Show Boat (1936):  Ferber’s Glamour Girl

Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, Helen Morgan in Show Boast 1936
Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, Helen Morgan
Show Boat 1936 Opening Banner

In 1924, Edna Ferber collaborated with George Kaufmann on one of their rare failures, a play called Minick that closed after only four months.  As Ferber recounts in her memoir A Peculiar Treasure, after a disappointing opening night, Ferber and her producer Winthrop Ames were doing a post mortem on what had gone wrong.  Winthrop joked that they should forget Broadway plays and instead perform on show boats.

“What’s a show boat?” Ferber asked, in no mood for jokes.

The question—and its answer—sent Ferber down a path that would electrify her, her readers, Broadway, and finally Hollywood.

Ferber learned that show boats were floating theaters that traveled through the American south from the 1860s to about the 1880s.  The cast and crew lived on the boat, and they docked at rural towns where hard-working and often poor people would come aboard to watch a show. 

Ferber fell in love with show boats and was stunned to discover there was very little written about life on show boats—no fiction, no memoirs, no recollections.

She threw herself into the task of researching a novel about life on a show boat.  As she writes in Treasure, “I was hot on the trail of show boats.  Here, I thought, was one of the most melodramatic and gorgeous bits of Americana that had ever come my way.  It was not only the theater—it was the theater plus the glamour of the wandering drifting life, the drama of the river towns, the mystery and terror of the Mississippi itself.”

She called the resulting novel Show Boat, and it told the story of Magnolia Hawks, a naïve young girl who grows up on The Cotton Blossom, her father’s show boat, and gets her chance to perform—against her mother’s strong objections—when the show’s leading lady has to abruptly leave the tour.

It was the eighth best-selling book of 1926.

The next year Florenz Ziegfeld produced a musical based on the novel, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein.  Though she had no active role in the musical, Ferber loved it—as did the rest of America.  Kern and Hammerstein added more whimsy and fun to Ferber’s tale, while keeping the serious undertone of race relations.

As Ferber wrote approvingly, “Show Boat had been adopted by foster parents and was being educated to be a glamour girl.”

It ran for two years straight in New York and the original cast included Helen Morgan as Julie LaVerne and Charles Winninger as Cap’n Andy Hawks.  It played in London for ten months with Paul Robeson in the role of Joe.

In 1929, Irene Dunne was a thirty-one theater actress who was considering retiring (having never made a film) when she and her husband saw Show Boat.  As Dunne’s father (who died when she was very young) worked on steamships and Dunne had a childhood memory of floating down the Mississippi with him, she fell in love with the show and was determined to play Magnolia.  She eventually won the part for a road show version that ran for a record forty weeks all along the eastern coast.  The show put Dunne on the map and led to her first Hollywood film at the age of thirty-two.

At an age when many actresses had to start thinking about their post-film career, Irene Dunne was just getting started.

So in 1936 when Universal Pictures decided to pull out all the stops to make Show Boat—the most expensive film the studio had ever produced at the time—the film cast itself.  Dunne, now a bona fide movie star with an Oscar nomination under her belt for her role in Ferber’s 1931 film Cimarron, would play eighteen-year-old Magnolia.  Helen Morgan, Charles Winninger, and Paul Robeson would reprise their stage roles on screen.  Add in Allan Jones as Magnolia’s suitor Ravenal and Hattie McDaniel as Queenie, and the stage was set for greatness.

James Whale, who’s known then and now for horror films such as Frankenstein, was an unusual choice to direct. But the mix of his outsider view and the experienced actors made for a wonderful film.

Magnolia Hawks (Dunne) is the daughter of Cap’n Andy and Parthy Ann Hawks, owners of the Cotton Blossom Show Boat.  She falls in love with gambler Gaylord Ravenal.  Leading lady Julie LaVerne is discovered to be a half black woman passing as white.  As she’s married to a white man, they are committing a crime at the time, and are forced to leave the show, paving the way for Magnolia to take over the show.

