Why East of Eden? I’ve seen the Sight and Sound polls that come out every ten years, and this film barely caused a ripple in the great pond of world film criticism. I’ll allow that Citizen Kane really is the greatest film ever made (although, curiously, it didn’t get a single vote from the French in the latest poll). However, East of Eden is the film that has meant the most to me over the years. This retelling of the oldest story in Western Civilization worked when it was released in 1955 and it works now. In the following words, I will try to tell something about the film and how it has impacted my life for some 40 years.
“Everybody lives their favorite movie,” said my friend Bob Steele as we were driving to school at Arizona State University. His point was that people who were swingers went around humming the theme song to La Dolce Vita, and romantics started growing facial hair in imitation of Dr. Zhivago. That statement made sense to me at the time, and I’ve had many chances to see it in action for the following decades. At the time my favorite movie was Lawrence of Arabia, the story of an oddball intellectual who went into a very different culture and became very important. By 1967, I had only progressed to the point of being an oddball intellectual. In just a few years, Lawrence would be deposed by a film that I had seen in the mid 1960’s. I first saw East of Eden out of curiosity – James Dean was not a cultural icon then but rather an almost forgotten actor who met a tragic end when my crop of teenagers were in grade school. By 1970, I had seen the movie several times and read the original novel by John Steinbeck.
The opening credits are played to an establishing shot of the Pacific coast city of Monterey, California in the time just before the beginning of World War One. At the bank, an old woman is making a large deposit. Because of the giggly reaction of the bank clerks and the outraged looks on the face of town women, you know that this woman is making money from illicit trade (This was 1955 – they can’t use the word “prostitution”). As she begins to walk home, she is followed by a young man with a tortured demeanor. At her house, he gets the attention of her bouncer by throwing a rock. “You just tell her that I hate her.” The young man is Cal (played by James Dean), and the old woman is Kate (played by Jo Van Fleet, who won an Oscar for best supporting actress for this role), the mother who mysteriously left him and his father and brother while he was a child. Cal strongly suspects who she is, based on a story some low-life had told him.
In the next scene, Cal joins his brother Aron (played by Richard Davalos) and Aron’s girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris) at the icehouse that their father, Adam, is about to buy in nearby Salinas. Adam, played with stiff propriety by Raymond Massey, has a plan to preserve California lettuce with ice and send it to the East coast. His demeanor in dealing with his two sons tells the whole story – the beaming Aron can do no wrong, but Adam just can’t understand Cal, who has his own ideas about making money. “Maybe I’m not trying to make money,” says Adam, coldly. Cal goes to the top of the ice house, where his rage overcomes him and he begins to throw the ice out the door and down a ramp into oblivion.
That night, the father and two sons are sitting at the dinner table for a Bible reading. Adam asks Cal to read, but his surly attitude causes Adam to blow up at the boy. Cal replies, “You’re right father. Everybody has got a certain amount of good and bad in them, and I just got all the bad.” As they sit on opposite sides of the table with heads bowed, Cal begins asking pointed questions about their mother, who had supposedly died at childbirth. “My mother, she’s not dead and gone, is she?” Adam confesses that he lied to save his sons from pain.
Back in Monterey, Cal sneaks into his mother’s bar, and slips in to Kate’s office, crouching at her feet so quietly that she doesn’t notice him. When she sees the boy looking up at her in a worshipful pose, she shrieks and summons the bouncer who promptly drags the boy out as he keeps yelling, “I just want to talk to you.” At the jailhouse, the gruff but good-hearted sheriff, played by Burl Ives, fills in the details of how Cal’s family broke up. Kate had been a beautiful woman, and the naive Adam fell for her hard. When she left Adam and the babies, the father gave up on life. “He’s a good man, Cal. Don’t sell him short.” Cal goes home with a new resolve to help in the lettuce operation.
As Cal is hard at work supervising the lettuce workers, he encounters Abra, who invites him to talk while he eats his lunch in the field. She has figured out what is on Cal’s mind, and tells him that she knows what it feels like to be unloved by her father. With great fanfare, the train leaves Salinas, but it almost immediately runs into trouble and the lettuce is ruined, along with the financial fortunes of Adam. In an effort to prove that he is the true worthy son, Cal dreams up a scheme to speculate in bean futures and win back the money that Adam lost. He enlists the help of a town businessman, and borrows $5000 from an unlikely source – his mother. Kate is now charmed by Cal because she sees him as the son who is more like her.
The war comes to America, and Cal is pleased because it is making his bean venture a potential gold mine. Adam volunteers to work on the local draft board, and must dislodge unwilling sons from local farms to fight in an increasingly frustrating war.
One night, a carnival comes to Salinas, and Cal happens to meet Abra. He volunteers to stay with her until Aron arrives. When they go on the ferris wheel Abra confesses that she thinks Aron sees her as the mother he never had, and feels that she is bad in comparison with this ideal. The two kiss, but quickly come to their senses.
In a rapid-fire series of events, Cal jumps off the ferris wheel and gets into a fist fight in support of Aron, who is then enraged at Cal for resorting to violence. Cal gets drunk, and when Abra comforts him, Aron starts to catch on and warns Cal to stay away from Abra. Cal decides to cash in his share of the bean enterprise and give Adam the money for his birthday.
