It has been said that the greatest love there is belongs to a parent for a child; the affirmation of unconditionally affection lasting a lifetime. But what happens when this essential is denied – or, at the very least, grossly ineffectual? In preparing East of Eden (1955); a slightly autobiographical memoir, director Elia Kazan confided in author John Steinbeck that only the last eighty pages of his generational saga appealed to him – chapters dealing with willfully self-destructive isolationism and paradigmatic generational conflict between stoic patriarch, Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) and his younger son, Cal (James Dean). Digging a little deeper we find that Cal and Adam’s inability to understand each other is at the heart of Kazan’s own childhood angst. Steinbeck’s too; the author most certainly probing his own inability to connect with his father through literary catharsis. Essentially, East of Eden is a retelling of the time-honored Biblical morality tale of Cain and Abel.
Among its many other attributes, East of Eden is cautionary about the implosion of the family unit and its destructive fallout impacting many lives for generations yet to come. Steinbeck wholeheartedly believed in the concept of ‘functional literature’ – allegoric stories to provide a blueprint for human understanding. Setting his story in Salinas California, Steinbeck’s homage to his own childhood arguably exorcised a lot of old demons; the region’s traditional agrarian backdrop used as a metaphor for life itself, curiously void of any nostalgia for the place Steinbeck had once called home. For Steinbeck, small towns were comparable to narrow-mindedness and a stifling lack of opportunity for those aspiring to something better; the recluses, the reprobates, the dreamers and the scamps. These appealed to Steinbeck perhaps more than the mighty and the prosperous, because they symbolized the promise of something more genuinely alive and exciting on the horizon.
There is some speculation amongst scholars today that the character of Kate (Jo Van Fleet) was based on Steinbeck’s second wife, Gwen. The couple was divorced in 1948. If so, it must have been a very unhappy marriage, for Kate is an unscrupulous harpy. Yet Steinbeck is affectionately forgiving toward Kate. In the novel, she kills her own parents by setting fire to the family home, seduces her much older school teacher and has two young men run out of town on a false allegation of rape; by all accounts a very venomous woman. Yet, Steinbeck’s genius manages to create a queer sort of empathy for this rather heartless wretch. Kate is hardly sympathetic, but at some level she retains a sort of wounded humanity. Her conflict between good and evil from within is neither resolved nor dismissed outright as ‘all bad’.
The central themes in East of Eden are forgiveness and compassion – the latter perceived as a necessary salvation for even the most cold-blooded and conspiring among us. Kazan had long admired Steinbeck’s ability to maintain this sense of moral balance in his often bleak reflections of waning humanity. In fact, Kazan was very good friends with the author by the time he began to pen East of Eden. Steinbeck even allowed Kazan to see the galleys as they were being written and would remain unobtrusive and respectful after Kazan offered to take the project over to Warner Bros. for possible development. East of Eden – the movie – remains a remarkable achievement in that it bears no earthly resemblance to the structure of the novel but nevertheless manages to convey Steinbeck’s central themes while delving deeply into its characters; the essence of the novel reworked though never distilled; the tangible flavor of the book retained in spite of an almost complete rewrite done for the movie by screenwriter Paul Osborn.
In this respect, East of Eden is perfection itself; its verdant Californian landscape juxtaposed against the earthy strain of extremely conflicted people who call this part of the world their home; the sun-soaked visuals enhanced by the irony and anguish set before them, perceptively stylized torment that borders on the fantastic. In retrospect, East of Eden is not only one of Kazan’s unlikeliest tapestries about the grotesqueness of life, it arguably remains the finest of the three performances James Dean committed to celluloid; the veneer between Cal and Dean’s own brutalized soul impenetrable and in constant flux. Raymond Massey and James Dean did not get on during the shoot, an antagonism Kazan subtly encouraged despite Massey’s strenuous objections about Dean’s ‘unprofessionalism’. In fact, Dean was testing Massey’s limits the same way Cal constantly goads his father in the desperate hopes of gaining parental acceptance. Massey believed in fidelity to the written word – unchanged and unedited. Dean’s métier, however, was improvisation and he frequently tested Massey’s patients by never playing their scenes together the same way twice.
