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James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in Giant (1956)

James Dean and Rock Hudson portray big-time Texas oilmen in the 1956 movie classic Giant. Elizabeth Taylor, Carroll Baker, Chill Wills and Dennis Hopper also appear.

Edna Ferber’s Giant

Giant is based on the 1952 novel of the same name by American author Edna Ferber (1885-1968). Ferber’s other works include Dawn O’Hara (1911), Show Boat (1926), Cimarron (1929), Dinner at Eight (1932), Saratoga Trunk (1941) and Ice Palace (1958).

Edna Ferber won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1924 novel So Big. The book was subsequently made into three movie versions in 1924, 1932 and 1953.

George Stevens Directs Giant

Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat wrote Giant for Warner Bros. Pictures. Co-producer George Stevens (Swing Time, A Place in the Sun, Shane) directed. Dimitri Tiomkin created the majestic music score and William C. Mellor served as cinematographer.

James Dean (Jett Rink), Elizabeth Taylor (Leslie Benedict) and Rock Hudson (Jordan “Bick” Benedict) head the cast. Other players are Carroll Baker (Luz Benedict II), Jane Withers (Vashti Snythe), Chill Wills (Uncle Bawley), Mercedes McCambridge (Luz Benedict), Dennis Hopper (Jordan Benedict III), Sal Mineo (Angel Obregon II), Rod Taylor (Sir David Karfrey), Judith Evelyn (Mrs. Nancy Lynnton), Earl Holliman (Bob Dace), Paul Fix (Dr. Horace Lynnton), Alexander Scourby (Old Polo), Elsa Cardenas (Juana Guerra Benedict), Monte Hale (Bale Clinch), Max Terhune (Dr. Walker) and Sheb Wooley (Gabe Target).

Giant Filmed in Texas, Virginia, California and Arizona

Made for $5.4 million, Giant was filmed in Texas (Marfa, Valentine, Presidio County, Jeff Davis County), Virginia (Albemarle County), California (Lake Arrowhead, Burbank, Los Angeles) and Arizona. Boris Leven designed the big Victorian mansion known as Reata in the movie, which rested near the small town of Marfa, Texas. Director George Stevens employed an open set during filming, with the Marfa townspeople venturing out to watch the production.

One of the movie’s most visible props was the huge painting that was prominently displayed on the wall of the Benedict home. That same picture, along with a plaque commemorating its importance in Hollywood history, now hangs at the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, Texas.

The untimely death of James Dean, killed in an automobile accident in Cholame, California, on September 30, 1955, forced producers to improvise. Although most of the picture had already been completed, an uncredited Nick Adams was brought in to voice some of Dean’s dialogue, most notably at the banquet scene near the end of the film.

Giant and Texas Oil Tycoons

Texas rancher Jordan “Bick” Benedict journeys to Maryland in order to buy a stud horse from Dr. Horace Lynnton. Here he meets the doctor’s fetching daughter, Leslie, who later becomes his wife. The couple settle in at the Benedict mansion, Reata, where Leslie eventually gives birth to three children. 

In her will matriarch Luz Benedict gifts a small patch of land to shiftless ranch hand Jett Rink. Through the years Bick attempts to buy the parcel in order to consolidate his land, but the stubborn Jett refuses to sell. Jett’s parcel later produces black gold, making him fabulously wealthy as a Texas oil driller. Bick, however, prefers to remain a rancher up until World War II, where he grudgingly begins to drill for oil on his property in order to support the war effort.

Bick and Jett engage in a bitter rivalry in the ensuing years, culminating in a confrontation at a banquet. Bick actually takes pity on his rival, now viewing Jett as a shadow of his former self.

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Giant Release, Reviews

Giant premiered at New York City’s Roxy Theatre on October 10, 1956.

“In the light of the current death cult starring the late James Dean it’s probably safe to assume that he’ll be the strongest draw on the ‘Giant’ marquee. No one should be disappointed, and the film only proves what a promising talent has been lost,” reported Variety (10/10/56).

“Hewing pretty closely to the content of Miss Ferber’s agitating tale of contemporary Texas cattle barons and nouveau riche oil tycoons, Mr. Stevens and his able screen-play writers, Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat, have contrived a tremendously vivid picture-drama that gushes a tawdry tragedy,” offered Bosley Crowther of The New York Times (10/11/56).

Film Analysis: Giant, Texas and the James Dean Cult

Giant is an appropriate title for this film, which originally ran three hours and seventeen minutes at theaters. The big, can-do spirit of the Lone Star State comes alive, set against the background of a mammoth Texas ranch and the subsequent discovery of black gold.

The main characters, as winningly played by Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, age before our very eyes through the miracle of Warner Bros’. talented makeup department. Hudson has never been better as the tall, rugged Texas rancher Bick Benedict, with Elizabeth Taylor more than his equal as his high-spirited, feminist-leaning wife.

Giant of course marks the final screen appearance of James Dean, whose personality cult hasn’t appeared to dim even 55 years after his premature death at age 24 in an automobile accident. Dean plays the surly, reed-thin Jett Rink to near perfection, still thrilling movie fans today when he rushes into Reata one day, soaked from head to toe in Texas crude, announcing that he’s now a very wealthy man.

The sub-plot of racism, as applied to Mexican-Americans, is handled well for the era. One can’t help but root for Rock Hudson’s Bick Benedict as he engages in a titanic fistfight with a racist cafe owner who had denied service to Bick’s Hispanic daughter-in-law.

There’s plenty of other talent in this one, including good performances from Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper, Chill Wills and Mercedes McCambridge. Giant is one of the best motion pictures to come out of the Fabulous Fifties, and one can only ponder what other cinematic gems awaited the immensely talented James Dean had he lived.

Giant Box Office, Academy Award Nominations, Notes, DVD

  • Giant grossed $14 million at the American box office, earning the #3 position on the list of the top moneymaking films of 1956.
  • Ten Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Dean, Hudson), Best Director (Stevens, won), Best Supporting Actress (McCambridge), Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Music Scoring, Best Color Costume Design. 
  • Giant made its October 10, 1956, premiere in New York City as a benefit showing for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Giant went into general release on November 24, 1956.
  • Best feminist scene: Elizabeth Taylor insists on sitting in during a meeting of Rock Hudson and his male cronies.
  • The scene where an oil-soaked James Dean announces his big gusher is referenced in the 2005 Gulf War film Jarhead.
  • Grace Kelly was initially offered the role of Leslie Lynnton Benedict.
  • On DVD: Giant Two-Disc Special Edition (Warner, 2005).

“I’m rich, Bick. I’m a rich ‘un. I’m a rich boy. Me, I’m gonna have more money than you ever thought you could have – you and all the rest of you stinkin’ sons of…Benedicts!” James Dean declares after hitting black gold.

Fine, as long as it doesn’t go to his head…

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4 Comments
  1. Posted February 17, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    this is the best part you discribe

  2. Posted February 25, 2010 at 11:14 am

    A complex and intriguing film…Giant had a cast whose names echo with cinema history ~ excellent review/synopsis Will :-)

  3. fejenroz
    Posted August 6, 2011 at 2:50 am

    Feminist? Good lord, sticking up for women doesn’t equate to feminism. Sheeezh

  4. Posted August 7, 2011 at 12:18 am

    Liz Taylor’s Leslie does more than stick up for women. She takes the men on in their own den, so to speak. I’d call her character an early feminist in the positive sense of the word.

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