“The story’s so hot and Texans object so hotly, we’ll have to shoot it with a telephoto lens across the border from Oklahoma.”
There are a number of individual years in the history of the Academy Awards whose results leave you really scratching your head wondering “what were they thinking.” 1956 was one such year. That year’s Best Picture Oscar went to Around the World in 80 Days — an enjoyable time-passer and count-the-stars exercise to be sure, but far from worthy of a best picture award when the other possibilities included John Ford’s The Searchers (WB), Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (UA), William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion (AA), and George Stevens’s Giant (WB).
The recent appearance of Giant on DVD from Warners now makes it possible for us to thumb our noses at the Academy, as all the losers are now available on the shiny little disc while the winner continues to languish in “requires-extensive-restoration” limbo.
Warner Bros. has not spared the horses in giving us an outstanding DVD package of Giant based on the recent restoration which lead to the film’s theatrical re-release on its 40th birthday. In a bit of a twist, Warner Home Video released the DVD in Canada late in 2000, but no official date is yet set for the U.S. although a spring 2001 appearance is expected. Meanwhile, as the disc is a region 1 release, it can easily be acquired from Canadian retailers by U.S. viewers right now, and at an attractive price.
Bick Benedict, owner of the sprawling Reata ranch in Texas, travels to Maryland in order to buy horses but also ends up with the daughter (Leslie) of his host as his wife. Bick and Leslie return to Texas and the immense Victorian house that sits isolated in the middle of Reata. There Leslie soon comes into conflict with Bick’s sister Luz who has until then been running the house.
Other conflicts arise, involving: the swallowing-up of land by the developing oil industry throughout the territory; Jett Rink, a young ranch-hand who soon strikes oil himself on a small tract of Reata land willed to him by Luz after her untimely death; and prejudice against Mexicans highlighted by Leslie’s efforts to improve their living and working conditions. As time passes, later generations of the Benedicts sharpen the conflicts by virtue of the different viewpoints and interests that distance themselves from Bick and Leslie.
Leslie, and Bick particularly, must learn to accept fundamental changes in their view of life in order to adapt to the new Texas that emerges and the influences on family and friends that result.
Giant is adapted from a novel of the same title by Edna Ferber who was known for her broad-canvas stories, including “So Big,” “Come and Get It,” “Showboat,” “Cimarron,” “Ice Palace” and “Saratoga Trunk.” All were adapted for the screen (some several times) with “Giant” being probably the most successful of them.
The producer and director was George Stevens, then at the height of his craft. His previous two films had been A Place in the Sun (1951, Paramount — with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor) and Shane (1953, Paramount — with Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur), and later he would move on to do The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, Fox). Despite some impressive acting which I will get to soon, Giant is chiefly a film of images brilliantly constructed and rendered by Stevens. I’ve seen the film a number of times, yet I always feel struck anew by certain scenes: that first view of the immense, almost bizarre, ranch-house in the middle of nowhere; the exuberance of the arrival of Jett Rink’s first gusher; the poignancy of the return of Angel — the ranch’s first enlistee for the Second World War; the pitifulness of Rink’s drunken speech to an empty banquet hall; and Bick’s proud if unsuccessful fight in the diner near the film’s end. All are permanent testaments to Stevens’s vision of the story and cause the film to linger long in one’s memory. Stevens received the 1956 Best Director Academy Award for his work and one cannot argue too strenuously despite the competition from Ford and Wyler.