For the moment where Cal is denied his father’s love after he has managed to scrape together all of the money Adam lost on a bad crop of lettuce (the reimbursement as a birthday present refused outright) Dean’s Cal was supposed to leave the money on the table and exit the room heartbroken. Instead, Dean approached Massey with a look of absolute persecuted shame unreciprocated by Massey – who quite simply did not know how to react. The moment, fraught with Massey’s contempt for Dean’s experimentation, plays to Adam’s understated inability to comprehend or even appreciate the love of his son. Dean punctuates the moment with a final shriek, so primal that it levels the collective soul of the audience into shock and empathy towards this boy who has been destroyed too often by the man whose unconditional love he so desperately craves.
East of Eden is set between 1917 and 1918, before and during America’s involvement in World War I, in the central Californian coastal towns of Monterey and Salinas. Cal (James Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos) are sons of a modestly successful farmer and wartime draft board chairman named Adam Trask (Raymond Massey). Cal is moody and embittered by his belief that their father favors Aron. Although the boys have long been led to believe that their mother died, Cal quietly unearths the truth, that she is alive and operating a small brothel in nearby Monterey.
Adam’s failed venture into long-haul vegetable shipping puts a considerable strain on the family’s prosperity and Cal quietly reasons that if he can recoup the money by entering the bean growing business he may earn his father’s love and respect. To this end, Cal journeys to Monterey, confronts Kate and begs for a loan of $5,000. After considerable haggling and an all-out rejection (Kate, tries to have Cal forcibly evicted from her room) she inevitably breaks down and lends him the money. Cal puts it to good use. The U.S.’s participation in the war causes bean prices to skyrocket, earning Cal back considerable profit on his investment.
Adam’s pride however remains invested in Aron; the heir apparent to the family business. Aron does not know about Kate. At least, not yet. And despite his knowing that Adam favors Aron, Cal harbors no ill-will or jealousy toward his brother. He does, however, take something of an interest in Abra (Julie Harris), Aron’s demure girlfriend, arguably the only person to genuinely appreciate Cal’s merit and metal. As time wears on, Abra begins to realize that her loyalties have begun to divide between the two brothers.
This becomes particularly apparent at a local fair. Having been stood up by Aron – who has been delayed – Abra allows Cal to court her around the fairgrounds; the two enjoying the gaiety and a ride atop the Ferris Wheel where they share an awkwardly pleasant kiss. Abra confesses to Cal that she still loves Aron. A dispute arises between the town’s folk and Aron after he takes an unflattering view of America’s involvement in the war and sides with the Germans. Cal stands beside his brother. But Aron has grown jealous of Cal’s friendship with Abra. The brothers quarrel and Cal strikes down Aron in a fit of rage before being subdued by Abra.
Much later Cal decides to make Adam a present of the money he has earned from the bean harvest; a surprise gift for his birthday. But almost immediately the mood sours. Still jealous of Cal’s relationship with Abra, Aron announces that he and Abra have become engaged. Abra cannot deny her feelings for Cal, despite her best intentions. To defuse the moment, Cal gives Adam his present. But when Adam learns about the initial investment of capital he outwardly refuses the gift, bringing Cal to wounded emotional tears.
Abra comforts Cal with tenderness and a few kisses, the scene observed by an enraged Aron who orders Cal to stay away from Abra. Cal confesses to Aron that their mother is alive and managing a brothel in Monterey. Unable to believe his own ears, Aron is taken by Cal to the whorehouse and shown the awful truth. Aron goes on a wild bender that culminates with his enlisting in the army. Adam rushes to the train station to prevent his son from going off to war, but is too late; Aron manically laughing from an open window as his father looks on in horror.
Not long afterward, Adam suffers a near fatal stroke that leaves him paralyzed. Abra encourages reconciliation between Cal and Adam, but only after one failed attempt, and Abra’s tearful pleas, does Adam stir up the gumption to speak in a frail voice, asking Cal to get rid of the nurse and remain behind to look after him. Grateful for her intervention, and moreover realizing how much he loves her, Cal passionately kisses Abra who has decided, once and for all, that she loves him. After their embrace, Abra leaves the room and Cal takes his place by his father’s bedside.
