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Cal and Aron Trask are brothers in their late teens who live with their father, the stern and moralistic farmer Adam, in northern California. Aron is well-behaved and respectful and has a pleasant and intelligent girlfriend named Abra, while Cal is a loner and wild boy, often in trouble and deeply tormented. Cal has found out that their mother, who he and Aron believed long dead, is actually a notorious madam in the coastal town of Monterey. Cal hops a train there and follows her around, hoping she'll speak to him. Cal believes he's bad because his mother is bad, and he feels that, like her, he's unloved by his father. In an attempt to win Adam over, Cal secretly goes into business growing beans, a crop whose prices rise at the outset of World War I. Cal wants to earn back the money his father lost on an ill-fated venture to ship lettuce long distances by refrigerated rail car. But just as he is about to give his father the cash as a birthday present, Aron trumps him by announcing his engagement to Abra, a fact even she was unaware of and finds distressing in light of her growing attraction to Cal. Adam is delighted, but his happiness turns bitter when he learns that Cal has made money off what Adam considers war profiteering. He rejects the gift, sending a desperately crushed Cal into an act of revenge that will have tragic consequences but ultimately bring about his redemption.
Director: Elia Kazan
Producer: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Paul Osborn, based on the novel by John Steinbeck
Cinematography: Ted McCord
Editing: Owen Marks
Art Direction: James Basevi, Malcolm Bert
Cast: Julie Harris (Abra), James Dean (Cal Trask), Raymond Massey (Adam Trask), Burl Ives (Sam the Sheriff), Richard Davalos (Aron Trask), Jo Van Fleet (Kate), Albert Dekker (Will Hamilton).
Why EAST OF EDEN is Essential
One way to trace the importance of the film East of Eden might be through its source, a novel by one of America's most famous writers. John Steinbeck wrote nearly 30 books--novels, non-fiction, and short story collections, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for his most acclaimed work, The Grapes of Wrath; he established a reputation for authenticity, a strong sense of place (primarily the coastal towns and rural valleys of Northern California), and a compassionate view of the disenfranchised and struggling, all of which earned him a Nobel Prize near the end of his career in 1962. Yet East of Eden, although a best seller and recognized as his most ambitious and most personal work, was considered far from his best, and while some of his books (excluding Eden) remain on many required reading lists, his critical reputation, decidedly mixed during his life, has diminished considerably since his death. The 1955 film version, based on only the final 80 pages of the sprawling novel, is certainly compelling and powerful, but its melodramatic qualities and heavy-handed biblical parallels have not been looked on with great favor.
As a work by Elia Kazan, East of Eden surely merits attention. Again, Kazan's critical reputation has not held up in the long run, nor was it always the highest during his own life. Even so, there's no doubting his importance to American film and theater. By the time he made this movie, he had already earned a considerable name as an actor and director on the New York stage, a leading figure with the legendary Group Theatre and the highly influential Actors Studio. His award-winning direction of Gentleman's Agreement (1947), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and On the Waterfront (1954) assured his place as an exciting filmmaker with a great talent for getting the best performances from his actors. But with those three films and a number of justly famous stage works behind him, and many more to follow, can East of Eden truly be considered a crowning point of his career?
Neither of these aspects is to be dismissed, of course. Both contributed greatly to the picture's commercial success and its enduring appeal through the years, as did the evocative CinemaScope photography of Ted McCord, the insistent dramatic score of Leonard Rosenman (his first in a distinguished career of film composition), and the acting by a cast of film veterans and stage notables, especially Julie Harris and Jo Van Fleet, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar® for her work. But there's really one overarching reason why we still watch East of Eden with such fascination today, a single factor that qualifies it for "essential" status--the presence of James Dean.
This is not, as many think, Dean's film debut. He had appeared in small roles in a half dozen previous pictures without any kind of impact, but this was his first starring role and the one that secured his iconography as the lost, desperate youth of the 1950s. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) fixed the image for us--the red jacket, jeans, contemporary "delinquent" attitude of both defiance and pain. But East of Eden, although set around World War I, established him in the eyes of American audiences as, in the words of biographer Donald Spoto, "the rebel as poetic antihero, as the misunderstood but vulnerable herald of a new generation--the boy in anguish as a disturbed animal, so needy of love that nothing else has any reality." In an age of apparent conformity and drive to achievement and status, Dean struck a chord with youth who perceived themselves as neglected, ignored, incapable of following the path expected of them. And those not suffering from any such disaffection were simply drawn to the sensitivity and magnetic sensuality they saw in him or projected upon him. Whatever it was--perhaps nothing more than a new spin on the "It" that Elinor Glyn had identified in stars three decades earlier--it was instantaneous. In fact, the idolatry began even before East of Eden was released, thanks to skillful publicity maneuvered by both Dean and the film's public relations flacks, and continues to this day.
It was an exciting and auspicious "debut" with hype and impact equal to that accompanying another Kazan "discovery," Marlon Brando. The awkward movements, rapid changes of mood, the halting difficulty of verbal expression all signaled for audiences of the time a new style, albeit one perhaps too modeled on Brando at first but with an even greater capacity for hurt and self-destruction. Yet even today, the jury is still out on Dean's acting ability. After his violent death in a car accident only a few months after the film's release, even Kazan questioned whether he would have been able to sustain popular interest or if he could have extended his range to grow with age and the changing times. Of course, we'll never know, and that's what adds a greater significance to East of Eden and the two remaining films released after his death, Rebel and Giant (1956, in which he did show signs of growth, even within the identity he had forged). Dean's death at 24 meant he would never have to prove himself further and could remain one of the most immortal icons of the screen.