There are moments of true magic—when Dunne performs a shuffle dance inspired by the black levee workers as Helen Morgan sings, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”  Or a Romeo-and-Juliet inspired scene when Magnolia and Ravenal sing a duet from their windows, hers on top of his. 

And of course, Paul Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” will make the hair on your arms stand up.

It’s no revelation to say that black actors in the 1930s were never given the chance to play fully fleshed out roles, and were instead relegated to roles as slaves, maids, and laborers.  But it’s a testament to the immense talent of both Robeson and Hattie McDaniel that they were able to do so much with so little, and Show Boat is no exception.

Ferber’s novel and the film deserve credit for the way they handle the illegal interracial marriage—the villain is the man who exposes Julie’s history out of spite, and not Julie and her husband.  Everyone on the Cotton Blossom is sick to see her go, Magnolia most of all.  Robeson’s Joe and McDaniel’s Queenie use nothing but their eyes to convey a weariness at the injustice of the world as they watch Julie marched out of polite society for having a “drop of negro blood.”

So much with so little.

Paul Robeson - 1936 - Show Boat
Paul Robeson

The film has romance, drama, whimsy, and melancholy.  There’s moments of great humor as well—Queenie and Joe’s bickering, and Dunne brings that slightly mocking laugher to Magnolia that she would later hone in screwball comedies like My Favorite Wife.  And the scene in which Cap’n Andy acts out the final scene onstage alone after an audience member shoots the villain is worth the price of admission.

The film has a happier ending than the novel, as any good glamour girl musical should.

The American Film Institute ranks it as the 24th best musical ever made, and “Ol’ Man River” as the 24th best movie song ever.

And don’t even think about watching the 1951 MGM remake.  Despite the addition of technicolor and Ava Gardner, this film just doesn’t hold a candle to the 1936 version.  In it’s conversion to a big-time MGM musical, it becomes bloated, overblown, and loses all its humor and charm.

Ava Gardner in Show Boat- 1951.
Not even Ava Gardner could save the 1951 MGM film version….

I can think of no better place to end our discussion of Edna Ferber than Show Boat, the property that both made her the most money (through book sales, musical and film royalties) and the book she had the most fun writing.

I’ll quote one last time from Treasure before we turn the page on the great Edna Ferber:

“It doesn’t seem possible that anyone ever had so much sheer fun, gaiety, novelty, satisfaction and money out of the writing of any one piece of work as I have had out of Show Boat.”

And few movie review bloggers have ever had as much fun researching, watching, and writing about films than I have had with the work of Edna Ferber.

Show Boat 1936 Verdict - Timeless - Watch It Tonight

 Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.
  • Gehring, Wes D.  Irene Dunne:  First Lady of Hollywood.  2003.

Revisit The Films of Edna Ferber:

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Saratoga Trunk (1945):  “Two Impecunious Rascals”

1945's Saratoga Trunk opening banner

For years, Edna Ferber tried to convinced George Kaufman to write a play with her about:

“Two impecunious rascals, a man and a woman, both bearing a grudge against the world.  Meeting by accident.  Combining forces, without sentiment, without love, without marriage, to fight and defeat a horde of moneyed rascals in a ruthless world against a ruthless background.  Saratoga.”

-Edna Ferber, A Peculiar Treasure

But Kaufman had no interest in the play, and Ferber shelved the idea, for two main reasons: (1) she didn’t want to write a play alone, and (2) though she knew the man in her story would be a Texan, she couldn’t quite get a mental image of the woman.

She was in Texas researching a novel that was going nowhere (and would itself be shelved for a dozen years before reemerging as Giant) when her friend and fellow Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Louis Bromfield telegrammed her to meet him in New Orleans.  She’d never been to New Orleans before, and after a few days in The Big Easy, she could finally see her heroine clearly in her mind’s eye—Clio Dulaine, beautiful, young, and bold.  Paris-raised but returning to the city of her birth to exact revenge.

The resulting novel, Saratoga Trunk, was another critical and commercial success, garnering favorable reviews and was one of the top ten best-selling novels of 1941.

Speculation about who would play the leads in the inevitable film began immediately.  Clifton Fadiman wrote in his New Yorker review that Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper were shoo-ins for the lead roles.

He was half-right, as Gary Cooper was the choice for Texan Clint Maroon.

But the role of Clio went not to Dietrich, nor Olivia de Havilland*, who desperately wanted it, but to Ingrid Bergman, fresh off filming For Whom the Bell Tolls with Cooper.

The result?

Ferber herself (never afraid to criticize adaptations of her films) called it, “a rather dashing motion picture.”

Dashing indeed.

Like the novel, the film opens with the arrival of Clio Dulaine in New Orleans.  Years ago, her mother was the subject of scandal, the kept mistress of the rich and powerful Nicholas Dulaine.  Clio’s mother shot him when he left her, though it was an accident as he intervened when she was trying to commit suicide over her heartbreak.

Ingrid Bergman walking down the street as Clio Dulaine in Saratoga Trunk (1945)
Bergman

The Dulaine family paid Clio’s mother to go to France and never return.

After her mother’s death, Clio arrives in America determined to first make life very uncomfortable for the Dulaines, and eventually marry a rich man so she can live in comfort. 

She will never be a fool for love—that was her mother’s mistake.

Clio, the spitting image of her mother, conspicuously parades around New Orleans, delighting in the attention and ire she draws from the Dulaine family.  She also attracts the attention of Texan Clint Maroon, a stranger passing through in a ten gallon white hat and big leather boots.

The attraction is instant, mutual, and all consuming.

Gary Cooper as Clint Maroon in Saratoga Trunk.
Cooper

But Maroon is exactly the kind of man Clio can’t marry—he’s poor, scraping by on what he wins at the races and poker games.  And Maroon isn’t looking to permanently hitch his wagon to a woman who in many ways is still a girl—both cunning and naïve, calculating and occasionally hysterical.

Maroon has his own agenda—he wants revenge against the railroad barons who cheated his parents out of their land.

And yet he can’t bring himself to leave for Saratoga, New York—summer home of the east’s richest railroad barons—until he convinces Clio to go with him.

They’ll work together to achieve their dual aims—he will fleece the men at the poker table, and she’ll snag a rich husband.

Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman as Clint Maroon and Clio Dulaine in 1945's Saratoga Trunk.
Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper

She sets her sights on Bartholomew Van Steed, a rich but feckless man tied to his mother’s apron strings.  Clio easily charms and manipulates him until he’s on the brink of marriage, driving Clint mad with jealousy.

But she cannot—and will not—marry a man without money.

Van Steed owns what was a mostly worthless railroad line outside of Saratoga.  But as the eastern cities build up, the line is poised to become a trunk line—a main artery—and make the owner rich.  But Van Steed’s competitors are using dirty tactics to steal the line from him.

He doesn’t know how to fight.

But Clint does.

Shall I spoil the ending for you reader?

Let’s just say that about the time Clio decides that love trumps money, Clint decides that if Clio will only marry a man with money, then he will get truckloads of it.

And he’ll use his wits, his fists, and the Saratoga trunk line to fight for it Texas style.

Saratoga Trunk is my favorite of Edna Ferber’s novels, and the film captures the mystery of New Orleans, the romance in the air, and the irresistible pleasure of watching two rascals fall in love despite their best efforts to prevent it.


*Note: By 1945, Olivia de Havilland was deep into her Hollywood blacklist period after suing Warner Brothers regarding her contract.  But “Saratoga Trunk” was filmed in 1943, when de Havilland was still working for Warner Brothers (though about to launch her famous suit.)  Though the film was finished in 1943, Warner Brothers didn’t release it until after World War II ended.  During that time audiences preferred films about the war. 

