East of Eden
Release year: 1955
Director: Elia Kazan
Screenwriter: Paul Osborn, John Steinbeck (Novel)
Starring: Julie Harris, James Dean, Raymond Massey, Burl Ives, Richard Davalos, Jo Van Fleet, Albert Dekker, Lois Smith
Ratings: 1 Oscar: Best Supporting Actress (Jo Van Fleet). 3 Oscar nominations: Best Actor (James Dean), Best Director, Best Screenplay. 1 Golden Globe: Best Picture Drama
Moviegeek Sunday Classic #15, week 38 2014
Set in the Salinas Valley in California during WWI, Cal (James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause 1955) feels he must fight against his beloved brother, Aron (Richard Davalos) in an uneven struggle for their father’s love. Believing that his brother is good and he himself is bad, Cal’s struggle for acceptance is complicated by the discovery that his mother, whom the brothers believed to be dead, is in fact running a house of pleasure in a nearby town.
John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel East of Eden is an epic of two families told over the course of three generations. Difficult to adapt in the limited running time of a motion picture, Elia Kazan’s classic 1955 adaptation begins right in the middle of the book. It wisely focuses on the brothers Cal and Aron in their late teens. As a result, the story is lean and perfectly fits its running time without feeling rushed or too compressed; the only drawback is that there are many off-hand comments on earlier events, which are only dealt with superficially. East of Eden is often described as a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, and it does share similarities: Aron is the son who always does good in his father’s eyes, whereas Cal can’t seem to get anything right, leading him to be jealous and gloomy. However, Cal is a much more complicated character than that, his badness, it seems, is as much in his own head as in his actions. He seems to be bad, because he believes himself to be bad. Marlon Brando was considered for the role but deemed too old, Paul Newman almost got it, but in the end it went to James Dean. The part earned him an Oscar nomination and was, unfortunately, the only of his three movies to premiere before his death. James Dean is an iconic figure – the kind in danger of being overappreciated – but that is not the case here. Dean is riveting, capturing the duality and sensitivity of Cal perfectly. The brother Aron (Richard Davalos) actually has limited screen time, slowly moving a bit into the background as his girlfriend, Abra (Julie Harris, The Haunting 1963), becomes more involved in Cal’s life. Initally vary of Cal, Aron persuades her to get to know his brother better, and as the movie progresses she becomes the only person who seems truly to understand Cal. Their stiff-necked father (played impeccably by Raymond Massey) appears faultless for most of the movie, but it becomes increasingly difficult for us to understand why he cannot give Cal the same affection he gives to Aron. East of Eden is well-crafted, brilliantly acted, and haunting. The music, however is really annoying at times.
Beware of plot spoilers in the trailer!
When John Steinbeck visited the set and was introduced to James Dean, he exclaimed ”Jesus Christ, he IS Cal!”.
John Steinbeck was friends with the director and loved the final film.
Off camera James Dean would provoke Raymond Massey to help him get into character. Howard Hawks later remarked in his autobiography that Massey came to despise James Dean, but Hawks did nothing to relieve the tension between them as he felt it benefited the movie.