Giant: Two Disc Special Edition

January 28, 2012 20 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

“Giant” had everything to make it a success. A movie shot on a large scale with little regard to cost, a saga about a rich Texan oil tycoon (Hudson) bringing a refined but fiery woman (Taylor) home as his wife, and the subplot about a ranch worker (Dean) who was looked down on by his boss. Throw in some racial tensions and differences of opinions by husband and wife and her raising her husband’s ire when she has the gall to voice her opinion about how things should run on the ranch, and you have a story that won an Academy Award for Best Film and garnered nine other Oscar nominations.

When the plans were finalized to a make “Giant,” Paramount agreed to an unusual arrangement. Henry Gibbons, an executive at Paramount made an agreement with director George Stevens and the book’s author Edna Furber that none of them would make any money until the film made a profit.

Jordon, called Bick by Leslie, travels back east to buy a prize horse and ends up with the owner’s daughter as well. Back on the Benedict ranch, Bick’s sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) is none too happy to have another female around. She’s been used to ruling the men, and Leslie’s new position causes instant friction. When Luz is determined to ride Leslie’s horse, who will only allow Leslie to ride it, the worst happens, and Luz is killed.

At first Bick is almost inconsolable, but when Leslie announces she’s pregnant, he bounces back to life. When she starts seeing the Mexican ranch hands as independent people who deserve more than Jordan gives them, another riff arises between them. This sets up another subplot about racial inequality. Bick also doesn’t like when Jett and Leslie become friends. It’s almost too much too bare when Luz’s will is read and Jett inherits a very small piece of the Benedict ranch.

Stevens achieves his goal of making a spectacular film. Cinematographer William C. Moffat finds precise beauty in a desolate land and frames it perfectly for the story. The plain Texas ranch with its acres of brown dirt left little colorful scenery to brighten up the sets, so it was natural to capitalize on Taylor’s beauty as much as possible. The way she’s framed in the scene when she first meets Bick is a testament to Moffat’s playful insight. An example where his craft stands out is a scene where she’s half hidden behind a vine while talking to Bick. Moffat centers the camera on her and places one eye right in the middle of a circled vine. It frames her, and she lights up like a cupie doll in two-bit circus. Moffat was one of the few crewmembers who did not receive an Oscar nomination for the film.

Stevens also excelled at developing his characters. Right from the start two things are clear. Bick and Jett don’t like each, and Jett has a crush on Leslie. It’s not clear if she too has a slight crush on him, or just wants to be a friend since he seems to have no one else. Jett is reclusive in most scenes, always hiding behind a big Texas hat, but Dean’s fine acting talent portrays him to a tee. He’s hardboiled, proud and somewhat shy. But when he climbs up the windmill after Luz leaves him the land, he needs no words to express his pride and his opinion that he if he strikes oil, he’ll be just as good as Jordan Benedict.

Meanwhile the Benedicts have three children. Jordan and Leslie again disagree when he tries to make his son ride a pony he doesn’t want to. Then she gets uppity when she intercedes into the men’s discussions about politics, and Jordan insists she leave the room. She tells the men they might as well wear leopard skins and carry a big club because they’ve set women’s roles back thousands of years. Later that evening when he comes to their room, she tilts her beautiful face on the pillow, bats those big beautiful eyes at him and tells him to kick off his spurs and join her in bed – there’s no mistake who wears the pants.

Still upset with this attitude, Leslie takes the three kids back to Maryland to have Thanksgiving with her family. The scene where they sit down to eat is quite funny. The three kids had previously been feeding a turkey on the property and calling him by name. When the butler brings in the large roasted turkey, the kids, who are all wearing paper headbands with feathers in them and are about 3 to 5 years old, immediately go into crying hysterics that the turkey is dead. Obviously kids this age would have never put two and two together, but they play it to the hilt, and Stevens must have had a good laugh in directing them. The littlest one actually heaves her shoulders up and down in torment.

Things get better when Bick comes to visit and lets Leslie know he can’t live without her. They return to the ranch, only to be tormented more by Jett whose open drunkenness lets his interest in Leslie show more and more. As the kids grow older, new sets of problems arise. Luz II (Carroll Baker) thinks she can run the ranch, but mom disagrees. Jordan the III (Dennis Hopper) makes his dad irate when he marries a Latina woman.