Saratoga Trunk (1945) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.
  • Behlmer, Rudy.  Inside Warner Bros (1935-1951).  1985.
  • Ferber, Edna.  Saratoga Trunk.  1969 reprint.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Stage Door (1937):  #MeToo In the 1930’s

Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller in Stage Door (1937)
Foreground: Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller

One of the pleasures of watching films is picking out the spots where you’d do things differently.  He should’ve done this, she should’ve said that….  It’s easy to fix everything from your couch, with no budget, deadlines, or staff with minds of their own to contend with.

Every once in a while, you get the even greater pleasure of watching a film and thinking, they got it exactly right.

Such a film is Stage Door.

Edna Ferber often lamented that she did not have the talent or looks to act on the stage, a medium she held in far higher regard than the movies.  Stage Door is her love letter to those who worked and lived the life she coveted.

In her memoir A Peculiar Treasure (1939), she writes:

“With George Kaufman I wrote a play called Stage Door, a rather gay and touching play about the hopes, ambitions and struggles of the young boys and girls who loved the theater and wanted to work in it.  The theater, struggling for its life against the motion picture, the radio, the motorcar, draws in its belt another notch and goes on.  I had seen and George Kaufmann for years had seen the young people who loved the stage meeting rebuff, disappointment, uncertainty and downright poverty with such gaiety and indomitable courage as would make the beholder marvel at the tenacity and fortitude of the human race.  Stage-struck, all of them, and proud of it.”

The play portrays the highs and lows of a group of struggling actresses who live together in a New York theater boardinghouse.  Margaret Sullavan starred in the lead role for 169 performances before quitting to have a baby and closing down the show.

The film version opens on the Footlights Club, an all-female boarding house for aspiring actresses in New York city.  There’s a cacophony of singing, talking, and shouting.  Annie (Ann Miller) is sweeping up broken glass, Eve (Eve Arden) is wisecracking with her cat draped around her neck, Judy (Lucille Ball) is tying up the communal phone line lining up a double date, and rivals Jean (Ginger Rogers) and Linda (Gail Patrick) are fighting over a pair of stockings.

The girls are hard-bitten and hungry—for both fame and food.  Jean reluctantly agrees to be Judy’s double for her date to avoid yet another lamb stew dinner.

Ferber makes no mention of the film in her memoir, likely because it deviated so much from her original play that George Kaufman called it The Screen Door.

But director Gregory La Cava, who’d struck gold with the Carole Lombard-William Powell screwball comedy My Man Godfrey the year before, knew the talent he had on his hands, and let the comediennes ad lib at will on the set. 

Ginger Rogers and Gail Patrick in Stage Door (1937)
Ginger Rogers, Gail Patrick

The film is better for it.  It zooms along with a wisecrack a minute.  Trying to write down notable lines in my notebook had me constantly pausing the film until I gave up, sat back and enjoyed a script that is as much of a walk-and-talk as anything Aaron Sorkin ever wrote.

Into this maelstrom walks Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn), a young woman who wants to succeed on her own merits and not her family’s wealth.  Brimming with confidence and naïveté, Terry books a room at the Footlights.

Terry finds the whole lot crass and undisciplined.  She bumps heads with new roommate Jean, who meets Terry’s olive branch with, “We started off on the wrong foot. Let’s stay that way.”

Terry figures that making a living acting will be easy if this is her competition.

Throughout the film she learns how wrong she is—that their hard exteriors hide the terror that they aren’t pretty enough, talented enough, or lucky enough to make it.  They hustle, they starve, they take up with old men who bankroll and paw them—anything to keep from going back home to Nowhere, USA a failure.

At first blush, watching Stage Door reminds us of three things:  (1)  Katharine Hepburn is first and foremost Katharine Hepburn, regardless of any role she might be playing, (2) Ginger Rogers can act as well as—perhaps better than—she can dance, and (3) RKO never did understand the comedic talent they had in Lucille Ball, who has a miniscule role in the ensemble cast.

Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers in Stage Door (1937)
Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers

Modern films can learn a lot from Stage Door, a film that beautifully mixes comedy and tragedy, cynicism and sentiment.  The woman face poverty, hunger, and what we today refer to as #metoo moments.  A modern retelling would be a gritty and unrelenting catalog of misery.  But this film manages to handle it with a light touch that doesn’t minimize their challenges, and the women face it all with such gallows humor that we end up admiring rather than pitying them.

The world is cruel, the film tells us, and show business crueler.  But if you can’t laugh about it, you’ll never make it through.

The film garnered 4 Academy Award nominations, including Outstanding Production, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Writing (Screenplay.)

A delightful hidden gem, Stage Door is an absolute must-see for fans for the golden age of Hollywood.

Stage Door (1937) Verdict:  Timeless-Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Cimarron (1931):  Taming No-Man’s Land

Irene Dunne as Sabra Cravat and Richard Dix as Yancey Cravat walking down the street of Osage.  Sabra carries an umbrella.  Yancey's hit has a bullet hole.
Cimarron (1931) opening title card

Edna Ferber decided to write about Oklahoma after her friend (and editor of the Kansas-based Emporia Gazette) William Allen White regaled her with tales of the 1889 land rush and its rocky road to statehood. 

“I knew literally nothing of Oklahoma until that evening,” Ferber writes in her first memoir, A Peculiar Treasure.  “It was a state in the Union.  That was all.”

After years of research and writing, she produced a novel she called Cimarron, named after the no-man’s strip of land fought over by white settlers and Cherokee that became the Oklahoma panhandle.  Cimarron was the best-selling book of 1930, one of the top grossing films of 1931, and the Academy Award winner for Outstanding Production (now Best Picture) in 1932.

Edna Ferber created blockbusters before the word existed.

Edna Ferber quote on the film Cimarron:  "Cimarron was made into a superb motion picture, the finest motion picture that has ever been made of any book of mine."

Richard Dix stars as Yancey Cravat, an adventurous young man bored with his life running a newspaper in Wichita, Kansas.  He convinces his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne, in her first of an eventual five Academy Award nominations for Best Actress) to head out to the uncivilized wilds of the Cimarron Territory to gain excitement and a free piece of land.

Things do not go as well for Yancey and Sabra as they do for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman at the end of 1992’s Far and Away, another film that depicts the Oklahoma land rush.  Unlike Cruise, Yancey comes away with nothing after a prostitute outsmarts him and stakes her claim on the land Yancey wanted.

Undeterred, Yancey opens a newspaper in Osage, a rough western town that rose up overnight to accommodate the influx of white settlers looking for land in the unconquered west.

Oklahoma land rush as depicted in the film Cimarron
Oklahoma land rush, as depicted in Cimarron (1931)

Filthy, violent, and overrun with criminals, prostitutes, and gambling halls, Osage is no place for a lady, much less Yancey and Sabra’s young son.  Yet Sabra finds enough grit in her soul to toughen up and adjust to life in a town where men are regularly gunned down in the street.

Four years later, Yancey tries again in the 1893 rush for land in the Cherokee strip.  He leaves Sabra and their now two children temporarily behind.  Once he secures a bit of land, he’ll come back for them.

Sabra doesn’t see him again for five years, and when she does he’s still landless.

Wanderlust kept him away. 

He leaves again, and this time Sabra doesn’t see him for decades.

Abandoned Sabra doesn’t return to Wichita.  She takes over the newspaper, raises her children in a wild land, and watches as Oklahoma grows from a savage wilderness to a state in 1907.  She eventually becomes the young state’s first female congresswoman.

Through it all, she remains loyal to Yancey, never taking his name off the newspaper’s masthead, and never speaking a word against him.  She loves him through it all, and the film ends with her holding him as he dies after not seeing him for decades.

