Hollywood and Texas

A while back I read an excellent book on The Searchers: The Making of An American Legend, by Glenn Frankel, so when I saw a review of Don Graham’s Giant, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film (wow, what a subtitle!), I ordered a copy.


I enjoyed both books very much, but they are quite different in their approaches. Frankel’s The Searchers devotes half the book to the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, the historical background/inspiration for Alan Lemay’s novel, and another section on adapting that novel for the screen (I’ve read the novel, and the second half differs wildly from the movie), with the last third covering the actual making of the movie (which is set in Texas but was filmed in Utah).


GiantGraham’s Giant, on the other hand, has no real background history to deal with, although both films, released in the second half of the 1950s, deal strongly with the racism of the time. Graham does deal with the troubles inherent in adapting Ferber’s long novel (which I have not read) to the screen in such a manner that it would not be blackballed in Texas (the novel was very cutting in its treatment of the state) and that it would not provoke law suits from the King Ranch and the Kleberg family (moving the setting from the coastal plain near Corpus Christi to barren West Texas near Marfa was a big part of that effort, and gave us that iconic image of the mansion surrounded by . . . nothing).


The bulk of Graham’s Giant is about the people involved: Taylor, in her early twenties, on her second marriage, barely out of her child actress status; Hudson, in his late twenties, still learning his craft; Dean, in his third and last picture, a maze of contradictions; Ferber, who participated actively in the adaptation but hated much of it, feeling it softened the core of the novel too much; and director George Stevens, trying to make an epic film while wrangling so many personalities.


The book contains mini-biographies of Taylor and Hudson (both interesting people who remained lifelong friends), but at the center of the story is James Dean, who would be killed in a road accident on September 30, 1955, at the age of 24, before the picture was finished (and before Rebel Without a Cause was released) turning him into a Hollywood legend and a lasting enigma. Was he a sullen, scruffy bad boy? A lost child? A potentially great actor? Who knows? Graham appears to have interviewed everyone who knew Dean (and dug up old interviews with those no longer alive), and found no consensus. Humphrey Bogart may have been right when he said, “Dean died at just the right time. He left behind a legend. If he had lived, he’d never have been able to live up to his publicity.”


I haven’t watched Giant in many years, and I don’t have a DVD copy, but one of these evenings (when I have three hours plus to spare) I’ll stream it on Amazon. There is also an excellent PBS documentary on the filming of the movie and its effect on Marfa, Children of Giant, available on Amazon Prime.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Cheryl Bolen
    Jul 02, 2018 @ 10:35:23

    Interesting. I remember the first time I saw Rebel, in the 1950s movie house when I was in elementary school and crying all night because he was dead. I’d like to see Giant again, but I don’t like 3 and 4-hour movies!



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