Children of Giant: Mexican POV in Marfa

DATELINE: Unavoidable James Dean Strikes Again

Children of Giant Children of Giant!

If you know anything about our Hollywood history books on the story behind making movies, you know that we would be hot on the trail of George Stevens’ 1955 classic epic Giant. 

Made On location in Marfa, Texas, with Elizabeth Taylor as an early feminist in 1920s Texas, and Rock Hudson as the laconic cowpoke who owned Reata, a cattle ranch, you are overwhelmed with James Dean who stood out on the landscape,

However much the director wants to make this a movie about the Mexican discrimination in Texas, James Dean is there to steal the movie. He dominates everything in the fascinating film called Children of Giant.

Actor Earl Holliman is still around to give his perspective, and Jane Withers appears to have declined to participate.

Director Stevens’s son, notable Hollywood producer George Stevens, Jr., offers many insights. They say little about Dean.

It was the film James Dean died making. It was a Western that showed the yellow rose of Texas was a yellow streak of Jim Crow laws against Mexicans. The children loved him, and they saw him as someone special and caring.

Today Marfa’s racism almost seems quaint, next to the horrors being inflicted on Mexicans under Trump.

New York historical novelist Edna Ferber was spot on depicting wild cat billionaire Glenn McCarthy (aka Jett Rink in the movie and book). James Dean’s makeup and style mimics McCarthy in his late middle-age.

Dean is remembered fondly by the Mexican children and adults whom he befriended in Marfa, Texas. Indeed, if you are looking for stories about Dean’s public urination in front of town onlookers, or even the tale of Dean going after director Stevens in a fight over his performance, you will find only slight nods in that direction.

Yet, as a social history document about a social history movie, you could not find a more spot-on documentary. It features townsfolk giving their insights and sharing their unusual photos.

It is nirvana for a movie maven who delights in the behind-the-scenes activity. This little PBS documentary packs a wallop and a message from the children of Marfa in 1955. Unfortunately, James Dean is still the big draw. George Stevens and Edna Ferber could not avoid him then or now.

 Dr. William Russo wrote The Next James Dean, which is available as an ebook and print work on Amazon.

 

Five Great Directors Go to War

DATELINE:  History Backstory

five

Netflix has put together a three-part documentary, based on a Mark Harris book, Five Came Back about the impact World War II had on the careers and personalities of Hollywood’s legendary directors.

They called the work “propaganda,” and it was dismissed by many over the years as secondary to the art of film.

Starting with Frank Capra, the great directors wanted to serve their country—in the best way they could, as filmmakers. The military was suspect of them as creators of fiction. Indeed, even Capra asserted he never watched documentaries when he was thrust into making them.

Others followed suit: John Huston, William Wyler, John Ford, and George Stevens. Each had been highly successful during the 1930s, but after serving in dangerous war zones, seeing death close up, their seminal work would come in the post-war years.

After the war, each had a signature film that displayed the horrors etched into their art form: for Wyler, it was The Best Years of Our Lives, about returning veterans; for Ford, it was They Were Expendable, about the toll on sailors; for Huston, it was The Treasure of Sierra Madre, seeing the deadly sins up close; for Stevens, it was a series of dramas like Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, filmed as A Place in the Sun; for Capra, it was about confronting the darkness from It’s A Wonderful Life.

Along the way, we have the insights on how these men navigated the politics of Washington as deftly as they traversed the world of big studios.

Today’s masters of cinema, like Spielberg and Kasdan, Coppola, Del Toro and Greengrass, speak to the affinity they have for the old masters and their integrity—and their pain.

As a history of Hollywood, the documentary is brilliant and poignant. As a depiction of the war against Hitler, there becomes another layer how our legends may shape our reality. A few of the documentaries produced during World War II were, in fact, re-enactments, much like we see on TV docudramas all the time nowadays.

Though the directors ran the gamut of political attitudes and personal foibles, from arch-conservatives to immigrants, they were drawn together in an epic and spiritual journey.

Rare clips and lost interviews bring insight and deserving recognition. This serves as an important backdrop and backstory to the great films and great men who made them.