“All the critics and the hundreds of thousands of readers took Cimarron as a colorful romantic Western American novel,” Ferber wrote.  In both the book and film, Sabra was seen as the ideal wife, Penelope waiting for her Odysseus to return.

Yet this was not Ferber’s intended message.

Cimarron had been written with a hard and ruthless purpose,” she admits.  “It was, and is, a malevolent picture of what is known as American womanhood and American sentimentality.  It contains paragraphs and even chapters of satire and, I am afraid, bitterness….Perhaps it will be read and understood in another day, not my day.”

Though she’s not around to witness it, those of us still watching and reading the story of Cimarron can see clearly what Ferber was trying to say.  The American woman of 2022 would not leave her husband’s name at the top of a newspaper she’d been running for decades.  The American woman of 2022 would not admire another woman for doing so.

Ferber was a feminist, a word I don’t think she used to describe herself, and Cimarron is one of the starkest examples of one of the major themes of her work—that the American woman is stronger than the American man.

Ferber women are forever picking up the pieces of the weaker, unfocused, and dull men in their lives.

Sabra’s only fault in the film is that she detests the Native Americans of Osage.  She considers them no better than filthy savages, and forbids her children to play with them.  Yancey is the one advocating for their rights in his newspaper, when he’s around to run it.

But in a storyline Ferber would repeat years later in Giant, Sabra is forced to confront her racism when her son marries a Native American girl.  Like Bick Benedict in the diner, Sabra shows she has grown past her narrow views when she praises her Native American daughter-in-law at a public ceremony.

Yet like Dinner at Eight, this film is bit too old for the modern viewer.  It’s impressive for a film made in 1931, when directors were still figuring out how to make talkies.  For film buffs, it’s worth taking a look just to watch the scene of the land rush, and get a glimpse of a very young Irene Dunne in only her second role.  She’s miles away from the confident, wily woman who verbally two-stepped with Cary Grant, but the raw talent is on display.

There’s a 1960 remake with Glenn Ford, but your best bet is to skip both film versions and instead find a copy of Ferber’s novel, pour a whiskey, settle into your favorite easy chair and enjoy a good yarn of the wild west.

Sources/Notes

  • All direct quotes from Edna Ferber’s memoir A Peculiar Treasure, 1939.
  • Ferber notes that Cimarron is her favorite film, but this was written in 1939, before she wrote Giant, another adaptation of her work that she greatly enjoyed.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Giant (1956):  Edna Ferber Takes on Texas

James Dean as Jett Rink sitting in a car during the movie Giant (1956).
James Dean in Giant (1956)
Opening banner for Giant (1956.)

Edna Ferber didn’t want to write about Texas.  She’d written eleven novels, several of them requiring prodigious research, so she knew the work it would take to get Texas right.  After an initial trip to Houston, she declared it a man’s job, not one for a Jewish woman who’d grown up in the Midwest, lived in New York, and vacationed in Europe.

But Texas wouldn’t let her go, and nearly a dozen years after the initial idea, Ferber wrestled her story onto the page in the form of Giant, an epic saga of the Benedict family over generations.

It was one of the top ten best-selling novels of 1952.

Quote from A Kind of Magic by Edna Ferber about not wanting to write about Texas.

Director George Stevens approached Ferber about making a film adaptation.  He needed a lot of money up front to make the film, so he convinced Ferber to forgo a flat fee and instead cut her in on a share of film’s profits. 

Stevens also saved money by using lesser known actors in the lead roles, knowing that Texas would be the star.

Those lesser-known stars?

Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean.

Giants indeed.

Giant (1956), a film about Texas, opens in Maryland.  Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Hudson) has come to Maryland only to buy a horse, but returns to his Texas ranch with both the horse and a wife.

The storytelling starts zoomed in on Bick and Leslie (Taylor), then slowly zooms out over the next three-plus hours, getting wider and wider.

Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor on horseback while filming Giant (1956)
Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor

We start with the newlyweds—who only knew one another two days before their wedding—locking heads early and often as Leslie (Taylor), a daughter of Maryland, tries to adjust to Texas life in the 1920s.

A stranger in a strange land, Leslie must find her place on Reata, a hard-working ranch owned by Bick but run—for all intents and purposes—by his sister, Luz, who doesn’t take kindly to Bick bringing home a wife.

But when Luz dies tragically, the story zooms out a level.  Luz leaves a piece of land to Jett Rink (Dean), a white trash ranch hand who is in love—or at least lust—with Leslie.  Mainly for spite, Jett refuses to sell the land back to Bick.

Jett is a drunk and a rebel, and accuses the Benedicts of stealing their land from the Mexicans and Latin Americans who lived on it first.  Leslie, for her part, is always encouraging Bick to treat the poor Mexicans living in poverty around the ranch better. 

It takes decades for Bick to come around to Leslie’s point of view.

When Jett strikes oil on his piece of land, the story widens further to depict the nouveau riche of the Texas oil families of the day.  Bick initially resists having his property drilled for oil, but eventually succumbs and the Benedicts find wealth beyond their imagination.

In the final act the film zooms out one last time and becomes about the passing of one generation to another.  Bick has spent his life working his ranch, as both his father and grandfather did, only to find that his grown children have no interest in running the property.

Bick feels a failure, but to Leslie he has finally become the man she wanted him to be when he stands up for a Mexican-American family in a diner.

Giant—the novel and the film—were ahead of their time, and the film is almost startling in its relevancy to contemporary themes, with its focus on gender, race, and class relations.

It was well worth watching in 1956, and well worth watching today.

The film struck oil at the 1957 Academy Awards with nine nominations.  Both Hudson and Dean were nominated for Best Actor, and Mercedes McCambridge for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Bick’s sister.  George Stevens won for Best Director.

Mercedes McCambridge as Luz Benedict
Mercedes McCambridge as Luz Benedict

But in many ways the film’s success was overshadowed by the specter of James Dean, who died immediately after the film’s completion and never knew of its success or his nomination.

My readers need no introduction to the legend of James Dean, a legend built on a rebel temperament, car racing, and an early death, and not entirely supported by his work in the three films he completed before his death.

Edna Ferber spent time on the set of Giant.  She’d met Dean and was won over by his charm while not blind to his faults.  In her memoir A Kind of Magic, she writes that he was, “Impish, compelling, magnetic; utterly winning one moment, obnoxious the next.  Definitely gifted.  Frequently maddening.”

Edna Ferber twirling a rope while James Dean and the cast of Giant watch
Edna Ferber with James Dean on the set of Giant

She was appalled by his car racing, and noted that his Warner Brothers contract included a clause that he could not own or race a car until the filming was completed on Giant.  On the day the filming ended, he bought the Porsche he would die in.  He was still set to return to Giant to do voice over dubbing for the famous scene in which a drunken Jett Rink gives a speech to an empty ball room.

Once she’d returned home, Edna Ferber wrote James Dean a letter thanking him for sending her an autographed photo of himself dressed as Jett Rink.

She wrote, “…when it [the photo] arrived I was interested to notice for the first time how much your profile resembles that of John Barrymore.  You’re too young ever to have seen him, I suppose.  It really is startlingly similar.  But then, your automobile racing will probably soon take care of that.”

We’ll never know if James Dean agreed with Ferber’s assessment that he looked like John Barrymore.

He was dead before the letter arrived, killed in an accident while driving his Porsche 90 miles an hour on the way to an auto race.

Giant (1956) Verdict - Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Kind of Magic.  1963
  • Goldsmith Gilbert, Julie.  Ferber:  A Biography of Edna Ferber and Her Circle, 1978.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Dinner at Eight (1933):  Focus on Ferber

Dinner at Eight poster (1933)
Dinner at Eight (1933)

Though she’s not as well remembered today, Edna Ferber was a literary giant of the early and mid-twentieth century on par with contemporaries Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner.

