Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor went for get-to-know-you drinks one night at the very start of the production. They both got exceedingly drunk, finishing the evening at 3:00 am. Their call-time was 5:30 am. 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.
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 title of one scene. 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Orson Welles was inspired by the film to make The Other Side of the Wind (2016), 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".
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.
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.
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.
George Stevens had a hard time directing James Dean. The problem started with Stevens' ordering Dean to get rid of 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.
The hat that Mercedes McCambridge wore in her exterior scenes was given to her by the wardrobe department. It was then "aged" by Gary Cooper so that it would look authentic. She wrote in her memoirs that James Dean threatened to steal it.
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.
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.
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.
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 Dean's unprofessional behavior.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 rumors, 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.
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.
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.
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 that, Bick is not present, just his wife, daughter and Mexican daughter-in-law who dutifully leave without causing any trouble when told to by the diner owner.
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)