New to Me: 'East of Eden' (1955)

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New to Me: East of Eden (1955)

By Eric D. Snider | Think Pieces | September 13, 2012 | Comments ()


It's pretty easy to be a James Dean completist, considering he only made three movies. For an actor, that's the silver lining on the cloud of dying young: there are no obscurities on your résumé to discourage would-be fans from devouring your whole body of work.

Given the undemanding nature of completing the Dean canon, I'm sheepish to admit that the only one I'd seen until now was Rebel Without a Cause, a movie I love and have seen several times and in which I have always admired James Dean. Why it took me so long to seek out East of Eden or Giant, I don't know. Never underestimate the power of inertia.

New to Me: East of Eden (1955)

Here's what I already knew before I watched it:

- It was James Dean's first major film role (he'd had a few walk-on parts before), and he got a Best Actor nomination for it, the Academy's first posthumous acting nod. Was his tragic death part of the reason he was nominated? That's a tacky question, and how dare you ask it? Anyway, he lost to Ernest Borgnine in Marty, which is hard to argue with.

- It was based on a John Steinbeck novel, but not one of the ones you had to read in high school.

- When it came out, The New York Times' hilariously named film critic Bosley Crowther popped his monocle over how much he hated James Dean's performance:

"This young actor, who is here doing his first big screen stint, is a mass of histrionic gingerbread. He scuffs his feet, he whirls, he pouts, he sputters, he leans against walls, he rolls his eyes, he swallows his words, he ambles slack-kneed -- all like Marlon Brando used to do. Never have we seen a performer so clearly follow another's style. Mr. Kazan should be spanked for permitting him to do such a sophomoric thing. Whatever there might be of reasonable torment in this youngster is buried beneath the clumsy display."

I suspected I would disagree with Bosley Crowther (or B-Crowz, as the kids called him) about Dean's performance here, but I love his description of it, and in particular his fantasy about Elia Kazan being spanked while James Dean watches.

- East of Eden was filmed on location, east of Eden, in a place called Los Angeles.

- It was just a few weeks after East of Eden was released that Dean started shooting Rebel Without a Cause, followed by Giant, which was not yet finished when he died on Sept. 30, 1955. (When I say I "already knew" this stuff, I mean the gist of it. I didn't have the date of James Dean's death memorized.)

* * *

Then I watched it:

You can see why some people criticized James Dean for "imitating" Marlon Brando. He has the same stammering, naturalistic, slightly mumbled delivery that Brando had in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954) -- both of which, like East of Eden, were directed by Elia Kazan, an early proponent of "Method acting." Dean openly admired Brando (it would have been hard to find a serious young actor at that time who didn't), but he's not imitating him here. Dean had studied at Kazan and Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio too, and learned the same techniques.

You can see just as clearly why viewers in general loved Dean. He had the same qualities (a pretty face, moodiness, vulnerability) that turn a young actor into a teen heartthrob, while also delivering a performance that's compelling for discerning adults. Apart from Brando, no one else was acting quite like this in movies at the time, all raw and natural instead of mannered and stagy. This style is common now, especially in do-it-yourself indie projects, but it was still rare in 1955. It stands out especially in East of Eden, a movie that looks and feels like Old Hollywood in every respect other than Dean's performance.

Widescreen movies were still fairly new, hence the big "in CinemaScope!" announcement in the opening credits. (Allegedly just as exciting: "in Warnercolor!" Which really just meant it was in color. It's not like Warner Bros. went out and invented new ones.) Visually speaking, East of Eden is a quintessential example of Hollywood filmmaking in the mid-1950s: widescreen, vivid colors, unobtrusive camera movement, unhurried editing. Leonard Rosenman's musical score is also typical, with its sweeping, all-purpose melodies that could have been written for any drama.

I never read the Steinbeck novel, but the film is reportedly based only on the second half of it, and loosely at that. You can tell, I think. Without giving anything away, there's something the Dean character, Cal, learns fairly early in the movie that feels like the resolution of a much, much longer story arc. He also seems to shift rather abruptly from hating his father to going all-out to please him.

The title suggests a Biblical allegory, and the movie ain't subtle about it; "I'm not my brother's keeper" is an actual line of dialogue. Cal is short for Caleb; his twin brother is Aron; their father is Adam. (I don't know why Aron is missing an "a," or why their dad pronounces it "air-on" rather than "errun.") Like Cain and Abel before them, Cal and Aron vie for their father's approval and eventually quarrel. The family dynamics are surprisingly complex, though. Adam doesn't quite know what to make of his brooding, less-obedient son, but he loves him all the same. He's strict, but not tyrannical. And while you might expect Aron, as the "good" son, to condemn Cal's erratic behavior, instead he finds it funny. He adores Cal and his crazy antics.