The most compelling aspect of East of Eden and Dean's work in it, brilliantly tapped by Kazan, is the way it illustrates the magical way movies have of melding a role with the personality of the performer to create something bigger than each contained separately. It worked well for, say, Joan Crawford in her string of melodramas as the spunky poor girl struggling to make her way into the upper crust or John Wayne as the strong, willful man of action. But with Dean, the connection between life and art took on an even greater intensity, so much so that one of Dean's former teachers remarked how much the part he played on screen was so infused with the boy she knew in reality. Kazan immediately recognized in Dean's erratic and difficult behavior the qualities he saw in Cal Trask when the character was still on the page, and after seeing the young actor trying to interact with his own cold and disapproving father, Kazan knew that the story he was telling was alive in his new star. It was a risky decision to use only the last fourth of a highly popular novel as the basis for his story, but thanks to Kazan's exploitation of the deepest connections between Dean and Cal, he got maximum impact out of the novel's most compelling conflict, the desperate attempts of a troubled young man to win his father's love. Dean brought to his performance a level of emotion that would not have been possible through a purely technical approach. That made East of Eden a highly rewarding film then and one that continues to garner our rapt attention.
by Rob Nixon
East of Eden (1955)
Pop Culture 101: EAST OF EDEN
East of Eden has been credited with influencing the movie Hud (1963), which is also about the contentious relationship between a rebellious son and his stern father. Whatever the extent of that influence, it's certainly true that both films fit well within the style and themes of the "anti-hero" films of the 1950s and beyond, exemplified in the performances of James Dean, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and others. Undeniably the most important and durable pop culture influence of the film is simply the presence and image of James Dean, who is still an icon more than 50 years after his death. Dean's phenomenal popularity and the strong identification American youth had with him began immediately upon the release of the film and became a cult after his fatal accident in September 1955. Since then, his image has appeared on t-shirts, posters, stamps, and just about every product conceivable (helping his estate to earn about $5 million a year, according to Forbes magazine). His death guaranteed that his image as the young rebel would remain forever undisturbed.
James Dean has been the main subject of a number of songs and mentioned in countless others, including tunes by The Eagles, The Beach Boys, Chris Isaak, Lady GaGa, Madonna, R.E.M., Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright, and others.
On the sitcom Happy Days, the character of Fonzie has a picture of Dean in his closet next to his mirror. A picture of Dean also appears on Rizzo's wall in the film Grease (1978).
Dean has been the subject of, or a character in, a number of movies (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean , September 30, 1955 ), and filmed biographies have included segments depicting his work on East of Eden. His life was recounted in a 2001 television biographical movie featuring Edward Herrmann as Raymond Massey, Enrico Colantoni as Elia Kazan, and Wendy Benson as Julie Harris. Dean was played by James Franco, one of many stars over the past few decades hailed as "the next James Dean." Some other actors compared to Dean include Martin Sheen, Heath Ledger, and Robert Pattinson. A new film portrait of the actor is set to be released in 2011, with James Preston as Dean.
A famous picture exists of Marlon Brando's visit to the set of East of Eden. Brando smiles broadly for the camera, Julie Harris looks up at him warmly, but Dean, who was a great fan of Brando's, appears tense and awkward. (Kazan later said Dean "was so adoring he seemed shrunken and twisted in misery.") Dean's identification with Brando was very strong, and reportedly after their meeting, he tried to call Brando frequently. In a letter he wrote to a friend during production of East of Eden, he signed off as "Jim (Brando Clift) Dean."
James Dean was reportedly idolized by Elvis Presley.
A Los Angeles newspaper reported in 1965 that plans were in the works for a television series based on the book but that never came to be.
According to an article in Daily Variety in 1967, United Artists was financing a Broadway musical based on the film and held an option to adapt the musical for the screen. The musical, Here's Where I Belong, was directed by record producer, recording artist, and television personality Mitch Miller. An article touting it appeared in Billboard magazine on March 2, 1968 claiming the show would open the following Sunday, but according to Miller's obituaries (August 2010), it closed after one performance. A planned cast album was never released. The part of Cal was played by 31-year-old Walter McGinn, who appeared in several plays, films, and television shows before his untimely death in 1977 at the age of 40. Aron was played by Ken Kercheval, who later gained fame as Cliff Barnes on the TV series Dallas, and Abra was played by Heather MacRae, daughter of stage and screen musical star Gordon MacRae. Song lyrics were written by playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy), and the book was written by Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!), who asked to have his name removed from the credits.
A 1981 eight-hour television miniseries covered the full novel, unlike the film. It was directed by Harvey Hart and starred Timothy Bottoms as Adam Trask, Jane Seymour as Cathy/Kate, Sam Bottoms as Cal, and Hart Bochner as Aron. This adaptation won an Emmy for art direction and Golden Globes for Best Mini-Series and Best Actress (Seymour).
A three-part, nine-hour stage adaptation by Alan Cook, using the full novel, was presented in 1992 as part of that year's National Steinbeck Festival. It has been revived at least twice since then, and a shortened two-part version of Cook's adaptation was presented at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
As of late 2010, a new film version was listed as "in development" for a 2011 release. English director Tom Hooper (TV's John Adams, Prime Suspect) has been mentioned as the director of this adaptation written by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), but none of this has been solidly confirmed.
When East of Eden was released in Germany and Austria, the scenes detailing the growing animosity the people of Salinas feel for German shoemaker Albrecht were heavily edited. In fact, it's not even clear in this version that Albrecht is German.
The references to the biblical story of Cain and Abel are obvious, not least in the title, which is taken from Genesis 4:16, and which says that after slaying his brother Abel, Cain went to live in "the land of Nod, east of Eden." Burl Ives, as the sheriff, quotes this passage after Cal has brought Aron to meet the mother he thought was dead and Aron, in a drunken furor, joins the army to go off to war. Like Cain, Cal's actions are precipitated by God's (not Adam's) rejection of his gift from the soil in favor of Abel's gift of one of his flock animals.
A photo of Richard Davalos (Aron), taken from a shot of him and James Dean on the set of East of Eden, appears on the cover of The Smith's album "Strangeways, Here We Come."
In the alternate history/sci-fi novel Homeward Bound by Harry Turtledove, James Dean does not die in the car crash and survives to make a number of movies, one of which is "Rescuing Private Rainfall," based on the same source material as the real-life Saving Private Ryan (1998).
by Rob Nixon
East of Eden (1955)
The critical and popular buzz for East of Eden, and especially Dean, was high before its release. In January 1955, two months prior to the opening, Look magazine included the young actor in its list of people predicted to become stars, saying he would be "the most dynamic discovery since Marlon Brando." The following month, Vogue mentioned him in a column called "The Next Successes," describing him as "thin, intense, with such strong projection that he is always noticed." The same month, Louella Parsons wrote in Cosmopolitan: "It is what Dean projects on the screen that makes him my pick among the new actors for stardom in 1955. He is a great young actor. I predict a long and brilliant career." Parsons did, however, note that Dean had arrived sloppily dressed and two hours late for their interview and admonished him to drop the "Brando bit."
