“Money isn't everything, Jett.” - “Not when you've got it.”
George Stevens . 1955
When, despite his Shane triumph, Paramount would not back his other projects (The Young Lions included), director George Stevens went independent, spent a year ironing out deal for a 1952 book “praised in 47 states, damned in Texas”... Warner Bros finally won its own Gone With The Wind.
Giant was also by a woman writer, sneered at by Texans as the “little old lady from Kalamazoo.” They hated Edna Ferber’s tale of Texan arrogance and racism with none too well disguised portraits of two of the state’s most powerful millionaires: Robert Kleberg and Glenn McCarthy. (That kept lawyers and scenarists busy when scripting began). Ferber had previously upset Oklahoma with another soap, Cimarron. Her other work included Show Boat and So Big (also filmed more than once), Saratoga Trunk, Dinner At Eight. Stage Door, etc.
The four-month shoot set for June 1954 was soon swept aside as...
Stevens trimmed the fat and
the sprawl of the 447-page novel
He concentrated on the essentials - including his and Ferber’s hatred of social injustice and racism. He invited her to write the script - deliveredAugust 8. It was not all good or bad. Stevens then got long-time collaborators Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat to start over - their version finished on October 22. Stevens asked director friend Fred Zinnemann to help cut the script further, censorship had to be met (“Good Lord,” “I wish to God,” even “damn” were argued over) and the final script was dated April 4, 1955 and Stevens finally said Action! (in Burbank (the Reata ranch in Marfa, Texas would come later) on May 18. After a long and arduous casting session...
Edna Ferber’s three leads were the weak rancher Bick Benedict, who learned nothing at Havard and is only saved, built into something by his classier wife, Leslie Lynnton. And, of course, the film’s most famous character, Jett Rink, the po’r boy made good - better than good. He made zillions as Texas changed froma cattle to oil state.
“Unless we have at least two Names,” said Ferber, “I should think we’re in trouble.”
Stevens wasn’t yet sure which age-ensemble he wanted to run with, but he knew it was easier to make a young actor look old than make old Clark Gable look young at 54. Ferber was keen on Burt Lancaster, 42, and Jane Wyman, 38. Stevens preferred William, Holden, 37, and Audrey Hepburn, 26. Both director and author agreed on Robert Mitchum, 38, as Jett. Of course!
Suddenly, Rhett Butler
saw himself as Bick
… and gave up a $350,000 payday for The Gunfighter at Fox to make himself available. Another possibility, Gregory Peck, simply took off - and took over Gable’s Western. Holden wanted to make Elmer Gantry. He didn’t; Lancaster did.
Sterling Hayden was next favourite. It was his agent, William Shiffrin, who paradoxically recommended Anne Baxter for Leslie while offering, perhaps, the best advice to Stevens about the right age groups to go for. “It’s easier to believe a romance between young people than among older, more established stars.”
Then again, Stevens knew that - having enjoined Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in another of his classics,A Place in the Sun, 1951. Hence, both stars were on his acting lists - for Leslie and Jett.
Other previous Stevens players were considered... Van Heflin and Jack Palance (Shane, 1952) forJett... James Stewart (Vivacious Lady, 1938) and Joel McCrea (The More The Merrier, 1943) for Bick. McCrea was better suited to Uncle Bawley but no one dared suggest it.
Katharine Hepburn had been Stevens’ Alice Adams, 1935, plus Quality Street, 1937, and Woman of the Year, 1942. Joan Fontaine hailed from A Damsel In Distress, 1937, and Something To Live For, 1952; Irene Dunne, Penny Serenade, 1941 and I Remember Mama, 1948. And for a film that James Dean was to dominate - alive and dead, his East of Eden parents and brother - Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet and Richard Davalos - were considered for Uncle Bawley, Luz and Jordy Benedict. Plus two other Rebels Without A Cause: Natalie Wood lost Lacey Lynnton, but Sal Mineo nailed Angel Obregon III, coming home from war in a box.
