Acknowledged as a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, Elia Kazan’s 1955 film East of Eden is a complex familial drama shot on the California coast. Long considered a piece of classic Hollywood cinema and selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2016, generations have enjoyed the film, delighting in the beauty of the Cinemascope visuals and its nostalgic premise. But East of Eden goes deeper and darker than a basic religious parable. This film is many things: James Dean’s first motion picture effort, a youth-in-rebellion flick, a literary adaptation and California historical document, even a disturbing example of the way in which war/nationalist sentiment catalyzed hate crimes. Fact: American author John Steinbeck’s book was adapted into one of the most electrifying films of the 1950s and recognizing the religious thematic of it is just one small way of appreciating its splendor.
At the time of East of Eden’s casting, James Dean had been performing with Louis Jourdan and Geraldine Page in the Actor’s Studio production of André Gide’s The Immortalist. Due to Dean and Jourdan’s clashing personalities, that stage experience was short-lived. Dean quit the play but not before East of Eden screenwriter Paul Osborn saw him. Osborn knew that partner / friend Elia Kazan wanted to cast a Brando-type for Eden and suggested he look into this “James Dean” guy. So he did. Kazan said he followed his instinct on Dean. Whatever that instinct may have been, it worked. Kazan described Dean as “twisted [and] extremely grotesque,” mentioning that he “had a real sense of himself.” These odd statements were meant as compliments and definitively describe the way in which Dean allowed the camera lens to tear him (and his character) open within this film. East of Eden is about rawness; being unconstrained. It’s about being emotionally naked. If James Dean was the king of anything, this was his crown and scepter; these were his riches.
Cal Trask, the film’s stand in for Cain, was played by James Dean. His twin Aron Trask, the proxy for Abel, was another newcomer, Richard Davalos. Their father, Adam Trask, was the excellent Raymond Massey, while the estranged mother Kate was deftly played by the excellent Jo Van Fleet. Aron’s girlfriend, Abra Bacon, was Tony-Award-winning actress Julie Harris, straight from her Academy Award-nominated performance in the film adaptation of Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding. No one could argue that East of Eden was loaded to the hilt when it came to talent. With well-respected cinematographer Ted D. McCord there to assist Kazan through the eccentricities of the new Cinemascope process (which did not delight Kazan but ended up being especially effective for the film’s visual expressiveness), this motion picture was going to be a heavy hitter. Not according to today’s blockbuster film standards, but in the sense that this was a work that had Real Performers, Real Storytellers and a Real Vision.
It is curious that the word “evil” is not used in East of Eden. While the binary set up by the Cain / Abel narrative is in full swing throughout Elia Kazan’s film, “evil” is not part of the language that is used. In fact, the conversation of the film – both visual and written – plays itself out in a far more flexible manner. No more is this a simple story of brothers battling each other for the approval of their father, nor is it a basic work of ethics and moral values. No. East of Eden is a film that operates on a wholly different plane: emotions, spirit, heart and even sex. While Eden has a defined story and was adapted from one of the most respected authors in American literary history, what it became when it hit the screen was a totally different animal.
It seems that the most popular things to talk about in regards to this film are its religious themes, James Dean’s “overacting,” the Daddy Issues or even ways in which Elia Kazan may have invested his own personal story into East of Eden. But those are old, tired and boring. In fact, very few of them hold water when it comes to the experience of watching and loving this film. Really, it is the flexibility of language and its relationship to sheer unadulterated passion that play the largest part in the film. East of Eden is most certainly connected to everything that has been written about it up to this point but it’s a shame that the emotionality that drips from every scene has not been engaged with nearly enough. This is a motion picture that examines young men’s masculinity and gut-wrenching pain. But not only that: we are witness to the miseries of other people too, and they are nothing to sniff at. This film highlights the humanity of heartbreak and pain and should be taken seriously for its treatment of it.
