Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Jordan Benedict, successful Texas rancher, takes his new, independently minded wife
back home where she initially struggles to fit in. As the years pass their growing
family faces a series of challenges, especially from the rivalry of a former ranch-hand,
now grown into an ambitious oil tycoon.
Taken from the novel by Edna Ferber, whose work also bequeathed the screen Show Boat and Cimarron, Giant certainly lives up to its name. The big, sprawling western-related work was apparently a labour of love for director George Stevens (who worked without salary just to get it made), and its proportions have justifiably been compared to the state that, to a large extent, it extols: Texas. Appearing in the twilight years of what now seem 'classic' Hollywood productions, Giant was also a huge commercial and artistic success, garnering 10 Academy award nominations and rave reviews from contemporaries, despite a whopping 200-minute running time. As a narrative it reaches out to epic proportions: a tale both of a larger-than-life rancher and the land rich dynasty he founds over a generation, together with their loves and hates.
It's notable in other ways as it was also James Dean's last film, playing Jet Rink, the disaffected field hand turned oil millionaire. The star died in a car crash just a few days after he finished shooting his scenes. But it's a film packed with other big names too: Hudson, Taylor, Hopper, Carol Baker, Sal Mineo and Merecedes McCambridge all appear in a larger than life melodrama set over several decades. And as if this wasn't enough, the film manages to pack in some daring themes, racial and social intolerance chief amongst them. In Show Boat, Ferber included miscegenation among the plot elements and here it returns, as a Benedict mixed marriage faces casual prejudice, while Rink's casual racism is also an issue. Finally, there's a strong central female character, played by Taylor, who at one point has the audacity to lecture her men folk on treating her and her kind like a child - an unexpected moment in conservative American cinema, to say the least. With all this going for it, one might wish Stevens' behemoth could be allowed an undiluted welcome from modern viewers, especially given the splendid restoration it has been given for the DVD release. The truth is somewhat more mixed.
Although having been criticised for stodginess (Andrew Sarris once wrote that the director's technique "once looked almost like an official style for national epics.") Stevens' grip on the film is undeniably impressive, managing some splendid set ups. Only occasionally does one feel that a little judicious trimming would have tightened the narrative, most notably in some of the dialogue scenes between the married Benedicts, which, although well written, drag on a little too long. The same problem attends today's Harry Potter series, where the author apparently has the final say on scripting, being loath to miss inconsequential scenes out. Whether Ms Ferber was just as eagle eyed in regards to her own work - apparently the makers did re-order some sequences of the novel for effectiveness - sometimes a little less reverence leads to better results.
Viewing the film today one is reminded of the work of Douglas Sirk, another director of the time specialising in big, colour melodrama, also frequently starring Rock Hudson. The difference is that Sirk injects his less grandiose projects with healthy degrees of coded irony, their subversive elements making his films seem all the more modern today. Giant, for all its aforementioned achievements, seems stuck in the 1950s, its radical edge insincere. In Sirk's Written On The Wind (1956) for instance, which also deals with oil millionaires, acquisition and wealth is associated with sexual neurosis, in a way entirely absent here. In fact Benedict's massive, casual wealth and ownership is presented as something healthy and natural, its effects only distorting personality when granted to the 'wrong' people (Jet Rink). Unlike Welles' portrayal of Citizen Kane's great house as the years pass, Stevens is content to show Benedict's huge mansion as a successful centre of a cattle empire, a social hub that's both useful and essential. None of Benedict's possessions come to seem hollow or trivial; in fact there is no criticism of his lifestyle at all, either directly or indirectly, apart from some sexual politicking by his feisty young wife. And in Sirk's Imitation Of Life (1956), miscegenation appears as a topic too, just as it does in Giant, but with none of the tokenism which one suspects here. In Stevens' work, Mrs Benedict (Elsa Cárdenas) sadly speaks few significant words throughout - except to be grateful to her white benefactors, or in running off for their aid. Despite claims on our sympathies, she remains powerless.