Robert Mitchum and Cornel Wilde found themselves on the lists for both Bick and Jett. They were not alone in the doubling-up stakes... Warner’s teenage delight of the hour, Tab Hunter, was chewed over for Jody Benedict and town hero Bob Dace; Albert Dekker for Uncle Bawley or Judge Whiteside; and. although largely unknown at the time, a support player never then seen as star material (not even on TY), Charles Bronson was on the Stevens lists for Jett and Bob Dace.
Gloria Grahame went one better. She was up for three roles: Luz Benedict, Vashti Snythe and an extremely wild card choice for Leslie. Stevens had wanted Gloria for Alice, Shelley Winters’ role, in A Place in the Sun.
Jordan “Bick” Benedict . According to Rock Hudson, stuck at Universal, “every actor in town wanted that part - Gable, Ladd, Cooper.” Even John Wayne decided it was his role. Imagine Wayne v James Dean! The six month schedule put Duke off. Wayne and Hudson later co-starred in The Undefeated, 1969.
Errol Flynn was typical Warner thinking (cheap, too). Also among the 18 potential Bicks were Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Tyrone Power, the pedestrian Robert Taylor and rank outsider Forrest Tucker. And, of course, Kirk Douglas, as soon as his arch rival, Lancaster, had been aired.
Shock ideas were another Universal pactee Jeff Chandler and Victor Mature, he of the three expressions: “Whaddyer want, Mr Director - #1, #2 or #3?” Plus singer Gordon MacRae, a year after James Dean had auditioned for MacRae's role of Curly in Oklahoma! This time singing was not a prerequiste - the canny Edna Ferber retained all musical rights just in case...(There was a stage musical, but not until 41 years after Ferber’s death and then, just for a month only at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, in 2009).
William Holden won it, then
Sterling Hayden was front-runner
“He has the great robust charm these Texicans seem to have,” said his agent William Shiffrin. “And could play the entire picture as he is” with simple make-up when required to be younger.
Then, Stevens settled with the kid he’d liked in The Lawless Breed. Universal was not pleased. “That’ll be six months,” Hudson was informed. “We can make two pictures here in that time.” So, the studio permitted to make Giant only if he extended his Universal contract for four more years. “They were really bastards!”
Leslie Lynnton . Stevens’ little black book of the hour contained 30 names. At least.
Audrey Hepburn was always Stevens’ first choice…They had two meetings about the film in October 1953 andJuly 1954. The other Hepburn - Katharine - was another consideration, even though she was Audrey’s senior by 22 years.... Audrey was unsure about Leslie and George switched to Grace Kelly .No way, said MGM’s Dore Schary, “We’re not going to loan Miss Kelly for Giant or any other picture.” Schary proved less fussy about Metro’s Elizabeth Taylor.
Even after Liz, as Stevens put it, “cast herself into Giant,” he continued to prefer Grace. “She sort of suited it better because she was the most important female star at the time.” (Exactly why MGM refused to allow her to work for any other studio).
Edna Ferber then reported to Stevens’ production partner, Henry Ginsberg, that Kelly remained “anxious” to be Leslie. "Metro wants her for [a] Spencer Tracy picture which she definitely does not want to do., As she now does pretty much as she pleases, I think she might do Giant if properly approached. This comes from someone whom you know very close to Tracy.” (ie Kate Hepburn). Kelly was finally suspended by MGM for favouring Giant over Tribute To A Bad Man. Too late. She'd gone. To Monaco.
Also considered: Olivia de Havilland (and her sister, Joan Fontaine), Deborah Kerr (soon having Tea and Sympathy with a discarded Jett, John Kerr). Maureen O’Hara got keen - when her old spanker John Wayne was aiming to be Bick. And the very (silly) idea of June Allyson tended to explain why her oft co-star, Jimmy Stewart, was listed for Bick (!).
Otherwise it was far too many of the old brigade forever taking roles from one another at the time: Anne Baxter, Ann Blyth, Irene Dunne, Ava Gardner, Jane Greer, Susan Hayward, Rita Hayworth, Jennifer Jones, Vivien Leigh, Dorothy McGuire,Patricia Neal, Eleanor Parker and Gene Tierney.