Seven of her novels were among the top ten best sellers in the year of their publication, and two topped the list, both feats that neither Hemingway, Fitzgerald, nor Faulkner accomplished.

She was primarily a playwright and novelist, her works encompassing the trials and tribulations of the American people, whom she knew and loved.  Her well-researched works covered a wide range of American life, from the struggle of Oklahoma statehood, to life on the Mississippi, the machismo of early twentieth century Texas, and the actors on the New York stage scratching out a living.

Edna Ferber
Edna Ferber

Her commercial and critical success ensured that Hollywood would come calling, and when it did she took the money and ran, having little to do with the making of most of her films.

So though you may not know the name Edna Ferber, you undoubtedly know the films based on her work.  Over the next eight weeks, we’ll cover the onscreen adaptations of this forgotten chronicler of the American experience.

Let’s start with Dinner at Eight (1933.) 

Ferber collaborated on nearly all her plays with fellow Algonquin Round Table member George Kaufman, and Ferber had long had the idea to write a comedy of manners with interlocking stories surrounding a group of couples set to attend a dinner party.  The play was a success, and it was adapted for the screen the next year.

Dinner at Eight was producer David O. Selznick’s first film with MGM after his successful stint at RKO.  Selznick wanted to prove his worth to father-in-law and boss Louis B. Mayer, and compete with golden boy MGM producer Irving Thalberg.  So he brought director George Cukor over from RKO, and they set about casting the successful play for the screen.

The similarities to Grand Hotel were known from the start—Ferber and Kaufman knew before writing the play that it would be compared to William A. Drake’s play, also made into an MGM film with an all-star ensemble cast, though Ferber insisted that she’d had the initial idea years before Grand Hotel was produced, but had to talk Kaufmann into doing it.

Both Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight have large star-filled casts with a history of stage acting.  Both have multiple storylines that intersect in funny, tragic, and surprising ways.  John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery star in both films.

Dinner at Eight begins simply enough—Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke, years before her unforgettable turn as Glinda the Good Witch) wants to throw a dinner party for her wealthy friends and acquaintances.  But there’s secrets among the group—affairs, looming financial disasters, and an impending suicide.  The film starts with the invitations, divulges the secrets, and gathers the group together at the Jordan’s home before ending just as the group goes into the dinner room for the titular dinner.

The cast of Dinner At Eight (1933)

It’s not as good a film as Grand Hotel.  There’s lots and lots of talking, and not quite enough action, even for a film made in 1933.  I gave the film two shots—viewing it several weeks apart, and I must admit that I fell asleep both times in the middle.

The film comes alive only when Jean Harlow arrives, and she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time.  She plays Kitty Packard, the low class wife of Dan Packard.  Millicent was forced to invite the Packards as her husband wants Dan to invest in his failing family business.

Jean Harlow, Dinner At Eight (1933)
Jean Harlow, Dinner at Eight

Kitty flounces around in her dressing gown, literally eating bon bons and having an affair with her doctor while her husband works to build his business empire.  She’s thrilled to attend the party, and arrives in an inappropriately tight dress.  She’s crass, laughs too loud, and doesn’t know how to hide her low-class breeding.

It’s a character Harlow perfected—the low class floozy—and the whole film wakes up when she slinks onto the screen.

Dinner at Eight has a distinguished pedigree—an all-star cast, great director, a producer who would go on to write his name in the Hollywood history books, and yet this film doesn’t have much to offer the modern audience outside of a view of Harlow, a star gone too soon when she died suddenly of kidney failure at twenty-six just four years after Dinner was filmed.

I tip my cap to all involved, but Dinner at Eight had it’s day, but it’s day is done.

Dinner At Eight (1933) Verdict:  Had Its Day, Its Day Is Done

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Dinner at Eight poster (1933)