Of course, one might go for a long time wishing Giant was the film it is not, as ultimately Stevens is using melodrama to different effect. The finest scenes in his film are those in the first half, where content is most closely married to purpose, and where the trappings of privilege and wealth are still fresh enough to be inspiring. For instance, both the eccentric romancing of Benedict and his headstrong wife to be, and the jealousy of Luz at the new member of the household, are excellently done. Add to this the appearance of Jet Rink, the outsider to the community unexpectedly set to strike it rich, and there is much to enjoy here in scenes revealing emotions frequently as broad and as grand as the country in which they are set.
Unfortunately as Rink grows older, so the film grows progressively less interesting and convincing with him. Dean's forte was as a misunderstood teenager, his style amplifying the associated angst to the nth degree. The characteristics of his method acting, mumbling and recalcitrant, reflects back an archetypal youthful alienation. But when he tries the same trick as a middle aged Rink, the characteristics are not compatible with a successful businessman, who plainly needs to have 'grown up' to sustain a commercial empire. The result is that the older Dean/Rink seems increasingly all at sea, his character collapsing under the weight of its inappropriate quirks, like a table at the conference hall.
Some similar problems attend the ageing Benedict. Hudson does a reasonable job, but this is a role which plainly would have suited an actor with greater range, say Spencer Tracy, who would have brought increasing gravitas, even a sense of tragedy, to his position as the years roll on. Hudson is always watchable, does his best, but still seems the same age throughout, albeit with padded gut and white hair. And with due deference to the efforts of Dennis Hopper too, with hindsight one would rather have seen Sal Mineo given the important role of sensitive younger son, especially as he had worked so well earlier with Dean in Rebel Without A Cause.
Most disastrous of all for Giant's final impression are the closing scenes, a bathetic close that clearly shows a project running out of creative steam. A now contented and platitudinous Hudson and Taylor, staring at their two grandchildren, stared at by livestock, ends up being embarrassing. It's not the moving and symbolic conclusion to a grand family saga the makers undoubtedly intended. Once again, Sirk does it better: at the close of All That Heaven Allows (1955) handyman-gardener Hudson has a picture-postcard deer too, installed in his back garden. But it's an animal whose appearance owes less to a bogus harmony than to Sirk's sly dig at emotional artificiality, a Christmas card confection of smugness made manifest.
Stevens' work remains Sunday matinee material today, and modern viewers will find much to enjoy in its glossy production values and the range of acting ability on display. But the feeling is that it remains overrated, a lumbering beast whose best time has been and gone, a reminder that dinosaurs were giant too.
The DVD set includes a range of excellent special features, the extent and quality of which makes one wish that other films of the period could receive such four-star treatment. First off there's an introduction by George Stevens Jr, who worked with his father on many projects. Understandably he is delighted with the restoration, and emphasises just how successful the potentially risky project eventually became for the studio. Stevens Jr, scriptwriter Ivan Moffat, and film critic Stephen Farber also appear on the audio commentary that, despite the film's long running time, is consistently illuminating. Apparently John Wayne was considered for the lead before Rock Hudson, just as was Grace Kelly before Liz Taylor - casting decisions that would have shifted the tone of the film decisively. There's a 45-minute documentary, George Stevens: Filmmakers Who Knew Him, which is an in-depth analysis of Stevens' directing style from such people as Warren Beatty and Martin Scorsese, confirming the impression of Stevens of being a steady, occasionally inspired creator, who needed the spark of others or technical opportunities to gather necessary excitement. Another documentary, perhaps the most entertaining here, is Memories Of Giant, which includes some vivid anecdotes of the drinking parties surrounding the film (apparently during a wedding scene, one fortunately without dialogue, Taylor and Hudson were throwing up between takes, Both were very hung over on-set, their fixed concentration on not being further ill interpreted as exceptional emotional feeling by the crew). A third documentary follows, Return To Giant reflecting back on the film, with a visit to the location, the crumbling set where the story unfolded, as well as Dean's hallmark acting style. There's also New York telecast footage from the premiere, more of historical interest than anything. Included too are other, smaller, bits and pieces such as short featurettes on the music as well a rich hoard of stills and documents, trailers and etc. All in all, a very impressive package, and one that has won deserved praise.