Warner Bros. Senior VP George Feltenstein on ‘Giant’ — Reveal Shot covers the TCM Film Festival

LOS ANGELES — I’m here for Day 2 of the 2013 TCM Film Festival. This morning I attended a screening of “Ben-Hur” (1959) at Grauman’s Chinese Theater —  an 8K digital restoration released two years ago by Warner Bros., which owns the bulk of the MGM library.

(More on the William Wyler classic in a future post.)

Saturday’s festival lineup will feature the world premiere of another high-profile digital restoration, “Giant” (1956), one of Warner’s key films of the ’50s. George Stevens directed the adaptation of Edna Ferber‘s mammoth novel about a Texas cattle rancher (Rock Hudson), the beautiful woman he marries (Elizabeth Taylor) and his rivalry with an employee who strikes it rich (James Dean).

On Friday afternoon I spoke by phone with George Feltenstein, senior vice president of catalog marketing for Warner Bros. Digital Distribution, to discuss the restoration. In 2009, Feltenstein founded the Warner Archive on-demand DVD program, a remarkable success that has spawned many imitations, and thrives even amid the ascendancy of “over-the-top” online video providers.

“Giant is such an important film in the history of the studio for so many reasons,” said Feltenstein.

“There are many people who think it should have won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1956. Of course George Stevens won Best Director. But we also happen to own the film that did win the Oscar in 1956, ‘Around The World In Eighty Days.’

“1956 happened to be a great year for films anyway. I’m very partial to “The King and I,” I loved “The Ten Commandments.”

“But Giant was a passion project for George Stevens. It was very important to Jack Warner, who pretty much gave George Stevens carte blanche to create a film that was worthy of Edna Ferber’s novel.

“His son, George Jr., in addition to founding the American Film Institute and so many other things in an important career of his own, has done a very good job of looking out for his father’s legacy. He has been involved in every iteration of ‘Giant’ that we have released over the years. This was a film that cried out for Blu-ray, because of its spectacular nature. The very title itself reflects that; you want to see it looking like the giant epic that it is.

“But coming with that is that it was shot in Eastmancolor, at the time that Eastmancolor film stock was at its most volatile.

“Eastmancolor stock from mid-1954 on through 1960 is subject to a collapsing yellow layer, of the three layers of color, which brings out fading. All films made during that period of time are problematic, and we say, not proudly, that the films processed by the Warnercolor lab, which existed briefly here at the studio, seem to have not survived as well, in terms of color structure. So our restoration team had a real challenge in bringing back the vibrant color and solid image that measures up to what Blu-ray demands, which is perfection.”

“Giant” premiered in New York in October 1956. It went into roadshow engagements in November. It was subsequently re-released several times before appearing on network television.

“Every time it was released, the film elements would be put into service, and that kind of wear and tear [causes problems],” Feltenstein explained.  “It was the same kind of issue that [noted film preservationist] Robert Harris ran into when he restored ‘The Godfather’ films for Paramount. He did that restoration work here at our Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging facility. Bob told me there were parts of ‘The Godfather’ camera negative that were put together with scotch tape.

“These are the stories preservationists run into, but happily the advances in digital technology mean that the people who do this kind of meticulous restoration work really have tools now that they didn’t have a few years ago.

“You can do work in the digital space that can ultimately be output to film, and create a protection element that’s better than what you had before you started.

“When we talked about ‘Giant’ for DVD 10 or 11 years ago, we all rolled our eyes, knowing that it was going to be an extraordinary process, very difficult to do, and now here we are 11 years later, starting all over again for Blu-ray, and knowing it was going to be an enormous undertaking. And the result is probably the best the film has ever looked.”

On first glance, it might seem that “Giant” must’ve been shot in CinemaScope, Todd-AO, VistaVision or another anamorphic widescreen process used during the period.

“But Giant didn’t use any widescreen process,” Feltenstein pointed out. “It was shot with a standard aperture, and formatted for the 1:66 aspect ratio.  It is not meant to be seen square (at 1:33 or 1:37), and it was not meant for 1:85, which is the normal ratio for non-CinemaScope films. 1:66 is an aspect ratio that was very prevalent in Europe for many years. And many American films were shot in 1:66, especially in those early years.  So when we were preparing Giant for DVD, Mr. Stevens (Jr.) was very specific about the 1:66 aspect ratio. That is the one we are honoring, the original theatrical presentation as it was shot, and as it opened.

“It is an interesting phenomenon, because one would have thought that this film would have taken advantage of one of the newer processes. Stevens was a cinematographer before he became a director, and he knew what he wanted in terms of the frame, and how to use the framed space, and I think you see that in all of his works. Every George Stevens film is lovingly composed and shot. Giant’s imagery is emblazoned on my brain.”

Count Feltenstein among those who admire James Dean’s work in his final role, as Jett Rink. The question so often raised is whether Dean was successful in his attempt to portray the character as a middle-aged man in the latter stages of the film. “Without question,” said Felstenstein, an unabashed film buff. “The cloud of sadness [around Dean’s death in a 1955 car crash] creates a kind of poignancy around this young man’s performance, that he so convincingly played an older man. We have so few examples of his work; his early television work is so fascinating for that reason.

“But the other thing is that the cult of James Dean should not overshadow the significance of ‘Giant’ as its own entity, in which James Dean is one of the three stars. It’s not a James Dean movie. It’s a George Stevens production of Edna Ferber’s Giant, starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. And many other wonderful actors, as well: Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper, Mercedes McCambridge, Jane Withers. Wonderful film.”

In a future post, Feltenstein discusses the state of the Warner Archive, and how Blu-ray is faring in the Netflix era.

— David B. Wilkerson

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