Wednesday, July 18, 2012

1956 Movie: GIANT--a Personal Look At Behind the Scenes with Robert Pruett

Giant is a 1956 American film made from a screenplay taken from the novel by Edna Ferber. The film stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. Featured roles were played by Carroll Baker, Jane Withers, Chill Wills, Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, Rod Taylor, Elsa Cardenas, and Earl Holliman.
Liz, Rock, and Dean
In 2005, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

The outdoor scenes are the topic of the post. They were filmed on the Evans Ranch in West Texas. Who owned it? Who was in the cast from the local population?

These questions came up around 1980 when my husband and I took a road trip with Robert and Susan Pruett, and Bob and Carolyn Goss, all of from San Marcos, Texas. The six of us traveled in the Goss's new van. I remember being on the Evans Ranch, and seeing the skeleton framework that remained when the movie was finished, about thirty years before.
Robert Pruett gave us a narrated tour of the area. His family was heavily involved in the filming of the outdoor scenes. Let me introduce him.

 A True Texas Gentleman, Robert Pruett was born and raised in far West Texas. He attended high school in Marfa and college at Texas Tech University. He often followed the rodeo circuit, riding in all events. Several of his family members were in the production of Giant acting as stunt doubles and bit players. Robert himself was in close contact with some of the actors.

Robert, where was the location of the facade of the Victorian Mansion and main filming? Celia
"The film company Warner Brothers  used my cousin's ranch, the Evans Ranch, which was on Highway 90 West of Marfa, Texas--the town with the Mystery Ghost Lights.'


Your father had a scene in the movie. Can you tell us about that? Celia
"My dad was known for his excellent bar-b-cue, cooked outdoors in a fire pit. In the big outdoor  neighborhood party and bar-b-cue in the movie, my dad was the man serving the
bar-b-cue to the guests that Bick (Rock Hudson) and Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) invited. He had one line and was paid $75."

Didn't your cousins act as doubles for Mercedes McCambridge when she angrily rode the stud horse, War Wind, out onto the prairie, was thrown, and killed in the movie? Celia
"Yes, brothers Clay and Bub Evans--two of my cousins--both doubled for her.  They wore female clothes to look like the actress and rode bucking horses. I guess they did a good job."

 The stud horse in the movie was beautiful. Was he supplied by your cousin from his ranch? Celia
"No, that horse was shipped from Hollywood. They had to use horses that were on a list the movie people used. They used another bucking horse for the wild ride out on the range."

 I remember your telling a story about riding with James Dean in one of his cars. Celia
"Yes, I went rabbit hunting with James Dean. We were both young men. He drove wild, and damaged the car out there. He shot at the car and accidentally hit the transmission. We had to walk 5 miles in the dark to get back."

Didn't someone ask what you thought of James Dean as an actor? Celia
"Yes, and I said he didn't act...he played himself. What you saw on the screen was his true character."

 When the main actors were in Texas, where did they stay? There are no Five-Star hotels out there.Celia
"Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson stayed in separate private homes, which were turned over to them."

I suppose the indoor scenes in the movie were shot in California. Celia
"They were--on a soundstage in Hollywood."

Thank you, Robert. I love your stories, and I know you have so many more. Celia
Robert Pruett is an artisan and craftsman of handmade spurs. He began making spurs as a young man in high school. In recent years, he began to make spurs that were works of art. He sold them at Western Heritage Shows. In the eighties, he began to make them full-time, taking custom orders. Some of his work is featured in a coffee table book, titled Bits and Spurs--Motifs, techniques, and Modern Makers.

NOTE: Robert said that many citizens of Marfa appeared in the movie. Each was paid $50 a day. Since the area was in a prolonged drought, and the economy was very poor, the making of the movie Giant helped boost the entire town's economy and provided much needed jobs for the locals.


Celia Yeary-Romance...and a little bit 'o Texas
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  1. That James Dean was himself is extraordinary but true, I believe - coming from Hoosier ancestry myself - his charisma leapt out from the screen (as did Marlon Brando's who I also felt was just being himself). Many of our most beloved actors are being themselves - not really acting - which is great - but not really acting - examples being Tom Hanks and George Clooney - those I truly admire are those actors who become someone else - kevin Spacey comes to mind, to name one - there must be others - perhaps Laurence Olivier

  2. That's a really interesting post, Celia. I'm sure I must have seen the movie more than once, since I used to babysit, watch movies and knit Aran sweaters at the same time, back when I was a teenager. (When the child was in bed I also was known to peek into his mother's Harlequin romances...oh, dear!)

