East of Eden earned considerable attention when it was released in 1955, for several reasons. It was directed by Elia Kazan, one of Hollywood’s most respected and innovative filmmakers, who was responsible for some of the more daring and well made studio films of the 1950s: On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, Splendour in the Grass, and others. East of Eden can be included among his best work. The film was based on the second half of John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, a popular bestseller which was meant as an allegory of the Book of Genesis, and the production of a film version inspired a great deal of anticipation.
What drew the most attention, then and now, was the casting of an enigmatic young stage actor named James Dean in a central role. East of Eden is known today primarily as Dean’s first movie and the source of his fame.
James Dean was recommended for the part by the film’s screenwriter, based on Dean’s performance on the New York stage the previous year in The Immoralist. Elia Kazan, who had seen James Dean on stage, agreed to meet with the young actor. Kazan found him annoying and surly, but also perfect for the role of Cal Trask, and Dean was hired after one audition.
Kazan was known for encouraging off-stage relations among his actors which mirrored those of their characters. Since Dean’s character, Cal, was in conflict with most of the other characters, Dean’s abrasiveness worked to the film’s advantage. The situation did, however, make for off-camera tension, especially between Dean and his co-star, veteran film star Raymond Massey.
Set in 1917, East of Eden tells the story of fraternal twin brothers, Cal and Aaron Trask, who live with their father, Adam (Raymond Massey), on his farm in Salinas, California, a peaceful agricultural town. The boys’ mother, Kate (Jo Van Fleet), supposedly died when the twins were born. As the film begins, Cal has heard a rumour that his mother is still alive, had left her husband and children years before and gone to work in a brothel, which she now owns and manages. Cal is established as distraught, torn between the desire to meet his mother, and fear that the shameful rumour may be true.
The back story of Adam’s marriage to Kate and her flight from the family, part of Steinbeck’s novel, is not explored in any depth. Small details are revealed in conversation or through the attitude of the couple and those who knew them, suggesting just enough to explain Adam’s restraint.
The film follows Cal’s efforts to form a relationship with his mother, and to understand her situation; and at the same time deals with his failing attempts to earn the approval of his father, who strongly favours Cal’s more stolid brother, a rivalry that eventually leads the family to tragedy. The film establishes that Aaron, while more outwardly conventional, is a less dutiful son that Cal in reality, but is willing to accept and benefit from the position of favoured sibling. Meanwhile, Cal begins to suspect he has inherited his own inadequacies from his outcast mother.
James Dean’s Cal is by no means a typical Fifties male hero. Rather than stoic and strong, Cal is troubled, vulnerable, and emotionally fragile. He begs, weeps, and expresses uncertainty and a longing for affection, particularly from his cold and disapproving father. He is plagued with self-doubt and self-loathing, and convinced that he is naturally bad, cursed. It was an unusual choice of hero for the time, but the novelty and emotional depth of Dean’s performance attracted the attention and approval of contemporary audiences.
In spite of being essentially a mainstream studio film, East of Eden is a fascinating collaboration of varying types of creative talent, a remarkable showcase for James Dean’s now-legendary ability, and a slice of Hollywood history.
For further viewing:
James Dean followed up East of Eden by starring in Rebel Without a Cause, released after his death. While this didactic melodrama about teen angst does not live up to his previous film, Dean’s performance was as electrifying as ever; and his performance and the film’s enduring fame make it worth checking out.