Ostensibly a study of director George Stevens’s classic American western “Giant,” Don Graham’s new book is also a chronicle of the 1950s. The film’s stars, location s and production shenanigans reflect the ducktail, fender-fin decade, which means opening the pages of this book is like breaking into a time capsule.
Graham beginsin May 1955, when Warner Bros. launched its film adaptation of Edna Ferber’s bestseller with a media event at its commissary, renamed that day as the Chuck Wagon. His account then moves to location shooting outside Charlottesville for the picture’s opening scenes: Texas cattle baron Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) arrives to buy a horse and ends up meeting his wife-to-be (Elizabeth Taylor).
From bucolic Virginia farmlands, the film crew journeyed to Marfa, Tex., for a grueling shoot on a desolate prairie cauldron that supporting actor Mercedes McCambridge described as “the ugliest landscape on the face of the earth.”
Over a month later, on a chartered train bearing Texas-shaped signs emblazoned with the word “Giant,” the weary company trudged back to the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif. During one of the final days of shooting, James Dean, who had played Jett Rink, the ranch hand who rises to oil tycoon, died in a car crash.
Before he died, Dean brought a classic ’50s generational conflict to the production, with the young actor living out his eponymous role in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Graham notes that Dean repeatedly and angrily confronted Stevens, an implacable father figure who had helmed classic studio-era films such as “A Place in the Sun” and “Shane.” Upset with a scene, Dean would urinate in front of the company. “He was 24 going on 12,” Graham writes.
But Stevens saw beyond Dean’s crude, obstreperous behavior. Daily rushes caught the method actor bringing a startling naturalism to his scenes, along with three other supporting actors, Dennis Hopper, Carroll Baker and Earl Holliman. Together, they represented a sea change in acting style that percolated throughout the decade.
No one sensed this shift more than the film’s star, Hudson, a classically handsome, studio-groomed actor who learned his lines, showed up on time and hit his camera marks. He fretted that Dean’s emotionally centered acting was taking over the film. Hudson’s apprehensions were justified. Dean steals every scene he’s in.
More than acting styles, however, roiled the men’s relationship. Rumors spread that Dean, who was bisexual, rebuffed advances from Hudson, who was a closeted gay man. Hudson’s agent, meanwhile, in a classic ’50s ruse, maneuvered to marry Hudson to a woman who may have been a closeted lesbian.
Racism, the most volatile theme of the decade, became the film’s powerful center. Devastated after filming the German concentration camps at the end of World War II, Stevens feared race relations at home portended a similar holocaust.
At the end of the film, Benedict gets into a fistfight with a diner owner who refuses to serve a Mexican American family. Conflicting audience responses to this theme pointed up the decade’s struggle with civil rights. Graham notes that on a preview response card, one viewer wrote, “Racial situation well presented and true,” but another respondent advised: “Tone down the message. This is good stuff for the commies.”
A professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “State Fare: An Irreverent Guide to Texas Movies,” Graham provides a solid historical context for “Giant.” His account details a demanding, exhausting but ultimately rewarding production (the film garnered largely positive reviews and has earned $39 million). Any reader will have to agree that as a production “Giant” was, as the book’s subtitle asserts, “legendary.”
But is “Giant” legendary as art? Or is it now simply a 1950s artifact?
Graham answers this question less satisfactorily. Although he provides expert analyses of some sequences in the film, he struggles to evoke the overall sense of how “Giant” looks, sounds and affects a viewer. For instance, he devotes one general paragraph to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, overlooking the alternately silken and blaring themes that drive the film for three hours and 21 minutes.
Graham also stints on description of the look of the film. A reader (especially one unfamiliar with “Giant”) needs to sense the film’s dreamlike dissolves, the long shots rich with information that Stevens created with cinematographer Bill Mellor and then edited with his characteristically meticulous rhythms.
Had Graham considered in more detail what Stevens captured , he could have made even stronger his strong case for “Giant” as a “legendary” work.
Gerald Bartell is an arts writer based in Manhattan.
By Don Graham
St. Martin’s. 336 pp. $27.99