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.

A Damsel in Distress (1937): Little Sister’s Early Missteps

Joan Fontaine and Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress (1937)
A Damsel in Distress (1937) opening banner

Throughout her life, Joan Fontaine was fond of telling reporters that it irked her older sister Olivia de Havilland that Joan “did everything first.”  By this she meant that she’d gotten married first and won the Academy Award first.

But she certainly didn’t succeed in the movie business first.

After her success in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the blockbuster Captain Blood, Olivia de Havilland was Hollywood’s most promising rookie of 1935.

Meanwhile, Joan was hanging on for dear life at RKO.

After six small utterly forgettable roles in utterly forgettable films, Fontaine needed to prove she could act, or her career would be over before it began.

But the blame for her failure in 1937’s A Damsel in Distress can’t be laid solely at her feet.

After seven wildly successful films together, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire decided to go their separate ways.  Rogers saw herself as an actress first and wanted to explore more dramatic roles.

And Astaire?  Well, he didn’t want to be forever linked with a single partner.  He was the lead dancer and the choreographer, after all.  He’d taught Ginger most of what she knew about dancing.  How hard could it be to teach someone else?

Poor Joan Fontaine drew the short straw.

She had to dance with Fred Astaire and make the audience forget about Ginger Rogers.

A mission more impossible than anything the IMF ever assigned Ethan Hunt.

She should’ve chosen not to accept it.

It became apparent to everyone involved that novice Fontaine would not be able to carry half the dancing in the film.  Her role was restricted to that of Astaire’s love interest, with a single dance near the end of the film.

The dance is painful, as Fontaine is wooden and obviously ill at ease when her character should be giddy over falling in love.  It’s like watching the celebrities on Dancing with the Stars, who are so glaringly outmatched by their professional partners.

Married comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen got top billing with Astaire, and the script and choreography was rearranged so that Astaire did most of the dance numbers with them.

They also provided the laughs, as Fontaine was not a skilled comedienne.  In later films she would reveal her talents, but comedy was never among them.

Burns and Allen provided the comedy and dancing.  Fontaine provided the romantic love interest.

All in all, it took three actors to replace Ginger Rogers in an Astaire film.

Perhaps Ginger had something Fred hadn’t taught her after all.

The film is a pleasant enough musical, but not worth watching but for the most ardent Astaire fans.  Lady Caroline wants her niece Lady Alyce to marry her stepson, but Alyce is in love with a mysterious American.  The servants in the house have taken bets on who Alyce will choose, and are prepared to meddle in the proceedings to ensure their win.

After Alyce has a chance encounter with dancer Jerry Halliday, the staff mistakes him for the mysterious American.  Soon Jerry is lured to Tottney Castle to “save” Lady Alyce, whom he believes is being held against her will in the family castle.  He takes along his press agent (Burns) and airhead secretary (Allen.)

Fontaine is completely absent from the film’s most memorable sequence, in which Astaire, Burns, and Allen dance their way through a fun house park, dancing through tunnels and in fun house mirrors.

George Burns, Fred Astaire, and Gracie Allen in A Damsel in Distress (1937)

By the end, Lady Alyce has forgotten all about the mysterious American and weds Jerry.

The film was not a success.  The public wasn’t interested in seeing Fred without Ginger, and Astaire went running back to Rogers and they made two more films together.  Astaire would go on to have other successful dancing partnerships—most notably with Rita Hayworth, but he was never able to mold a novice into a dancer the way he had with Rogers.

As for Fontaine, her string of unimpressive performances continued, and RKO eventually dropped her from their roster.

It’s here that I can’t help wondering—if it hadn’t been for the competitive spirit between Fontaine and de Havilland, would Fontaine have gone back to Saratoga, married, and left Hollywood behind?

But she didn’t give up, and by 1940 she’d found a role that suited her, and improbably became the second Mrs. de Winter in David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.  (A role Vivien Leigh wanted desperately.)

It was a career defining role, and one of my favorite performances from the golden age of Hollywood.  Vivian Leigh, wonderful actress she is, would’ve been all wrong for the second Mrs. de Winter, a character so timid and weak we never learn her first name.

Nervous and insecure Fontaine was perfection.

An Oscar nomination for best actress followed, as did another for Suspicion in 1941.

Which leads us back to where we began, on the night when Fontaine upset big sister Olivia in Hold Back the Dawn and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Suspicion.

Olivia had been first out of the gate, but Joan had just closed the gap.

Game on, girls.