Watching the fate of three generations unfold is made highly intriguing by the impressive filmmaking and terrific performances.

“Giant” is a part of Warner Home Video’s release of The Complete James Dean Collection that also includes “Rebel With Out A Cause” and “East of Eden.”

Video: How does it look?

Giant appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this double-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. A serious mix of pros and cons, Giant portrayed some gorgeous visuals and a lot of really ugly ones.

Many of the problems related to sharpness. A lot of the movie looked just fine and depicted accurate and concise images. Unfortunately, substantial amounts of the film came across as terribly soft and fuzzy. Significant parts of the flick were ill defined and lacked clarity.

The main culprit behind this was some of the most heinous edge enhancement I’ve seen on a recent DVD. Actually, I’m hard-pressed to think of many other discs with such heavy haloes. Not all of the movie showed them, but they popped up a lot of them time and really created some enormous distractions. For example, examine the scene in which Jett surveys his new piece land; Dean looked like an alien with some sort of forcefield around him!

That seemed sadder than usual because the rest of the image was so positive. Once I got beyond the edge enhancement and softness, almost everything was solid. At times, colors looked a little faded and muted. However, most of the time hues were vibrant and rich, and they suffered from no bleeding, noise or other issues. Black levels worked quite well, as they appeared tight and deep. Shadows also were effectively displayed. Low-light images looked clear and appropriately opaque. Print flaws created almost no concerns. I saw a speck or two, but overall, the picture was almost shockingly clean based on its age. Though much of Giant presented good elements, the problems were too substantial for me to give it more than a “C” for picture quality. Honestly, I’d not be surprised to learn that Warner Bros. simply reused an old laserdisc master for this DVD.

Audio: How does it sound?

The Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack of Giant was more consistent but not any more satisfying. For the most part, the soundfield seemed to be “broad mono”. The sides showed light stereo imaging for the music and spread out effects for occasional scenes. For example, the dust storm and the segment with the actors amidst a herd of cattle demonstrated decent general use of the sides and surrounds. The track remained oriented toward the front, and the rears kicked in with light reinforcement of those pieces. Overall, the audio remained pretty much stuck in the center, though.

Audio quality seemed erratic and not very good. Speech suffered from an excess of reverberation at times. That made it somewhat tough to hear the lines, which sounded somewhat thin and tinny anyway. Occasionally the dialogue was brittle as well. The track seemed badly mixed at times; effects were so loud they sometimes overwhelmed the speech.

Supplements: What are the extras?

Most of this two-DVD’s extras appear on the second platter, but we get a few on the first disc. On Side One, we start with an introduction from George Stevens Jr. Taped in 1996, he chats for two minutes, 55 seconds and gives us a general overview of the film. It’s nothing spectacular but it helps set the stage for the film.

Spread over the length of the movie, we get an audio commentary from film critic Stephen Farber, screenwriter Ivan Moffat, and George Stevens Jr. All three sat together for this running, screen-specific track. They cover a lot of ground, as the piece fills most of the movie’s length; occasional gaps appear, but these remain insubstantial given the flick’s running time. Some topics discussed include the casting and others they wanted for the roles, changes from the book, Stevens and his working style, and many general anecdotes. We learn of author Edna Ferber’s negative reactions to some alterations, and we hear how the cast and crew reacted to the death of James Dean, an event that occurred during the shoot. The junior Stevens dominates the track, but all three men add some good notes. Overall, this piece helps flesh out the movie and provides a satisfying listen.

On Side Two, we find a program called George Stevens: Filmmakers Who Knew Him. Clocking in at 45 minutes and 35 seconds, this piece also appeared on the Place In the Sun DVD and it offers a discussion of Stevens’ work by a slew of cinematic notables. Apparently filmed in 1983 for little George’s A Filmmaker’s Journey – his tribute to dad – this program consists entirely of other folks’ remarks about Big George. We hear from Warren Beatty, Frank Capra, Rouben Mamoulian, Joe Mankiewicz, Alan J. Pakula, Antonio Vellani, Robert Wise, and Fred Zinnemann. Each man’s comments last between three minutes, six seconds (Mamoulian) and 11 minutes, 31 seconds (Pakula).