Few youngsters got a look in. Just Janet Leigh (as opposed to Vivien), Donna Reed, Jean Simmons, Joanne Woodward - still called Joan at the time.
Betsy Drake and Virgina Mayo were off-the-wall notions from Stevens - or Warner Bros. And Vivien Leigh - Scarlett is Leslie! The dullard and uninspired idea of Jane Wyman had Edna Ferber’ support because Jane has starred in the writer’s favorite adaptation of any of her works. So Big. Which reminds me that two of the, er, biggest men in Hollywood were seen for Jett and Bick - John Ireland and Forest Tucker.
Finally, Hudson was asked to choose… And Liz, it was. Poor Taylor, who had recently had her second child, suffered various health (or "health") problems during the shoot. - hardly assisting her already strained relationship with Stevens. It was a power-play. She was not, after all, his little ingenue from A Place in the Sun. That was five years ago. 1950. And now, if Kelly was the princess of Monaco, well Taylor was the queen of Hollywood and doncha forget it, baby!
Jett Rink . Jack Warner wanted Marlon Brando and no one else. Stevens disagreed and “didn’t have an opportunity to think about him” - being too busy thinking only about Robert Mitchum... after Mrs Stevens talked George out of, his Shane, Alan Ladd. Ferber approved of Mitchum and the first script drafts were slanted in his direction. However, he was being chased for three other movies, started one, Blood Alley, and quit after three days, being replaced by its producer... John Wayne.
In November 1954,
Mitchum rejected Jett
Richard Burton was attracted and later went into another Edna Ferber novel, Ice Palace, 1960. Jack Warner was high on Sydney Chaplin: “comes off very well in Land of the Pharaohs.” John Wayne fighting to be Bick obviously led to Red River thoughts of Montgomery Clift for Jett. The call for Mexican-Irish Anthony Quinn was insulting - considering Jett hated Mexicans.
Others listed included the exceedingly boring, empty pages of Richard Basehart, José Ferrer, Van Heflin, Cameron Mitchell. Plus the brighter Richard Boone, John Ireland, Brian Keith, Jack Palance and Rod Steiger. Youngsters included Ben Gazzara and (whatever happened to) Rick Jason and Alex Nicol,
The fact that Aldo Ray was being seen prompted someone to boost his co-star in FromHere To Eternity. Frank Sinatra, himself. “He’d make a helluva Jett Rink.” Suggested Henry Rogers, of the Rogers and Cowan publicity agency, “and he could probably learned to talk Texas if he had to.”
Nick Adams lost the role yet wound up playing some of it - dubbing sections of James Dean’s dialogue that required post-synching... after Jimmy's shock death on September 30, 1955.
Oh and Alan Ladd made the single most stupid error of his career. His triumph as Shane was a fortuitous accident (Montgomery Clift had quit) and although eager to work again with director George Stevens, Ladd was influenced by his wife that he should be top banana - Renata Ranch owner Brick Benedict (Rock Hudson). Stevens pleaded, insisting Jett Rink was the more memorable role.
After the angst of working with Dean,
George Stevens told Alan Ladd:
“ You could have saved me all this aggravation.”
Uncle Bawley . This was the one for a top vet. Almost any much loved old-timer would suffice... Ralph Bellamy, Charles Bickford, Albert Dekker, Fredric March, Adolph Menjou (as a Texan?), Thomas Mitchell, Pat O’Brien and Walter Pidgeon
Also seen: Morris Ankrum and a Raymond Massey who wanted nothing more to do with James Dean after East of Eden. Oh, and a complete outsider far from even Hollywood peoples’ idea of an uncle... ...Boris Karlof!
Plus four veteran cowpokes: Ward Bond, Walter Brennan, Johnny Mack Brown - and Arthur Hunnicutt, formerly billed as Arthur Arkansas Hunnicutt - he was Charles Starrett’s sidekick, Artkansas Higgins,in seven Columbia oaters in the pre-war 40s. A fifth old-timer won it: Chill Wills. He was then best known as the voice of Francis The Talking Mule. “This is not one of those red-flannel cowboy roles,” he declared. “”I get to dress like a gentleman. Even Rock Hudson calls me Uncle these days instead of braying like Francis every time I pass by.”