A Damsel in Distress (1937) verdict:  Had Its Day, Its Day Is Done

Sources

  • Higham, Charles.  Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
  • Behlmer, Martin, ed.  Memo from David O. Selznick

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

Joan Fontaine and Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress (1937)

A Place in the Sun (1951): Method Acting Arrives

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place In the Sun (1951)
A Place In the Sun (1951) opening banner

Author’s First Note:  I’ve added a tab to the top of the site called “Golden Age of Hollywood”  Here you can find the full list of past posts, listed by category and alphabetical order.  You can also find suggested reading and source material if you want to learn more.

Author’s Second Note:  The plot of A Place in the Sun takes a surprising turn about halfway through the film.  Spoilers abound in today’s discussion.  I highly recommend watching it before reading today’s blog.


By the dawn of the nineteen-fifties, Hollywood had twenty years of talkies under its belt.  The studio system of the previous two decades had produced many of our most beloved American films.

But things were changing—the advent of television and the post World War II retreat to the suburbs bumped the role of the movie theater from the center of American entertainment.  Actors, directors, and writers had broken free of the restrictive studio system and had ever increasing freedom in the films they participated in.  Hollywood films were becoming less assembly line products of the main studios and more individual collaborative projects.

And while all those stars who had built Hollywood—Garbo, Bogart, Gable, Crawford, and Davis—still managed to make some good films, there was no denying they were on the other side of the mountain of their careers.

It never stops surprising us that even stars can’t escape time.

Audiences wanted something new, and the fifties gave way to a new crop of fresh faces and a more realistic, less glamourous acting style that was brought to popularity in 1951 with Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun.  Called method acting, it was developed by Lee Strasberg at his Actor’s Studio in New York City, and was eventually practiced by Marilyn Monroe, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert DeNiro.

In A Place in the Sun, Clift plays George Eastman, a poor relation who gets a low-level job in his distant uncle’s factory.  He works hard and begins dating Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a salt-of-the-earth fellow factory worker. 

Soon Alice is in love with George and dreaming of a future.  George, however, is slowing moving up in the Eastman company and social circles.  He catches the eye of socialite Angela Vickers, played by nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Taylor who looks and sounds so young you’ll hardly recognize her.  George and Angela fall hopelessly and foolishly in love, as reckless as Romeo and Juliet. 

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place In the Sun (1951)

George begins to see a glittering future before him—marriage to Angela, social acceptance, and wealth.

But there’s a massive fly in his ointment—Alice is pregnant and wants to marry.  Shelley Winters received a well-earned Academy Award nomination for Best Actress (and might have won but for running into the buzzsaw that was Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire.)  Alice is clearly worth more than the whole lot of the Eastmans—she’s poor but would be the kind of wife that would stand by George through thick and thin. 

If George refuses to marry—and she can sense his wavering—she’ll lose her job and her little apartment.  A visit to a doctor who humiliates her (while George hides in the car) and refuses to give her an abortion gives her a glimpse into her future as a unmarried, penniless outcast.

Perhaps counter to the filmmaker’s intentions, Alice’s desperation to marry touched me deeper than any other emotion in the film.

Shelley Winters in A Place In the Sun (1951)

With the promise of marriage, George takes Alice on a pre-honeymoon of sorts and rows her out onto an isolated lake with the intention of drowning her.  When the time comes, he is horrified by the reality of murder and abandons his plan.  But Alice falls accidentally into the water and ends up drowning after all.

We don’t see onscreen how hard George tries to save her, but we don’t doubt for a second he would’ve tried harder if it had been Angela going under.

Figuring he ought not let Alice’s death spoil his plans to wed Angela, George follows through with his original cover up plan.

Shelley Winters and Montgomery Clift in A Place In the Sun (1951)

The last third of the film depicts his murder trial, in which the defense admits he planned to murder Alice, but that the ultimate drowning was an accident.

The jury—and George himself—must deliberate on whether or not he tried hard enough to save Alice, or if he “committed murder in his heart.”

Rarely have I loathed a character as much as I did George Eastman.  He is moody and overly sensitive, full of long silences and self-pity.  He doesn’t have the guts to be a full out cad or villain—he wants what he wants without having to pay the price for it. 

He threw away a good woman like Alice for beauty and riches that would fade with time.

But don’t mistake loathing for Eastman for loathing of the film.  It’s compelling and the question of his guilt or innocence is visceral rather than logical.

