Edna Ferber, Giant, & James Dean

Part of the Easton Historical Society’s Year of the Woman series.

Edna Ferber’s Treasure Hill estate on Maple Road in Easton was her country home from 1939 until 1952. It was here where she penned most of her novel, Giant. Released in 1952, the book became a lightning rod for criticism by Texas newspapers that saw it as an afront to the entire population of the Lone Star state. Texas critics ripped the novel, a steel-edged satire of Texas life and traditions, along with Ferber herself in papers across the state. The Houston Press suggested Ferber be lynched.  The headline of reviewer Lon Tinkle in The Dallas Morning News read “Ferber Goes Both Native and Berserk: Parody, Not Portrait, of Texas Life.”

Ferber was no stranger to controversy, in fact she reveled in it. Her quick wit was well known, and her comebacks to unflattering comments were tempered with just the right amount of sarcasm so as not to further ignite the confrontation. On a trip to Los Angeles in 1953, while sitting poolside at a Beverly Hills hotel, Ferber heard herself being summoned to the telephone: “Telephone call for Edna Ferber,” a bellboy called out as he walked through the pool area. “Miss Edna Ferber to the telephone.”

Suddenly, a man popped up from a chaise. “Edna Ferber!” he loudly declared with an obvious Texas drawl. “The author of Giant! Why I’d like to murder that woman!” After completing her call, Ferber returned to her lounge chair and looked over to the man. She then introduced herself. “How do you do?” she said. “My name is Edna Ferber, and I’ve heard you’d like to murder me.” According to the story, the two spent the next hour or so engaged in a friendly conversation. 

James Dean on the set in 1955 shooting the motion picture, Giant, which was filmed on the Evans Ranch, west of the town of Marfa, Texas. The “mansion” in the background was nothing more than a shell constructed in Hollywood and transported to Texas by rail.

The main plot in Giant centers on the life-long competition for power, wealth, and love between wealthy ranch owner Bick Benedict and wildcat oil driller Jett Rink. But like many of Ferber’s other works, a secondary tale that involves some form of racial or social discrimination also exists within Giant. In this case it deals with the racial discrimination in south Texas of its large population of Mexican Americans. While both Bick and Jett are initially guilty of contributing to the overall problem, Bick transforms over the course of time while Jett’s bitterness and bigotry hardens to the point of his ultimate self-destruction. In this sense, dealing with this type of bigotry puts Giant ahead of its time. It is also this aspect of the novel that overshadows the simplistic stereotyping of white Texas males as boorish, morning, noon, and night steak-eating oafs who settle all their disagreements with their fists –  no doubt a major bone of contention with those Texans so critical of Ferber’s portrayal of them.

The Jett Rink character created by Ferber was a hard-drinking wildcatter obsessed with bringing in an oil-rich well that would make him wealthy. The character was obviously based on real-life legendary oil man “Diamond Glenn” McCarthy, and that was something Ferber never denied. Rink’s character mirrored McCarthy’s. Both men going from rags to riches and both becoming figures larger than life. Rink’s Emperador Hotel was copied after McCarthy’s own 1,100 room Shamrock Hotel in Houston and billed as the world’s largest hotel. Ferber had met McCarthy when she was his guest at the star-studded opening of the hotel in 1949. One has to wonder, given all the other similarities between Rink and McCarthy, was  Diamond Glenn as dark and evil as the Jett Rink character in Ferber’s novel.

1950 Cover of Time Magazine featuring real life oil magnate, Diamond Glenn McCarthy. James Dean’s character of Jett Rink mirrored McCarthy right down to the thin moustache McCarthy sported.

McCarthy was so famous and successful that he made the cover of February 13, 1950 cover of Time Magazine.  But only two years later, he was so far in debt that he was unable to pay his creditors.

When Warner Brothers decided to make Giant into a film in 1955, who would be cast as Bick and Leslie Benedict? Edna Ferber wanted Burt Lancaster as Bick, but director George Stevens’ first choice was 29-year-old Rock Hudson. Ferber lobbied for Patricia Neal to play Leslie, but Stevens wanted someone more glamorous. Audrey Hepburn wisely turned down the role and Grace Kelly had a commitment to a competing studio. Stevens had directed Elizabeth Taylor, in what was perhaps her best role up to that date, in his 1951 6-time Academy Award winner, A Place in the Sun, and the 23-year-old star lobbied him hard for the part of Leslie. But who could pull-off the moody, complex character of Jett Rink? Edna wanted Robert Mitchum, but Stevens offered the part to Alan Ladd who turned it down. But after his back-to-back stand-out performances in 1955’s East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, it couldn’t have been a difficult choice to ultimately cast young James Dean as Rink.

