From Warner Brothers
Directed by Elia Kazan
Jo Van Fleet
East of Eden will be forever remembered as the first film in which James Dean had a starring role or at least one of the trio of films that is tucked away safely in Dean lore. The film certainly owes a great deal to Dean but there are other factors that shine just as brightly. Dean seemed to grab me by the throat and demand that I pay attention to him. His characters always hurt inside; their behaviors were mired in angst. They put aside what they knew about manners and lived in the moment. He always spoke to me. In many respects these traits and more like them wove their way through Jimmy and into his characters and back again.
Based on a big novel by the gifted John Steinbeck, who knew only too well about a place and a time and a people that was the Salinas Valley of California, I would relish reading it years after I saw the film. The novel, much larger in scope than the film, would in 1981 enjoy that large unfolding in a superb 1981 TV miniseries. The 1955 film only tells a small part of the end of the novel but by no means does any of this lessen the impact or the thoughtful telling of this film. I consider it a true classic.
I could never forget the opening. Across dusty Monterey streets, just before the start of WWI, walks a woman dressed in dark clothing from head to toe. A hat and a veil complete the outfit that looks too warm for the time and too Sunday-go-to-church. Her mission was going to the bank where it is established that she is crusty and formidable, displaying no-nonsense to a science. As she is returning to her home, she passes a young man sitting on the curb. He follows her, which she knows, and by the time she arrives at home and peers out the window at him, she has sent one of her workers outside to shoo him away.
Thus begins a Biblical-like, unforgettable tale of family dysfunction, the Trask family, that includes two brothers, one regarded as good and one bad, and a father who lives a life of intended purity while selfishly casting aside the so-called bad son as he virtually bestows sainthood on the other one. It is also about a mother who walked out on her family when her sons were very young because she felt trapped and not about to live the pious life prescribed by her husband. The father has told both sons that she is dead. She is, of course, the woman in the dark clothes. And that home that she now lives in is actually a brothel and she is its madam.
East of Eden provided some seminal moments for me. One of those, of course, was Jimmy Dean himself. I had read much about him in movie magazines and was itching for this film to open. It was not clear that I would be able to see it as my mother thought he was no one to aspire to. She knew my tendency toward hero-worship. He had the bad boy role, she rightly concluded, because he was a bad boy. But in the end, with much cajoling and taking out the trash without being asked, she capitulated.
I think my mother would have said that I acted up as I became more and more enamored of James Dean. I certainly understood the national madness and adulation over him and then the collective hysteria over his death. I was right in the heart of it. It was right to call him a rebel; it was a badge of honor. Part of his magnificence as a young actor, along with the moody Marlon Brando (a Dean idol) and Montgomery Clift, was his approach to his craft and his life, both orchestrated with seriousness and gritty know-how and obstinance.. He was his own best ((or worst) press agent. He was a new kind of actor. He was here, he was making a noise, deal with it. He thought he was gifted and valuable long before East of Eden. I don't think Hollywood was as taken with him as the public was.
The public was lulled into believing all the hype. Much of it was true (he did like speed whether in a car or a motorcycle, he was reckless in and out of a car, he was arrogant, he did say outlandish things to people) and some was pure fabrication. I was a young adult when I first heard that he was gay (bisexual if that sounds more pleasing) and the king of sexual festishes. Like most of the public, I guess, I didn't want to believe it. I have been won over.
I think it all contributed to a danger about him. You could never be sure what he was going to say or do... on and off the screen. It has been famously told that old, by-the-book Raymond Massey didn't quite know what to make of Dean or what to do about him when he played his father in Eden. Dean went off on tangients while on camera, creating bits of business and saying words not in the script, although consistent to his concept of the character. Massey complained to Kazan who consoled the old pro while secretly encouraging Dean to do his thing. This is most evident in the scene where Cal gets upset in the dining room when his father won't accept money for a birthday present.
In those days my mother was straight out of Disney in many ways. Her sassy mouth notwithstanding, she was a mother who loved her two sons, stood by them, helped with homework, protected against those on her enemies list (which often included my father), baked cookies, rushed home from work to be with my brother and me and would generally cook most anything we asked for. All the mothers I knew were that way. Watching Kate Trask unfold onscreen showed me that all mothers were, in fact, not like my mother. She was not the only mother I would know in my life to give up her family for a shot at independence and freedom; she may not have even been the first movie mother, but she was the most unapologetic and resolute. This was Jo Van Fleet's first movie and she richly deserved her supporting Oscar award.
Another eye-opener caused by this film was that I learned that I was about three-quarters German and one-quarter English, which, of course, had not meant much to me up to that time. But the anti-German sentiment expressed so boldly in the film spilled over into my personal life shortly after the film's release when I heard my parents and some German neighbors in a verbal fight with some other neighbors. When I couldn't understand why all the fuss, my mother told me it was that stupid movie that caused all this disruption and that I might be better off to just claim I was all English.
So yeah, Jimmy, the mother stuff and the German brouhaha served to make this quite a memorable film for me. I was so engrossed in the tale of a rebellious young man trying to win his puritanical father's love and to at least be honored in the way his brother was while trying to understand his long-lost mother, whom he is most like.
In addition to Dean, I also took great notice of Julie Harris, as Abra, the bright and nurturing friend who at first loves Aaron, the good brother, and then learns to love Cal and helps him straighten out his life.
Richard Davalos, as Aaron, never made it to the upper wrung of the Hollywood ladder and I am sorry about that. I liked his approach to acting as well. I couldn't think of a better Aaron.
Of course there is the brilliant director, Elia Kazan. His work was always big. Important. A social comment was always there. He, in turn, always worked with the best in all fields. He was part of the very fabric of the Actor's Studio and Dean, Harris and Van Fleet were all members as well. So not only was this a bit of old-home week, but Kazan and the actors were all able to relate to their and others' characters from learning their craft and methods off the same pages. Very exciting stuff.
Interestingly, East of Eden is the only one of Dean's three main films to be released while he was alive. By the time Rebel Without a Cause and Giant came to the theaters, Dean had been killed.
Here's a look:
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