East of Eden (1955), Elia Kazan’s adaptation of the John Steinbeck acclaimed novel (or rather, a small portion of it), is a powerful story of fathers and sons and brothers and the growing power of California’s agriculture industry in the Salinas Valley during World War I. But its legacy ultimately has less to do with Steinbeck than its brooding, restless young leading man. East of Eden made an overnight star of James Dean.
Dean had knocked around in small film parts and television plays for a few years before he was case as Cal, basically an anxious, inarticulate Cain to the Abel of Richard Davalos’ good son Aron. His performance is raw, tense, a combustible mix of ambition and frustration and desperation as the “bad” brother vying for the attention of his father (Raymond Massey), a hard, driven Salinas Valley farming magnate.
In many ways, James Dean was the first American teenager, the screen embodiment of the strangled cry of inarticulate kids to old be considered children but unready for the adult world. The film is set in 1917 but Dean feels completely modern and contemporary, a boy not quite comfortable in his body. He’s never still, constantly fidgeting or shrugging or pacing. He drops his eyes in uncomfortable moments and slips into giggles when conversations become too personal. It’s a strikingly articulate portrait of an inarticulate man-boy; you can practically hear his mind whirring just by observing his body language. In many ways, this is the first take on the troubled teen that he immortalized in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Director Kazan was a veteran of the Group Theater and the Actors Studio, where he discovered Marlon Brando and cast him in his career-making role in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). He returned to the famed acting school to cast not only Dean but Davolos, who made his film debut; Julie Harris as Aron’s fragile girlfriend Abra, with whom Cal is in love; and Jo Van Fleet, who made her screen debut as Kate, the craggy madam of the local brothel in Monterey who holds a dark secret to the family past.
East of Eden was Kazan’s first color film and his first CinemaScope production. He handles both magnificently. He shoots in longer takes, which gives the film the slower pace of an older age and draws the eye to Dean’s restlessness and nervous spontaneity, which stands out against the calm and control of the rest of cast and the stillness of the rich landscape, be it the expanse of the coast of Monterey scenes or the massive fields ringed by mountains in Salinas.
Also stars Burl Ives as the sheriff, a plainspoken authority figure with a strong sense of justice and a paternal affection for Cal, and Lois Smith (yet another Actors Studio student).
Jo Van Fleet earned an Academy Award for her performance and the film earned nominations for director Kazan, the screenplay by Paul Osborn, and its breakout star James Dean, who had been killed in a car wreck before the nominations were even announced. It was the first of three posthumous nominations for the icon. The film also won an award at Cannes and was added to the National Film Registry in 2016.
For more on the film, read this essay at Turner Classic Movies.
The special edition Blu-ray and two-disc DVD editions feature commentary by film critic Richard Schickel, the documentaries East of Eden: Art in Search of Life (2005) and Forever James Dean (1988), deleted scenes, rare studio screen tests and wardrobe, costume, and production design tests, and footage from the premiere.