Kazan was satisfied with the final cut of East of Eden, but the studio insisted on a preview. The balcony of the theater, he later said, was full of "kids," and he was stunned by the response. The moment Dean appeared on screen, the audience went crazy. "The moment he came on the screen, they began to screech, they began to holler and yell," he said. "Every move he made...it was a landslide." Kazan just thought, "Geez, is he that good?" It occurred to him that even though the movie was set around World War I, Dean had struck a chord with the youth of the 1950s. "It was the way kids felt toward their fathers at the time," he said. Kazan made no changes to the picture (although he never liked previews and insisted he wouldn't have made any changes regardless of the response).
East of Eden premiered on March 9, 1955, at New York's Astor Theater. The premiere was a $150-per-ticket benefit for the Actor's Studio, and some famous students and alumni served as ushers and ticket takers, including Eva Marie Saint and Marilyn Monroe. Dean did not show up for the televised premiere, which angered Warner Brothers.
Upon its release, East of Eden pulled in $5 million dollars at the U.S. box office alone, and Warners was swamped with requests for photos of Dean. At nearly $6 million overall, it was the tenth highest-grossing film of the year.
Elia Kazan had deep personal connections to East of Eden. He felt it was about his own difficult relationship with his stern and disapproving father. He later said it proved to be prophetic because a few years later, right before his father died, the two became friendly for the first time in Kazan's life, just as Cal and Adam do while Adam is dying.
Kazan thought the scene where Cal convinces Aron to go see his mother was the film's biggest lie, not only because he didn't believe Aron would agree to go but also because it would have taken them much longer to do that than the story indicates. "But there's a basic truth about scenes like that," Kazan told interviewer Jeff Young. "If an audience wants to see something, they'll forgive you a lot, but that was a false thing."
"I thought it was a good picture, though not my favorite." - Elia Kazan, Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films by Jeff Young (Newmarket Press, 2000)
"I had another great performance from Jo Van Fleet. People have forgotten about Jo Van Fleet now, she's neglected. But she was a great actress." - Elia Kazan
"Raymond Massey's performance is very stiff, very unyielding, very moralistic, very stern. But that was Ray. He was in life a stiff." - Elia Kazan
According to Julie Harris, James Dean was interested in filmmaking and would most likely have become a director had he lived.
Columnist Hedda Hopper led a campaign for Dean to receive a posthumous Honorary Academy Award.
After his death, Dean's fans frequently wrote Jim Backus, the actor who played his father in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) asking for personal recollections, and Dean's grandparents said they averaged 30 mourners a week visiting their home in Fairmount, Indiana.
James Dean's former teacher Adeline Brookshire said that when she saw the film, she felt that Dean and the character he portrayed were one: "his funny little laugh that ripples with the slightest provocation, his quick, jerky walks and actions, his sudden change from frivolity to gloom...."
Julie Harris has made many film and television appearances, but her most notable work has always been on stage. She is the most honored performer in Tony Award history with ten nominations and five wins, including Best Actress awards for I Am a Camera (a non-musical version of the story told in Cabaret, 1972), The Lark, Forty Carats, The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, and as Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst. She was given a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award in 2002. Harris has also been nominated 11 times for Emmy Awards and won three of those.
Canadian-born Raymond Massey began acting in 1929 with more than 50 films to his credit. He also worked frequently on television, including a stint on the hit drama series Dr. Kildare as the wise Dr. Gillespie. He played Abraham Lincoln four times both in movies and on television, and again in the stage production of Abe Lincoln in Illinois. The 1940 film version of that play earned him an Academy Award nomination. Two of Massey's children, Daniel and Anna, followed him into acting and appeared in a number of films, primarily in England.
East of Eden was the film debut of Richard Davalos (Aron), although he had appeared previously on television. Because he had the far less showy and less central role of the "good" brother and did not get the same star build-up prior to the picture's release, Davalos was generally overlooked by audiences and critics. His subsequent film roles were less important, although he has continued to appear in movies and on television. His other film roles include I Died a Thousand Times (1955), a remake of High Sierra (1941); Cool Hand Luke (1967); and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983). He is the grandfather of Alexa Davalos, who played Andromeda in Clash of the Titans (2010). Davalos won the Theatre World Award for his performance in Arthur Miller's A Memory of Two Mondays and A View from the Bridge, a double bill that opened on Broadway the night before James Dean's death.
East of Eden was also the feature film debut for Jo Van Fleet. She had made several prior television appearances and had a successful stage career when Kazan tapped her for the role of Kate. Just before filming East of Eden, she won the Best Supporting Actress Tony Award for her performance in The Trip to Bountiful with Lillian Gish.
Folk singer Burl Ives started his film career playing a singing cowboy inSmoky (1946). He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in The Big Country (1958), released the same year as his most famous role as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Ives had created that part on Broadway in 1955 under Elia Kazan's direction shortly after completing East of Eden.
East of Eden gave many artists their starts. It was also the first film role for Lois Smith, who has made close to 50 films so far and dozens of television appearances, including a guest spot on Dr. Kildare with Raymond Massey and recently as the grandmother on HBO's hit vampire series True Blood. She won a National Society of Film Critics Supporting Actress Award for her role in Five Easy Pieces (1970) as Jack Nicholson's sister.
Timothy Carey, who plays Joe, the bouncer at Kate's brothel, later played a preacher in the 1981 television mini-series version of the story. Carey was a unique character actor whose distinctive looks and erratic performance style often got him cast as psychos and heavies. His mumbling acting in this film so incensed Kazan that the director physically attacked him on the set and later redubbed all his dialogue with another actor.