Judy Benedict . Fran Bennett (who came from an oil rich family) won from eight other contenders: Dawn Addams, Joanne Dru, Martha Hyer, Piper Laurie, Elizabeth Montgomery, Inger Stevens, Susan Strasberg. And Carroll Baker who George Stevens made Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter... although she was nine months older than Liz. “I wanted to work with a top director who would teach me about films,” said Carroll. “So, George Stevens came along - that’s the man I wanted to work with... Part of his secret was the fact that he was so good with human beings. He went to any lengths to make me feel comfortable during the test.”
Jordy: Jordan Benedict III . Dennis Hopper became a James Dean pal, a fan for life, after wining Jordy from Robert Francis, John Kerr, Kevin McCarthy. And two surprises, the future Spok,Leonard Nimoy, and... Jack Lemmon.
Luz Benedict . All the usual suspects were discussed for Bick’s sister, she who really ruled the Benedict clan, hating Leslie and bequeathing Jett with a parcel of trouble for Bick. Stage star Judith Anderson (too pricey), Bette Davis (too Bette), Ann Harding, Angela Lansbury, Agnes Moorhead, Claire Trevor, Jo Van Fleet - all helped plant the seed that it had to be... Mercedes McCambridge.
Bob Dace . Although thinking he was being offered Jett, Earl Holliman took the town’s war hero from Richard Davalos, James Best, Claude Jarman, Jack Lord, Fess Parker, Russ Tamblyn - and the unknown, then and now, James Lydon. George Stevens was so charming, recalled Holliman, “I never once had a chance to say I didn’t want to do his movie.”
Pinky Synthe . Another unknown, then and now - Robert Nichols - beat two wiley Western stlwarts. LQ Jones, who took his actibg name from the first role he played in Battle Cry, 1954 - and Strother Martin, who once described himself as having a walk “like a bad imitation of Bob Hope” and a voice like “Shirley Temple with a cold.”
Plus the lesser known Charles Bronson - who also lost Jett.
Lacey Lynnton . Yet another still unknown, Carolyn Craig,won the role.Fran Bennett tested - and was given Judy Benedict, instead. But neither Lacey or any other role for Vera Miles and... well, Natalie Wood in a second movie with Jimmy Dean would have sent out all the wrong signals to fans of Rebel Without A Cause.
Gabe Target . Sheb Wooley was selected over three more Western memorables: Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, Dub Taylor.
Dr Horace Lynnton . Paul Fix beat off the rather inevitable Leon Ames and Dean Jagger,who were born old.
Judge Whiteside . Charles Watts survived against better known vets John Carradine and John McIntire.
Juana . Pier Angeli (one of James Dean’s lovers), Rita Moreno (one of Brando’s) and Gloria Rhoads (?) lost out to the Hollywood debut of Mexican star Elsa Cardenas (allegedly one of cult director Budd Boetticher’s lovers).
Vashti Snythe . Shelley Winters tried, the retired Jane Withers won - the first film for the ex-baby star since Danger Street in 1947.
Bale Clinch . Ben Johnson surprisingly lost out to Monte Hale. But Ben’s time would come - and his Oscar for The Last Picture Show on April 10, 1972.
“Of course, it’s a story about Texas,” summed up George Stevens, “As the place where there is perhaps the most dramatic realisation of material possibilities, At the same time, I think people are so similar throughout the world that they will see the universality of the conflict,”
Insisting his car smash death was a Warner Bros publicity stunt, James Dean fans gathered at the New York premiere - “having screaming fits,” recalled Carroll Baker. “Every time a car door opened, there was a push because they thought Jimmy Dean was going to step out. It was really chaotic! Something out of The Day of the Locust.”
[This essay owes (almost) everything to Trevor Wilshire’s Making of an
Epic Motion Picture book, celebrating Giant’s 40th anniversary, 1996]