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"East of Eden", based on the novel by John Steinbeck, concerns an
upright father (Raymond Massey) and his two sons: one whom he considers
good (Richard Davalos) and another whom he considers bad (James Dean).
The story is influenced by the biblical story of Cain & Abel while much
of the film focuses on Dean's character striving to earn the love of
The cast is a pretty good one. James Dean received a posthumous Oscar nomination for what was his first major film role. I think that his performance here is every bit as memorable as his work in "Rebel Without a Cause". Jo Van Fleet ended up winning an Oscar for her performance while Julie Harris also delivered a fine performance. Unfortunately, I found the performances of Richard Davalos & Raymond Massey too bland to stand out, especially in comparison to the other cast members.
Elia Kazan's direction was good enough to land a Best Director Oscar nomination but I don't think that the film looks quite as good as other films of his. The score by Leonard Rosenman is stirring and is showcased in an overture at the beginning of the film.
I would certainly recommend this film to anyone wanting to know what all the fuss is about James Dean. Even if you're not interested in him particularly, you'll likely find the story an enthralling one.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I haven't read John Steinbeck's novel "East of Eden," but I'm familiar
with enough of the author's work to know that he wasn't a "glass half-
full" kind of man. Steinbeck's characters appear to persist despite
their misery, devoid of hope and comfort, and persevering out of sheer
bloody-mindedness. This potentially poses a problem, because Hollywood
has traditionally taken the stance that it is optimism, not pessimism,
that sells tickets. This clash of sensibilities is seen readily enough
in 'The Grapes of Wrath (1940),' in which John Ford's assurance in the
hardiness of American families sits at odds with Steinbeck's stark
brand of realism. Nevertheless, Elia Kazan was an ideal candidate to
adapt the 1952 novel "East of Eden," having already dealt with
unflinching dramatic themes of family and societal conflict in the
films 'A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)' and 'On the Waterfront (1954).'
The pair had collaborated previously, with Steinbeck writing the
screenplay for Kazan's Mexican Revolution biopic 'Viva Zapata! (1952).'
Whereas 'A Streetcar Named Desire' had been a completely stage-bound film, owing to origins on Broadway, 'East of Eden (1955)' allowed Kazan to spread his cinematic wings, so to speak. Steinbeck had intended his novel, in part, as a tribute to the Salinas Valley in Northern California, and so location is everything. Cinematographer Ted McCord captures the setting in lush WarnerColor, the fertile green fields consciously opposed to the bleak inner conflict raging inside the heart of the film's protagonist. Despite being visually impressive, it is as in all Kazan pictures the director's genius for working with actors that really shines through. James Dean, in his major picture debut (and the first of only three lead roles), delivers one of the most heartbreakingly tragic performances I've ever seen. His Cal, the Biblical Cain to Richard Davalos' Abel, has endured a life without love, every misguided bid for his father's (Raymond Massey) approval met with indifference or remonstration, as though only to cement his self-belief that he is inherently "bad."
In adapting "East of Eden," another director might have aimed for sheer scope, winding up with something not unlike 'Gone with the Wind (1939)' or 'Duel in the Sun (1946).' Instead, Kazan plays his strengths, and it's a telling sign that the film's most powerful moments unfold, not in the outside environments that McCord captures so well, but between four walls inside homes, sheds, and brothels. Dean's character skulks mousily in the corners, fearful about making eye contact, as his articulate, proper brother Aron makes unconsciously-condescending remarks, perpetuating stereotypes that have been drummed into both since childhood. Only Aron's sweetheart Abra (Julie Harris) understands Cal's torment at the hands of his cold, naive family members, but by then it may already be too late to save him. At under two hours, 'East of Eden' perhaps doesn't explore its characters and their motivations as fully as it might have for example, Aron's metaphorical "slaying" at his brother's hand isn't give enough exposition but nonetheless stands as a beautiful and astonishingly powerful piece of storytelling.
O.k. I know, I know....books and films are two different art forms and
little can be gained by comparing the telling of the same story in one
vs. the other. I'm a firm advocate of that myself. However, let me just
say that you cannot watch this film as a substitute of the Steinbeck
novel (though a film should *never* be used as a stand in for
literature in my opinion). Kazan et al. very liberally adapt
Steinbeck's story to the big screen and make a very impressive film;
however, it's not the same story Steinbeck himself was telling.