While the primary casualty in Eden is Cal, rejected by his father, castigated by his brother and discarded by the world around him, there are others who are concurrently in distress. Cal’s estranged mother, Kate, would have him believe that she is a self-made and steely businesswoman, leading a brothel madam’s life of vice, not caring about anything but her bankbook and her bar. But Jo Van Fleet’s fine acting skills do a spectacular job of showing how Kate’s true feelings betray her icy facade. A fiercely passionate person like her son, Kate’s slow-burning conversations with Cal reveal herself to be the antithesis of frigidity, making the mother and son two peas in a pod of sorrow and disillusionment.
The fact that Cal’s temperament mirrors his mother does not lead to a happy place. This comes to a devastating conclusion in the last act, where Cal decides to fulfill others’ false expectations – the cruel and damaging comments that people have been making to him throughout his life. A truly crippling scene, we watch as a genuinely sensitive and caring young man consciously decides to act out and hurt people he loves because no one has ever taken him seriously as a person of value. James Dean’s depiction of Cal makes this section of the film harder to handle. Prior to the finale, his hurt had been intimate and deafeningly personal, obvious only in frenzied outbursts when he was simply unable to keep it in any longer. Not that watching James Dean perform these displays was any less harrowing. East of Eden may be one of the most pure films to watch as far as genuine hurting is concerned. If Cal Trask doesn’t make you feel, you have no heart.
Much of Cal’s narrative and identity in East of Eden centers on the traditionally accepted binary of “bad” and “good.” Whether it is Adam at the dinner table telling his son that he is “bad, through and through!” or Cal himself, stating that brother Aron is “the good one. I guess there’s just a certain amount of good and bad you get from your parents, and I just got the bad,” these qualitative terms are used over and over when it comes to describing Cal’s place in the world.
As mentioned previously, language is significant: it is bad and not evil. The original concept of East of Eden is based on a Judeo-Christian narrative that focuses on stringent ideas of virtue and corruption, morality and sin. But this film doesn’t seem to operate from that base. The continuous transformation of Cal and the reiteration of this term, “bad,” lead us to re-examine what our definition of BAD might be. Is Cal “bad through and through”? Is this shattered, angry, and sobbing young man BAD? And if that is our definition of bad, what the hell is our definition of GOOD??
East of Eden showcases the ways in which “bad” is given ambiguous and multifarious meanings. Abra uses it when she and Cal are riding the Ferris Wheel at the carnival. In this conversation, however, when she refers to her own “badness” it is clear that she is not discussing ethics or moral values but her own feelings about lust, sexuality and sexual desire. While Abra may be paired with Aron (the “good” twin) her “bad” sense draws her to Cal; a boy who, in reality, is a far more tender and sensual figure.
Elia Kazan focuses on the way that James Dean revels in the earth; he dances in the natural elements, aligns himself with newly growing plants and weeping willows. The actor’s ability to be as attractive and as delicate as organic vegetation is frightening. He wilts in his father’s arms; he folds himself up like a flower about to bloom when sitting atop a racing train. Is nature ITSELF bad? The sexual energy that Cal owns, embodies and exists as cannot be bad: it is how we exist, it is pure.
So what is badness according to this film? Perhaps it is judgment, that monstrous ideology that only human beings could be cruel enough to invent. That one goddamn thing that won’t allow us to accept ourselves as we are and needles us to point out others’ imperfections at any cost. The one thing that made the entire town turn against the German man, Gustav Albrecht, at the carnival, chasing their former neighbor through the streets. Was Gustav now bad because his former countrymen were at war with the men of his adopted country? Of course not. But try telling that to a small town who lives by the binary of bad and good. A small town that Cal Trask was not made for but tried to fit into.
It is critical that East of Eden continues to question these binaries, these ideas of “bad” and “good.” It is also vital that we stop rejecting James Dean’s performance as “overwrought.” His performance is perfect. For all the classic film performances where male stars show no emotions, Eden was a powder keg. This film shows that it is healthy and GOOD for young men to cry. Cal Trask is the hero in this. East of Eden is a landmark in showing that feelings are not bad. These are the kinds of films we need.
Come to the New Beverly on May 10 & 11 and watch this film on 35mm. It deserves to be seen on a big screen and you’ll be glad you did.