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