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An overture precedes the film. The opening title card reads: "John Steinbeck's East of Eden." The following written prologue appears after the opening credits: "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."
As noted in the Variety review, only the latter part of John Steinbeck's six-hundred page novel is depicted in the film. One of the most notable changes from book to script is the deletion of the "Trasks'" philosophical house servant, "Lee," from the film version. As noted in reviews of both the novel and the film, and as hinted at in the film, the part of the novel depicted in the picture, the relationship between "Cal" and "Aron," is a reworking of the Biblical story of "Cain and Abel." According to a letter Steinbeck wrote to Elia Kazan and his wife, dated July 30, 1951, the title was inspired by Genesis 4:16, which says that Cain went to "dwell in the land of Nod to the east of Eden."
A scene of historical interest shows the character "Roy," a graduate of the "Chicago Auto School," giving step-by-step directions to the Trasks on how to start the engine of an automobile of that time period. In another scene, men preparing for war do exercises in a gymnasium, accompanied by a piano. "Abra" and Cal's adventures at the carnival include a walk past distorted or "funhouse" mirrors.
According to a May 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item, director Elia Kazan cast New York actors James Dean and Julie Harris, known primarily for stage work at the time, then spent two weeks in New York to fill the other roles. Although their appearance in the film has not been confirmed, Hollywood Reporter news items add Lidia Guerrero, Jack Henderson and Joe Berry, Jr. to the cast. According to modern sources, Paul Newman was considered for the role of Cal.
An October 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that studio music department head Ray Heindorf would be composer and music director of the film, but his contribution to the final film has not been determined. A June 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Leonard Rosenman would compose the score for the film and he is the only composer listed in the onscreen credits. According to a Film Music article, Rosenman said that, contrary to the usual procedure in which the score is written and recorded after filming, some of the music was written before the corresponding scenes were shot, in order that "the music is inextractable from the dramatic framework of the whole project." In one scene, characters Aron and Abra hum one of the musical themes of the film.
Portions of the film were shot in the Mendocino and Salinas Valley, CA areas, according to May and June 1954 Hollywood Reporter news items. Although an April 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Kazan and his assistant directors scouted the area around Ft. Bragg, NC for location sites, no evidence of shooting in that area has been found. March 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that the world premiere held at the New York Astor Theatre on March 9, 1955, which was also telecast, was a benefit for the Actors Studio, of which Kazan was a co-founder.
East of Eden marked the film debuts of Richard Davalos and Jo Van Fleet, and the first major film role for Dean, who, in reviews, was compared to Actors' Studio graduate Marlon Brando. Van Fleet received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of "Kate." Dean was nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Ernest Borgnine's performance in Marty. East of Eden was also nominated for Kazan's direction and Paul Osborn's screenplay, but lost in both categories to Marty's Delbert Mann and Paddy Chayefsky, respectively. Bosley Crowther of New York Times named East of Eden one of the top twenty films of the 1955. In 1956, the film won a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture-Drama. East of Eden was also a winner at the Cannes Film Festival and, according to an August 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, was shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival.
An October 1965 Los Angeles Herald Express article reported the CBS network's plans for a television series based on East of Eden, a project that did not come to fruition. According to an August 1967 Daily Variety news item, United Artists helped finance a Broadway musical based on the film and held an option to film the musical, to be produced by Mitch Miller and scheduled to open during the 1967-68 season. No other information about this musical has been found. An eight-hour adaptation of the original novel, directed by Harvey Hart and starring Jane Seymour and Timothy Bottoms, was aired as a mini-series on ABC-TV beginning in February 1981. Tim Carey, who played the bouncer "Joe" in the 1955 movie, portrayed the preacher in the mini-series.