That aside, "East of Eden" is a good (not quite great, but close) film from a very inconsistent period of American film making (i.e. the mid-50's.) Cinemascope and other widescreen processes were new, and many directors were content just to train their cameras on a pretty landscape and think that was enough to make their compositions interesting. However, Elia Kazan, completely at home in the stark b&w worlds of "On the Waterfront" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" obviously knew what to do with his widescreen compositions, and, as a result, "East of Eden" is far more dynamic than many films from the same time period. For example, in an early scene, Cal (James Dean) walks along a stand of trees beside his brother and his brother's soon-to-be fiancé. While they're talking, Cal walks deeper into the frame and follows the other two while hidden from us and them by the trees. This of course serves the purpose of communicating Cal's isolation, but it also seems like a perfectly natural thing for Cal's character to do and so doesn't feel obvious or heavy handed, and it's visually interesting, and so breaks up the frame. Kazan adds touches like that throughout the entire film. Even if they don't always work (the skewed angles toward the end are somewhat corny), they're appreciated for their attempts to create a unique visual style.
James Dean just wasn't a very good actor, but he was an interesting screen presence. He was always sulking around and looking uncomfortable in his own skin, which is probably why teenagers at the time related to him so much, and why he seems so right for the role of Cal. The women in this film deliver the best performances. Julie Harris does much with a somewhat thankless role through her naturalistic acting, and Jo Van Fleet is simply terrific in a role that amounts to one significant scene. I'm not sure she deserved an Oscar for her (maybe) ten minutes of screen time, but she does manage to make Kate into a memorable character in the blink of an eye. Indeed, the film's greatest disservice to the novel is in reducing Kate's character to nothing more than a plot device. Anyone who's read the book remembers what a vivid character Steinbeck creates of her, and it's a shame the film couldn't take more advantage of that.
What the movie comes down to thematically is an investigation into the "good" vs. "bad" impulses that exist in everyone, and whether or not we are forced into one of these two polar opposites by fate or have the ability to decide for ourselves which one we'll choose. It's an absorbing film and one of the must sees from one of the most interesting decades for the art form.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Of all three films featured in Warner's new James Dean box set, Elia
Kazan's "East Of Eden" (1955) is probably the most anticipated, and for
good reason. For in its brilliant pacing, its strong characterizations
and its intensity and honesty, it remains one of a handful of 50s films
that consistently holds up under even the most hardened scrutiny of
today's cynical film critic. Long precluded from general release,
because of a rights issue, this film based on John Steinbeck's classic
literary masterwork of paradise lost, takes place in Salinas Valley, in
and around World War I. James Dean is ideally cast as Cal Trask, a
brash young man of conviction who feels he is being forced to compete
for fatherly nepotism against his brother Aron (Richard Davalos). The
boy's father, lettuce farmer, Adam (Raymond Massey) to be sure, favors
Aron. Hence, around every corner, in every venture or endeavor that Cal
undertakes, he is frustrated and ultimately defeated.
Eventually the two brothers grow in conflict over Abra (Julie Harris) a fine young flower of a girl who at first takes a shine to Aron but slowly begins to appreciate the finer character in Cal. This Cain and Abel-ish tale slowly unravels to its tragic end, but in such a swell of emotion and longing, that the viewer is quite suddenly astonished to recognize the long absence in our own character driven dramas that current cinema culture seems to have completely forgotten about. In their cameos as kept women of a brothel Anne and Kate the latter being Cal's mother - Jo Van Fleet and Lois Smith absolutely tear one's heart out with their subtle and poignant performances. Kazan, who was soon to be labeled a communist by HUAC then exonerated for naming names, but blacklisted by his own kind in Hollywood, very clearly has a handle on what makes Steinbeck's novel tick. He fills the vast expanses of Cinemascope with subtle nuances that make the fish-eye process seem intimate and sleek, and he imbues the overriding narrative with a particularly touching sense of lost love and looming tragedy that works so well, one almost forgets this is a movie.
