East of Eden is more personal to me; it is more my own story. One hates one’s father; one rebels against him; finally one cares for him, one recovers oneself, one understands him, one forgives him, and one says to oneself, ‘Yes, he is like that’… one is no longer afraid of him, one has accepted him.”

– Elia Kazan (1)

John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden was published in 1952, the same year he worked with director Elia Kazan on Viva Zapata! (1952). They were friends and Kazan was one of the first readers of Steinbeck’s critically maligned and commercially successful novel (2). In 1955, Kazan adapted chapters 39-55 of East of Eden on film (3). The adaptation tells the story of two brothers. Aron (Richard Davalos) is his father Adam (Raymond Massey)’s favourite and is in a relationship with Abra (Julie Harris). His brother, Cal (James Dean), believes himself “bad” and attempts to buy Adam’s love through an exploitative financial scheme. When his father refuses his gift,Cal reveals the secret of their mother (Kate played by Jo Van Fleet) to Aron who enlists in the military in a rage. Despite Steinbeck’s endorsement ofKazan’s decision only to adapt the latter portion of the book (4), the film primarily reflects Kazan’s vision.

Kazanmaintained a high degree of control over East of Eden. After the critical and commercial success of On the Waterfront (1954),Kazan left Columbia Pictures for Warner Bros., who promised him final cut on the film (5). The film wasKazan’s first colour film and first film in CinemaScope (6). As producer, he was able to control even these facets of production by employing his own colour consultant (John Hambleton) and a cinematographer (Ted McCord) with no experience and thus no preconceptions about CinemaScope (7). This level of control invites an auteur reading of the resulting film. Its “baroque visual style”, however, is unusual in Kazan’s oeuvre (8). The film’s themes more closely (if clumsily) reveal his character.

Kazan’s use of CinemaScope for a family drama was innovative (9). It provides the film with an epic form suitable to the epic themes it attempts to evoke. The mythic qualities the film attempts to portray are analogous to those employed in many of the westerns and historical epics previously shot in CinemaScope. East of Eden retells the biblical story of Cain and Abel with Cal and Aron as their surrogates. As the characters’ names suggest, the film is far from subtle in its biblical allusions. After Aron enlists, the town Sheriff (Burl Ives) quotes Genesis. He suggests Cal go “East ofEden to the City ofNod”. Even before this explicit retelling of the Cain and Abel story, however,Cal independently casts himself in the role of Cain. When Adam asks where Aron is,Cal responds, “I am not my brother’s keeper”.

Kazan’s script was explicitly personal: “I saw the Dean character as similar to myself. I loved my brother, but my father always preferred him.” (10) Kazan’s father wanted him to inherit his rug business, but his mother helped him attend college instead; Kazan couldn’t talk to his father or his mother (11). Like Cal, Kazan recalls, “I was always the bad boy, but I thought I was the good boy” (12). In religious terms, the film seems almost Manichean in its perspective. It begins with three minutes of coastline, inviting the viewer to engage in a game of contrast. When the action begins, Cal frequently describes other characters as “good” or “bad” and Aron’s development from clean living American to creature of jealousy is marked by his exhortation that Cal is “bad”. Adam does not want money from his son, but a “good life”. Kazan, however, sought to create a film of ambivalence. Kazan commonly noted that the film’s “bad boy” is really good (13). According to Kazan, both East of Eden and Splendor in the Grass (1961) are “anti-puritan” films (14).

East of Eden’s lasting legacy is as one of three major James Dean films. Like its source material, the film was a financial success but received a mixed critical reception (15). Dean’s performance was particularly polarising. While he received a posthumous Oscar nomination for the film, his performance was often criticised as overly affected (16). Even Kazan said Dean lacked technique (17). At first one may be surprised to find that Julie Harris received top billing in the film. At the time, however, Dean was a relative unknown. Harris was already a star of the stage and screen. By 1955, she had already received what would be her only Oscar nomination for The Member of the Wedding (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). East of Eden, however, was a hit largely due to the public’s reception of Dean. The 1950s was the age of the teenager and Dean was an icon of their rebellion. While some considered his act corny, it seemed authentic to many youths. Dean and Massey famously “detested” one another and Kazan played to this hatred (18). Dean’s problems with his father are also well-documented, leading Kazan to suggest that “the story of the movie was his story – just as it was, in a way, my own” (19). Both Kazan and Steinbeck thought Dean wasCal (20).