East of Eden was the first film score written by Leonard Rosenman, a serious composer who was recommended for the job by his good friend James Dean. He also wrote the music for Dean's next movie, Rebel Without a Cause, and had a busy career until his death in 2008. He received four Academy Award nominations for his scores, and won for Bound for Glory (1976) and Barry Lyndon (1975). He also won Emmys for the scores of the television movies Sybil (1976) and Friendly Fire (1979). He also composed the music for September 30, 1955 (1977), about a young student who goes into a tragic tailspin when his idol, James Dean, dies.
The nurse in the final scenes of East of Eden is played by Barbara Baxley, who is probably best remembered for her role as Pearl in Robert Altman's Nashville (1975). This was her feature film debut.
Memorable Quotes from EAST OF EDEN
OPENING TITLE CARD: In Northern California, the Santa Lucia Mountains, dark and brooding, stand like a wall between the peaceful agricultural town of Salinas and the rough and tumble fishing port of Monterey, fifteen miles away.
CAL (James Dean): Any law against following around the town, uh, madam, whatever you call it?
ADAM (Raymond Massey): I'm at my rope's end with that boy. I don't understand him, I never have.
ABRA (Julie Harris): Why is he so alone all the time?
ARON (Richard Davalos): He wants to be.
ABRA: No one wants to be alone.
ABRA: When he looks at you, sort of like an animal. I don't know, he scares me.
ADAM: You have no repentance. You're bad, through and through bad!
CAL: You're right. I am bad. I knew that for a long time
ADAM: You can make of yourself anything you want. It's up to you. A man has a choice. That's where he's different from an animal.
CAL: (to his mother) Will you let me talk to you?
CAL: (referring to his mother) She ain't no good, and I ain't no good. I knew there was a reason.
SHERIFF (Burl Ives): After she left him, he died. He walked around but he died.
CAL: He must've done something to hurt her.
KATE (Jo Van Fleet): Your father. He's the purest man there is, isn't he? He thought he had me all tied up with his purity. Now I give you five thousand dollars, the money I made, to save him his purity--hnnh! If you don't think that's funny, you better not go to college.
CAL: Someday he's gonna know who his real son is.
ADAM: I sign my name and boys go out and some die and some live helpless without arms and legs. Not one will come back untorn. Do you think I could take a profit from that? I don't want the money, Cal, I couldn't take it.
CAL: You keep on forgiving just like you did with Mom, but you never loved me and you never loved her. You never loved anybody.
CAL: Mother, this is your son, Aron. Aron is everything that's good, mother. Aron, say hello to your mother.
ADAM: Where is Aron?
CAL: I don't know. I'm not my brother's keeper.
ABRA: Excuse me, Mr. Trask, for daring to speak to you this way, but it's awful not to be loved. It's the worst thing in the world. ... It makes you mean, and violent, and cruel. And that's the way Cal has always felt, all his life. I know you didn't mean it to be that way, but it's true. You never gave him your love. You never asked for his. You never asked him for one thing. ... You have to give him some sign that you love him or else he'll never be a man. He'll just keep on feeling guilty and alone unless you release him. Please help him. I love Cal, Mr. Trask, and I want him to be whole and strong, and you're the only one who can do it.
CAL: Man has a choice, and it's choice that makes him a man.
Compiled by Rob Nixon
East of Eden (1955)
John Steinbeck was already one of America's major authors when he published his sprawling novel East of Eden in 1952. He had won the Pulitzer Prize for his story of a desperate Dust Bowl family, The Grapes of Wrath, successfully adapted to film by John Ford in 1940. A hallmark of Steinbeck's best-selling books is a strong sense of period and place, especially California's Salinas Valley where he grew up and where East of Eden is set. His son Tom said much of his popularity can be credited to his compassionate views of his characters and their socio-political situations. He once told his son that the purpose of writing is to reconnect people to their humanity. Although some of the characters in East of Eden behave badly, either through malicious intentions or sheer ignorance of the consequences of their actions, Steinbeck infused the novel with the notion that humans have the capacity to choose their path in life and change the essence of who they are.
Steinbeck very much wanted to write a story that was deeply rooted in the region where he grew up and to impart to his readers in great detail a feel for what the Salinas Valley was like in the early 20th century.
The novel East of Eden tells the story of two families, the Hamiltons (modeled closely on his own family) and the Trasks. The early part of the book focuses on the brothers Adam and Charles Trask, and their conflict over Cathy Ames, a monstrously manipulative and dangerous young woman (said to be based at least in part on Steinbeck's second wife Gwen). Adam marries Cathy, and shortly after she gives birth to twin boys, she shoots him in the shoulder and runs away. The story then follows two main threads: Adam establishing himself as a wealthy landowner and raising his boys Cal and Aron with the help of his highly educated Cantonese servant Lee, and Cathy moving to Monterey where, now known as Kate, she becomes a prostitute and, through murder and manipulation, the owner of the town's most successful brothel. As the boys grow, Aron becomes the apple of his father's eye while Cal remains a restless loner, convinced he is a bad seed.
Tom Steinbeck said his father wrote much of the book from his own life, both his anxieties about being a father to two boys and his difficult and complex relationship with his own financially strapped father. In addition, John Steinbeck dedicated the book to his two sons.
Tom Steinbeck said East of Eden is a cautionary tale, the type his father favored because he could illustrate for people situations similar to what they might be going through and, by showing how his characters dealt with things, help them work out problems they were facing. "That's what storytelling was for," Tom said. "That's how my father thought literature was functional."
Steinbeck became good friends with director Elia Kazan when they worked on Viva Zapata! (1952), for which Steinbeck wrote the screenplay. Kazan read East of Eden when it was still in galleys. He took the book directly to Warner Brothers and made his easiest sale ever. Thanks to the hit he previously brought Warners, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), as well as the critical and commercial success of films for other studios, among them Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and On the Waterfront (1954), Jack Warner was willing to allow Kazan his pick of projects. Kazan said he told Warner he wanted to film the new Steinbeck book, to which the studio head replied, "Okay, let's go to lunch." Warner gave him free rein over budget, cast, and final edit. Steinbeck was paid $125,000 for the film rights to East of Eden, plus 25 percent of the profits.
Kazan was attracted to the story because he also had a strained relationship with his own father, a stern and unforgiving man, like Adam Trask in the novel, who never really approved of his son's path in life. Kazan also wanted to make a film that was an attack on the puritanical point of view embodied by Adam Trask.
