East of Eden
Directed by Elia Kazan
Written by Paul Osborn from a novel by John Steinbeck
First viewing/Netflix rental
Elia Kazan shows how Cinemascope should be done, James Dean tries to become the next Marlon Brando, and the supporting actors shine.
The Steinbeck source novel is a loose retelling of the Cain and Abel story set at the time of WWI. Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) is a God-fearing farmer in the Salinas Valley of California. He has two sons Aaron and Cal (Dean). Aaron is a lot like his father but Adam struggles to comprehend Cal’s behavior. Cal is troubled, feels unloved and as the story opens thinks he has tracked down his supposedly dead mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet). He tries to visit her at the brothel she runs in Monterey but is vigorously rebuffed.
Adam’s dream is to establish a market for California produce back East during the winter. He hopes to do this through refrigeration, which is in its infancy. The dream makes him happy for awhile but the reality is that the technology is not ready and Adam loses his shirt. Cal decides to win his father’s respect by earning back the lost money through speculating in bean futures on the hunch that the U.S. will get into the war in Europe. He is more successful in his second attempt to reunite with Kate and she loans him the seed capital for the venture, seeing a kindred spirit and a business man in Cal.
Aaron is vehemently opposed to the war and Adam has found work at the draft board, where he agonizes over sending boys off to combat. Aaron’s fiancee Abra (Julie Harris) is strangely drawn to Cal and helps him organize the disastrous birthday party at which Cal plans to present his father with the money. With Burl Ives as the town sheriff and Albert Dekker as Cal’s business partner.
Kazan frames his shots to really take advantage of the wide-screen process and the whole thing looks beautiful in a rather faded old-timey way. The acting is uniformly good. My favorite was Raymond Massey. Dean has enormous presence but he is no Brando.
Jo Van Fleet won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The film was Oscar-nominated in the following categories: Best Actor (Dean); Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay.