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On the Shoulders of Giants

How the essence of the Lone Star State was captured on film.

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James Dean, as Jett Rink, photographed between takes on the set of the “Little Reata,” outside Marfa, on the Valentine Highway in the summer 1955.
Photograph courtesy of Warner Bros.

Texans could debate whether Giant or Lonesome Dove is the Texas movie until the cows come home. Both are epic classics with all-star casts. And both glamorize the tough, stubborn, entrepreneurial spirit that Texans admire about themselves. But if filmmaker Kirby Warnock were forced to pick, he’d have to go with Giant, simply because it checks all the boxes.

“Like Don Graham says in his book Cowboys and Cadillacs, Giant is the archetypal Texas movie because it has three things: oil and cattle and barbecue,” Warnock said. “It portrays us as we want to be. It’s Texas riding high and handsome. We’d all love to be rich and good looking like Bick Benedict or Leslie Benedict, and we admire wildcatters like Jett Rink.”

In 1996 Warnock released Return to Giant, a documentary on the making of Giant. This weekend both movies will screen in Marfa, where the latter was shot on location in the fifties.

Return to Giant will be shown for free on Friday in the ballroom of Hotel Paisano, a hub for the Giant crew and cast, including James Dean (Jett Rink), Rock Hudson (Bick Benedict), and Elizabeth Taylor (Leslie Benedict). “They stayed in the hotel the first week or so of their Marfa visit,” said Joe Duncan, who along with his wife, Lanna, purchased the Paisano in 2001. “I think the hecklers caused them to move to private residences for the last month or so of their visit here.”

Giant, celebrating its sixtieth anniversary, will be shown on Saturday as part of the Marfa Film Festival. Registrants can partake in a half-day of festivities, stuffing themselves on barbecue and dancing to the live music of Lucky Tubb, kin of country music pioneer Ernest Tubb, accompanied by his Modern Day Troubadours. A sunset screening will take place outside on the Marfa Municipal Golf Course.

Giant is important to Marfa because it was this area’s first real taste of Hollywood, and the region’s real debut on the big screen to such a huge audience,” said Robin Lambaria, creator of the Marfa Film Festival. “Without Giant I don’t know if we’d all be in this town today.”

The national hype that Marfa now receives seems pale compared to the impact Marfa made on Hollywood more than a half a century ago. Billy Lee Brammer, author of the heralded Texas political novel The Gay Place, was there on the open set, covering the scene for the Texas Observer. In his piece “Unworldly Little Marfa,” from the June 27, 1955, issue, he wrote: “What strikes you first on entering the town is the current mode of dress. The townspeople haven’t changed much, but you hardly notice them. The people from Burbank, California, however, have attempted to dress like Texans, and you can spot some of the more garish ensembles blocks away.”

Warnock’s documentary—narrated by Don Henley, of the Eagles—emerged from plans he and the Marfa Chamber of Commerce hatched in the mid-nineties to host a fortieth anniversary celebration of Giant. Warnock realized there were a bunch of old-timers from the days of the shoot still around. Inspired by an oral history class he had taken at Baylor University twenty years prior, he hired a camera crew to conduct interviews with locals as well other Texans from the cast and crew.

The subjects include Brownfield native Bob Hinkle, who was the vocal coach for Dean and Hudson, and Darlyne Freeman, a majorette in the Marfa Shorthorns High School Band who appeared briefly in the film and accompanied Dean to a party one evening.

Warnock is a veteran journalist who wrote for the music magazine Buddy in the seventies and went on to publish the Big Bend Quarterly. He paired his interviews with photos and home videos from the set, plus images from the movie. He was able to use the images—an expensive undertaking—largely because of the benevolence of a woman in charge of licensing at Warner Brothers, a Texan who understood the gravity of his undertaking and kept his costs low.

The resulting documentary, lauded by the New York Times, is a behind-the-scenes primer for the Giant screening the following night. From Return to Giant, viewers can glean insights into scenes such as when Jett Rink—Warnock is convinced the character was the model for J.R. Ewing and Giant the template for Dallas—strikes gold and rubs it in the Benedicts’ faces.

“What I discovered was, all that oil you see on him was really molasses with lamp black in it to make it dark,” Warnock said. “So he was covered in blackened molasses when it’s a hundred freaking degrees out there. And he had to do several takes on it and he was not real happy.”