Of all three films included in the James Dean box set, this is the one that looks the worst on DVD. Having said that, the results are not all together terrible. Though the palette of color is rather faded in comparison to the other two films reviewed (Rebel Without A Cause, and , Giant) alone it is quite adequate for a film of this vintage. Flesh tones are slightly pasty. Blacks are generally more deep brown or gray than black. Whites are rarely clean. There is a considerable amount of film grain during scene transitions, as is in keeping with early Cinemascope productions. The anamorphically enhanced DVD is otherwise par for the course. The audio is 5.1 and exhibits a dated, but accurate characteristic. Extras include a biography and an intense making of documentary, as well as audio commentary and theatrical trailer. Overall, nicely put together from the good people over at Warner and so right to have this film back where it belongs amongst the all time great works of art in American cinema.
I'm amazed that I've not written a comment on this cinematic icon before. What we have here is one of the holy trinity for Dean worshipers, the others being Rebel without a Cause and Giant. Well, I remember 45+ years ago when James Dean was killed outside of Paso Robles. I know that stretch of road well having spent a lot of time going between Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo, but I also remember seeing this film the year before. I was less interested in Dean's being in it because he was relatively unknown at the time, having only one line in a horrible Martin and Lewis comedy ("That man's a professional")(ugh). What really drew me into the theater was the coming to the screen of Steinbeck's long California novel, East of Eden. Steinbeck had written the book several years before, based on the struggle between two brothers in their quest for approval from a distant father. I was greatly disappointed in the movie because of the radical departures from the original book but taken with the chemistry between Dean and Julie Harris. A most underrated actress, she brings the element of Eve to the dyad of the two brothers. The favored brother, Aron (Steinbeck was hardly subtle with the names, Caleb and Aron, sons of Adam) is played by Richard Davalos (who?), whom most of us only recognize from bit parts in Kelly's Heroes and a few others. Veteran character and stage actor Raymond Massey does his usual excellent protrayal as does folk singer and fine actor, Burl Ives. But, Jo Van Fleet dang near steals the show. In effect, I was taken by the film even though I'd read the book and was expecting a great deal more of Steinbeck and less of Kazan. (Yeah, I know. Shoulda known better) So impressed was I that I went to see the film again and have seen it at least a dozen times since. The story is an old one and based on the book of Genesis, but it's really even older than that. Sibling rivalry is an ancient source of myth and is reflected by various archetypes. That is not what makes this film great. It is Dean, Van Fleet and Julie Harris and the darkness that Kazan imbues into this story. It is the quest for truth and the agony of discovery that makes this film work. There's no justice here. Only the perpetual drama of human emotions. Dean had a magic moment. His next film, Rebel became a classic and vaulted him into the league of legend. His premature death elevated him even loftier into the world of myth. We can only wonder what would have happened, if he'd have lived. Would he have become a silly reminder of his iconic past, ala Brando? We'll never know. All we have are these three films...
This movie simplifies the book down to a plot of a troubled "teen"
(James Dean a bit too old at 24) trying to win approval from an overly
This boiled down story from Steinbeck's book is not particularly lame by Hollywood standards and stands on its own. Dean is decent in the role...Kate is simply a hard hooker not the demonic character in the book who burns her parents alive.
However it disappoints because the book has such interesting characters like Kate and Lee. All the movie offers is some sort of dull coming of age thing.
But how can a movie possibly cover a long novel?---it can't in fact when movies try to cover books too fully the result is always bad---with rapid untethered jarring snippets of dialogue and action from the book which if covered fully would take 50 hours of screen time.
The German who is barely covered in the book gets much too big a role in this movie in some sort of Hollywood PC moral lesson...other than that I guess the biggest complaint is it is all rather boring.
In the end Caleb wins his Dad's love when his Dad asks him to take the place of the nurse. Yawn...
Do Not Recommend
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If you haven't read Steinbeck's book, than you would have to think that
the 1955 version was terrible. The movie cuts into about the last 200
pages of a 600 page book and many events and characters have been cut
Where's Sam Hamilton? Where's Lee?? They are integral characters that shape the story! Some characters have been made up. i.e The bullied German character only had 2 words in the book, and he's been given 1/2 hour in the movie.
You watch the scene's between Cal and Cathy and we are given no history as to why Cathy is the way she is. There was no back story of Adam and Charlie, which is why Cal and Aron are so similar to their Dad and Uncle. Please read the book. You will learn so much that has been cut out!!!! This movie ignores the essence of the story.
