East of Eden (1955) was directed by Elia Kazan and starred James Dean, Raymond Massey, Julie Harris, Richard Davalos, and Jo Van Fleet. It was based on the novel of the same title by John Steinbeck, which is supposed to be a modern version of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.
Adam Trask (Massey) has two twin sons, one of whom, in his eyes, is the epitome of everything good (Aron, played by Richard Davalos) and the other who is… bad (Cal, played by Dean). However, when he looses a huge sum of money in his failed attempt in the lettuce business, his bad son, Cal, takes it upon himself to try and raise back the money that his father lost by growing and selling beans in an attempt to bridge the huge gap between them. What ensues is a dramatic story full of anger, love, touches of prejudice, war, absent mothers, reconciliation, and a sibling rivalry for the ages.
There are many things I love about this movie. To start with, the theme of who is “good” and who is “bad” is something that is prevalent throughout. Throughout the entire film, the characters seem to always insinuate that Cal is bad because he is rebellious and always alone and Aron is good because he does everything that he is told to do and is a well rounded, wholesome, goody-two-shoes. However, as you watch the film you begin to realize that Cal isn’t bad at all, at least not in the way that everyone says he is. He’s misunderstood and yes, he is rebellious, but he feels alienated from his father when all he wants is to have a relationship with him like his father has with his brother. And when his father throws in his face the ultimate rejection, it’s heartbreaking, and makes you want to slap Adam about 50 times across the face for being so ridiculous.
I can’t see anyone but James Dean in the role of Cal Trask. Some of his mannerisms remind me of a child. He’s constantly fidgeting around, hardly makes eye contact with other people, and is always challenging adults in an immature fashion. He’s also great with improvisation. The scene when Adam rejects the money is a good example. The awkward hug that Dean gives Massey was not scripted and was not expected by Massey, who didn’t exactly know what to do.
Dean also really works well with the other actors, particularly Julie Harris and Raymond Massey. I know that Julie Harris and James Dean became good friends, and apparently she took him under her wing during the making of this movie. I thought that the chemistry between them was great and I thought that Julie Harris did a great job with the role of Abra.
Yes, I did state that Dean and Massey worked well together, considering the fact that they Massey didn’t like Dean at all, apparently. I guess I should say on screen they’re good together. The story goes that there was a lot of tension on the set between the two and that Dean would purposefully do things to Massey to get a reaction out of him on camera. Kazan didn’t try to diffuse the tension because it showed up so well on screen. In fact, the only scenes with Raymond Massey that I really like in the film are his tense scenes with Dean, because they seem so real and authentic, whereas during the rest of the film, you can tell he’s an actor reciting his lines. The tilted camera angles that Kazan uses in these scenes also add to the tension between father and son/actor and actor.
East of Eden was the only film that was released when James Dean was still alive. It was a great start to a very short career, showcasing techniques that Dean would use in his next two films.
This was where his iconic legacy began.