Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, released in 1955, is indeed a very special project as it remains the only one of the three films that starred James Dean in a lead role and which the actor watched in its entirety before his untimely demise.
The plot, which derives heavily from the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, revolves around the complicated relationship shared by a father and a son when the latter feels marginalised and less-preferred by the former. Love, sibling rivalry and desperate need of parental affection forms the crux of the story. James Dean, who shared an equally complicated relationship with his father, brought out the anguish of his character Caleb ‘Cal’ Trask exceptionally well, desperately prying for his father, Adam’s, affections. Adam, however, is more inclined towards his other son, Aron, whose girlfriend is smitten by Cal’s raw charm.
While screentests are fairly common these days with footage being released on YouTube to garner publicity and hype for a film, it was not very popular back in the day. While Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift were both considered for the roles of Cal and Aron respectively, their names were quickly dropped due to their significant age gap with the characters. James Dean and Paul Newman had auditioned for the same role before Dean bagged it with his more flippant and animated nature.
Abra Bacon is the common romantic interest for both the brothers. Although Julie Harris was incredible as Abra, fans would be surprised to know that two other well-known women tried out for this role. In a relatively newly released rare footage featuring screen tests of actresses, Patricia Smith and Joanne Woodward have graced YouTube which has made fans go ecstatic.
The first half of the video comprises the screen test for a scene which was later omitted sue to its “sexual overtones”. Patricia Smith is seen clad in a nightgown, sleeping on a bed when Dean as Cal climbs into her bedroom to talk about the $3000 he got for his father from his successful bean-growing company. Smith looks beautiful yet stoic in the scene. She lacks the emotions that are expected in a woman whose privacy is suddenly being invaded.
Following Smith’s scene is the screen test featuring Newman’s future wife Joanne Woodward. Although Woodward is a delightful actress, she, like Newman, did not get the part. She was considerably better than Smith while dreamily enacting the famous Ferris wheel sequence when Abra questions whether Aron loved her.
Although Woodward did not get cast, she was definitely far better than Smith. Eventually, much to the executive producer Jack L. Warner’s chagrin, Julie Harris was included. Mercurial and temperamental, Harris was the perfect fit for the role. According to Kazan, casting Harris against Warner’s wishes was the best thing he could have ever done as she was a breeze to work with. He has often called her “one of the most beautiful people I’ve known in my life” and is eternally grateful to her for coaxing and calming James Dean’s rebellious self into getting through with the picture. She was the perfect Abra with the right balance of innocence and sexual awareness complemented by lack of pretentiousness and intense emotive tendencies.
Watch the rare footage, below.