To call East of Eden a great film is as much of an understatement as to declare James Dean a great actor. Thanks in large part to Dean’s role in this film, both he and the picture are worthy of far greater renown. A couple years ago I had no interest in Dean because I thought today’s society loved him because he’s “so dreamy”. It turns out he was more than an ultra hunky star whose career ended tragically.
Dean would only witness his super stardom through this, his first film. His 16-month Hollywood career ended before the release of Rebel Without a Cause and Giant when he died in a car collision while driving his Porsche. In all three flicks Dean’s performances are overwhelming. He found a way to physically convey the inner workings of personalities so based in angst and frustration that –especially with Rebel Without of Cause– young audience came to highly identify with star.
In East of Eden –based on the John Steinbeck novel– Dean is Cal, the twin son of a pious father who raises Cal and Aron (Richard Davalos) on a farm in California. The film, set in 1917, opens on Cal following a middle-aged woman, faced veiled, to a bank where she makes a large deposit and then to her home. There he throws a rock at the house and says he hates her. We do not learn until later that he suspects the woman is his “deceased” mother. She runs a bar and brothel in the town neighboring his own, but father Adam (Raymond Massey) and his brother are unaware of her locale.
Cal struggles with being innately “bad”, the opposite of his brother. Aron attends school, obeys his father and is kind to his long-term girlfriend Abra, played by Julie Harris. Abra is at the start of the film bothered by the strangeness of Cal. While she and her beau are lounging in an ice house Adam has just purchased, Cal watches eerily from between to large pieces of ice. This instance, and many others to follow, make Dean’s portrayal of Cal nearly akin to another Steinbeck character, Lenny from “Of Mice and Men”, minus the mental disability. As the plot, progresses, however, Abra becomes friendly with Cal, often leaning too close to him for us to believe her intentions are innocent.
That ice house plays a key role in the plot. Adam theorizes that if he can keep produce –lettuce in particular– cold for long enough, it will not perish. Risking the majority of his money, Adam sends a train full of lettuce and ice across the country, but when an avalanche blocks the tracks, the delay melts the ice and spoils the vegetables. Cal, who became a diligent son during this business venture, is set on paying his father back the money he lost. His plan is to plant beans, which with the threat of war are likely to go sky high in price. He finds a business partner and secures a loan from his mother, the wealthy madame. Cal does make that fortune when America enters WWI, but the father refuses to take the money because it was earned at the expense of the farmers, who under-sold their crop.
The war, too, has transformed Aron into a melancholy sort. Dark circles mark his eyes and he is extremely depressed by the mere idea of war and killing. Abra feels neglected and while stalled on a Ferris wheel with Cal, the two kiss. She regrets it but will later console Cal under a willow tree where we can only assume a more passionate locking of lips occurs. A drunken Aron also gets into a fist fight with his brother and then leaves on a train to join the war effort, giving his father a stroke. Mostly paralyzed, a final reconciliation occurs between Adam and Cal as the father requests the son take care of him in lieu of a nurse.
In East of Eden the character of Cal struggles to win the love of a father who has devoted such an emotion to the other boy. The twins are opposites. Aron inherited the good from his father and Cal the bad in his mother. His behavior is encouraged by an absence of warm emotion from all directions and it is not until Abra explains to the ailing father that he must convey affection for the boy that Adam makes an effort.
East of Eden was masterfully directed by Elia Kazan. Many canted angles are utilized in scenes of family tension. A particularly cool use of this angle is employed when Cal stands on a swing in the yard. The camera swings from a tilt in one direction to the other with the motion of Cal. I have never seen this used before. Additionally, the willow tree scene I mentioned is considerably artful. Cal has run under the tree and leans against it sobbing. Abra runs to him and seems to lean on him, although all we can see are their feet, which are close enough together to suggest the kiss happening there.
Kazan also allowed Dean to improvize a certain amount, which is something he did in, I think, all of his movies. In the scene during which Cal presents the money as a birthday present, the father rejects it and Cal is meant to walk away. Instead, Dean begins to cry and throws himself in the arms of his father, who yells at the boy in his discomfort. The money falls from Dean’s hand before he stumbles out of the house. The moment is extremely uncomfortable to watch but really emphasizes the frustration Cal feels at being unable to please his father.
The role of Cal was considered not only for Dean but for a yet-discovered Paul Newman. I can see Newman in this role, and I think it would have still been a great film, but not in the same way Dean made it.