Kazan later said he didn't like the first part of the book very much. It would also have been unwieldy to adapt the multi-generational story. Around this same time, the director had been thinking about the importance of unity in a work of art and reflected on screenwriter John Howard Lawson's notion that unity comes from the climax. Kazan decided to focus on only the final section of the novel dealing with the conflict between Cal and his father and brother and had to approach the thin-skinned Steinbeck gently and tactfully about making changes to the story. He also had to approach Steinbeck with his plan to bring in another writer to work on the adaptation with Kazan. The author genuinely liked and trusted Kazan and allowed him to proceed without interference.
Kazan chose Paul Osborn over Steinbeck to write the screenplay. Osborn was a successful playwright, author of the fantasy melodrama On Borrowed Time (filmed in 1939) and the screenwriter responsible for The Yearling (1946), Portrait of Jennie (1948), and other films.
The character of Lee, the Trasks' philosophical house servant was eliminated. A greater focus was placed on Abra, who became the mouthpiece for the notion that there is a better way to live than the years-old conflicts that plague the Trask household.
Kazan credited Osborn with achieving the biblical quality Steinbeck was aiming for, suggesting Osborn might have been more in tune with this because his father was a minister.
Initially Kazan thought he might cast Marlon Brando, with whom he had made Streetcar and Waterfront, in the role of Cal. Early in 1954, while they were still working on the script, Paul Osborn suggested to Kazan that he go see a young actor named James Dean, attracting much attention for his small role in Andre Gide's The Immoralist on the New York stage. Kazan was familiar with Dean from the Actors Studio, the famous theatrical training ground Kazan had founded. The two had even worked briefly on a small project there. Kazan didn't think much of Dean but, responding to a quality he thought might be right for the part of Cal, decided to call him in to the Warner Brothers office. He said Dean just sat there surly and unresponsive. Unable to carry on an articulate conversation, Dean offered Kazan a ride on his motorcycle. It was a risky and harrowing experience Kazan regretted agreeing to, but he also realized right then that he had his Cal. He sent Dean to meet Steinbeck. The author's reply after the meeting was that he didn't like Dean personally but "He's it!" Dean gave notice to the producers of The Immoralist and was out of the play in two weeks.
Kazan tested Paul Newman for the part of the "good" brother, Aron. Newman didn't get the role, but his playful and intimate screen test with Dean can be seen on DVD releases of the film.Osborn finished the final draft of the screenplay on May 17, 1954. Newman's future wife, Joanne Woodward, tested for the part of Abra.
For the role of Aron, Kazan tested Richard Davalos, an unknown who had appeared in two TV shows and was working as a theater usher between gigs. Davalos tested with Dean in a scene that was later cut from the film. Again, the test and the deleted scene can be seen on DVDs. It has been rumored the scene was cut because it was too homoerotic. That may or may not be the reason for its deletion, but the erotic quality is in evidence in the surviving footage.
Kazan also went to the Actors Studio for other principal parts. Kazan had worked with Julie Harris on a play before East of Eden. She was already a respected stage performer at 28 and had received a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her film debut, The Member of the Wedding (1952), a role she originated on Broadway. As a result, she was top-billed in the part of Abra, Aron's girlfriend who comes to have strong feelings for Cal. East of Eden was also the first film for Jo Van Fleet, a 40-year-old actress who had appeared frequently on stage and television prior to this. She was cast for the part of Kate, the boys' wayward mother.
Kazan opted for a contrast of acting styles with screen veteran Raymond Massey in the role of the father, Adam Trask. Massey was an old-school actor who had little patience for the Method taught at the Actors Studio. That contrast and antagonism would prove useful during filming.
by Rob Nixon
East of Eden (1955)
The principal photography on East of Eden began in May 1954. In addition to substantial studio work for interiors and such, the production also traveled to the Salinas-Monterey area and the northern California town of Mendocino for location work.
Steinbeck stayed away from the set during production. His son Tom has said that Steinbeck felt it was Elia Kazan's movie and not his and that he didn't want to be an intimidating factor to the director and cast. "He'd bend over backwards to help if he thought you were going in the right direction, and he thought Kazan was," Tom said. "They worked very well together."
When they first arrived in Los Angeles to begin production, Kazan accompanied James Dean to visit his estranged father, who was living there at the time. He witnessed first hand how badly the father treated Dean and how much the boy wanted to please him. As he got to know Dean better, Kazan saw how this relationship had instilled in him a great deal of anger because of frustrated love, the key to the character of Cal. "It was the most apt piece of casting I've ever done in my life."
Before shooting began on East of Eden, Kazan sent Dean off to Palm Springs to gain some weight and get some sun so that he looked like a "real" farm boy. Dean hated getting a tan, having his hair cut, and drinking a pint of cream a day to put on pounds.
Dean's wild behavior and late night carousing worried Kazan. At first, he arranged for Dean to share an apartment with Richard Davalos. When that didn't work out, Kazan put him up in a dressing room on the Warner lot and moved into the adjoining room to keep an eye on his star.
Kazan denied rumors that he didn't like Dean: "You can't not like a guy with that much pain in him....You know how a dog will be mean and snarl at you, then you pat him, and he's all over you with affection? That's the way Dean was." Kazan did intervene sternly, however, when Dean started to feel his power as a hotly emerging star and treated crew members disrespectfully.
Kazan gave Dean full rein to approach the role as he saw fit, and encouraged any emotions, however difficult, brought up by the similarities between actor and character. He was impressed by Dean's willingness to take risks. "He'd do anything to be good. He was way open."
It was Dean's idea to do the little running dance in the bean field, and Kazan said he kissed him for that valuable contribution. He also noted that the far more contained Marlon Brando would never have been able to do a scene like that, "but Dean was actually like a kid."
Kazan noted that Dean's tension and shyness always manifested itself physically, so he allowed the actor to use contorted, awkward postures to convey the character. "It was almost psychotic. He was exactly like the people you see in insane asylums."