Return to Giant first aired on PBS and an abbreviated version was packaged with the Warner Brothers’ DVD release of Giant. There are roughly four minutes of deleted interviews, which will be restored for Friday’s screening, mostly featuring various women who had encounters with Dean.

Contrary to Hudson and Taylor, who Warnock said spent their off-hours driving down to Ojinaga, near the border, to drink tequila, Dean was a man about town. Apparently he was very approachable and tried hard to fit in, wearing cowboy boots everywhere and socializing at dances.

Warnock appreciates the long-term influence that cultural phenomena can have. In fact, he was instrumental in the creation of a new public art piece commemorating Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, to be installed next summer in Dallas. With Return to Giant, he demonstrates how Dean’s time in Marfa also left a lasting legacy in popular culture.

The stage play turned Robert Altman film Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, about an all-female James Dean fan club, is based on the rebel’s time in Marfa. And in the 1985 film Fandango, Kevin Costner plays a college student who drives out to Marfa with some buddies, intent on spending the night in front of the Reata ranch house—a set built for the movie and then abandoned—“to breathe the same air that James Dean breathed.”

Warnock, a native Texan, was drawn to the story of Giant because it reminded him of his childhood. When he was five years old, his father, who was from Fort Stockton, drove the family to Marfa, where they saw the abandoned Reata facade. It wasn’t until Warnock was at Baylor that he finally saw the movie. A particularly favorite scene is when Jett Rink inherits a small piece of land from Luz Benedict, Bick’s sister and Leslie’s nemesis. Rink walks it off, climbing the windmill to survey his acreage.

“He has become part of the landed gentry,” Warnock said. “That is the big differentiator in West Texas. Either you own land or you don’t, and whoever doesn’t own land is working for people that do. It’s just a dumpy little piece of land, but it’s all his.”
Paisano Hotel, July 15, 8 p.m., hotelpaisano.com

Other Events Across Texas This Week

AUSTIN

Accordion to Flaco
Flaco Jimenez is the kind of masterful musician who people gladly pay a good sum for the opportunity to hear, but the accordionist from San Antonio will generously jam for free as part of the Bullock Museum’s Music Under the Star series, along with the Grammy-winning conjunto band Los Texmaniacs.
Bullock Museum, July 15, 6 p.m., thestoryoftexas.com

HOUSTON

Double the Fun
Chances are good that if you enjoy booze, you like to indulge in sweets too. At the Tipsy Dessert Bar’s Alcohol Infused Festival, that will amount to a lot of happy people; already Boozy Bites Passes are sold out, but VIP tickets, which include a complimentary Giant Tipsy-Tini, can still be had.
5102 Washington Avenue, July 17, 2 p.m., thetipsydessertbar.com

SAN ANTONIO

Write On
At the Gemini Ink Writers Conference, aspiring storytellers can learn more about the artistic side of writing at workshops hosted by the likes of John Phillip Santos, a writer, filmmaker, and the first Mexican-American Rhodes Scholar, and Reyna Grande, a writer, speaker, and member of the Macondo Writer’s Workshop, founded by Sandra Cisneros. And then they can learn about the business aspect with the closing speech by Claiborne Smith, editor of Kirkus Reviews.
El Tropicano Riverwalk Hotel, July 21–24, geminiink.org

STOCKDALE

Gambling Man
Kenny Rogers knows when it’s time to fold ’em. The Houston native and winner of the 2013 Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award is on his final world tour, and he has only one Texas date left: at Kosciusko Hall, paired with Lee Brice and the Josh Abbott Band.
Kosciusko Hall, July 16, 7:30 p.m., kennyrogers.com

Got a tip for something cool to do? Email [email protected] or tweet @michaelhoinski.

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  • Bk Tyler

    does the author understand , at all, the fact
    that, “Giant “, both book and movie, is an extremely unflattering portrait of Texans. Texans are portrayed as bigoted jerks until a tiny , added scene at the very end. The Dean character, Jett Rink, based on the real-life drunk egotistical, braggadocios Houston oilman who died bankrupt, Glenn McCarthy. the Benedicts have next to nothing in common with the equally fictional, Ewings. Benedicts and their ilk based on the Klebergs of South Texas, land grabbers of their own kingdom and destiny, who treated the locals with disdain and cruelty, leading to racial hatred in place today. these Giant ( fictional) characters are caricatures but reflect the digusting historical facts of the real Texas

    • Tex

      We cover all of this (racism, Glenn McCarthy, etc.) in Return to Giant, the documentary he is talking about. Please see the film before you judge, that is all we ask.