Children of Giant Takes a New Look at an Old Film on PBS


James Dean filming GIANT with two local children on-location in Marfa, Texas, circa 1955. Photo: Richard C. Miller.

Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo and film director George Stevens.  Through the years, it’s been hard to dodge the after-hours buzz on this stellar crew.  It’s also hard to imagine them playing second fiddle to anyone, but that’s what they do in Children of Giant, the VOCES season opener airing on PBS tonight, April 17, 2015, 10:00 – 11:30 p.m. ET.  (Check local listings for air dates in your region & see below for streaming inf0.)

VOCES, Latino Public Broadcasting’s arts and culture series, turns the spotlight on the Mexican-American supporting players and townsfolk who welcomed the stars and production team to their dusty West Texas community in the summer of 1955. The Hollywood luminaries descended upon Marfa, Texas, by plane, train and automobile to film an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s controversial novel, Giant.  The film, dubbed a new kind of Western, went on to receive 10 Oscar nominations, winning George Stevens an Oscar in 1957 for Best Director.


Elsa Cardenas (far right) was cast by George Stevens to play the Mexican-American nursing student “Juana,” who marries Jordan Benedict (Dennis Hopper) in GIANT. Photo courtesy the George Stevens Collection.

Children of Giant, directed and executive-produced by Hector Galán, recalls the impact of that pivotal summer on the lives of Marfa citizenry, most of whom were Mexican immigrants.  Many, as children, were cast as extras. Some townsfolk housed cast and crew, while others stood quietly by and watched and photographed the now-iconic sets being built and scenes being shot.

It clearly was a dazzling summer in Marfa, Texas, one that warranted a charming welcoming parade and nonstop community hoopla.  But, as is evidenced in Children of Giant, the importance of the summer of  ’55 stretched beyond mere nostalgia, reflecting much more than the black and white photos and home movies of the stars shared here by current and former Marfa residents. The Ferber novel and its film adaptation dealt with racism and segregation. These were hot button issues for African-Americans in the 1950’s, but they also hit close to home in Marfa, where its Mexican-American residents, like others living throughout the Southwestern U.S., struggled to bridge the racial divide that separated them from Anglos.


Actress Elsa Cardenas today. Photo courtesy Galan Productions.

Elsa Cárdenas was 16 when she portrayed Juana, the Mexican-American girl in Giant who marries Jordan Benedict III (Dennis Hopper), the son of powerful white rancher Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and his wife, budding feminist Leslie Benedict (Elizabeth Taylor).  To underscore her character’s Mexican heritage, Ms. Cárdenas’ skin was covered with dark make-up, much too much dark make-up.

Ms. Cárdenas was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and obviously didn’t need that make-up. This jarring revelation as well as others, for better or worse, about the film’s production timeline, its casting and its relevance in the ongoing discussion of racism, feminism and immigration in America come via reflections from Ms. Cárdenas and her fellow cast member, Earl Holliman; the film’s dialogue coach, Robert Hinkle; the director’s son, George Stevens, Jr.; and various film historians and journalists.

Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and director George Stevens on the Marfa , TX, set, during the summer of 1955.

George Stevens, Jr., Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and GIANT director George Stevens on-location in Marfa, TX, during the summer of 1955. Photo courtesy Sunset Boulevard/Corbis.

They elaborate on Giant’s transition from book to screen, from Hollywood sound stage to rural West Texas and on to box office glory, illustrated by behind-the-scenes black and white and color photos and footage, and clips from the finished film.  Also revisiting this memorable summer are several of the former child extras and children of community leaders, all Mexican-Americans.  Now senior citizens, they share the good times and treatment they received from the director, actors and production staff during the summer of 1955.  And adding to Marfa’s immigrant mix was a German war bride, a beloved member of the film’s catering crew who also appears here as well.

Children of Giant debuts on PBS tonight, April 17, 2015, 10:00 – 11:30 p.m. ET.  (Check local listings for air dates in your region and streaming availability via Amazon Prime Video.)  It’s the season opener of the VOCES series “devoted to exploring and celebrating the rich diversity of the Latino cultural experience.”

When paired with a reading of Edna Ferber’s novel and a screening of George Stevens’ classic film, Giant (the latter is available on DVD, via streaming on Amazon Prime Video and periodically on Turner Classic Movies/TCM), Hector Galán’s documentary, Children of Giant, is a relevant addition to the study of George Stevens’ films, especially the Ferber-Stevens’ collaboration, and will serve as an important discussion catalyst about racism, segregation, immigration and feminism in America as depicted in literature and film. –Judith Trojan

About Judith Trojan

Judith Trojan is an Award-winning journalist who has written and edited several thousand film and TV reviews and celebrity profiles.
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6 Responses to Children of Giant Takes a New Look at an Old Film on PBS

  1. Gina Battle says:

    Are the two babies at the end of movie still alive?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will see what I can find out! Thank you for your query!


      • The following babies were cast as characters in GIANT: Georgann & Mary Ann Cashen (Judy Benedict as an infant); Colleen & Marlene Crane (Judy Benedict II as an infant); Christine Werner (Luz Benedict II as an infant); Dave & Richard Bishop (Jordan Benedict III as an infant); Perfidio Aguilar & Ramon Ramirez (Jordan Benedict IV as an infant); John Garcia (Angel Obregon II as an infant). Chances are that some if not all of these individuals are still alive at this writing, but has little info on these infants beyond their early screen appearances. You might try individual Web searches.


  2. Denise Owens says:

    What are the names of the people of color that acted in the move “Giant”?


    • Judith Trojan says:

      Thanks so much for your query! Among the featured players in GIANT (those listed in the on-screen credits), there are four Latinos: The most notable, Elsa Cardenas, played Juana Guerra Benedict; also Victor Millan (Angel Obregon, Sr.), Pilar Del Rey (Mrs. Obregon), and Maurice Jara (Dr. Guerra). African-American Napoleon Whiting (Jefferson Swazey) is credited as well. There are numerous uncredited Latino actors in bit parts (e.g., Elsa Aguirre, Julian Rivero, Felipe Turich and Natividad Vacio) and extras (locals to the region) in the cast. Check for GIANT’s full cast listing, sorted by Credit Order.


  3. Bill Jersey says:

    Thanks so much I would have missed it ! BJ Bill Jersey Quest Productions cell 609-994-7412


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