In order to feel as uncomfortable as possible in the Ferris wheel scene, Dean refused to urinate the entire day until the sequence was completed. Dean also refused to play a scene with Julie Harris on a pitched roof. Kazan overcame his reluctance by getting the actor drunk.
In the original take of the roof scene, Dean crawled through the window into Harris's bedroom where he crouches beside her while she sleeps, fondling her slipper like a fetishist. That part was cut from the film, as was another highly eroticized scene between the two brothers in their room.
Dean hated being made up and, according to Richard Davalos, they would run into the bathroom at various intervals to rub off a little make-up at a time. "I don't think we had any make-up on at the end of the day."
Davalos said that with Dean's help he got so into the role of the brother that it took him two years to get over it. The two behaved together off set just like they did in the story. When they shared a small apartment for a time, Davalos said, they became Aron and Cal "to the teeth. It crept into our social life. He would do something and I would reject him, and he would follow me down the street about twenty paces behind."
Davalos said the most difficult scene for him was when Dean as Cal hits him after an argument. Dean didn't really hit him, of course, but the emotions felt so real Davalos believed Dean really did hate him. He left the set after the take and cried "for about four hours" until Julie Harris had to calm him down.
Several cast members reported that Dean's emotions overtook him so strongly he would frequently cry. Kazan usually just let those moments pass before resuming shooting, but he did leave one of Dean's breakdowns in--the scene in which Cal is crushed by his father's rejection of the money he earned for him.
Julie Harris found Dean very exciting to work with. "He was always inventing; you never knew what was coming. You had to listen, watch; you had to be there." She found him exciting and highly imaginative and was impressed with the way he studied music with composer Leonard Rosenman and played Bach on his recorder alone in his dressing room.
Tom Steinbeck said Raymond Massey looked down his nose at everyone: "Anyone he hadn't done rep with wasn't worth working with."
Massey was especially put off by Dean's acting and behavior on the set. Dean's improvisations and line changes drove the older actor to distraction, and he often complained bitterly to Kazan about it. Kazan would promise to talk to Dean but then let the younger man do it his own way and keep the cameras rolling to capture Massey's frustration and anger, such as his aversion to Dean's wailing, tearful embrace in the scene where Adam refuses the money Cal has earned for him (the script had called for Dean only to turn and walk away). This was how Kazan effectively heightened the conflict between father and son. "You think I'd do anything to stop that antagonism?" he later said. "No, I increased it. It was the central thing, the hatred they felt for each other--that's precious!" No wonder Massey hated the way Dean would keep everyone waiting before a take while he went off by himself to prepare.
The conflict between the two actors came to a boiling point in the scene where Cal angers his father because of the way he reads from the Bible. Kazan, who found Massey to be a rather rigid and unemotional "stiff" off screen and on, wasn't happy with the way it was going, so he took Dean aside and whispered some suggestions. Dean came back and read the Old Testament passages interlaced with the most offensive curses and crude sexual expressions. The very religious Massey became incensed, storming off the set and threatening to call his lawyers. But before the outburst, Kazan was able to capture the heightened anger he was going for.
Even though he appreciated the tension that came through on the screen, Kazan later said he didn't do justice to the character of Adam by hiring Massey, who he said "had only one color."
Despite the annoyances and difficulties he faced making East of Eden, Raymond Massey called the role of Adam Trask one of the best parts he ever had on screen and one of the few three-dimensional characters he played in movies.
Kazan thought Jo Van Fleet was brilliant, capable of taking analytical direction and turning it into completely spontaneous emotion.
Kazan later called Julie Harris "one of the most beautiful people I've known in my life" and credited her with getting James Dean through the picture. Kazan appreciated her voice, her lack of pretension, her intensity, and what he saw as the perfect combination of purity and sexual awareness the role demanded.
Harris found Kazan easy to work with and very stimulating. "He adored actors because he was an actor. He was exciting to be with and got everyone excited about what they were doing."
Lonny Chapman, who played Roy the mechanic, said Kazan told him on a Monday they would film the scene that Friday in which Roy explains the new Model T car to Adam and instructed him to spend the week learning absolutely everything about the car. "He wanted the actor to contribute as much as the director."
Kazan had high praise for a woman in the wardrobe department who was a great help to him in the town parade segment. Anna Hill Johnstone did extensive research and then handled hiring the extras, getting them costumed, arranging the floats, and other important tasks.
Shooting in the fairly new CinemaScope process proved to be a challenge for Kazan, but he was lucky to have a good working relationship with longtime Warner Brothers cinematographer Ted McCord. The studio camera department gave him instructions up front to keep the camera at least six feet from the actors, which rankled Kazan. So he and McCord made some tests to see how close they could push in. It caused the side edges of the screen to appear a bit curved, but Kazan decided to use that distortion for dramatic expression. McCord suggested that, as long as they were distorting anyway, they should tip the camera angle in certain shots. This technique was used a few times, most prominently in the tense dinner table scene in which Cal and his father fight over the boy's antagonistic reading of Bible passages.
Kazan also strove to achieve dramatic effects with color, particularly by emphasizing green throughout. He later claimed to have innovated the use of the wide screen by placing objects in the foreground to cut around.
Kazan was proud of his use of CinemaScope to get what he thought was the best shot in East of Eden, the train pulling away with all the lettuce on it. In the carefully calibrated shot, the train disappears behind the railroad station and then reappears much smaller, going off toward the distant mountains. "It's a perfect shot because it shows that their hope is going off," He said. "It's sentimental and still emotional." Kazan also liked the shot of Cal and Abra after his father's rejection, standing behind the willow tree, audible but with only their feet showing.
Kazan had to coordinate the filming of the bean field scene with a local farmer so that the crop would be exactly three inches high when the shoot began. Then the sprouts (in reality mustard plants) had to be replanted every five minutes since they would wilt and discolor under lights.
Instead of using rear-projection process shots for the scene on the Ferris wheel, Kazan rented a real one from a carnival, set it up on the Warner Brothers back lot, and borrowed an additional crane, one used by Disney on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), to hoist lights, sound equipment and crew members up to capture the intimate romantic scene.