East of Eden is an emotionally uprooting experience. The volatile backstage antics and Raymond Massey’s general disdain for James Dean have translated into an exceptionally complex father/son relationship – one that arguably cuts closer to the truth of Steinbeck’s characters as well as the author’s own conflicted emotions about his father. In his first starring role, James Dean reveals a deeply troubled side to Cal’s character, in retrospect more Dean than Cal; the actor allowing his own demons just enough latitude to exorcise the dramatic moments as their own catharses. Dean was, of course, cribbing from a lifetime wellspring of pent up anger, disillusionment, insecurity and feelings of betrayal.
In short, he probably found a lot of himself in the part and used it as his platform to give one of the finest breakout performances by any actor in his/her debut. Observing Dean’s Cal in retrospect of the facts surrounding Dean’s own brief life and untimely death, one is immediately struck by the verisimilitude ricocheting between this fiction and fact. Dean might have easily succumbed to playing a caricature of his own life story. On occasion, he has been criticized for doing just that. Instead, Dean finds those portions within his organic makeup; the parts that signal and speak to the depths of a more intuitive despair, but is able to turn these memories into the character as written, even as he fights like mad to breathe imperfect life into Steinbeck’s most haunted and tragic anti-hero. While Dean is more readily hailed today for his Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause, the contemporary iconography of a cigarette-smoking teen looking ultra-cool in his red windbreaker, Dean’s performance in East of Eden reveals a more subtle approach to his art; a burnt offering of tenderness made raw and subversive until the intervention of a good woman manages to tame, coax and finally renew his sense of self.
Raymond Massey’s performance is an entirely different matter. The one performer who bucked, rather than took his cue from what Dean is trying to do, Massey comes across as rather wooden and ineffectual throughout the movie. Arguably, this bodes well for the East of Eden’s premise of flawed father/son relations, and yet it also tends to fall just a tad short of expectations. Thankfully, Dean is doing so much within their interactions that one can easily divert attention away from Massey to Dean and still find the experience engrossing. Julie Harris was not Kazan’s first choice for the part of Abra. In fact, she was the last to be cast and had the shortest period to get up in the part. Harris is tepid and timid; again – traits that ought to have complimented the character. But Harris’ Abra is too bashful, too detached, too hesitant to be the perfect love match for Dean’s Cal.
There’s no growth or development in Abra’s emotional arc towards Cal. They simply share moments together, neither quite sure where the future will lead, but Harris respectfully standoffish in the final reel rather than having come to any acceptance of her diverged feelings. It doesn’t quite work. But in retrospect, East of Eden is James Dean’s movie and he proves more than accomplished opposite some very heavy-hitters; making most of them seem – either intentionally or unintentionally - inferior to his on-screen presence. It’s a genuine star quality that we get in Dean and herein it shines blisteringly bright. East of Eden is James Dean’s showcase and he works every frame of it as few actors then or now are able to.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray of East of Eden was created from a 4k restoration by MPI. In many ways, we’re seeing East of Eden as few have since its theatrical debut. Although the general softness of the image will leave some wanting, color fidelity is far richer and more vibrant than ever before, with flesh taking on a more natural tone and texture. Transitional dissolves between scenes still look a tad thick and suffer from periodic loss of color fidelity and fine detail, but again; Warner has done an outstanding job working with less than perfect archival elements.
DNR appears to have been applied ever so slightly, more to balance the consistency of the grain and stabilize the image rather than heavy-handedly obliterating it. There is no artificial sharpening, so enough said. We’re impressed. The DTS 5.1 remix is a compensation between East of Eden’s original release prints – some in monaural, others 4-track Cinemascope stereo. It’s always clear and, on occasion, remarkably resilient and aggressive. Dialogue is crisp without being artificially enhanced and Leonard Rosenman’s poignant score is given its due. Good stuff all around.
Extras are all direct imports from the 2 disc SE and include a ‘making of’ featurette featuring recollections by Julie Harris and others. We also get Richard Schickel’s rather turgid audio commentary, plus yet another bio on Dean – actually more of a tribute piece – plus original screen tests and a few deleted scenes. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)