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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
John Steinbeck's novel "East of Eden" was one of those books that are
hard to forget, and so is the screen adaptation of the book, directed
by Elia Kazan, shown at MOMA in New York recently. The impact of the
novel was captured in Paul Osborn's screenplay. The film served as an
introduction to a young actor, James Dean, whose short life, and tragic
death, made him a legend. One can see the appeal he had in audiences
and the way the camera loved his features.
The action takes place at the beginning of the last century in Salinas, California, "the salad bowl of America". Adam Trask, a single father, raising two boys in his land, gambles on an experiment, keeping the lettuce he produces surrounded by ice, something that would revolutionize how the produce grown in the valley, which would keep fresh for the Eastern markets. Adam's efforts proves a flop.
Caleb Trask, a rebel young man, wonders about his mother Kate. He had been led to believe she is living in nearby Monterrey. What Caleb is not prepared is for the business his mother is involved; she is the owner of a popular brothel in town. Caleb haunts her, but she is not at all convinced she made a bad decision when she left Adam, a religious man who kept Kate away in the country.
Things get complicated when Caleb falls for his brother's Aaron's girlfriend, Abra. As WWI Is declared, young Caleb decides to borrow money from his mother to start planting beans, a crop much in demand. Things between the brothers come to a head as Aaron finds out about Abra and Caleb, after the revelation of the true identity of the boy's mother.
James Dean dominates everything in the film. He showed he had what it took to be a star in Hollywood. Julie Harris makes an impact as the sweet Abra. Raymond Massey plays the father with conviction. Jo Van Fleet is seen as Kate, in a role that gave her an Academy Award.
This film is beautifully filmed in color CinemaScope. Kazan uses the
format to create a distinct mood and atmosphere from the farmlands and
vistas of California. This enhanced my appreciation for the book by
providing a setting that expanded on my limited imagination when
reading the book. However, I think it is a mistake to judge this movie
from the book. It is not the book. It should be judged for what it is
and not for what it might have been.
The story is that of conflicts within the Trask family: Adam, a stern moralistic father (Raymond Massey); Cal, a rebellious son (James Dean); Aron, the dutiful and favored son (Richard Davalos); and Kate, a woman from Adam's past (Jo Van Fleet). As Abra, Julie Harris provides a love interest for the Trask boys and Burl Ives is a standout as the diplomatic local sheriff who knows a lot of the town's secrets. The cast is near perfect, except that Dean and Harris seem a little old for their parts and Davalos does not quite hold is own with the other actors.
If conflict is what drives good drama, then there is enough here to go around. Cal wants the approval his father but does not know how to get it, and he cannot always suppress his evil demons--he is at war with himself. Adam is at a loss as to how to control his unruly son, his strict discipline and Bible readings are not the answer. Abra starts out as Aron's girlfriend, but sees Cal as more interesting and a little dangerous and of course that sets off a great sibling rivalry between the brothers. As a shadowy figure from Adam's past Kate plays a crucial role. We watch with interest as these personalities bump against each other.
I found the basic struggle between Cal and Adam to be quite believable. I think most everyone has encountered someone who dominates by force of will and strict moral authority. Such people usually command respect, but they can be intimidating. Mixing a person of Cal's temperament with a father like Adam is bound to produce some fireworks.
I thought James Dean was ideal for the part of the sensitive, misunderstood, moody, and independent Cal who was torn between his pious father and his disreputable mother. The image Dean creates for Cal in this movie seems to apply to the image we have of Dean himself. I have wondered about the extent to which he manufactured that image. One can only speculate as to what kind of career Dean would have had. He was good at playing the vulnerable, sensitive, and tormented sort, but it is hard to picture him ever achieving a powerful performance to match Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront" or Paul Newman in "The Hustler."
The score is intrusive in places, but the main theme is one that sticks in the mind. Whenever I think of this movie, I think of that music.
"East of Eden" from 1955 is based on the John Steinbeck novel of the
same name, beautifully realized on the screen by Elia Kazan, with James
Dean as the perfect Cal.
It is the modern story of Cain and Abel, with the brothers Cal and Aron in California around the time of World War I. The film covers the last third of the book, and it ends a little differently.
The story in both book and film centers around choice; in the book, the subject comes up with a discussion of the correct translation of the Hebrew word "timshel" which means "may." God blesses Cain with free will, leaving the choice to him ("Thou mayest rule over him")
This is not only a heart-wrenching story and script, but the acting is across the board superb.
Kazan was struck by how much Dean was like Cal and actually observed his uneasy relationship with his father, so he gave him free rein with the role.
He is magnificent as a young man jealous of his brother (Richard Davalos) and wanting his father's (Raymond Massey) love desperately, seeking to be understood. The only one who does is his brother's girlfriend, Abra (Julie Harris).
Harris, one of the great Broadway actresses of her time, is lovely as the empathic young woman, who finds herself torn as she realizes she is in love with Cal and not Aaron. Richard Davalos, the handsome "good" boy Aron, does a marvelous job, and he has great chemistry with Dean. Their interactions are intense.
