Wanting to emphasize the height of the Benedict mansion, the oil wells and Rink's hotel, George Stevens eschewed the use of the CinemaScope format, as he felt that the lenses tended to distort the image. In terms of his story, he felt that height was much more important than width. This was one of the few '50s epics not filmed in that process.
Elizabeth Taylor and husband Michael Wilding invited Rock Hudson and his future wife to their house for get-to-know-you drinks one night at the very start of the production. Hudson described it as a "liquid evening" -- they all got exceedingly drunk, finishing the evening at 3:00 am. Taylor's call-time was 5:30 am, and Hudson's wasn't long after. Fortunately the scene being shot that morning was a wedding scene with no dialog, so instead of talking, all they had to do was look lovingly at each other. The two actors were concentrating so hard on not being sick that they were quite surprised when some of the people on-set started to cry, so convinced were they of their supposed looks of adoration at each other.
During this production shoot James Dean appeared in an informal black & white TV commercial in which he responded to questions posed by actor Gig Young. Ironically, Dean was promoting safe driving and informed viewers, "People say racing is dangerous, but I'd rather take my chances on the track any day than on the highway." Before he left the studio he added one piece of advice: "Drive safely, because the life you save may be mine." Dean was wearing the very hat and clothing he wore for this movie throughout the commercial. He died a few weeks later in a car crash.
Rock Hudson and James Dean did not get along. Although later rumors would suggest that Dean had rejected a pass from the actor, most sources reported that each had little respect for the other's approach to acting, and Hudson resented what he considered Dean's unprofessional behavior.
In the 1940s and 1950s the usual policy for films where characters would start young and get older was to cast older actors and de-age them to show them as their younger selves. "Giant" took the then largely radical step of doing the opposite--casting younger actors and using make-up to make them appear older.
In the 2005 DVD release, there is what appears to be an inside joke in the chapter listings of the scene selection. The birthday party scene, in which Bick forces his visibly unhappy son to ride a horse, is titled "Uneasy Rider." Bick's son is played in adulthood by Dennis Hopper, who would go on to co-write, direct and star in Easy Rider (1969).
James Dean refused to undergo a lengthy make-up process for his later scenes, claiming "a man of 45 shows his age in thoughts and actions, not in wrinkles." He only allowed them to gray his temples and put a few lines on his forehead.
The lead character, Jett Rink, was based upon the life of Texas oilman Glenn H. McCarthy (1907-88), an Irish immigrant who would later be associated with a symbol of opulence in Houston, Texas: the Shamrock Hotel, which opened on St. Patrick's Day, 1949. Author Edna Ferber met McCarthy when she was a guest at his Shamrock Hotel (known as the Shamrock Hilton after 1955), which served as the basis for the fictional Emperador Hotel in both the book and the film.
Location filming took place for two months outside the tiny Texas town of Marfa. Director George Stevens did not have a closed set but actively encouraged the townspeople to come by, either to watch the shooting, visit with the cast and crew or take part as extras, dialect coaches, bit players and stagehands.
Although appalled by his lack of professionalism, George Stevens was always highly complimentary about James Dean's acting abilities. He even conceded that some of his lateness was a result of his intense work getting into character before shooting.
Gary Cooper happened to be at Warner Bros. the day Mercedes McCambridge was doing hair and makeup tests. When he got a look at the brand new Stetson she was supposed to wear in the film, he said, "You mean to sit there and tell me that a Texan woman who spends most of her waking hours in the middle of hundreds of head of cattle would be caught dead in that stupid store hat?" He called a wardrobe man he had worked with, and gave McCambridge an old hat he had worn in other films. It even had his name in the band. When McCambridge noticed the water stains, she asked if it had been rained on. "Nope," he replied. "Peed on a lot! That's what makes it such a fine Texas hat. No self-respecting rancher wears a hat that his horse hasn't peed on!" She wrote in her memoirs that James Dean tried to steal it.
