Giant, the 1956 film based on Edna Ferber’s Epic Novel

Giant 1956 film poster

Giant, the 1956 film, was based on the epic 1952 novel of the same title by Edna Ferber. The saga of a wealthy Texas ranching family, the film starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, with appearances by Chill Wills, Mercedes McCambridge, Carroll Baker, Jane Withers, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, and Rod Taylor.

Giant was notable for being James Dean’s final film performance before his tragic death in a car accident. He was nominated posthumously for an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Jett Rink, a poor but ambitious ranch hand.

 

Harsh reviews from Southern critics

When Giant was first published, it received some harsh reviews from Southern critics. Like many of Ferber’s dramatic novels, it wove in themes of race and class. Still, it was a blockbuster bestseller, as Ferber’s books inevitably were. The film version of Giant was as big and sprawling as the book, though some of its more controversial aspects were toned down.

This big story is difficult to boil down to a few plot points, but basically, it’s the story of a wealthy Texas rancher, Jordan “Bick” Benedict Jr., who marries beautiful, strong-willed Leslie. The issues of Mexican workers and the subplot of ranch hand Jett Rink, who becomes an oil tycoon, are woven into the narrative.

Giant was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 2005 by the Library of Congress, for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The film was generally quite well received when it was released. Here’s the official trailer — don’t mind the corny music or narration!

Following are two views of the making of the film, mainly from the perspective of how the director, George Stevens, adapted a novel as big as Texas to the screen.

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Scene from Giant, 1956 film starring Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor

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Mighty “Giant” Comes to the Screen

From the Austin-American, Sunday, November 4, 1956: After more than two years’ of careful preparation and filming, George Stevens is bringing to the screen the film which many feel is his masterpiece. That film is Giant, his mighty movie treatment of Edna Ferber’s controversial but bestselling novel about modern-day Texas.

Filmed on an epic scale worthy of the novel’s Texas locale, producer-director Stevens himself feels that the picture represents one of his best efforts of a career which has included such powerful films as A Place in the Sun and Shane.

But to him, Giant is more than merely a regional story of Texas. He regards it as essentially “a stirring chronicle of three decades of American family life and the profound human emotions generated out of the problems of our changing times.”

To bring such qualities to the screen, Stevens has either softened or done away with completely much of Miss Ferber’s vitriolic approach which made the book such an unpleasant subject among Texans, and, in its place, has added more human elements.

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Giant 1956 film

Giant, the 1956 film on Amazon
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Both because Miss Ferber’s book was so widely read and because Stevens had given new emphasis to these human qualities, many months were spent in casting the right actors, rather than the obvious one, for each role. The parts were eagerly sought by some important players, but Stevens carefully weighed each part until he had built a cast he felt was ideal.

For the role of Leslie Benedict, the Virginia girl suddenly transported to the barren reaches of an early Texas cattle empire, Stevens selected Elizabeth Taylor, whom he had directed in A Place in the Sun. As Bick Benedict, the strong, confident owner of Reata Ranch, he chose Rock Hudson, a young actor of steadily maturing talent.

The late James Dean, whom Stevens regarded as one of the best young actors of the decade, was chosen to play Jett Rink, the poor ranch hand whose desire to be somebody is partially fulfilled when he strikes oil. Giant marks Dean’s last film appearance after a brief but brilliant career of only three pictures.

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Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean in Giant-1956

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Jane Withers, who shattered box office records as a child star, ended an eight-year retirement to play Vashti, and Chill Wills departed from a long series of films to take on the role of Uncle Bawley.

Others starring in top roles include Oscar-winning Mercedes McCambridge as Luz Benedict, Carroll Baker as Luz II, and Dennis Hopper as Jordan Benedict III. Giant was filmed largely on location which brought the film company to Marfa, Texas for some three months of work. The running time of the epic picture is three hours and seventeen minutes.

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Giant by Edna Ferber

The film is based on the 1952 novel Giant by Edna Ferber
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James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, two stars in Giant

From The Bridgeport Post, Sunday November 25, 1956: George Stevens’ production of Giant, from the novel by Edna Ferber, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean, represents a Warner achievement for which some of the most prodigious talents in both cinematic and literary worlds gave three of the best years of their lives.

Since 1952, Stevens has devoted all of his time to making Giant a picture which would match in scope and importance the Edna Ferber novel.

Miss Ferber made her own contributions to the picture in the course of a number of trips to Hollywood prior to and during the filming of Giant. In Hollywood, Miss Ferber held lengthy consultations with George Stevens and co-producer Henry Ginsberg. And she worked with Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat, the screenwriters, on the screenplay for the film.

Miss Ferber’s excursion to California on behalf of Giant is hardly the first time the author had seen her books translated to the screen. Some other films based on Ferber’s novels include Show Boat, Saratoga Trunk, So Big, and Come and Get It.

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Show Boat movie poster 1936

See also Show Boat: From Page to Stage to Screen
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Before and during the preparations, Stevens, over an eighteen-month period, rounded up his cast. Filming Giant carried Stevens & Company to the scenes envisioned by Miss Ferber in her novel – Virginia and Texas. Stevens began his picture where Miss Ferber began her book – in the lovely Virginia countryside near Charlottesville.

Following two weeks of shooting here, the company moved to the vast open spaces near Marfa, Texas for the better part of three months. Interior scenes went before the cameras at Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, California.

Many unusual incidents marked the making of Giant, but two symbolize the magnitude of the entire operation. These involved transporting to Texas a prefabricated three-story Victorian mansion, which required five railroad flat cars, and a dozen imitation oil wells.

Yes, incredible as it may seem, Warners carried oil wells to Texas; for the fact is, there are none in the area around Marfa. One of Warners’ prop wells was even made to pump 2,200 gallons of ersatz oil a minute.


More about Giant, the 1956 film

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