The three principal actors are Rock Hudson as Bick, Elizabeth Taylor as Leslie, and James Dean as Jett. Nowadays, Giant is probably best remembered as Dean’s final film before his death in a car crash. The intervening 45 years has raised evaluations of Dean’s acting capability to almost mythic levels. In Giant, there’s no doubt he’s quite good. He’s most persuasive and believable as the young Jett Rink, particularly in his scenes with Elizabeth Taylor. Less successful is his portrayal of the older Jett Rink which never seems able to convey anything other than a young man pretending to be older and doing a rather feeble job of it. The real acting strength of the film is Elizabeth Taylor, then 23 years old. Her Leslie is no weak, spoiled easterner to be dominated by Bick. She presents a Leslie that has a strong internal resolve, even a bit of an edge, that allows her to control, if not always overtly, all the relationships that she is involved in during the course of the story. It’s a compelling performance and one that initiated a series of strong roles for her over the next four years [Raintree County (1957, MGM), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958, WB), Suddenly Last Summer (1959, Columbia), and Butterfield 8 (1960, MGM)]. Rock Hudson usually receives short shrift for his work as Bick. I think there’s no doubt he doesn’t quite measure up to Taylor or Dean, but that’s partly due to the nature of the part. As written, there’s a fair bit of a stereotype to Bick, and Hudson presents him as such. It’s a solid, workmanlike, professional effort, but he could have endeavored to shade his performance so as to suggest more complexity of character. That would have made Bick seem more like a real person and less a movie star performing.
In addition to the principals, Giant is blessed with a fine supporting cast. Notable are Mercedes McCambridge as Luz, Jane Withers as Vashti Snythe — an heiress out-of-water, and Chill Wills as Uncle Bawley Benedict. Carroll Baker and Dennis Hopper play the Benedicts’ daughter and son respectively, and also appearing are the well-known faces of Rod Taylor, Earl Holliman, Paul Fix, and Sal Mineo.
Warner Bros. has done an outstanding job with its DVD presentation of Giant. The 201-minute film is presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen, anamorphic format preserving the original aspect ratio. There are 56 scene selections. The image is gorgeous, reflecting the restorative work that was done for the 40th anniversary. The colours are bright and true — take a look at some of the images in the opening Maryland sequences both exterior and interior and you get a good idea of the treat you’re in for. There is virtually nothing in the way of scratches or nicks to mar the presentation. The sound is Dolby Surround Stereo and is quite engaging. There is only occasional use of the rears, but when they do kick in, as in the sequence when Jett’s first gusher comes in, it is quite effectively done. High marks on both image and sound.
Warners doesn’t call this a special edition, but it is. The DVD features a new 51-minute making-of documentary called “Memories of Giant.” It’s a fascinating account of the how the film was conceived and made using new interviews with George Stevens Jr. and cast members Jane Withers, Earl Holliman and Carroll Baker. Included are segments of past interviews with Rock Hudson on his memories of making the film. Jane Withers took some movie footage at the time of the on-location shooting of Giant and excerpts are included in the new documentary. Supplementing this are two short “Behind the Camera” segments hosted by Gig Young and originally made to accompany a WB television anthology series of the 1950s. The two programs focus on location work for Giant at Marfa, Texas and on Dimitri Tiomkin who wrote the film’s memorable score. In addition, there is a short film of the Hollywood premiere and a longer television presentation (hosted by Chill Wills and Audrey Meadows) of the New York premiere at the Roxy Theater. Rounding out the package are a three-minute introduction to the film, four different Giant trailers, and assorted cast and crew notes and quotations.
I’m hard-pressed to find anything to quibble with on either Giant or its DVD presentation. I’d love to have had an accompanying commentary to the film by George Stevens Jr. He did a fine job with his commentary for the recently released Shane, so I’m a little disappointed that he couldn’t have been prevailed upon to do one for Giant. On the other hand, he does contribute substantially to the new making-of documentary.
As for Giant itself, it’s a finely acted film throughout and easily holds the attention despite its three-hour-plus length. Perhaps the only thing that doesn’t entirely work is the aging of the principals. Taylor and Hudson’s graying hair and padded bodies frame faces that look just a little too young for a couple in their 50s or 60s.
Warner Bros. new DVD presentation of Giant is a winner in all respects and I highly recommend adding it to your classics collection. My evaluation moves it into number five on my listing of the top classic films on DVD for the 1950s.
For Canadians, this is a no-brainer. For those in the U.S., there’s no reason to wait for a domestic release as the DVD can be obtained from Canadian dealers at a good price. Typical Canadian prices I’ve seen of $18-20 translate to $12-13 US.