Elia Kazan was always sorry he hired Raymond Massey, feeling he did not have the range the director wanted, but as the stern, principled, religious father, he is excellent. He absolutely hated James Dean, who deliberately provoked him -- Dean was big into the Method -- and complained that one had to "stand around and wait for him to act." Kazan used the dislike to the character's advantage too.
This was Jo Van Fleet's film debut, though she had done television and had won a Tony award for "A Trip to Bountiful." For her role as a bordello madam in East of Eden, she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Kazan used her again in Wild River, another brilliant performance.
And the cast is great right down to the smaller roles, played by Lois Smith, Burl Ives, and Albert Dekker. Of the cast, only Smith and Davalos are still alive as of this writing.
Someone reviewing it on this board said your feelings about the film change with age, as one loses one's parents, etc. I have to agree. It grows richer.
East of Eden the book was a seminal for me, and I feel as deeply about the film. A true masterpiece.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
East of Eden is a film that was loosely based on the second half of the
novel of the same name by John Steinbeck. It is about a wayward young
man who, while seeking his own identity, vies for the affection of his
deeply religious father against his favored brother, thus retelling the
story of Cain and Abel.The film stars James Dean,in his first screen
debut,Julia Harris,and Raymond Massey together with Burl Ives, Richard
Davalos and Jo Van Fleet. It was directed by Elia Kazan.
This is a short screen version of John Steinbeck's best-seller.It was about Cal Trask, the "bad" son of taciturn Salinas valley lettuce farmer Adam Trask. Although he means well, Cal can't stay out of trouble, nor is he able to match the esteem in which his father holds his "good" brother Aron.Only Aron's girlfriend Abra and kindly old sheriff Sam Burl Ives) can see the essential goodness in the troublesome Cal. When Adam invests in a chancy and wholly unsuccessful method of shipping his crops east, his wealth plummets. In an effort to save the business, Cal obtains money from his estranged mother,who also happens to be the proprietor of a whorehouse and invests it in a risky new bean crop.
The gamble pays off,but Adam refuses to take the money from Cal, and the resultant quarrel causes Adam to have a stroke. Cal tries to talk to him, but gets no response and leaves the bedroom. Abra enters the room alone and pleads with Adam to show Cal some affection before it is too late. She persuades Cal to go back into the room. When Cal makes his last bid for acceptance before leaving town, his father manages to speak. He tells his son to get rid of the annoying nurse and not to get anyone else, but to stay and take care of him himself. The film ends with Cal and Abra sitting by Adam's bedside, the emotional chasm between the father and son apparently closed.
East of Eden is one great movie.It was a Kazan's Biblical allegory from the Book of Genesis set in modern times.It was one of the best films he has ever made.The story was rich in emotion.The cinematography was classic as well.Aside from his superb direction,it was also the first significant role of James Dean,whom I believe had his best performance in this movie as compared to Giant and Rebel Without A Cause and has shown promise that he could have been one of the best actors(if not the best) in history if he not only died early of a car accident.In summary it was one excellent and classic film that was elevated by Dean's enormous talent.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film showed James Dean as the mysterious character Cal, a
confused, quiet young man with an adventurous spirit. Although Cal
seems to not know what is going on, he actually knows more than anyone
in his family. He knows that his Mother is still alive and where she
is. It was hard to watch because you could tell that Cal's brother was
favored by his father over him.
I did not like the character of Abra. She honestly ruined the film for me. I disliked how she would constantly flirt with Cal, when she was dating his very brother. I thought she was a dislike-able character, and I could not figure out in the movie why everybody loved her so much. I thought her acting seemed fake, with forced emotion, just my opinion.
I loved the ending when Cal and his father have the big powerful moment of exchanging respect and love to one another. This scene showed very talented acting by the father. He had to appear as if just having a stroke, and he did so very well. It was so nice to see how a boy was finally accepted by his father, which is all he ever really wanted from him.
This is the only major movie James Dean lived to see in which he had
acted--too bad he didn't show up to the premier. Within months of the
debut he'd be dead--and never see the success he'd attain in "Giant" or
"Rebel Without a Cause".
Dean is THE star of this film--a troubled young man who just assumes he's 'bad'. The reason for it, he discovers, might be because his dead mother is NOT dead but alive--alive and working in a brothel! This is a huge contrast to his father and 'good' brother and pious father. The father (Raymond Massey) doesn't understand Dean and there is a huge gulf between them. Some of it clearly is because the father is filled with self-righteousness--a self-righteousness that makes it hard to connect with mere mortals. Oddly, although he's seen as the bad boy, Dean tries again and again to do right and make his father proud--in many ways he really is the good son because he tries so very hard to gain his father's approval. How can all this get sorted out and what about the relationship between the two amazingly different brothers? Tune in to this excellent film--which is, believe it or not, a highly unusual reworking of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel--and Steinbeck seems to strongly favor the under-dog, Cain! Excellent acting, a nice script and a sense that this is something different from Hollywood all make this a film you won't want to miss.