Dean would bring a slightly different Jett Rink to the screen version than Ferber had created for the book. While Rink’s character is still terribly flawed, Dean’s version ultimately evoked a pity from the audience that they would have never felt for the character in the book. Credit that to a combination of Stevens’ brilliant directing – he won an Academy Award for his work on the film, and Dean’s inciteful ability to portray his film character as a genuinely flawed, troubled, and pathetic human being.

Below is a series of wardrobe and make-up test shots from Warner Brothers taken in late May and early June of 1955 that show the aging transformation that Dean’s character of Jett Rink undergoes between the storyline years of 1924 and 1950:

James Dean as Jett Rink in 1924 wardrobe & make-up
Jett Rink character four years later in 1928 when he hits oil as a wildcatter on the Reata Ranch.
By 1940, Dean’s character of Jett Rink has become a wealthy oil man
Dean’s final transformation as Jett Rink in 1950 when he becomes a drunken shell of a man.

George Stevens was certainly apprehensive about filming Giant on location in Texas. Prior to beginning production, he was quoted as saying, “The story’s so hot and Texans object so hotly, we’ll have to shoot it with a telephoto lens across the border from Oklahoma.”

The small town of Marfa, Texas was inundated with over 200 cast and crew members from Warner Brothers beginning in June of 1955. The production company had taken over the entire Paisano Hotel and all but the youngest of the town’s 3,600 residents were welcome to attend the shoots at the 35,000-acre Evans Ranch that doubled for Ferber’s fictional Reata in the film.

According to the June 19, 1955 Fort Worth Star Telegram: “You see the set from the highway, perched incongruously on the sun-baked prairie that is dotted with Mesquite trees, cactus and tumbleweed.

“There, towering four stories high with the Davis Mountains peeking from the background, is the Reata ranch house of the novel in all its ugly Victorian splendor.

“Charles Addams might have designed it.

“However, it was constructed in Warners’ Burbank studio and transported here on five flat(bed) cars. Interiors will be shot in Hollywood, so only a shell rises on Evans’ 35,000-acre spread. He plans to convert it to a haybarn once the visitors go, leaving it behind.

“To supplement Evans’ cattle herd of 1,000, cutouts of cows in various positions have been placed around the house. It’s a mystifying thing to the genuine animals.”

The remains of the mansion at “Reata” in 1968. Evidently, Evans never made good on his promise to turn the building into a haybarn.
Edna Ferber and James Dean talking on the set of Giant between scenes.

Although not directly involved in writing the screenplay for the film (that task was handled by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffet), Edna Ferber was in Marfa to oversee the shoot. She quickly bonded with young James Dean and they enjoyed conversing between scenes and during breaks on the set. While others were off drinking martinis, Dean hung out with local cowboys, spending hours mastering rope tricks and mannerisms. Photos taken during those Marfa days show Ferber joining Dean and learning some rope tricks of her own. Ferber had never been a shrinking violet, and even at 70-years of age, she could definitely still hold her own when it came to interacting with the cast and crew of the film.

Edna and James on the Giant set in Marfa, practicing rope tricks while the locals look on.

The combined brilliance of these this odd duo cannot be overlooked. An aging author and playwright, and an incredibly gifted young actor must have provided anyone listening to their spirited conversations a very interesting perspective into who they were, where they had been, and where they were going. Unfortunately, that budding friendship would end way too soon.

Edna and James on the Hollywood set at Warner Brothers for one of the final scenes to be shot for the motion picture, Giant, in 1955.

On September 30, 1955, Dean was killed in an automobile accident in Cholame, California, only a few days after wrapping up the shooting of Giant.  He would be nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Ferber’s Jett Rink after the film’s 1956 release. Dean was also nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Cal Trask in the film version of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Dean was the only actor in history to be nominated posthumously for two Best Actor Awards for films made in the same year. James Dean was only twenty-four-years old when he died.

Edna Ferber lived until 1968, but would only pen one more novel, Ice Palace, in 1958, and her second autobiography, A Kind of Magic, in 1963.

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