New documentary eyes story of Latino extras in 1956 'Giant'

AP News
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Posted: Apr 15, 2015 6:40 PM
New documentary eyes story of Latino extras in 1956 'Giant'

A young George Washington Valenzuela was walking to a barbershop in small, dusty Marfa, Texas, when a woman approached him and asked if he would like to be in a movie. He said yes.

Weeks later, Valenzuela found himself singing the national anthem in front of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1956 blockbuster movie "Giant."

A new documentary seeks to tell Valenzuela's story and that of other Mexican-American child actors who appeared in the film but later could only view it in segregated theaters.

"Children of Giant" goes to the West Texas town where director George Stevens and his Hollywood crew set up shop to shoot one of the first, major films to openly tackle racism.

For the 60 years since the movie's release, most of the Mexican-American cast has been largely forgotten, though the movie introduced the nation to the discrimination Latinos faced, documentary director Hector Galan said.

"Many people don't realize how important the film 'Giant' was to Mexican-Americans at the time," Galan said. "For the first time on a national level the stories of Mexican-Americans were being told."

Based on the novel by Edna Ferber with the same name, "Giant" follows wealthy Texas cattle rancher Jordan Benedict, Jr., played by Hudson, who marries Maryland socialite Leslie Lynnton, portrayed by Taylor. Their sprawling ranch is located on land once owned by impoverished Mexican-Americans, who still work the land but are denied basic medical care and decent jobs.

Benedict's son, played by Dennis Hopper, marries a Mexican-American nurse, played by Mexican actress Elsa Cardenas, creating racial tension. James Dean also starred in the movie.

At the time of its release, the movie was popular among Mexican-Americans, especially since Ferber had interviewed civil rights leaders Hector P. Garcia and lawyer John J. Herrera for her novel and the movie adopted real-life episodes from the new civil rights movement in Texas.

Yet, many of the main actors were unaware of the discrimination the Mexican-American extras faced away from the movie set.

In the documentary, Galan interviews Cardenas who recalls how staff at a hotel looked at her suspiciously and how she didn't know the Mexican-Americans children on the set had to attend segregated schools. He also interviews child actor Tony Cano who remembers incidents of racism.

The documentary also covers Stevens' experience in World War II as part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Stevens would become one of the first directors to capture images of the Holocaust and his footage would be used in the Nuremberg Trials.

"That experience changed him forever," Galan said. "I don't think he would have made "Giant" had it not been for that experience."

In addition, the documentary shows how Dean playfully interacted with Mexican-American teens off screen and shocked the town when he was killed in a car wreck in California weeks later.

"Children of Giant" kicks off a new season of the PBS Voces series on April 17.

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Follow Russell Contreras at http://twitter.com/russcontreras .