James Dean’s last movie was Marfa, Texas’ first Hollywood experience

James Dean’s last movie was Marfa, Texas’ first Hollywood experience

Pop Pilgrims
Season 2

The A.V. Club trekked all the way to Marfa, Texas, for Pop Pilgrims this year, and while we we’ve discussed two of the recent landmark films shot there (No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood), we can’t wrap up this season without talking about the film that put Marfa on Hollywood’s map: Giant.

Nearly everything about Giant has an epic sweep: its stars (James Dean, in his final film role, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Dennis Hopper); its multi-generational story spanning 201 minutes; its images of the wide desert vistas outside of Marfa; its take on the rise of oil in Texas and area’s deeply entrenched racism. Even the sets: The façade of the Reata Ranch house—the center of Giant—was built in California and shipped on multiple train cars out to Marfa. 

That’s all it was, a façade. Director George Stevens shot his exteriors outside of Marfa, but everything else was shot on a soundstage in California. Amazingly, the skeleton of Reata remains—visible from Highway 90—despite more than half a century of exposure to west Texas’ unforgiving elements.  

The only other major remnant of Giant stands not far from the Reata façade: a miniature (relatively speaking—6 feet or so tall) oil well, one of the many Stevens used to trick shots of oil wells on the Reata property. 

The production took over Marfa for months in the summer of 1955, and vestiges of it remain. For one, it’s not uncommon for locals to have a grandparent or other family member who worked as an extra on the film (as is the case with Chip Love, our awesome tour guide for the No Country For Old Men episode). The Hotel Paisano, where the cast and crew stayed, has a room off the lobby with Giant memorabilia and a DVD of the film on a continuous loop. Although Dean, Taylor, and Hudson eventually moved into temporary residences in town, the Paisano renamed the rooms where they stayed after the stars, and it has kept the décor close to what it was when the film was in production.

The film was shot on Ryan Ranch, owned by Worth Evans. His son Clay still owns it and lives there. Clay picked up some work as an extra and palled around with James Dean during the shoot, and his parents frequently hosted Stevens, Taylor, Hudson, and other people from the film for dinner. Clay’s mother made a scrapbook of it all that still sits in a bookcase in the house. There’s the original agreement between Warner Bros. and the Evanses, candid photos from the shoot, a paystub for Clay for his work, press clippings about the movie and its stars going all the way through the ’70s, and best of all, a script with a note from Stevens on its cover:

Dear Worth, 

Here is the plan for the film that we are about to plant on a few of your many acres. I hope that when it’s all together and ready to run, you and your family will join with us at the premiere in Los Angeles or Dallas. We believe it will be a beautiful and humane picture. 

Sincerely, 

George Stevens

“Humane” describes well the message of Giant. Although the film’s iconography and reputation rest with oil—Dean’s character goes from nobody to oil tycoon—the real heart of Giant is its strident stance against racism. In this case, it’s whites against Mexicans, and Stevens makes sure nobody could possibly miss the point. (A title card saying “RACISM BAD!” would be only slightly less subtle than the final shot of the film.) 

That’s okay; these weren’t times for subtlety. When the film finally screened in Marfa, audiences remained segregated. Stevens probably knew that racism was something that had to be chipped away; one film—no matter how long—couldn’t change that.

It changed Marfa, though—that tends to happen once Hollywood discovers something. In 1971, the renowned minimalist artist Donald Judd relocated from New York to Marfa and began a tradition that would turn a cattle town three hours south of El Paso into an unlikely artists’ retreat. Even today, Marfa is an odd mixture of townies and bohemians—one gallery advertises two locations on its front window: Brooklyn and Marfa. That all began with Giant, and that’s where we’ll end the Marfa edition of Pop Pilgrims.