  3. Celia -
    I really enjoyed your post! GIANT is one of my favorite films. I have always wanted to go to Marfa, but after seeing the forlorn photo of what remains of the Reata mansion, I think it best that I don't. It is a true skill of a writer to make a place (or a house) a character in and of itself. Reata in Giant, Manderley in Rebecca, Tara in Gone With The Wind, and even Hogwarts in Harry Potter. Drector George Stevens beautifully captured Reata in GIANT. So, methinks I'd rather keep it preserved in my memory like that. (Does that make sense?):)

    Now, as for James Dean acting like himself in the film, I have to say I disagree. James Dean (like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Cliff, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, and Robert deNiro) was a serious Method Actor. In Method Acting you study the character and essentially immerse yourself into that character -- how they think, how they react and act, the full spectrum of mind, body, and soul. And very often this means that while on set and filming, they remain in character. I remember an interview once where Rock Hudson said that James Dean didn't speak to him on set and was very aloof. Unbeknownst to Hudson at the time, Dean's attitude ties in perfectly with the rivalry between characters Jett Rink and Jordan 'Bick" Benedict. Jett Rink HATED 'Bick' Benedict (and vice versa). So, I can see why a Method Actor trying to remain focused on his character (especially on location) would NOT want to hang out or become 'friendly' with someone his character hates. On the other hand, Elizabeth Taylor said that Dean was kind, polite, funny, and intelligent. She also defended him as a very serious actor. Taylor understood Method Acting, since her good friend, Montgomery Cliff, had been a Method Actor. An interesting event on set which shows how serious Dean was about the Jett Rink character's emotions, was that he suggested to director George Stevens that Jett Rink's drunken speech be filmed in a longshot to "emphasize the character's utter isolation". So, no, James Dean was not playing himself on film.

    We all have many sides to our personalities, and as someone who studied Method Acting myself, I know there are facets to Dean's personality he used to mentally or emotionally connect with the Jett Rink character -- perhaps something from his past that could help him relate to what Jett felt. But, I think that on that rabbit hunt he was likely also doing character research -- using that experience to get deeper into the mindset of Jett Rink, to understand what being a Texan was all about, or what Texans might do on a hunt in West Texas, and how Jett might behave. Just my theory. :) But I can say for sure that from speaking with people who knew and 'taught' James Dean, he was a very serious actor who did not portray himself on film but used his training to bring that character alive in a natural, almost seamless way. In fact, Method Actors can become so immersed in their role on set, they often improvise as that character. Dean did this often in 'Rebel Without A Cause'. But, everyone I know who worked with James Dean or who had been one of his teachers, were always in awe of his talent, and said he was very intelligent and very focused about his craft. For someone so young, this was exceptional praise indeed! Dean was also nominated for an Oscar for GIANT (as was Hudson, whose performance might have benefitted from the on-set distance between the two men). One of Dean's actimg teachers told me, Dean had a quick wit and a strong will, but could also be very quiet and introspective. However, he also had a rebellious, adventurous spirit. Like Paul Newman, he loved racing cars (which sadly was the cause for Dean's untimely death). Anyway, thought I would share another perspective on Dean based on my knoweldge of the man. :)

  4. It is a great story and really gutsy to make a movie in the 50's with a subplot on race prejudice in the South head. Edna Ferber never shied away from that aspect of Southern life. Giant is a movie I enjoy watching many many times because it is so layered.

    Not too long ago I viewed a great documentary on the making of Giant where members of Marfa remembered when Giant came to town. I'm always struck by the irony of James Dean's death being caused by another driver on the highway. He had just made a PSA with Gig Young on safe driving which ends with him saying "The life you save might be my own."

    Thanks for the post.

  5. What a fantastic post Celia. I really enjoyed Robert's input and his explanations. WOW knowing James Dean, and Rock Hudson, and being able to talk to Elizabeth Taylor!

  6. Judi--Sometimes we drive from Ann Arbor west, then turn and drive down through Indiana to Indianapolis where we turn west.Somewhere in there, in some town, I always see the big billboard announcing this is the birthplace of James Dean. I liked him in Rebel, and also Giant, of course, but my favorite of the three was East of Eden. If that one came on TV right now, I would watch it. That one held such emotion, and deep love...and hatred. It was quite Biblical, too, which I didn't understand for many years.Plus, it was all James Dean, as far as I was concerned. In the other movies, he shared the spotlight with other big stars. In Eden...he stood out. Wow. What a movie.

    James Dean...we always heard "the good die young."

  7. Nancy--oh, I too, have seen it more than once. But while it still holds an allure, it's hard to watch those old movies. Much of the time, they were so overacted. I always though Elizabeth Taylor was the to the movie. She was fantastic.

  8. Ashley..what can I say? I emailed you my long response, because I wanted to think about your comment. I have to say, I'd rather read your comments than my post, which pales in comparison to your analysis of JD and the movie. I am thrilled you enjoyed it, and say so much to talk about.