I appreciate a sturdy, old-fashioned big-screen drama like this. I often "appreciate" such films more than I actually "enjoy" them, simply because they were made in a different era for a different audience. But I found East of Eden genuinely engaging, largely because of Dean's forward-looking performance, which compares favorably with Brando's in On the Waterfront (another movie you should see immediately if you haven't already). Were it not for Dean, this might be just a relic instead of the moving drama it is. What might Dean have accomplished if he hadn't died after making three movies? Well, he'd be 81 now, and probably embarrassing himself by playing farting grandfathers in Adam Sandler movies. So maybe it's all for the best.

(East of Eden is readily available on DVD from the usual places. It's also available for streaming through Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Xfinity, and YouTube.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • luckypete

    Back when I watched this movie, I couldn't help but draw comparisons to Legends of the Fall, on subject matter alone, but with things flipped. In East of Eden, dean plays the wild son who usually falls into disfavor. And in Legends of the Fall, Brad Pitt plays the wild son, but this time, the wild son is the one the father favors. And in both movies, the "second-loved" son is always trying his best to win the fathers affection. Those, and a few other similarities, were always so close for me, so I'm not sure if the writer of the book Legends of the Fall was based on was influenced by East of Eden (book or movie).

  • winged chorus

    I love this series and would love to see a review of The Wages of Fear.

  • trishy4301

    I saw Histrionic Gingerbread at Coachella. They were just what you would expect- deliciously emo.

  • Nicole_OCTV

    Shamefully, I went through a massive James Dean phase in high school that was based purely on Dean's beautiful face and his Jordan Catalano-like leaning style, and I never actually watched any of his films. Because ew, they were old and I was an idiot.

    But I'm happy to say that I finally watched Rebel Without a Cause just last year and I was totally blown away by him. He was incredible, and even moreso considering the time period. It's easy to take his style for granted now, but back then it must have seemed quite odd (Marlon Brando comparisons aside) and I can see why it would have been divisive. He was amazing (as was Sal Mineo). I've been meaning to watch this and Giant as well, and now I definitely will.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    "Air-on" is a very Southern pronunciation of Aaron, although I would describe it more like A-ron (long A there). That's how my family in North Carolina always says it. I am not sure

  • Why do I know this?

    And "Aron" is a fairly common Southern, Old Testament spelling of the name Aaron. Elvis Presley's middle name was actually "Aron", although he had it officially hanged to "Aaron" later in his life.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    Whoops - posted to soon. I was starting to say I am not sure why it's said like that, but it sort of feels like people are honing in on that double a in Aaron to distinguish from the name Erin.

  • Candee

    I had to read the book in Highschool, but it was an AP class so I had to annotate that motherfucker. But it's a great book. One of my favorites. So, although I love James Dean, I was disappointed with the movie, because it cut out so much. It's a pretty large book though, and it's not like they had HBO adaptions back then. It's sad though, because Dean was perfect as that character (in my opinion).

    I would love to see a newer worthy stab at it, but it would have to be in a show format and done just as good as Game of Thrones.

  • Vi

    Read, the book, never saw the movie. My recollection regarding the book is that it's all about Kate.

  • BWeaves

    I didn't like East of Eden. I hated Giant. I thought Dean and Taylor couldn't pull off the characters as they aged. I've never seen Rebel Without A Cause, because I just don't care for Dean's performances. I know, I should give it a try, but I just don't care. I also don't like Marlon Brando, so it might be down to their acting style.

  • My Name Is for My Friends

    I love this series! Is there any way we can peer pressure Dustin into watching Lawrence of Arabia for it?

  • llp

    I love Lawrence of Arabia. I think it would be fun to get someone to review Cat Ballou.

  • frank247

    Cat Ballou is awesome, but as I have watched it numerous times I have to be disqualified for this mission.

    I'll take the Lawrence of Arabia job if no-one else wants it!

  • karen

    Is it just me or do anyone else think that Nick Cage was somehow superimposed (or whatever the correct tech term is) in this picture

  • winged chorus

    No, the abstract expressionist hair is right, and the face is pretty good, but the expression is far too calm and reasonable.

  • Nicole_OCTV

    I thought it was Judd Hirsch at first, but unless he's some kind of time lord, it can't be him.

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