No matter how engrossed I am by a film,  I will eventually be distracted by the sets.  Such was the case during a recent viewing of 'Giant', the wonderful, wonderful George Stevens production of Edna Ferber's story of Texas rancher Rock Hudson, his refined aristocratic wife Elizabeth Taylor, and their neighbor James Dean.  I'm sure their characters had names, but let's face it:  They were  Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean.  Whenever the camera zoomed in on Taylor or Dean, the edges of the screen practically caught fire.  They really don't make them like they used to.

In this movie, the interior sets are as much characters as the actors, and change along with them.  The set design plot goes something like this::  Rock Hudson, back East on business, visits an associate at his old Maryland homestead---I did not get a screen shot of the exterior, but in Hollywood fashion, the set more resembles one of those Georgian country houses so beloved by the fox-hunting set on Long Island in the early years of the last century.  As he enters the front hall, one finds oneself not in Maryland, but instead suddenly in New England, for the set designer has based his design on one of New England's handsomest 18th century interiors, the hall of the Moffatt-Ladd house in Portsmouth New Hampshire.  There are differences---the door heads are Federal, in the style of Salem's Samuel McIntyre, not Georgian Portsmouth.  But, small quibble.  It is interesting to see all the same

In love, Elizabeth Taylor dances in her parent's hall
The original:  The hall at the Moffatt-Ladd house in Portsmouth NH
Later, we find Rock dining with Elizabeth and her family, partaking of Maryland hospitality.  This room was copied from the drawing room of Arlington House, the Custis-Lee mansion in Virginia.  We're getting closer---after all, Arlington is just the other side of Washington from Maryland

Despite a slight difference in proportion, there is no mitaking the historical source for the dining room set.

Two views of the White Parlor at Arlington house, with its lovely Leghorn marble fireplace surround, and reeded over doors.

In short order, Rock and Liz marry, and go home to the gloomy old house built by Rock's father on the family's Reata ranch, in the middle of Nowhere on the Texas plains.

The newlyweds are greeted in the baronial hall by Rock's less than friendly sister, Mercedes McCambridge.  The Old Dominion gentility of Liz's childhood home has been left far behind.

But not to worry, distraction from the brooding decor arrives in the person of brooding James Dean.

But, that doesn't keep Liz from updating the decoration in the hall to something more closely resembling her genteel youth.

After awhile, everyone in the movie seems to strike oil, and the decorating at Reata really takes off---Liz brings things  up to snuff, chic in monochromatic gray to complement her hair (The years have passed, and she's now the mother of nearly grown Carole Baker).

Rooms b y Frances Elkins

A bedroom designed by Frances Elkins
 The Hall gets yet a sleeker treatment also, but I didn't get a screen grab.  However, at some point, Liz and Rock wind up at a new hotel development built by James Dean, who also struck oil.  The set designer really knew what he or she was up to, for the suites in this hotel would do Dorothy Draper proud.

And there you have it---how a design fan sees a classic movie.

 Baz Luhrman's set designer could take lessons.


Jane Kilpatrick Schott said...

What a great post. The actors were so strong in this film one forgets to see the details of the set...and it was very apparent.

Just shows you that Liz within in character or out, knows how to spend the cash.


The Devoted Classicist said...

On a slightly related thread, a very young Bunny Williams, now a well-known decorator, appears in the early hunt scene, shot on location near her childhood home in Virginia.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

You and me both! Love this movie and I too remember watching as the Texas ranch gets more and more chic.
Fascinating that Bunny Williams is in the movie, thanks Classicist!!! I'll have to add this movie to my netflix queue!

Toby Worthington said...

Loved it all. Why not make this Part One of a series?

Anonymous said...

The production design by Boris Leven and set decoration by Ralph S. Hurst both far outshone the greaspaint smudges under the eyes (and spraypaint in the hair) that purported to show the characters as they aged. The screenplay by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat, too, was more than a little unpolished. But for all its imperfections including the great, groaning insincerity of its lead actor's performance, it is still one hell of a film.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that the staircase and galleries in the Texas home have more than a passing resemblance to architecture of the entry hall of the Von Trapp family in the Sound of Music. Same set, just revamped?

Donna said...

Neat post, and I do agree that this would be a great series. Sometimes, but not generally, I get distracted from a film's narrative by the sets--the first time I remember this happening was when I watched the Ingrid Bergman/Cary Grant movie "Indiscreet" on television and got distracted by both Miss Bergman's dresses and her London apartment. There's a neat post about it here: http://quitecontinental.net/2011/03/14/a-few-bold-pretties-interior-inspiration-1stdibs-wishlist-and-indiscreet-1958/.

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Anonymous said...

Hitchcock is another director who loved his interiors. There's a line between being momentarily distracted by the sets and being utterly entranced by them. 'Rebecca' crosses it; 'Notorious' at least steps up to it.

Lynne Rutter said...

fun read! So nice ot realize I am not the only one pausing the movie 18 times to look at the wallpaper, shoes, or other details and driving everyone else crazy!