Saturday, April 16, 2011

#253. East of Eden (1955)

Directed By: Elia Kazan

Starring: James Dean, Raymond Massey, Julie Harris

Tag line: "The Searing Classic of Paradise Lost!"

Trivia:  James Dean and Paul Newman screen tested together for the roles of the siblings in this film.  Only Dean was cast.

One of the first film-related books I ever owned was “Rating the Movie Stars”, published by the editors of Consumer Guide in 1983. In a nutshell, this book reviewed the careers of hundreds of Hollywood personalities, assigning star ratings - from zero to four - to each of their performances, then totaling them up to get an overall average. I agreed with some of their scores (James Cagney’s rating of 3.51 ranked him among the top 25 performers of all-time), disagreed with others (Marlon Brando, one of my favorite actors, received a paltry 2.55). 

There were three who scored a perfect 4.0. The first was Eddie Murphy, who at the time the book was published had made only two films: 48 Hrs and Trading Places. The same can be said for the second "perfect" performer, Ben Kingsley, who by 1983 had appeared in Gandhi and Betrayal. The third to achieve perfection was James Dean, whose tragic death in 1955 at the age of 24 assured he would never make more than three.

East of Eden was his first. 

California farmer Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) has two sons: Aron (Richard Davalos) and Cal (James Dean). Aron is obedient, and does what he can to ease his father’s burdens, while Cal seems to stir up trouble everywhere he goes. 

There are those who see goodness in Cal, including the town's sheriff (Burl Ives) and Aron’s girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris). But knowing his history, Adam is reluctant to trust his second son. Feeling he may never measure up to his brother, Cal drifts through life a loner, and along the way makes a startling discovery that, if revealed, will shake his family to its very core. 

To see his performance in East of Eden is to know why James Dean is still considered a master of the craft. As the story opens, Dean’s Cal is quietly following a woman named Kate (Jo Van Fleet) through the streets of Monterrey. We will eventually learn that Cal believes Kate, who manages a local brothel, is his mother, a woman his father claims died when he and Aron were babies. After Kate disappears into a house, Cal continues to hang around outside, practicing to himself what he would say to her should he ever get the chance. Wanting to approach Kate, yet unsure how to do so, the pressure soon becomes too much for the young man to bear. Angry and confused, Cal picks up a rock and throws it at the house, breaking a window. 

Considered the ‘bad son’ by his father, Cal can't help but wonder if his mother holds the secret as to why he acts out. Wanting to know the truth yet fearing the answer, the turmoil in Cal’s soul runs deep, and Dean never once falters in bringing this conflict to the surface. 

Over the years, Dean’s legacy has grown, to the point he is now an American icon. With such a short yet explosive career in films (along with East of Eden, he appeared in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and George Steven’s Giant), Dean’s death has led to decades of questions. Would a performance in a 4th film have been as powerful as his first three? How about his 10th film? His 20th? 

These are questions that can never be answered. Yet with the brilliance Dean did manage to leave behind, I feel it's less fitting to pose such queries than it is to mourn the fact we will never know.


Anonymous said...

It's definitely a wonderful movie, one of my favorites. And James Dean is great of course.
I hope this doesn't sound wrong, but I uploaded a version of that screentest with the audio synchronized and without that repeated scene, so here:


DVD Infatuation said...

@Msofia: Thanks for stopping by!

EAST OF EDEN is a true classic, and while James Dean was tremendous in each of his 3 films, the part of Cal may have been the one he was born to play (when John Steinbeck met Dean on the set of the film one day, he turned to Kazan and said "My God, He IS Cal!". High praise, indeed, coming from the author of the original work!

Thanks for posting the link. I was frustrated that I couldn't even get a trailer for EAST OF EDEN, so I chose the first thing I came across on YouTibe (Warner Bros. has evidently blocked the embedding of all video for this film. I can understand why they wouldn't want clips of the film out there, but the TRAILER? It's a form of advertising! It's like Wal-Mart blocking everyone from embedding their doesn't make any sense!).

The clip you've linked to is definitely superior to the one I have here, so I'm going to switch it over to yours now. Thanks so much for passing this along (I'm making the assumption that you posted it to give me a better option that what I have here now. If this is incorrect, and you have any issues with me using it, please let me know. There will be no hard feelings if that's the case!).

Thanks again!