Extraordinarily good version of the second half of the Steinbeck classic novel. Dean is riveting as the conflicted Cal with Julie Harris as Abra matching him every step of the way. Tautly directed by Kazan even in the quieter moments this pulls you right along. Burl Ives makes his few small scenes count and Raymond Massey is strong as the misguided and righteous father. The real standout in support is Jo Van Fleet in her Oscar winning role as the cruel Kate, she crafts a fully realized person in just a few short scenes. James Dean was fine in all three of his big screen films but this is his best performance. If you have the chance catch the Jane Seymour miniseries of the entire book, it has its faults but her performance as Cathy/Kate in it is sublime.
***SPOILERS*** Always feeling that he took after his dead mother Cal
Trask, James Dean, doing some investigating on his own finally tracked
her down running a saloon/bordello in Monterey Calif. The Salinas
teenager's attempt to finally meet his mother, who was said to have
died after he was born, turned into a disaster with him being thrown
out, because he was too young to drink, of his mothers place of
It's when we get to meet both Cal's father Adam Trask, Raymond Massey, and twin brother Aaron, Richard Davalos, we see why he's so full of rage and contradictions. Being treated by his father as the black sheep of the family Cal had developed over the years a disturbing self-hatred of not only himself but the world at large. It's when he finally got to see his mother Kate, Jo Van Fleet, and realized that his father kept the fact of her being alive a secret from him, as well as his brother Aaron, Cal's obsession of him taking after her became crystal clear. Like himself Kate was denied Cal's father, and her husbands, love for she was too independent and strong willed, like her son Cal, for Adam to control with his over the top Bible thumping sermons and false humility.
It's when Cal tried to win his father's love by giving him a birthday present of $5,000.00 that he lost in a failed vegetable refrigeration venture that the proverbial sh*t finally hit the fan. His father refusing to take the money because Cal made it by manipulation the commodity market, in beans, in him expecting the US to enter the war, WWI, in Europe was the last straw for Cal. Giving Cal a BS sermon of not wanting to get rich off other people's suffering, in being killed and wounded on the Western Front, was really the hight of hypocrisy on the sanctimonious Adam Trusk's part. Adam was in fact a member of the local Salinas draft board where he willingly sent young men, excluding his two sons Cal & Aaron, to the front lines to do just what he told Cal he was totally against! Killing or being killed on the battlefields of France and Belgium! Not only that Adams felt absolutely no guilt at all in getting a paycheck, from the US War Department, in doing his job! Yet at the same time he put his son Cal down for profiting because off the war in his bean commodity trading!
While all this was going on Cal, being the handsome devil that he is, had the sweet and caring Abra, Julie Harris, who's his brother's girlfriend fall madly in love with him that complicated matters, between the two brothers, even farther! Feeling dejected and abandoned by everyone, with the exception of Abra, that he loved and cared for Cal loses it and takes it out both on his father Adam and his smirking and always on the side good & righteousness brother Aaron. It's then that Cal, who already knew what the score was, takes Aaron down to the whorehouse & saloon in Monterey and shows him that his mother Kate is not only alive but not the angel in heaven that he thought, and what his father told him, that she was!
The terrible shock that Aaron was subjected to completely flipped him out and caused him, a life long pacifist, to enlist in the US military. Stark raving mad Aaron put his head through a plate glass window, on the troop train taking him to the nearest US army base, in front of both his shocked and startled father Adam and brother Cal. As for Old Man Trask his holier then thou act totally unraveled, at the pathetic sight of his #1 son Aaron, where he suffered a near fatal stroke, or brain hemorrhage, that left him paralyzed for the reminder-as short as it was going to be-life!
In the end Cal did get the love from his father that was denied to him all his life but at a terrible price. With Aaron no longer around, and probably either dead or in an insane asylum, Old Man Trusk had no choice but to have his now only son Cal look after him for the little time he still had left on this earth!
James Dean's unbelievable and electrifying performance in the movie as the moody and unpredictable Cal Trask made him one of Hollywood's brightest star overnight. Dean's road to stardom, and a very promising film career, didn't last long with it leading to that fateful and last Friday in September 1955 on the intersection of US Route 46 and state Route 41. It was there in the early autumn twilight on that lonely stretch of California highway where James Dean ended up getting killed in a fatal car crash while driving his beloved sliver Porsche Spyder: The $7,000.00, in 1955 dollars, sports car that he bought with the money he earned staring in the film "East of Eden".
James Dean made only three films before his untimely death in 1955.