Leonard Rosenman was hired to do the score on Dean's recommendation. The two men were friends back in New York, and Dean told Kazan to listen to a score Rosenman had done for a stage production, The Women of Trachis. Kazan was impressed, but Rosenman, a serious composer of orchestral music, was nervous about scoring a film. His friend Leonard Bernstein, who made his film composing debut on Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954), encouraged him.
Contrary to the usual practice of composing the music after the film was shot, Rosenman actually wrote some of it beforehand. Snippets of his score are heard being hummed by Julie Harris early on in the story.
East of Eden wrapped on August 9, 1954, after ten weeks of shooting. On that last day, Julie Harris went to James Dean's trailer to say goodbye because she was not sure she would attend the wrap party. She found Dean crying because the production was over. "It was so moving. It was his first picture [sic], it meant so much, and now it was over."
by Rob Nixon
East of Eden (1955)
Elia Kazan was at the peak of his career in 1954. He had already won two Tony Awards for his direction of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman on Broadway, and successfully transferred his stage production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire to Hollywood, helping to make a screen star of Marlon Brando. He had already won an Oscar® for Best Director (for Gentleman's Agreement ) and his most recent film, On the Waterfront (1954, his third with Brando), was a popular and critical success on the way to winning eight Oscars® (including Kazan's second for Best Director). He was in a position to pick any project of his choosing. He chose John Steinbeck's new novel, the sprawling bestseller East of Eden. What he wound up making (at the suggestion of screenwriter Paul Osborn, and with blessing of Steinbeck) was the final act of the novel, a Cain and Abel tale set in 1917 California. Cal and Aron are the sons of Adam, a single father running a vegetable farm in the Salinas valley. It was the story of the good, upstanding son (Aron) and the black sheep (Cal), a frustrated, troubled boy who simply wants his father's love and favor but allows his jealousy to lead to a terrible conflict. In later interviews, Kazan repeatedly described the film as autobiographical, a reflection of his own frustrated relationship with his father and young brother, who he believed his father always preferred. "The image of the boy is very clear to me," he told interviewer Jeff Young decades later." I knew a boy like that, in other words, myself."
For all the prestige of Steinbeck and fame of Kazan, the big news of East of Eden (1955) was Kazan's discovery, a young New York actor named James Dean making, for all intents and purposes, his feature debut in the lead role. Kazan had originally hoped to cast Brando as Cal. It was screenwriter Paul Osborn who, after seeing him on Broadway in a small role in The Immoralist, suggested Dean for the part. Kazan was unimpressed with him as an actor but, as he later wrote in his autobiography, "I called Paul and told him this kid actually was Cal in East of Eden; no sense in looking further or 'reading' him." He sent Dean to meet Steinbeck, who "thought Dean a snotty kid. I said that was irrelevant; wasn't he Cal? John said he sure as hell was, and that was that."
Elia Kazan had been very active in the Group Theater and the Actor's Studio, where Dean himself had been training, and was a proponent of the Stanislavsky "Method," from which the term "method acting" arose. Kazan decided to shy away from Hollywood stars for his young leads and instead cast them out of the Actor's Studio, most notably Richard Davalos, making his feature debut as the "good" brother Aron, and Julie Harris as Aron's girlfriend Abra, with whom Cal is in love. She had earned an Oscar® nomination for The Member of the Wedding (1952), her only previous film appearance, and came away with top billing on the film. "Her face was the most compassionate face of any girl I had ever seen, and I stressed it," he told Michel Ciment in the 1974 interview book Kazan on Kazan. "I contrasted her face and Massey's, which was a piece of wood." Raymond Massey, a stage and screen veteran from a more traditional school of acting, was cast as Cal's father, an almost sanctimonious figure who nonetheless lives up to the letter of his moral convictions, and the contrast in styles helped exaggerate the generational conflict with the looser Method players. Folksinger turned actor Burl Ives was cast as the sheriff, a plainspoken authority figure with a strong sense of justice and a paternal affection for Cal, and Tony Award winner Jo Van Fleet, also from the Actor's Studio, made her screen debut as Kate, the madam of the local brothel in Monterey. Kazan considered another young student of the Actor's Studio, Paul Newman, for the role of Aron, and even made a screen test of the two. Newman's big break, ironically, came playing Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), a role Dean was set to play before his fatal car wreck.
Yet it is James Dean that everyone remembers. Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift had helped popularize method acting in Hollywood, but James Dean brought an entirely new and fresh perspective to it. East of Eden is set in 1917 but Dean feels completely modern and contemporary, a boy not quite comfortable in his body. He's never still, constantly fidgeting or shrugging or pacing. He drops his eyes in uncomfortable moments and slips into giggles when conversations become too personal. In the opening scenes, as he stalks Kate through back alleys to her brothel on the outskirts of town, he runs with his hands jammed into his pockets, as if to stop them from acting on their own. And sure enough, when he takes them out of his pockets while pacing in front of her house, they instinctively pick up a rock and throw it at her window. It's a strikingly articulate portrait of an inarticulate man-boy; you can practically hear his mind whirring just by observing his body language. In many ways, this is the first take on the troubled teen that he immortalized in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
On the set of East of Eden, Dean could be moody and unpredictable, not to mention unprepared. He often didn't know his lines, and even when he did, he would deviate from the script on successive takes. It frustrated Massey to no end and the two clashed constantly. Kazan used their mutual antipathy to help define the screen relationship. "This was an antagonism I didn't try to heal; I aggravated it," he wrote in his autobiography. "The screen was alive with precisely what I wanted: they detested each other." Kazan credits Julie Harris for helping nurture Dean's performance by patiently adjusting her own to his changing takes.
It was Kazan's first color film and his first CinemaScope production. He handles both magnificently. He shoots in longer takes, which gives the film the slower pace of an older age and draws the eye to Dean's restlessness and nervous spontaneity, which stands out against the calm and control of the rest of cast. "His body was much more expressive, actually, in free movement, than Brando's it had so much tension to it," observed Kazan. "Dean had a very vivid body; and I did play a lot with it in long shots." The exteriors set the drama against the expanse of the coast for the Monterey scenes and the backdrop of massive fields ringed by mountains in the Salinas scenes. Bright daylight exteriors of golden fields and blue skies are contrasted with darker interiors and nighttime scenes as the drama turns darker and more troubled. One stunning shot has Dean and Harris almost disappear, swallowed up in the hanging branches of a willow tree as Cal attempts to flee the pain of rejection and Abra tries to calm and console him. When Aron calls him out, Cal emerges fierce and vengeful and Kazan's camera, for the first time, moves to reflect Cal's rage. As Cal pumps away on a rope swing, taunting Aron with hints that their "dead" mother may really be alive, the camera tilts and cants to follow the overpowering energy of his movement. It's like an earthquake in a film that has been, until now, visually stable, and it anticipates just how violently his actions will destroy the foundation of their lives.
