Sometimes, while watching a movie, no matter how engrossing it may be, I will be distracted by the set design-sensitive soul that I am.  Such was the case when I recently watched ‘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 c’mon:  Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean.  They really don’t make them like they used to.

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 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.  But, small quibble.

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.  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, despite Rock’s family.

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).

A drawing room by 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.