John Steinbeck's book, East of Eden, was published in 1952, the year that Fred Zinnemann's The Member of the Wedding, based on Carson McCuller’s novel, was released. Elia Kazan's film is a suitable companion piece to Zinnemann’s movie, which also explores adolescence growing pains. Moreover, both Kazan and Zinnemann’s movies star Julie Harris, who gives splendid performances in both in vastly different roles.
The protagonists of these films share a similar name, Adam. In Member of the Wedding, it's Frankie's last name; in East of Eden, the patriarch's first name, Adam Trask. There is another link: Julie Harris, the star of Member, plays Abra, the girl both boys love. The two films also exhibit similar ideology concerning the “cure” they prescribe for the problems of loneliness, identity formation, and integration into the larger society. The film suffers from excessive theatrical sensibility, stemming from Paul Osborn's career as a playwright and Kazan's as a stage director who uses theatricality in his films. Unlike Rebel without a Cause (the other movie Dean made in 1955), East of Eden has not aged well, but it is the film that established Dean as a star.
The narrative begins with a card: “In Northern California, the Santa Lucia Mountain, dark and brooding, stand like a wall between the peaceful agricultural town of Salinas and the rough and tumble fishing port of Monterey, fifteen miles away.” What connects the town to Monterey is a freight train, used extensively in the story. Set in 1917, just prior to the U.S. entry into World War One, the narrative centers on the Trask family, headed by Adam (Raymond Massey), whose wife Cathy (Jo Van Fleet) has walked out on him years back, leaving him the responsibility of raising two sons: Cal (James Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos). For years, the patriarch maintains that their mother had died, but when the story begins Cal discovers that Cathy is actually Kate, a Madame running a fancy brothel. Later, Cal finds out that a scar on his father's shoulder, which he had explained as a memento of an Indian attack, was caused by his mother's six-gun. Cal has a natural, instinctual rapport with his mother who, at first, rejects him. But, on his second visit, she realizes he is a reflection of her own “wild nature”; she too could not conform to the rigid domesticity demanded by her husband.
The film deals with Cal's desperate search for his roots: renewing the acquaintance with his mother and regaining the love of his father. After some painful experiences, Cal rediscovers the power of family ties and the meaning of romantic love. These two kinds of love, the film says, are needed by every adolescent to grow up as a healthy “normal” person. It's significant that in the first sequence, Cal follows his mother, and in the last, he is in the room of his dying father. For most of the film, however, Cal is alone, isolated from everybody.
For a film pretending to be an epic, it contains a small number of characters. Most of the scenes are theatrical confrontations between two characters (Cal and his mother, Cal and his father), in which revelations are declared and confessions made. The narrative is structured as a melodramatic Biblical allegory. Adam Trask is a distant, stern, and self-righteous father, devoting all his attention to Aron, his “good” son. Cal is the “bad” son, often referred to as an animal and compared to his mother Kate, a bad woman running a saloon. (For a film of the l950s, it's interesting that Kate is not “punished” and does not die, as in the book). Abra is a good girl, though, she too, by her own admission, has a streak of badness in her. As such, she is the mediator between the two brothers, and between Cal and his father. Though engaged to Aron, she is clearly in love with Cal. Abra is the only person that Cal can trust and confide in, because being motherless, she is ultra-sensitive and has experienced loneliness herself.
Throughout the film, Cal is told he is “nasty, mean, and scary.” But he is basically a good, warm, passionate boy, whose motivation for his entire behavior is frustration for not being loved by his father. Jealous of his father's undivided attention to his brother, Cal attempts every possible means to regain his love. Trask's business dream is to refrigerate produce, which can then be transported to the East, for which purpose he bought an icehouse. Cal first attempts to get his father's attention through pragmatic means, by stealing a coal chute to load the produce, but instead of praise he gets reproached. On his father's birthday, he presents him with the money he has saved, but his father reprimands him for profiteering. Aron takes the spotlight, when he announces his birthday present: his engagement to Abra.
In the next to last scene, Abra explains to the stroke-blighted Adam what needs to be done to “cure” his son's problems. “You have to give him some sign that you love him,” she says, “or else he'll never be a man.” “It's awful not to be loved,” she says, “It makes you cruel.” Cal is not a rebellious kid; all he wants is to gain the love and respect of his father, for which he is willing to sacrifice himself completely. The film comes to a resolution, when the dying Adam asks Cal to get rid of the nurse: “Don't get anyone else. You stay with me. You take care of me.” Cal, the allegedly weaker son, turns out to be emotionally stronger than his brother.
Learning the truth about their mother shatters Aron completely; in a spasm of hysteria he shatters a window with his head. The narrative ends with a role reversal. Cal, the outsider, becomes insider, fully integrated in his family and town. Aron, the former insider, literally becomes an outsider when he enlists into the Army (out of despair, not idealism).
This was James Dean’s debut, for which he received an Oscar nomination. It was followed by two other great films: Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. Some critics consider Ëast of Eden to be Kazan’s most fully realized work, but, for me, the film is too emotionally overwrought, though all the performances are terrific. If I had to choose Kazan’s best youth picture I would single out Splendor in the Grass, starring Warren Beatty (in a splashy debut) and Natalie Wood.
Oscar Nominations: 4
Director: Elia Kazan
Actor: James Dean
Supporting Actress: Jo Van Fleet
Screenplay (Adapted): Paul Osborn
Oscar Awards: 1
Abra (Julie Harris)
Cal Trask (James Dean)
Adam Trask (Raymond Massey)
Aron Trask (Richard Davalos)
Sam (Burl Ives)
Kate (Jo Van Fleet)
Will (Albert Dekker)
Ann (Lois Smith)
Mr. Albrecht (Harold Gordon)
Produced and directed by Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Paul Osborn (nased on the novel by John Steinbeck)
Camera: Ted McCord
Editor: Owen Marks
Music: Leonard Rosenman
Art Direction: James Basevi and Malcolm Bert
Costume Design: Anna Hill Johnstone
Joe (Timothy Carey)