Not surprisingly, the statements from the older filmmakers relate mainly to their personal experiences with Stevens, while the younger men talk more about their feelings toward his work. While the former can be quite entertaining, the latter offer the greatest substance. I liked most of the material here, but the bits from Beatty and especially Pakula were the most compelling. All in all, this was a good package of information.

That ends the first disc, so we head to DVD Two. This platter opens with Memories of Giant, a 51-minute and 35-second documentary. It mixes archival materials and interviews with George Stevens Jr. plus actors Carroll Baker, Jane Withers, Earl Holliman, and Rock Hudson. “Memories” doesn’t really attempt to tell the creation of the film. Instead, it relies on scads of anecdotes, as the participants discuss all sorts of topics from the set. We learn about casting, Stevens and his style, how the actors got along together, being on location, and many other issues. It’s a warm and entertaining remembrance.

Next we find the 55-minute and five-second Return to Giant. Narrated by musician Don Henley, this program includes movie clips, archival footage, new images of the locations, and comments from George Stevens Jr., Don Graham of the University of Texas, actors Earl Holliman, Rock Hudson, Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper, Dallas Morning News writer Bryan Woolley, Presidio County Judge Jake Brisbin, Texans/extras Darlyne Freeman, Clay Evans, Lucy Garcia, Bill Christopher, Fran Bennett, Monte Hale, Bob Hinkle and Bettie Jo White Spitler, and crewmember son Dan Molina, and caterer Wally Cech.

The documentary starts with a brief history behind the story as well as reactions to the book and some casting notes. However, “Return” resembles “Memories” in that it mostly acts as a compendium of anecdotes. These take a different turn, however, as they largely focus on the parts of the shoot that took place in Texas. We learn how the actors dealt with that location and get a feel for what the locals thought of the whole thing. Too many movie clips pop up here, but otherwise “Return” adds to our perspective about the film and it seems consistently informative and engaging.

For a piece of historical footage, we go to the New York Premiere TV special. Hosted by Chill Wills and Jane Meadows, the 28-minute and 45-second piece shows film participants and other notables as they arrive at the theater. They chat about nothing much in particular, though the premiere did benefit a good cause. Nothing terribly interesting occurs, but it’s still a fairly cool addition to the set.

A shorter program, the Hollywood Premiere featurette lasts a mere four minutes and 20 seconds. This one shows a few seconds of the New York opening and then presents narration with snippets of arriving stars and others. It’s also of decent archival value but it’s not anything more than that. Project Kickoff simply includes a 37-second newsreel clip called “Giant Stars Are Off to Texas”. This shows the cast at a meal and that’s about it.

The Production Stills and Documents Galleries launches with 54 good behind the scenes photos. As for the “Documents”, this area includes letters between George Stevens and Jack Warner plus other correspondence, budget notes, and promotional material. It’s a nice set.

Next we get two Behind the Cameras segments. The five-minute and 56-second “On Location in Marfa Texas” comes hosted by Gig Young, and it apparently ran after a TV program. It discusses the construction of sets, the arrival of the actors in Texas, the casting of local extras, and the company’s departure from Marfa. Young also hosts “A Visit with Dimitri Tiomkin”, a six and a half minute feature that does exactly what the title states. Both include a lot of contrived moments, but they offer enough interesting footage to merit a look. The Tiomkin piece is especially fun, as we hear the composer talk about his work and play some of it.

In the trailers section, we find two ads from 1956 plus reissue clips from 1963 and 1970. Lastly, some text materials complete the disc. A Giant Undertaking splits into six subdomains. All except the first (“The Giant Behind Giant, a biography of George Stevens) simply present single quotes from the director and a couple of the actors.

We learn more about the director through the George Stevens Filmography, and Awards details the various honors accorded the flick. Finally, Cast and Crew presents a list of many participants; no biographies or filmographies appear here, however.

A generally excellent movie, Giant works well after almost half a century. The film comes with some flaws, but it moves briskly despite its extended running time, and it boasts some good performances and an interesting perspective. The DVD’s picture and sound come as a disappointment, however; both mix positives and negatives to end up mediocre as a whole. Happily, the two-disc set packs a great roster of supplements that help flesh out the flick’s background nicely. Giant seems like a good enough film for me to recommend it anyway, but the erratic visuals and audio make it something of a disappointment.

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