EAST OF EDEN is the only one I hadn't seen and the second of the three
to be shown on Reel 13. I was particularly curious about EAST OF EDEN
because it paired Dean with one of his Actors' Studio mentors
director Elia Kazan. Kazan introduced the more naturalistic "method"
acting style to Hollywood with films like A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and
ON THE WATERFRONT. The impact of the collaboration is most apparent in
that Dean, for the only time in his brief career, seems to be
surrounded by actors with a similar background and training. In the
review of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, I noted how it often seemed that Dean
was acting in his own movie, but here, he is amongst peers in Julie
Harris, Burl Ives, Lois Smith and Jo Van Fleet, who won an Oscar for
her supporting performance (I am usually against giving Oscars to
people for less than ten minutes of screen time, but I might have to
make an exception here she was brilliant).
Oddly enough, with all the familiar and talented thespians around him, Dean's presence is less effective than it was in his other work. Don't get me wrong he displays several moments of greatness (great body language throughout, outstanding choices in the Ferris wheel scene), but as blasphemous as it might be to say, there were a few moments where I felt he went too far. He is constantly whining to such an extreme degree, that it diffuses the moments that really call for it. Now, this isn't overacting in the traditional sense. As a matter of fact, I feel similarly about this performance as I did about the recent performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD. It's more scenery chewing than overacting. Both actors are believable when they hit those extreme emotions, but I wonder if the choice to go that far is always appropriate. While it's impressive that they can get there, they might be actually be harming the overall narrative. The more often they cry or scream, the less impact it will have as the film goes on. This is problematic because, more often than not, the end of a film requires the broader emotions more than the beginning. For example, there is a scene toward the end of EAST OF EDEN where Dean's character presents his father with a gift that he worked his ass off for, but the righteous father manages to find the negativity in it. Dean cries and convulses in full breakdown mode, almost as if he didn't have control of his motor skills. This had the potential to be very powerful if we hadn't seen it four times earlier. To be fair, this was Dean's first film and he clearly went on to refine his craft in his next efforts.
Elia Kazan also seemed a little off his game. This film, which was possibly his most ambitious in terms of scope and budget seems more like an experiment to him than anything else. I got the sense that he was almost playing with ideas and concepts. He employs these very interesting Dutch angles throughout, but very often, they don't seem to be motivated. There is an early Q&A scene between Dean and Raymond Massey. As the scene goes on, the angle becomes more off-axis, but the scene occurs too early to utilize a technique that extreme. (There is a scene later on the film when Dean is on a swing where Kazan justifies the awkward angle by using the forward movement of the swing to essentially "push" the camera off-axis. This works much better). Other experiments were more successful. First, this might have been the first time he shot in color and the results are astounding. The cinematography is beautiful and the colors are extraordinarily rich. Second, he is a master of staging and not in the theatrical sense. This is very much blocking for the camera frame. The best example is the scene that takes place immediately after the scene where Dean presents the gift. Dean pouts in the backyard under a huge tree. Its leaves hang so low that they obscure the entire top half of Dean. Julie Harris runs under the tree to console him so she is also hidden. (This idea of obscuring characters/moments from the camera occurs often in the Kazan oeuvre). From their legs and torso, you can tell they stand close, but is he crying on her shoulder? Are they making out? Then, Dean's brother comes out and orders Harris (his girlfriend) out from the tree. She runs out and into the foreground. The brother is in the middleground with his back to the camera and Dean is in the background, still obscured by the tree. The brother then begins to admonish Dean's character, but it's Harris' face we see as if the brother could be referring to either one of them. It's a beautiful, simple and truly cinematic framing idea that manages to convey a multitude of ideas with one swift stroke.
As you may have interpreted, I have mixed feelings about EAST OF EDEN. While the artistic achievements of the film are exciting, the film ultimately fails to pack an emotional punch, possibly because the narrative is mired in the complexities and the allegories of the Steinbeck novel it's based on. Familial relations, foreign politics, xenophobia, profiteering, infidelity, class distinctions, the nature of evil and of course, the albatross hanging over the whole thing Biblical allegory are all covered within the 110 minutes of EAST OF EDEN. While I think it's great that Kazan tried to layer the film with all that meaning, I wonder if he didn't push it too far. With all those deep issues crammed into one package, it's hard to care about any of them.
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