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Children of 'Giant' (DVD Review)

8 Jun, 2015 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD
Not rated.

Even detractors of George Stevens Sr.’s studied but often powerful filmmaking style tend to give him Giant, and given this, I thought the 3-hour, 20-minute Texas epic (from Edna Ferber’s novel) got a little short-changed in George Jr.’s lovely documentary on his father: 1984’s George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey. To significant extent, however, those shortcomings were rectified via the sterling bonus material included (much of it from Journey outtakes) on the Giant DVD and Blu-ray from Warner Entertainment. So is there any place fresh to go?

Matter of fact, yes. This PBS doc journeys itself back to 1955 and location shooting site Marfa, Texas, located in the far, far, far West of the state — a current-day artists’ colony where visitors can still see a remaining teensy chunk (but that’s all) of construction “skeleton” from the story’s iconic Reata mansion — a set whose photographic isolation against Lone Star vistas probably gave A-plus production designer Boris Leven the most iconographic image of his illustrious career (Days of Heaven kind of stole Giant’s outdoor look with love). In the story, Reata is the home of the Texas rancher (Rock Hudson’s “Bick Benedict”) and Virginia-bred bride/budding feminist (Elizabeth Taylor’s “Leslie”) — a couple who witness a world of change over 35 or 40 years in the balance shift between whites and Hispanics, cattlemen/oil men and material fortunes, Texas style. The downside of Big Oil is represented by Reata’s dirt-poor hired hand Jett Rink (James Dean in his final performance), who parlays a scrap of inherited land just off to the side of the mansion, which he terms “Little Reata” before its worth increases exponentially, thanks to a gusher. Jett is the kind of presumed born loser who attracts moviegoing champions of the underdog, though the irony is that he’s just as much of an anti-Mexican racist as Bick.

Ferber’s controversial novel was seen as anti-Texas at the time, whereas Stevens’ movie became the greatest pop advertisement the state ever had without the filmmakers softening the material all that much. Remaining — in addition to a Taylor diatribe against the oil depletion allowance that studio chief Jack Warner practically begged Stevens to remove — was an unflinching portrayal of era prejudice (not that Giant is exactly un-topical in 2015). Though there’s no shortage of material about the movie’s production and how it naturally took over what was a very small town, the documentary’s co-equal focus is on how Marfa’s own racial hierarchy reflected the story’s. Even decades later, a local cemetery segregated white and Mexican burial plots with a wire fence.

Stevens was able to reject Warner’s pleading because the then recent director of A Place in the Sun and Shane had full artistic control of the picture, something that almost never happened in those days (though what a boon it would have been had his clout extended to nixing the cruddy Warner Color that degrades Giant to this day). With all the pressures on Stevens, he still maintained a largely open set by which he could charm locals and press — all of whom he knew would “talk up” the picture with every breath. The title children here include a lot of interviewed ones (now aged adults) who observed the shooting, and it’s nice to hear that James Dean (who was killed before his final audio re-dubbing of one scene was completed) was chummy with the community. The only other big-studio epic I can think of that put as much of a monster budget on the line with material that might automatically put off large chunks of the audience before it got out of the gate is Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles.

In Giant’s case, Stevens was rewarded when the picture became Warners’ biggest in history up to that time — though the mass hysteria over Dean’s highway death tended to obscure the movie’s message (while certainly upping the gate). Stevens was also rewarded with a best director Oscar, though Around the World in 80 Days took best picture — a BP choice that has endured so much backlash over half-a-century that the Mike Todd extravaganza is somewhat underrated today. As for Giant, no other movie of my entire childhood made a bigger impression on me at the time; it is the all-time favorite movie of my ex-wife and of the best teacher I ever had in school. When it opened, the 2,800-seater in my hometown broke fire laws by setting up folding chairs in open areas because demand to see it was so great.

Despite being burdened with a musical score that feels wrong and too often gets in the way, the documentary definitely adds to the literature of a blockbuster that remains fascinating in so many ways. Almost no one from the production is left anymore, though Children does interview George Jr. and featured players Earl Holliman and Elsa Cardenas, who were cast as youngsters who wed Benedict offspring. In addition to appearing in Giant, Cardenas played opposite Elvis (as the Ursula Andress alternative) in Fun of Acapulco, and she was also in The Wild Bunch. Hell, that’s a full career right there.

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