In 20th Century one of the easiest ways for people to become immortal came in the form of early, premature death. At least, that was the case with celebrities who became legends sometimes simply by dying before showing all their potentials. One of the best known examples is, of course, James Dean. He died at the age of 24 and had only three major roles, but those three roles were enough for him to become one of the most recognisable Hollywood icons. Perhaps his cult status came from the simple fact that his image of rebel youth remained untarnished by all age, and universally appealing for all future generations. That may be true, but also few people should forget that Dean was one of the greatest actors of its time, if not one of the greatest actors who ever worked in Hollywood. His talent is displayed in his first major film, East of Eden, 1955 drama directed by Elia Kazan.
Plot of this film, based on the novel by John Steinbeck, is set in California during World War One. Adam Trask (played by Raymond Massey) is a ranch owner in Salinas Valley, righteous and noble man whose respect in the community is undiminished even after disastrous business venture. Everyone around Adam seems to be happy except his son Cal (played by James Dean), troubled young man who was always jealous of the love and attention his brother Aron (played by Richard Davalos) received from his father. His jealousy was recently inflamed with his feelings towards Aron's girlfriend Abra (played by Julie Harris), as well as with frustrating discovery of estranged mother Kathie (played by Jo Van Fleet), owner of the brothel in nearby town. In Cal's mind, the only way to earn love and respect of his father lies in a business venture that would compensate father's recent losses. His scheme, that includes borrowing money from mother and investing in beans, business made lucrative by war, is successful but it actually causes a chain of events with tragic consequences.
I never read Steinbeck's novel, but long time ago I've been watching 1981 four-hour mini-series based on it. That series, naturally, covered much larger territory than Kazan's cinema version, and, consequently, all who watch the latter one can't help noticing lack of many interesting subplots, situations and characters. Compared with television version, 1954 script by Paul Osborn looks barren and simplistic, and the story sometimes have biblical elements that are too obvious. On the other hand, despite that, East of Eden still has strong dramatic potentials, and director Kazan uses that by assembling terrific cast which gave memorable performances.
The only one awarded by "Oscar" for this film was Raymond Massey as virtuous Adam, and his role is really engaging, since it requires whole set of different emotional states - from patriarchal stoicism, across despair towards final and inner serenity. But, the real star of this film is, naturally, James Dean. He was simply perfect to play this part, because troubled, neurotic Cal in many ways resembles misfit, rebellious 1950s youth in America - generation whose icon Dean later became. Dean used method acting to the full extent (with Kazan making deliberately him drunk during the shooting of one scene), and although, especially in the beginning, his mannerism could slide into overacting, in the end it rewards our patience with strong emotional impact. Jo Van Fleet, who played his mother, received a "Oscar" nomination, but her performance, although good, didn't deserve it, at least not compared with underrated role by Julie Harris. Harris, who would later be remembered most by her role in 1963 version of Haunting, was perfect for the role of Abra; she portrays her as plain looking yet attractive all-American girl, the only person that can find understanding for troubled Cal, since deep under her righteous surface she shares his frustrations.
Since he had such a good cast, Kazan probably thought that he shouldn't much bother with the visual details. East of Eden looks plain in all scenes that don't feature actors, and even some that do aren't best directed. Idea to symbolise conflict and the twisted states of mind through unusual camera angles was already used by other directors and here it gives impression of artificiality that was quite unnecessary for this film. On the other hand, Kazan in this film used opportunity to comment on some darker sides of American society. East of Eden is one of the rare films that deal with anti-German chauvinist hysteria that erupted in USA immediately after American entry into WW1. Although apocryphal in the context of this film, this subplot would be quite interesting for some who are still troubled with the way USA treated its Japanese citizens in the next world war, as well for those who are still undecided about Kazan's own role during McCarthy era.
But, I doubt that many would watch East of Eden with such heavy thoughts on their mind. James Dean is still the main reason why should we enjoy this very good example of 1950s cinema.
RATING: 7/10 (+++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on December 17th 1999)
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Movie URL: https://www.themoviedb.org/movie/220-east-of-eden