Elizabeth Taylor forged a close bond with James Dean. Some nights they would sit up late as he vented his frustrations with his life as an actor, the restrictions of Hollywood life and past traumas. Unlike Rock Hudson, however, he rarely acknowledged their closeness on set, often ignoring her completely after a night of baring his soul to her.
When the production moved to Marfa, TX, on June 6 for location filming, the Victorian mansion set was shipped from California on six train cars. The set was built on the Evans Ranch, 21 miles outside Marfa, and lashed to four telephone poles to hold it upright. It was really just a façade--three walls with no back, no roof and no interior. Interiors at the mansion and other Texas locations were filmed at Warner Bros. in Burbank.
Originally budgeted just shy of $2 million, the film ended up costing over $5 million. Despite the worries of studio head Jack L. Warner, it went on to become Warner Bros.' biggest hit up to that time.
James Dean called the shooting style of director George Stevens the "around the clock" method, because Stevens would film a scene from as many different angles as possible, which made everything seem to take longer to do.
James Dean refused to show up for one Saturday call because he had planned to move that day. A week later he arrived late on a day when Mercedes McCambridge had shown up on time, even though the night before she was sent to the hospital for stitches after a bad fall. George Stevens dressed him down in front of the entire cast and crew, then walked off the set and left an assistant to direct the actor's scenes.
During location shooting, Warner Bros. gave the principal cast members battered old Chevies to drive around. James Dean was so frustrated with the film, he drove his out of town and shot out the windows with a BB gun. That was the last straw for Warner's. After previous complaints about the actor's speeding, the studio took his car away from him. When he got Mercedes McCambridge to drive through the country slowly as he sat on the hood of her car shooting rabbits, Warner's took her car away, too.
Shooting in Texas during the summer was far from comfortable, with temperatures rising as high as 120 degrees in the shade. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor bolstered each other's spirits as much as possible, often staying up late drinking together.
Rock Hudson, in a later interview, claimed that when he viewed the film for the first time with an audience, he was booed throughout, but when the audience cheered him in the diner scene he realized the reaction was to his character and not to his abilities as an actor.
According to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, the day after James Dean's death was announced, George Stevens required a distraught and inconsolable Taylor to complete reaction shots for a scene she had played with Dean, and that the actress never forgave him.
Orson Welles was inspired by the film to make The Other Side of the Wind (2018), one of his many unfinished opuses. It tells of an old director trying to complete an epic movie and being taunted by his young male lead who keeps calling him "Fatso". The director encourages his star to buy a sports car. In what exists of the film, the director is played by lean, lanky John Huston. "Fatso", however, was James Dean's nickname for George Stevens during the making of "Giant".
Rock Hudson claimed that he was chosen for the coveted role of Bick Benedict largely because he was the right age, 30. George Stevens felt he could be convincing as both a younger version of Bick in his early 20s and as a grandfather in his 60s. More established actors like Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and William Holden were suggested by the studio for the role, but Stevens rejected them as being too old to convincingly play Bick during his younger years.
Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor remained close friends the rest of their lives, although they only worked together on one other film, The Mirror Crack'd (1980). His death of HIV complications in 1985 led to her involvement in AIDS charities which eventually brought her the Motion Picture Academy®'s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
George Stevens had a hard time directing James Dean. The problem started with Stevens' ordering Dean to get rid of his Actor's Studio mannerisms like moving his head from side to side or hopping while walking. The two argued constantly, and at one point the actor went on strike for three days. Dean even ordered his agent to come to the location to help him deal with the director. He also referred to Stevens as "Fatso" behind his back. In defiance, Dean would often hold up production for hours, causing the film to go over schedule.
Although they had enjoyed a congenial relationship making A Place in the Sun (1951), Elizabeth Taylor and George Stevens quarrelled a good deal during filming. Most of their fights stemmed from his practice of demanding multiple takes without explaining why or offering additional direction to the actors.