On the day of the party, Cal and Abra are acting like a couple as they decorate the house. Adam and Aron arrive. Adam approves of Aron’s gift. Adam looks at Cal’s gift of money with confusion and then disdain. “It’s all the money you lost in the lettuce business,” said Cal. Adam rebuffs Cal again. “You’ll have to give it back. I can’t profit from the misfortunes of others.” Cal starts moaning, and moves to Adam in slow motion, hugging him and throwing the money at his back. He then runs out and hides in the yard. When Aron goes out to confront him, Cal invites him to Monterey. “I’ve got something to show you,” says Cal. He leads the stunned brother into Kate’s office and walks away.
Before the night is out, Aron will get drunk and enlist in the Army. Adam, Cal and Abra go to see him as the troop train pulls out, and a laughing Aron pushes out the train window by butting it with his head. Adam collapses with a stroke and is taken home to be cared for by an insufferable nurse. Cal and Abra realize that they must make their peace with Adam. Abra goes in to plead Cal’s case.
“You’re never given Cal your love or asked for his.” She told him that he must give Cal some sign of acceptance. When Cal goes in, he tries to talk with Adam but gets choked up again. Adam calls him closer and tells him to get rid of the nurse. “You take care of me,” says Adam. Cal pulls up a chair and waits at his father’s side.
When Kazan was casting East of Eden, he took great care in choosing Cal. While the Steinbeck novel was a multigenerational epic, the movie adaptation only covered the last third of the book and Cal is on screen for all but a couple of minutes. Kazan could have chosen Marlon Brando, who had a track record in playing surly, rebellious youths. After considerable testing, he kept coming back to a virtual unknown Broadway actor named James Dean. Kazan did not like Dean (he later commented that Dean walked like a crab), but sensed that he would make a better Cal than Brando because Dean had emotional issues that were a perfect match. The casting decision was seconded by Steinbeck, who also didn’t like the actor.
Kazan accompanied the young actor from New York to California. On their way in from the airport, Dean asked that he be allowed a detour to visit his father. Kazan noticed that the father and son could barely stand each other, and that confirmed that Dean had issues that could be used in the film. In a biography at the end of his career, Raymond Massey confirmed that the discomfort between Adam and Cal went beyond acting. Massey, who was raised in the old school of thespian behavior thought that Dean’s mood swings and prima donna behavior was unprofessional. Kazan upped the ante with occasional tricks. In the scene where Dean is reading the Bible, he is actually spouting a stream of profanity, so Massey’s blow-up is genuine. Similarly, the birthday party scene where a crying Cal embraces his father was improvised by Dean on the spot and the shocked look on Massey’s face is genuine.
For a man who grew up as an only child, Dean was particularly good at playing the sibling rivalry with Richard Davalos. On the other hand, Dean lost his mother at an early age, and the evidence that he is mining his own emotions is most evident in the scene where he is being dragged from Kate’s office. When he yells “Talk to me, mother,” the effect is absolutely haunting. Dean knew that this film was his big chance, and he gave a 100% effort here throughout. By the time he had done two more films, his performances were more polished but less genuine. Had he lived, he may have never given this kind of performance again, but given his knack for occasional brilliance he might have. On September 30, 1955, Dean was killed in a car accident, ironically on his way to Salinas for a car race. The next morning, Kazan was given the news by his neighbor, John Steinbeck. Neither man was surprised.
Since the time I started college and began reading Steinbeck, his work and East of Eden in particular have weaved into my life – sometimes deliberately and sometimes not. In 1965, I was in English class with a part-time actor who was prominent in the school plays at Phoenix College. He was Nick Nolte, who later went on to star in the film adaptation of “Cannery Row”. Years later, I was working at the library on a project of adding book pockets to hardbound books that had been donated to the library. I noticed that someone had written in a copy of East of Eden – it turned out that this was one of the special set of first editions autographed by Steinbeck. Instead of being treated like a junk paperback, this book ended up in the library’s rare books room.
In the 1980’s I did some research and found out that the filming of the Monterey sequences of the film had actually been done in Mendocino – a coastal town well north of San Francisco. We traveled there in 1985 and were delighted to see that the streets had changed little since the film was made. It was more than a bit eerie walking through those dusty streets.
After I got my master’s degree in library science and began working in universities, I pursued part-time writing, and did some work for the Dictionary of American Biography and later Scribner’s encyclopedia of American lives. I managed to get assignments to write the retrospective biographies of Raymond Massey and Burl Ives.
From the 1960’s to the 1990’s I must have seen the film at least a dozen times. Even in art house showings, the film was always in the pan and scan rather than the wide-screen release that I kept reading about. Finally in the late 1990’s the American Movie Classics channel showed it in the original wide-screen, and it made quite a difference. I was disappointed that East of Eden had not yet been released in DVD in America by 2000, so I managed to get a Hong Kong release from Ebay, and felt that I was truly seeing it for the first time. A long sequence where the lettuce train is heading into the mountains can only be truly appreciated in wide screen.
My criterion for a personal favorite film is one that says something about my life, has some tragic and some comic elements, and contains images that stay with you forever. East of Eden scores on all of these points. It must be said that I found it easy to identify with the basic story because I grew up in a family with only one brother, and sometimes felt like the odd son out. Kazan wrote that this was the first film where he allowed himself to lighten up and include some humorous moments – a scene where Adam is learning how to start a car, and the mirror sequence at the fair are fun to watch. I know the film so well that the synopsis in this article was written entirely from memory, but I have always cried at the ending. When Steinbeck started writing the novel, he envisioned it as a fancy box which would contain everything that was inside of him at the half century mark. In spite of the abbreviation of the film, he thought it was a masterpiece. For what it is worth, that is my impression as well.