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She Brought Us Giant, Showboat, and So Big

A life of Edna Ferber

Hollywood successfully capitalized adaptations of Edna Ferber’s novels — Giant the best-known of them — in its midtwentieth- century studio phase. In Edna Ferber’s Hollywood: American Fictions of Gender, Race, and History (University of Texas Press, $55), J.E. Smyth rescues Ferber from her present-day obscurity, describing the processes by which seven major “Ferber films” migrated from text to screen. Unlike fellow Jewish-American female writers Lillian Hellman and Anzia Yezierska, Ferber never wrote explicitly about Jews; however, according to Smyth, her outsider status as a working woman marked all her work and explains her focus on creating complex “mixed-race heroines who were active historical protagonists rather than passive, tragic mulattas or voiceless, vanishing Americans.”

With 25 works turned into movies, Ferber reached wider audiences and commanded more respect from studio executives than most authors of her time, male or female. Indeed, Ferber’s middlebrow literature enabled her success, drawing readers, beckoning Hollywood, and sometimes bringing her wealth. Ever the savvy businesswoman, Ferber negotiated contracts with filmmakers that guaranteed her copyright reversion, gave her percentages of profit, and, very important to her, ensured her name’s presence in all credits. But for Smyth — and for Ferber — Hollywood’s lure offered poisoned plenty. Filmmakers paid tremendous sums for her work, but their screenwriters rarely understood her feminist views or adequately translated her critical vision of America’s past to the big screen. Of all of the film adaptations of her work, Ferber approved of only one: Cimarron (1931).

Ferber’s interest in America’s past — whether homesteading on the Midwestern prairie (So Big), performing on the Mississippi (Showboat), white settlers encountering Indians on the Oklahoma frontier (Cimarron), drilling for oil in Texas (Giant), or clamoring for power in the Alaskan wilderness (Ice Palace) — spanned the South and West. From the serialized and Pulitzer Prize-winning So Big in 1923 to her final western, Ice Palace, in 1958, Ferber developed multiracial female protagonists — such as the half-black and halfwhite Julie Laverne in Showboat and the “mixed-blood Eskimo and Scandinavian America” Christine Storm in Ice Palace — to challenge masculine-centered renderings of the American past. In Cimarron, for example, Yancey Cravat speaks of his newspaperwoman and pioneer wife, Sabra, by saying “‘if [history] is ever told straight, you’ll know it’s the sunbonnet and not the sombrero that has settled this country.’”

As Smyth argues, Ferber’s historical fiction challenged an array of standard limits, including the difference between high and low culture and standard twentiethcentury views of race, gender, and power. Ferber narratives invested westerns and romance novels with history and criticism. Thus Giant relays the love story and family drama of Leslie and Bick Benedict against the backdrop of the discovery of oil in Texas. The well-researched story thus uses conventions of westerns and romances to entertain and criticize — to make readers encounter the very real matrix of wealth, power, and racism endemic to Texas’ past and present. Yet Hollywood screenwriters and directors continually flattened Ferber’s complex female characters and trivialized her concerns with white racial power. The film version of Giant (1956), for example, diminished the powerful perspective of the family matriarch and whitewashed the connections Ferber made between Jim Crow Texas and the poor treatment of Mexican American workers.

Smyth excels at dissecting the differences between Ferber’s American history and Hollywood’s interpretation of Ferber’s work, but the detail and density may overwhelm non-academic readers. In addition, while Smyth identifies Ferber as a Jew and suggests that her racial and gender politics stem from her heritage, she never explores the range or meaning of Ferber’s Jewish identity. Nevertheless, for those interested in film and/or literary history, Smyth’s work provides a tremendous and comprehensive resource. 

Ronit Y. Stahl is completing a Ph.D. in history and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan.