OF WHAT A GIRL DID… WHAT A BOY DID… OF ECSTASY AND REVENGE!
John Steinbeck considered the novel “East of Eden” his magnum opus, a sprawling saga set in Salinas Valley, a California community where he was born. Starting at the turn of the century, the novel followed two families through World War I. When Hollywood adapted it for the big screen three years later, writer Paul Osborn focused on the novel’s second half. It turned out to be a great vehicle for a young star who would be instantly famous – but disappear not a year after this movie hit theaters. Obviously, his death in a car crash helped elevate James Dean’s star status along with the two other films released after his death, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant.
In 1917, the United States has yet to enter the Great War. In Salinas, a farmer called Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) has raised two sons, Aron (Richard Davalos) and Cal (Dean). He’s told them that their mother is dead, but as we see in the film’s opening scene Cal has learned that this is not true. His mother, in fact, lives in nearby Monterey where she runs a popular brothel. Cal struggles at first and tries to work up enough courage to approach Kate (Jo Van Fleet). In the meantime, his constant conflicts with Adam continue; all Cal wants is to be noticed, appreciated and even loved by his father the way Adam loves Aron. In Adam’s eyes though, Cal is a screw-up, unable to show ambition.
Two generations of film acting
Of his three movies, this is probably the best example of Dean’s Method acting. There are many stories about the relationship between the young actor and veteran Raymond Massey. It’s been said that Dean purposely did things to annoy him, in order to make their onscreen acting more antagonistic. I recently watched a TV special on Dean’s life hosted by Peter Lawford where it was claimed that Massey was completely unprepared in one scene for Dean’s emotional and physical “attack” on him. Simply put, two generations of film acting clash here – but the thing is that even though Dean’s “histrionics” (as one famous critic called it) got most of the attention, Massey is the other actor carrying the film, perfectly embodying the older generation that simply can’t understand what’s wrong with kids these days. He doesn’t turn Adam into a one-sided enemy, but makes it easy for us to relate to his philosophy. Thematically, the filmmakers take the biblical story of Cain and Abel to great use. It may all seem a tad simplistic, but it’s still gripping and kind of fascinating how every person in the Trask household (including Kate) always chooses escape as a way out, which is illustrated in ingenious ways, most extremely in Adam’s case in the film’s last half hour. The central theme is handily resolved, but there are other issues in the film that might have needed another hour, in fact. Still, well directed by Elia Kazan who interestingly emphasizes the drama of some conflicts with similar visual touches as Nicholas Ray in Rebel Without a Cause.
Often emotionally strong, the story gets a powerful boost from Leonard Rosenman’s score. All in all though, Kazan’s attempts to build strong dramas around Method performances fared better with Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954).
East of Eden 1955-U.S. 115 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced and directed by Elia Kazan. Screenplay: Paul Osborn. Novel: John Steinbeck. Cinematography: Ted McCord. Music: Leonard Rosenman. Cast: James Dean (Cal Trask), Julie Harris (Abra), Raymond Massey (Adam Trask), Jo Van Fleet, Burl Ives, Richard Davalos.
Trivia: Paul Newman was considered for the part of Cal. Remade as a miniseries in 1981.
Oscar: Supporting Actress (Van Fleet). Golden Globe: Best Motion Picture (Drama). Cannes: Best Dramatic Film.
Last word: “I doubt that Jimmy would ever have got through ‘East of Eden’ (1955) except for an angel on our set. Her name was Julie Harris and she was goodness itself with Dean, kind and patient and everlastingly sympathetic.” (Kazan, “A Life”)