East of Eden was an enormous success, and not just for launching the cult of James Dean. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for James Dean, who had died in a car wreck before the nominations were even announced (it was only the second posthumous nomination in Oscar® history, but the first of three for Dean). Only Jo Van Fleet took the gold, however, for Best Supporting Actress.
Producer: Elia Kazan
Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Paul Osborn; John Steinbeck (novel "East of Eden")
Cinematography: Ted McCord
Art Direction: Malcolm Bert
Music: Leonard Rosenman
Film Editing: Owen Marks
Cast: Julie Harris (Abra), James Dean (Cal Trask), Raymond Massey (Adam Trask), Burl Ives (Sam the Sheriff), Richard Davalos (Aron Trask), Jo Van Fleet (Kate), Albert Dekker (Will Hamilton), Lois Smith (Anne), Harold Gordon (Gustav Albrecht), Nick Dennis (Rantani).
by Sean Axmaker
East of Eden (1955)
Awards & Honors
Academy Awards honors for East of Eden: Jo Van Fleet (Best Supporting Actress); nominated for Best Actor (Dean, the second performer and first male to be nominated posthumously), Director (Elia Kazan), Screenplay (Paul Osborn)
Other awards: Best Picture (Golden Globes), Best Dramatic Film (Cannes Film Festival), Best Foreign Language Film (Blue Ribbon and Kinema Junpo awards/Japan), Best American Film (Bodil Awards/Denmark), Best Foreign Director (Cinema Writers Circle/Spain), Best Foreign Actor (Dean; Jussi Awards/Finland)
Other nominations: Best Film from Any Source, Best Foreign Actor (Dean), Most Promising Newcomer (Van Fleet) (British Academy); Palme d'Or (Cannes); Outstanding Directorial Achievement (Directors Guild of America), Best Written American Drama (Writers Guild of America)
Critic Reviews: EAST OF EDEN
"In one respect, it is brilliant. The use that Mr. Kazan has made of CinemaScope and color in capturing expanse and mood in his California settings is almost beyond compare. Some of Mr. Kazan's interiors--especially his final scene in the bedroom of the father, where the old man is dying of a stroke--have a moodiness, too, that moves the viewer with their strongly emotional overtones. The director gets more into this picture with the scenery than with the characters. For the stubborn fact is that the people who move about in this film are not sufficiently well established to give point to the anguish through which they go, and the demonstrations of their torment are perceptibly stylized and grotesque. Especially is this true of James Dean in the role of the confused and cranky Cal. This young actor, who is here doing his first big screen stint, is a mass of histrionic gingerbread. He scuffs his feet, he whirls, he pouts, he sputters, he leans against walls, he rolls his eyes, he swallows his words, he ambles slack-kneed--all like Marlon Brando used to do. Never have we seen a performer so clearly follow another's style. Mr. Kazan should be spanked for permitting him to do such a sophomoric thing. Whatever there might be of reasonable torment in this youngster is buried beneath the clumsy display. ... there is energy and intensity but little clarity and emotion in this film. It is like a great, green iceberg: mammoth and imposing but very cold." - Bosley Crowther, New York Times, March 10, 1955
"It is a tour de force for the director's penchant for hard-hitting forays with life. It is no credit to Kazan that James Dean seems required to play his lead character as though he were straight out of a Marlon Brando mold, although he has a basic appeal that manages to get through to the viewer despite the heavy burden of carboning another's acting style in voice and mannerisms. ... Julie Harris gives her particular style to an effective portrayal of the girl." - Variety, 1955
"One of the best films of this or any year, a film which gives a deeply disturbing insight into what psychologists call the feeling of rejection." - Library Journal, 1955
"They've taken the novel and stuffed it into a tight little psychoanalytical pigeonhole--a father problem." - Time magazine, 1955
"Kazan lets his characters unfold slowly, and when they finally erupt into anger or violence, you know exactly why." - William Zinsser, New York Herald Tribune, 1955
"Even if Jimmy Dean weren't a hometown boy, East of Eden still would be one of the most powerful productions ever released by Warner Brothers." - Fairmount [Indiana] News
"Kazan's compelling, if emphatic, realization of this psychological situation uses physical and spatial connections or barriers, and that very engrossing cinematic activity--watching. ... The place and period are convincing and integral. ...The acting is very striking. ... Above all, the imagery is like vibrato in music: Composition, movement, and color constitute feeling...." - David Thomson, America in the Dark (William Morrow and Co., 1977)
"An amazingly high-strung, feverishly poetic movie.... As the romantic, alienated young hero, James Dean is decorated with all sorts of charming gaucheries; he's sensitive, defenseless, hurting. ... Dean seems to go just about as far as anybody can in acting misunderstood. ... It's far from a dull movie, but it's certainly a very strange one. ... Julie Harris...gives a memorably lyric performance." - Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (Henry Holt and Co., 1984)
"East of Eden is Kazan's best film: partly because of Dean's prickly hesitation; partly because the absorbing clash of acting styles (Dean and Raymond Massey) suited Steinbeck's high-class weepie novel; and also because CinemaScope seemed to stimulate Kazan into treating his camera with some of the emphatic care he lavished on actors." -- David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000)
"Kazan's adaptation of Steinbeck's novel, about the rivalry between two teenage boys for the love of their father, is as long-winded and bloated with biblical allegory as the original. That said, it's a film of great performances, atmospheric photography, and a sure sense of period and place." - Geoff Andrew, Time Out Film Guide, 2000
"Not only one of Kazan's richest films and Dean's first significant role, it is also arguably the actor's best performance." - Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times, 2005
by Rob Nixon