James Dean's rebellious behavior started with the press luncheon announcing the start of production. Not only did he arrive late, but when a photographer asked him to remove his glasses, he responded by putting a set of clip-on sunglasses over them. He also refused to take a bow when George Stevens introduced him. Later he tried to rationalize his behavior by claiming he had come directly from the set of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and was concerned about being seen unshaven and tired. In fact, he had finished work on the film the night before and was exhausted. With the earlier filming running over schedule, he was shooting wardrobe and make-up tests for "Giant" while finishing "Rebel Without a Cause" and did not get a promised vacation between the two pictures.
Production designer Boris Leven's design for the living room at the Benedict ranch home "Reata" was used again as the grand entry hall for the Von Trapp family home in The Sound of Music (1965). Both use the same split staircase, proportions, scale and mezzanine hallways; however, the color scheme, details and decorations were different for each film. Each were also independently constructed in different studios nine years apart.
Jordan Benedict II and Reata Ranch were based on Robert "Bob" J. Kleberg, Jr. (1896-1974) and the King Ranch in Kingsville, Texas. Like the over half-million-acre Reata, King Ranch comprises 825,000 acres (3,340 km2; 1,289 sq mi) and includes portions of six Texas counties, including most of Kleberg County and much of Kenedy County, and was largely a livestock ranch before the discovery of oil.
A DVD version of the film was released in Canada, but not the U.S.--unusual for an American film. Warner Bros. then pulled the Canadian release, causing fans to scurry to buy the disc from Canadian distributors. The DVD quickly disappeared from stores, and became a rare item on auction websites for nearly two years, until its official North American release on DVD in 2003.
James Dean objected to being kept waiting for his scenes. After being called to the set three days in a row without being used at all, he skipped his next call. When George Stevens objected, he argued that with the amount of preparation he did to create his character's emotional life, it was grueling to be kept waiting that long. Although not really sympathetic to the Method Acting Dean had learned at the Actor's Studio, Stevens tried to keep him on a more reasonable schedule after that.
With Elizabeth Taylor spending time with her two co-stars, rumors flew that she was involved with one or both. Amazingly, one person who claimed to believe it was Phyllis Gates, Rock Hudson's future wife, who never acknowledged her ex-husband's homosexuality. Far from squelching the rumours, a visit from her husband Michael Wilding and children just fanned the flames, with gossips claiming Wilding had come to win her back. In truth, she had asked him to visit for moral support because the role and location filming were so difficult.
Three days before shooting was scheduled to start, James Dean was entered in an auto race in Palm Springs. When Stevens found out, he put his foot down and insisted the actor not be allowed to race until after production was finished.
Although Elizabeth Taylor always said she was not involved with either of her co-stars, during location shooting her husband, Michael Wilding, invited two strippers to their home for an evening while the children were visiting Taylor's parents. The strippers later sold their story to Confidential magazine, which ran it after the film had been completed. Although Taylor said at the time that she would not let the scandal destroy her marriage, the two would divorce in 1957.
Except for Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, who stayed in rented houses, everybody else in the cast and crew stayed at Marfa's one hotel. Although conditions on the set were gruelling, the days actors weren't working were worse, as the small town (population 3,600) offered almost nothing to do.
Carroll Baker told interviewers that at the premiere, many fans turned up thinking that James Dean's death had been a publicity stunt and that he would make an appearance. A near riot ensued when he obviously did not appear.
On the day he completed his last scene, James Dean had a new Porsche Spyder delivered to the set at the end of his work day. Mercedes McCambridge was the first person to ride in it with him. When he sped across the Warner's lot to drive her to her dressing room, studio police barred him from speeding there.
The first scenes Rock Hudson shot were his reactions as an outsider at the Maryland home where he meets Leslie. To get the right "fish-out-of-water" sense, George Stevens shot Hudson's reactions independent of the other actors, with the camera far away from him and Stevens feeding him the other characters' lines.
