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Monday, February 10, 2020

Jett Rink Is In The Chips Now

The Guy Standing Behind Jim Is Probably Guessing How the Inveterate Cut-Up Will Subvert a Next Scene

Dean Cheers Up A Long Giant Sit

James Dean with Director George Stevens
James Dean as Jett Rink is for me the great termite performance within an elephant-size movie. He is impudent all through and makes for three plus hours wondering when his character will amble in and levitate heft that is Giant. Complainants say George Stevens was an over-studied director, but I say there’s place for over-studied films too. Breathtaking craft can be, well, breathtaking, and PTSD Stevens of the 50’s was that in spades, no one’s work so flawlessly prepared, then presented. Giant for me is the El Dorado of ultra-class, meaning-laden epics, because there is always a fun or fascinating scene coming within ten or less minutes. Everybody is good here, and if Dean/Jett isn’t best, he is at least the lightest. You’ll not convince me Dean was anything other than deliberate in sending up all, or at least his part, and I’ll guess that choice was made when Jim realized he’d not steer Giant like with Nicholas Ray on Rebel Without A Cause. Stevens later admitted that he should have let JD improvise more. Fact is, he does … all over the place … with Giant much the better for it. I could cite comic aspect of any scene Dean/Jett plays, but will limit to one for today that sums him up as gloom lifter and reliable source of Giant joy.

Luz has died and there is pall upon the Benedict house. Bick and retinue have discovered that she left reprobate Jett a “little piece of ground,” worth no more than five or six hundred dollars, which they would now offer him $1200 to forfeit, in the interest of “keeping Reata intact, within the family.” The scheme is hatched as Jett lingers on the outside porch, seen through the window by “Judge Oliver Whiteside” (Charles Watts), background Dean playing his rope into bows, knots, whatever to steal moments as others exposite. Deaf to dialogue inside, he looks like an Ed Sullivan performer seen from a next room. Bick calls him inside and there is tension between the two that is a most compelling conflict in whole of Giant, not just because Bick disdains Jett, but for what we now know of low estimate Hudson and Dean had for one another. I don’t recall Bick/Jett together on an even Giant plane unless one or both are seated, except the third act fight, which is less an exchange than Jett taking a drunken fall after he tries sucker-punching Bick. Was it disparity of height, the two kept apart to protect Dean’s five foot seven from Hudson’s six foot five? Hudson took orders, was happy taking them, especially from a director he admired so much as Stevens. “I followed him around like a puppy dog,” he unabashedly said in later interviews. We may assume that Hudson’s performance (a fine one) was result of Stevens’ guidance, while Dean operated upon ideas mostly his own. Jett enjoyed advantage of being the iconoclast other, a rebel, loner, eternal frustrate, to whom a nation’s immaturity would gravitate, while Hudson as Bick had to pull narrative plow and be unwilling to change with Texas times. It was no more a fair contest then than it is now, but know that Dean's humor would not work nearly so well were it not for Hudson as straight, if unknowingly so, partner. Bick/Jett could have stood in for a breaking-up-that-year Dean/Jerry.

Posed Still of Reata Tricksters at Work on Jett
Jett is welcomed into the office sanctum, doubtless for a first time. He and Bick’s coterie goof off with each other, Monte Hale telling Jett that “you sure look good today.” Dean plays the wise fool, laughs along, winks to off-camera observers. He does his tics to amuse them and us. Gestures and expression annoying to some in East Of Eden are put to the service of sly comedy, Dean settling into a Jett who will be a jester but also a threat. He had learned a lot from Eden/Rebel, including how to leave his whine behind. The good old boys close in. Remarks are punctuated with “Amen” and “Hallelujah,” especially where the late Luz is referenced. They figure to rook Jett out of his inheritance, and he seems amenable to it. Once inside the office, we are down to three shots for the negotiation, Jett seated, then getting up to exit, pausing at the door ... a total of just under five minutes. This would not be occasion for Stevens to do endless takes so he could get coverage enough to cut twelve ways. Everything here rides on performance rather than GS-signature dissolves or quick cuts to hammer a point. Had the director not trusted Dean, he surely would have broken it up to give himself fuller flexibility in post-production (a process he’d spend a year on for Giant).

And Away He Twirls ... Suppose Stevens Ever Wanted To Snatch That Thing Away From Jim?

Jim and His Magic Rope Spend a Motel Night Together
Jett stays slouched in his chair, tinkers with his coiled rope, not in a scene-hogging way, but to avoid too much interaction with people he distrusts. His face betrays doubt at snake oil they’re pouring, even as he joshes along when someone asks “what are you aimin’ to do with all that money?” Bick unlocks a cash box and takes out $1200 as Judge Whiteside tenders the offer, certain that Jett will leap for it. The way Hudson as Bick drops the bills on the desk in front of Jett is pointed insult, his contempt seeing no way such a low-born could turn down a windfall. It is a patronizing gesture, and Hudson keys it just right. Everyone agrees, “You’re in the chips now, boy,” to which Jett, having been silent so far, mimes “I sure am.” He then pulls the switch, which is to reject Bick’s offer and the money. “I’m sentimental too, Bick.” The group goes silent as Jett rises from the chair he has sat low and slouched in. Now Stevens shoots from lower as Jett futzes with the rope, then his hat, which he puts on even though he remains inside the house. The rope gag is repeated as shot three has Jett turning around at the door he’ll open to other guests at Reata receiving for Luz.