  9. What fun, Celia. I love to see behind the scenes of movies. I remember watching them film Pollyanna in one of the old Victorian houses in Santa Rosa where I grew up. This version was the one with Haley Mills. Also the Birds by Alfred Hitchcock was fun out in Bodega Bay. The places never look the same as they do in the movies after all the shifting around.

    I loved Giant and all those great actors. It is definitely a movie worth watching more than once. How fun having the interview with Mr. Pruett.

  10. Anna--you're so right. The movie was one of the first to point out the prejudice against the we call them Hispanics, but when I was growing up...Mexicans. And as a side note, I taught high school in a private military boarding school, and for decades, our biggest foreign group were Mexican--and...they said, we are MEXICANS-like you are AMERICANS. And they gloried in being called that. These were from rich families from Mexico.
    About the car crash...Robert Pruett told me his contract forbid him to drive while under contract--on the highways. As soon as they said, "It's a wrap!" he got in his car and took off..and was kille.
    Some of his lines that had to be redone for some reason, were dubbed by another actor.
    So sad. Thanks.

  11. MONA--that's all I could think of, too. Knowing and working with those actors and actresses. Quite a big time in their lives.

  12. Paisley--yes, it's something, and I wish I'd had some experiences like you. The closes I came was here in San Marcos when the B movie was made titled "Pirahna," in our San Marcos Rive and Spring Lake. Our daughter was in high school, and some of her friends appeared in this really awful movie. She went along, skipped school, and could have been in it, but she was too shy. She was cute, and little, and had a great figure...but no one could talk her into it. We laugh about it now.

  13. Celia, I loved this post! The movie "Giant" is one of my favorites and learning more about the filming is interesting. I've always wanted to go to Marfa, and now I have added incentive.

  14. Caroline--I'm glad you enjoyed it. But if you go out there, be sure to have other places to go, too! There's not much in Marfa..and it's a looooong way out there!

  15. Leave it to you, Celia, to come up with something so interesting that I find myself with my mouth gapped open reading it. I loved the wild ride with James Dean and the walk back home after he took out the transmission. It was like a prelude to how he died.
    Love your blogs.

  16. Thanks, Sarah--you are so sweet and generous, but then most successfull people are...good for you! I'm glad you liked it..what an experience we had that year decades ago when we saw and heard all about the making of the movie.
    The gentlemen I interviewd is in his mid 70's and not doing well with some form of neuropathy, and he has a hard time forming sentences. He's only a few years older than I, so I do feel for him. He is a real Westerner, a one of a kind.
    He had more stories that he told me, but I had to pick and choose so the post wouldn't be was, as it is.
    Thanks again, dear one...

  17. Celia,
    I also enjoyed your blog about Giant. I couldn't watch the movie for many years because the horse was shot. I couldn't deal with that, and so I never got any further in the movie than the woman who shouldn't have been riding the horse getting on the beautiful animal. Then years and years later, in fact about 10 years ago, I turned on the movie channel and the movie was already past the part about the horse. So I watched, fascinated, and loved the movie. There is so much in that movie that is wonderful movie making. I love the way the house changes as the family changes, and it was portrayed so well in the movie. I love JD's portrayal of his character in Giant.

    I agree with Ashley that he knew exactly what he was doing as he created that character wonderfully. I have since watched the movie a few times because it is so well done. The characters are wonderful characters.

    About Marfa, I read recently that many of the actors and actresses stayed in the famous hotel in Marfa during the filming of the movie. I haven't made the trip yet, but someday I want to go there. I also know that there is quite good art in Marfa. Some of the artists are women who took lessons from Earline Barnes, an excellent impressionistic artist who passed away a few years ago, who was also my art teacher and my mother's. So they have some nice art in Marfa. :-) Thanks for the visit back in time to Giant!

  18. Jeanmarie--when you watched the movie later, several times, did you cover your eyes when she rode the horse or when they shot it? I'm like that, too, about more things than horses. One of my dear friends who grew up riding horses, can't watch any movie about a horse--I tried so hard to get her to go see Seabiscuit, but she said it would make her sick to see a horse hurt. a good dpg...are very special animals.

    Yes, the hotel is still there in Marfa, and it's almost a shrine for the movie--posters, etc. All the towns out there--Marfa, Alpine, seem to have a good number of artists.
    The year we were out there with the friends, he took us out to see "the lights." There's one special place to go. Other people were there, watching. You know what? I never saw anything--but maybe it was my poor eyesight!
    Thanks for commenting--

  19. Celia, Love your post. I'm jumping on the bandwagon as I loved Giant, too! In addition to the main characters, I enjoyed Vashti Hake and Uncle Bawley tremendously. So great to know, Robert Pruett, who had personal experience with the cast and crew! Thanks for sharing with us.


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