Rock Hudson, who roomed briefly with James Dean and co-star Chill Wills during filming, shared George Stevens' dislike for his co-star. He felt that Dean's method of acting was completely self-absorbed to the point where he alienated his co-stars, offering no give and take in his performance. Of course, Dean had his defenders as well. In James Dean, author Val Holley wrote that when Edna Ferber visited the set, "Dean liked and charmed Ferber, trying to teach her some of the rope tricks he had mastered. She called him a "genius" and shrugged off his troubles with Stevens as "success poisoning," a syndrome she said she knew very well from the days when she had simultaneous hit shows on Broadway." Elizabeth Taylor also grew to love him and later said, "We would sometimes sit up until three in the morning, and he would tell me about his past, his mother, minister, his loves, and the next day he would just look straight through me as if he'd given away or revealed too much of himself. It would take....maybe a couple of days before we'd be back on friendship terms. He was very afraid to give of himself." The day after hearing about Dean's accident, the actress collapsed on the set and had to spend the next two weeks recovering in a hospital. (She was suffering from various health problems, including a leg infection and was also distraught over marital problems with Michael Wilding).
According to Rock Hudson, George Stevens did most of his direction of the actors before filming started, in meetings to help them understand their characters and by involving them in production decisions. One day he took Hudson to the production shop where the massive Victorian house at Reata was being built. Most of the house was just lumber at that point, but Stevens asked him what colour the house should be. Hudson thought about the Victorian era, then said "Tan with brown trim, I guess." Stevens immediately told the production crew to paint it that color.
When the production moved to Marfa, Texas for location filming, the Victorian mansion set was shipped from California on six train cars. The set was built on the Evans Ranch, 21 miles outside Marfa, and lashed to four telephone poles to hold it upright. It was really just a facade - three walls with no back, no roof and no interior. Interiors at the mansion and other Texas locations were filmed at Warner Bros. in Burbank.
George Stevens cast Rock Hudson after seeing him as a gunfighter who ages over 30 years in The Lawless Breed (1953). In return for approving the loan to Warner Bros., Hudson's home studio, Universal, forced him to extend his contract another four years. In addition, Hudson's agent, Henry Wilson, took advantage of his client's signing by securing roles for two other actors he represented, Jane Withers and Fran Bennett.
James Dean made friends with George Stevens' assistant Fred Guiol, which gave him an excuse to visit Stevens's offices during breaks in work on East of Eden (1955). It was seeing his first starring performance, however, that convinced Stevens to cast the sensitive actor, even though the character in the book was described as a tougher type.
When Bick and his cronies are attempting to buy off Jett's inheritance of land from Luz, James Dean's lariat-swirling, business-stress-diversion routine appears to be an homage (and one better) to Jean Arthur's tiny lariat trick in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). That occurs just following a similar scene of lawyers trying to force "power of attorney" on Longfellow Deeds' inheritance, in order to offset the lawyers' (Ceder, Ceder, Ceder, and Budington) failure to control the books for his decedent uncle's fortune.
James Dean would tragically die eight days after the completion of the film, in his brand new Porsche 550 Spyder. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at Pasa Robles Hospital, California, he was only 24 years old.
The film's famous final scene in which Bick Benedict battles it out with the racist owner of a diner is drastically different in Edna Ferber's novel. In the book, Bick is not present. Only his wife, daughter and Mexican daughter-in-law are there, and they simply leave without causing any trouble when the diner owner orders them out.
In a prolonged scene, ranch hand Angel Obregon has been killed in World War II and his body returned home for burial. During the war, American battle dead were interred in temporary cemeteries. It was only after the war that, depending on the families' wishes, American war dead were reburied in permanent cemeteries abroad, national cemeteries, or returned to the family (as in Angel's case) for burial at home. Accordingly, this scene would have occurred between 1947-53, when the reburial process took place. (Source: "Safely Rest" by David P. Colley)