Montgomery Clift garnered his second of three Best Actor Academy Award nominations (running into his own buzzsaw in the form of Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.

Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Leave Her to Heaven

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gene Tierney’s Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven, gleefully watching her disabled brother-in-law drown as she rowed a boat wearing sunglasses, a white coat, and gorgeous red lipstick.

There was a villain you could love.

The contrast between her and George Eastman’s frantic aborting of his own plan is a perfect showcase of the transition from the stylized, glamorous Hollywood of yore to the realism prized by the method actors.

My takeaway?  I’m not getting in a rowboat with either one of them.

A Place In the Sun (1951) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

  • Schatz, Thomas.  The Genius of the System:  Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era.

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

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place In the Sun (1951)

Swing Time (1936): Dancing With the Real Stars

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dance in Swing Time (1936)
Swing Time (1936) opening banner

Every expert has gaping holes in his knowledge.  High school English teachers who’ve never read Hamlet, wine connoisseurs who’ve never tasted Veuve Clicquot, TV critics who’ve never watched Breaking Bad.  

They’re not frauds.  There’s just too much for anyone to watch, read, and do it all.

And me?  I had the audacity to dub myself an “amateur classic film historian” without having seen a single Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers collaboration.

No longer.

Swing Time is a frothy confection that goes down smooth and doesn’t ask much of the viewer but to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.  Astaire and Rogers do all the work for you.  It is the fifth of the ten movies they made together, and the one that made the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time

Astaire plays John “Lucky” Garnett, a dancer and gambler who must earn $25,000 to regain the approval of his future father-in-law after he is late to his own wedding.  Broke but confident, Lucky and his friend hitch a train to New York, where they immediately meet Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers), a local dance instructor.

Lucky immediately falls in love, and soon he is doing everything he can to not earn $25,000 and a ticket back to his forgotten fiancé.  Penny eventually returns his affections, and a series of contrived plot twists keep them temporarily apart before the inevitable happy ending.

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936)

The plot is silly and merely an excuse to get Fred and Ginger dancing.

No one is complaining.  Not me, and not the audiences of 1936, who were well acquainted with the particular charm that is Fred and Ginger on the dance floor, so much so that the film set an all-time record for opening day ticket sales at Radio City Music Hall.

After their first nine films together (made over a six year period; the tenth was a reunion made a decade later), Ginger moved on to more dramatic roles and eventually won a Best Actress Oscar for Kitty Foyle.  Fred kept making musicals and found new dance partners—Rita Hayworth, Paulette Goddard, Lucille Bremer.  Some may have had superior technique, but all paled in comparison to his collaborations with Ginger.

If you want to understand their enduring magic, you don’t need to watch all nine films.  You don’t even have to watch all of Swing Time.

Less than a quarter of the way into the film, Fred’s character is pretending not to know how to dance so that Ginger’s Penny will teach him.  After his bumbling around, she declares him a hopeless case and advises him not to waste his money on lessons.  Overhearing this, her boss fires her on the spot.

To save her job, Fred promises to illustrate how much he’s learned in just ten minutes with Ginger.  She’s annoyed and skeptical, but he leads her into the number “Pick Yourself Up” and they glide and tap around the dance floor in perfect sync.

Except for two quick flash reaction shots of Ginger’s boss (unusual in an Astaire/Rogers number, but absolutely necessary for the plot), it’s all one long take.  

The filmmakers—and Fred and Ginger—are confident enough to let the dancing stand for itself.

No close-ups of their feet or faces, no cuts to cover a misstep.  Fred and Ginger go out there and tap dance their hearts out.  It’s full of joy, and fun, and whimsy.

For us.  For Fred and Ginger, it took an exceptional work ethic, a persistence for perfection, and dozens upon dozens of grueling takes.

Their genius is that you don’t see the labor.  You see charisma, originality, and a magic that goes beyond technical mastery into something that can never be duplicated.  

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dance in Swing Time (1936)

Despite their long careers apart, the two are first and forever linked together.  There is a combined Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Wikipedia page (an honor not showered upon such famous Hollywood screen duos as Bogart and Bacall, Myrna Loy and William Powell, or Joan Crawford and Clark Gable.)

Combined Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Wikipedia page

So it was no surprise that when Fred Astaire won an honorary Oscar in 1950, it was Ginger Rogers who presented it to him.

And when they were announced at the 1967 Oscars as the “undisputed king and queen of the musical” no one disagreed.

No one ever will.

Swing Time (1936) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

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

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dance in Swing Time (1936)