It would be a mistake, however, to confuse the Dean icon with Kazan’s vision of Cal. Kazan acknowledged youth’s distaste for prior moral standards as legitimate:

after the Second World War there was a very understandable and correct disgust felt by the younger generation for the generation that caused the war. There was a genuine feeling that the moral standards of the old generation were hollow […] there was a very genuine questioning of the values of their parents by the young people. (21)

He nonetheless rejected Dean’s idol status (22). Kazan believed in self-responsibility and thought Dean embodied self-pity (23). It is tempting to read East of Eden as a film extolling self-pity given Abra’s monologue explaining Cal’s actions; she says not being loved “makes you feel mean and violent and cruel”. Kazan’s story, however, is one in which the hero understands, forgives and accepts his elders. It is thus interesting that Abra’s monologue is followed by one in whichCal accepts responsibility for his actions. His father is brought back to consciousness and extols his love only after Cal recognises that “a man has a choice”.

Endnotes

  1. Michel Delahaye, “Interview with Eliza Kazan”, Elia Kazan: Interviews, ed. William Baer, University Press ofMississippi,Jackson, 2000, pp. 95-96.
  2. Richard Schickel, Elia Kazan: A Biography, HarperCollins, New York, 2005, p. 315; Joseph R. Millichap, Steinbeck and Film, Frederick Unger, New York, 1983, pp. 138-139.
  3. Brian Neve, Elia Kazan: The Cinema of an American Outsider, I. B.Tauris,New York, 2009, p. 94.
  4. Schickel, p. 315.
  5. Elia Kazan, A Life, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1988, p. 529. Elsewhere, Kazan seems to suggest he had cutting rights on On the Waterfront too, though these were presumably less extensive; Michel Ciment, “The Political Issues; The HUAC: Viva Zapata! (1951), Man on a Tightrope (1952)”, Elia Kazan: Interviews, p. 173.
  6. Stuart Byron and Martin L. Rubin, “Elia Kazan Interview”, Elia Kazan: Interviews, p. 141. The “lateral framing” Kazan employed when making the transition to CinemaScope with East of Eden is analysed by Lisa Dombrowski in “Choreographing Emotions: Kazan’s CinemaScope Staging”, Kazan Revisited, ed. Lisa Dombrowski, Wesleyan University Press, Middleton, CT, 2011, pp. 165-172.
  7. Neve, p. 97.
  8. Neve, p. 102.
  9. Neve, p. 100; Schickel, p. 316.
  10. Byron and Rubin, p. 141.
  11. Neve, p. 98; Byron and Rubin, p. 140.
  12. American Film Institute, “Dialogue on Film: Elia Kazan”, Elia Kazan: Interviews, p. 206.
  13. Delahaye, pp. 76-77; Byron and Rubin, pp. 127-128.
  14. Delahaye, pp. 76, 95. See also Byron and Rubin, p. 128 (“That kind of ambivalence starts quite consciously with East of Eden because that’s when I thought, ‘Fuck this Puritanism – I want to say something’”).
  15. Steinbeck and Film, p. 143; Neve, p. 189.
  16. Schickel, p. 323.
  17. Kazan, p. 538.
  18. Kazan, pp. 535-536.
  19. Kazan, p. 535.
  20. Kazan, p. 529.
  21. Robin Bean, “Elia Kazan on ‘The Young Agony’”, Elia Kazan: Interviews, p. 44.
  22. Bean, p. 44.
  23. Bean, p. 44.

East of Eden (1955 USA 115 mins)

Prod Co: Warner Bros. Prod, Dir: Elia Kazan Scr: Paul Osborn, from the novel by John Steinbeck Phot: Ted McCord Ed: Owen Marks Art Dir: James Basevi, Malcolm Bert Mus: Leonard Rosenman

Cast: Julie Harris, James Dean, Raymond Massey, Burl Ives, Richard Davalos, Jo Van Fleet, Albert Dekker, Lois Smith