No Young Male Star So Calculated His Posing as James Dean

WB-Issued Color Still for the Above Sequence
A Texas cowboy was got to teach Dean rope tricks, a process to which Jim took like duck to ponds. He knew that to master this was to heist any scene he pleased, and to that goal, he leapt. Dean was all in for icon-makeover for himself. No more pasty face in a crowd of live television. He was as deliberate at still posing as Stevens was at directing. They should have bonded on such kinship, two strong egos of a kind. Dean did dissidence to a brown turn. Wonder how that would have fared had he lived and Warners began putting him in bad or miscast pictures the inevitable lot of rebel/Method brethren. The last shot as Jett prepares to exit is a reach to fan love as only Jim could make: Pausing at the door, he smiles to the would-be bamboozlers, offers a low and downward wave we could all do to imitate where asserting our one-of-a-kindness. I have a friend who saw Giant at the crowded Fox Theatre in 80's Atlanta. He said that when Dean did that underhand salute, the audience lit up, cheers and laughter rolling over hundreds like force from a wind that had blown thirty years before, and for all I know, still would if we shared Giant with crowds today.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"He said that when Dean did that underhand salute, the audience lit up, cheers and laughter rolling over hundreds like force from a wind that had blown thirty years before, and for all I know, still would if we shared Giant with crowds today."

That is precisely what we don't get watching movies today at home or in mini-cinemas (500 seats and less).

Those moments are the magic of the movies.

Good post.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

I could be mistaken but the guy waiting for Dean to cut loose looks to be Fred Guiol - former Hal Roach staffer who worked with most of the Roach comics - Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, etc.; and the man singularly responsible for Wheeler & Woolsey's two worst movies. George Stevens was his protege of sorts, and Stevens was loyal enough to later retain Guiol as writer, assistant director, and/or associate producer on most of his films from GUNGA DIN through THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK.

11:42 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I'll just bet you're right about that, Ed. A shame Fred Guiol didn't live long enough (d. 1964) to be interviewed at length about his long and varied career.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I wish I had the will to watch "Giant", but I was never a Rock Hudson fan, and Dean does next to nothing for me.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Personally, I can't stand this movie. I think it's overwrought and undercooked, especially in the second half, when the old-age makeup resembles nothing so much as a bunch of high-schoolers with white shoe polish in their hair, and Dean doing a weird parody of Johnny Depp thirty years before we'd know who that is.

3:23 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

In that picture of Dean with Guiol in the background; I bet Guiol was thinking "I've seen that haircut before."

10:03 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Trivia: Fred Guiol is pronounced "Fred Gill."

I agree with Ed about Mr. Guiol being the kiss of death for Wheeler & Woolsey. It's hard to imagine another director who so deadened his leading players, but I can think of a couple: Jules White on Buster Keaton's SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK, and Alfred Werker on Laurel & Hardy's A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO.

1:35 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff checks in to share a wonderful Stevens-Dean anecdote from GIANT:

Dear John:

Excellent post and thoughtful analysis of Dean's brilliant, subversive -- yes, "termite," for those familiar with the term -- performance in Stevens' film. Focusing on the key scene of Luz's wake, you really make articulate points here; the frame grabs are very skillfully employed. Nice. Now I'll probably have to watch the movie again this week.

There's a famous Stevens anecdote -- maybe it's in Dalton's "The Mutant King"? -- in which the director talks about Dean's desire to have Jett take sips from his flask while waiting to see Bick and the Judge. Stevens didn't understand. There was plenty of liquor flowing at the wake; why would Jett drink from his flask when there's all this free booze around? Only later did the director grasp Dean's point. The actor rightly saw that Jett wouldn't drink Bick's liquor; his contempt (hate, actually) for the man extended that far.

-- Griff

5:16 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Giant is a movie I didn't see until it was available on DVD; didn't like the plot much on first viewing {I did like how the film looked, and still do), but oddly, watching it again since, on larger screens,( and several times at that), I've grown to like it as a whole package more each time I've seen it.
I sometimes wonder if this is one of those films which made choices as to the ethnicity of their characters due to the tenor of the times in which it was produced; thinking about the message or plea embedded in this film as to better harmony between the white and the brown-skinned Texans, I think that maybe if they were ever re-make this Jett might be better played as being one of the latter. I suppose that would complicate the plot in other ways, but maybe good ways.

9:01 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

It's based on a novel. The characters are played as written.

9:50 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

It is presented as written? So.
Still, I can't help but think it'd maker an interesting movie (it really would be a different movie) if there was a bit of ethnic conflict between Jett and Bick - the conflict wouldn't even have to stated outright, just the color of their visible skins would add enough tension - and Latino lead hands on a Texas ranch are credible (as would be a secret relation with Luz, giving all-the-more reason to suppress it, resulting in Jett's inheritance) - as it is, their conflict seems to be about money, pride and social status - little else. And once Jett does get big money, the conflict seems...forced; Jett becomes unlikable and weird. Were he Latino, that raging pride being unassuaged by immense wealth would make more sense.
I just think that if Jett were brown-skinned, there'd be a whole other layer of conflict cooking underneath, one that would be credible in its verisimilitude, as well as being one that tied in with better the "plea for ethnic understanding" coda that ends the movie.
The change would steal a some dramatic thunder from Dennis Hopper's choice of of a Latino spouse, though. But then again, a younger generation would be shown to be open about this, rather than the suspected, suppressed, and secret relation between Jett and Luz.
I think changing Jett to a Latino would work. Nothing else in the movie would need to change but the color of his skin.

4:09 PM  

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