A lot of viewers watch this film probably because of the presence of
James Dean; this was his first major role. Dean plays Cal Trask, the
teenage main character: rebellious, confused, brooding, trying without
much luck to please his stern father Adam (Raymond Massey). Cal and his
brother Aron (Richard Davalos) are rivals for their father's respect.
It's all supposed to be a modern "take" on the story of Cain and Abel.
Indeed, the script has lots of references to the Bible. And Adam is
annoyingly pious, self-righteous, and brazenly inept as a father, with
his favoritism toward Aron.
The more interesting motif, however, is the rift between Cal and his dad, two people who can't seem to communicate, emblematic of the 1950s generation gap, when kids were starting to break away from the previous generation. Adam represents tradition; Cal represents rebellion and change. Reinforcing this impression is a none-too-subtle hint of juvenile delinquency, again in the Cal character, and more especially in Dean's interpretation of Cal.
The film's plot is meandering. The pace is slow. Shot in CinemaScope, the visuals have an irritating letterbox projection that fills only about half the screen. Tint trends ever so slightly greenish. That was probably deliberate to stress the pastoral setting, as the story takes place in a small town not far from the sea in California, circa 1917. Background music is nondescript and manipulative, characteristic of films from the 1950s.
Acting is the best element. Dean does a pretty good job as Cal. Julie Harris gives a nice interpretation of Abra, Aron's love interest. And with her method acting skills, Jo Van Fleet gives arguably the best performance as the cold, shrewd business lady whom Cal takes an interest in, early in the plot.
Though the acting makes the film worth watching, and the generation gap theme is interesting, I simply could not get interested in the period setting, with those old cars, Victorian clothes, horse wagons, and chitchat about lettuce farming. "East Of Eden" has the look and feel of a Norman Rockwell painting, with its fuzzy Americana idealism and pride.
Period setting aside, the real story here is that of an outsider at odds with that goody-goody American traditionalism of the 1950s. Maybe that's what makes the film so popular, helped along by the presence of a promising young movie star who died before his time.
This movie has shows beautiful landscapes. Often there will be a wide
shot with mountains in the background or a crowd of people enjoying
themselves. The framing goes along with the scenery and shapes of rooms
to create leading lines like in paintings or photographs to attract the
viewers eyes more. One notable part of the cinematography was the use
of dutch camera angles which got under my skin at the right moments by
showing the scene as being slightly tilted to make the scenario seem
more crazy; it acts as a good means to make the viewer feel more like
The parts are all very well played, especially by James Dean. He looks creepy at first, but that is only to help introduce his character in a way that most characters see him as being. You slowly get the sense that there is a sensitive person inside of him who becomes his greatest enemy and ally.
The characters are very well written and the character development makes the entire movie interesting. The slow deterioration of the brother is very easy to see, but isn't overdone by leaving the comforts of only being subtle in storytelling. You begin to feel sorry most of the main characters.
The lighting is good. It feels a little too realistic at first with the sun being bright for a good majority of the first 15 minutes, but as the story develops. It constantly switches between dark and bright lighting to create a mood. It does this in a special way to only show lights and darks in certain parts of the screen to exaggerate feelings that are already in the viewer. There is one scene where James Deans's character does a shameful act and as he leaves, it switches to the next shot where you only see his shadow upside down and pans upward to show the person like the camera is telling the viewer that the person is dark and wicked.
The story is very emotional which makes it interesting even if it may seem predictable in a couple of parts. It can be very hard to predict many of the events, especially those events that happen in the last 40 minutes. It's a good movie to watch for anyone who wants something to think about for a day.
I must agree with another reviewers' observation that the film should
in no way be compared with the novel and should be viewed as a separate
work of art in another medium based rather loosely on a small part of
the Steinbeck masterpiece. The complexity and richness of the work
could obviously not be conveyed within the time constraints of a single
film. The cinematic beauty of the NorCal coast and the historical
recreation of the turn of the century are merely backdrops for a
minimalized stark enaction of the story as Greek tragedy thus enabling
the director to avoid the daunting task of suggesting any real depth in
the characters' motivations beyond the Judaeo-Greecian archetype. In an
overwrought 50s generational angsty kind of way it was enjoyable.
What I can't understand is why the Asian-American film community never picketed the film for the complete omission of the Lee character, to me the most memorable part of the book. It was also a little difficult accepting the dumbed down characters in this new stylized format after being moved by their realistic interactions in the novel. I could not find myself liking any of the characters in this larger than life dramatic context, but then I can't picture myself knocking back a few ouzos with Oedipus at Colonos Bar and Grill. Overall, an interesting effort by a director I've always admired.
I was already a fan of James Dean when I watched East of eden. I thought that this rebel could not play such a sensitive man, with the kind of troubles Cal Trask experience. Of course i wind up crying like a little baby, something I hardly ever do when I realize that there is a little bit Cal Trask in everyone of us. Sure I sound like a Dr. Phil copy, but in some strange way it is true. Especially true for all teenagers with a brother or sister. I find myself working for my parents love in a way that every one does. This is why East of eden truly is a work of art, and if it wasn't for James dean I don't know if the movie had touched me the same way!
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