From a filmmaker's viewpoint, Ferber's work was rather like the state it lampooned: spread out and sprawling. And getting this into shape for a film was not going to be a quick or easy task, and so Stevens turned to a couple of old friends, both of whom had worked with him before — Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat.
Fred Guiol (pronounced Gill) remains something of a mystery man. Of Mexican descent, he was born in San Francisco in 1898 and got into the movie business early, beginning as a prop boy for D. W. Griffith and then, in 1917, moving to the Hal Roach Studios, where he became a cameraman and director. By 1927, he was directing the early efforts of Laurel and Hardy. He and Stevens became pals during those Hal Roach days, and when the talkies came along, they worked together first at Universal and then at RKO. They churned out shorts with titles like What Fur (1933) and Bridal Bait (1934).
After Stevens hit the big time with Alice Adams in 1935, he took Guiol along with him as a screenwriter on Gunga Din and Vigil in the Night (1940). Freddie, as Stevens called him, also worked as an associate producer on several Stevens films in the 1940s and on A Place in the Sun and Shane. Although Guiol was not always very articulate in explaining his thinking, Stevens trusted his instincts for storytelling. Besides that, Stevens felt very comfortable with Guiol. They both liked the outdoors and both liked to hunt. Ivan Moffat thought that Guiol had a "moderating influence on George." An Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for Giant marked the apex of his career. Guiol died in 1964.
Ivan Moffat came from a cosmopolitan background. He was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1918, the son of a New York photographer and artist named Curtis Moffat. His mother, Iris Tree, was also artistic — and famous. As a young woman, she was much sought after as an artist's model. Augustus John painted her, as did some of the Bloomsbury crowd, including Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, and Vanessa Bell. Jacob Stein sculpted her, Man Ray photographed her, and Nancy Cunard went around with her in Paris. She published two volumes of poetry, was the subject of a famous Modigliani nude in 1916, and, later in life, appeared in both Moby Dick (1956) and as herself in a scene in Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960).
Moffat had an international upbringing, living in the United States, Australia, and England, where he attended school, eventually studying at the London School of Economics and joining the Communist Party. In the late 1930s, his father moved back to the United States, and in 1943, Moffat enlisted in the U.S. Army, working in the Signal Corps as a writer. It was through this posting that he met George Stevens and worked for him as a writer and assistant director. He was with Stevens during the liberation of Paris and later at concentration camps in Germany. A handsome, witty, and sophisticated man, Moffat had impressive friends, including Aldous Huxley, Dylan Thomas, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir.
After the war, Moffat moved to Hollywood and put his writing skills to work in the motion picture industry. Stevens made him an associate producer on I Remember Mama (1948), A Place in the Sun, and Shane. Moffat once declared that "associate producer can mean anything from writing scripts to producing the coffee." He also played a creative role with Stevens by rewriting some scenes and providing ideas for others. For his work on Giant, Moffat received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Besides Giant, other notable Moffat efforts include D-Day the Sixth of June and Bhowani Junction (both 1956), They Came to Cordura (1959), The Heroes of Telemark (1965), and Black Sunday (1977). A rather dashing figure, he associated with the expatriate crowd, was twice married, twice divorced, and had affairs with beautiful women, including Lady Caroline Blackwood — married first to painter Lucian Freud and then to poet Robert Lowell — and the young actress Elizabeth Taylor.
Stevens and Moffat were on the same wavelength most of the time, and Stevens was the only director Moffat ever felt enthusiastic about.
The three of them spent nine months, from March 1954 to December of that year, putting together a treatment. Moffat recalled how the trio went about their task: "Most of the writing was done at George's house on Riverside Drive. He attended every story conference. He paid more attention [to the script] than any other director I worked with. We spent a lot of time making tea in the morning to avoid getting down to work." Sometimes they would take a break to have lunch at a nearby golf course. It was a laborious process with a lot of frayed nerves, as Moffat remembered.
The McCarthy hearings were on television that year, a distraction amounting to an addiction. The trio took lots of breaks to watch the unfolding real-time drama. But looking back on that span of time from March to December 1954, Moffat said that the role of Stevens in the completion of the final product was quite extensive: "For Fred Guiol you might read George Stevens, and perhaps George Stevens too for Ivan Moffat."
The earliest indication of Stevens's thinking can be seen in the remarks and annotations with which he peppered his copy of the novel, which became so worn that it fell apart, a broke-back book. He had marked passages throughout, underlined whole scenes of dialogue, and made notes in the margin reflecting his responses to Ferber's text.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Giant"
Copyright © 2018 Don Graham.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Long Story Short
2. Beefcake Baron
3. Tell Mama All
4. Plantation Life
5. Lone Star
6. West of the Pecos
7. Plein Air
8. Duel in the Sun
9. Being and Nothingness in L.A.
10. Love and Marriage
11. Last Days at the Villa Capri