Filmsite Movie 

East of Eden (1955)
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East of Eden (1955) is director Elia Kazan's updated re-telling of the Biblical story of rival brothers, Cain and Abel and a paradise lost. Writer Paul Osborn's screenplay adapted John Steinbeck's 1952 novel with the same title for this dramatic Warner Bros. film. The charismatic young actor James Dean (in his first starring role) took the magnetic, sensitive role of rebellious and aggressive but vulnerable adolescent Cal Trask searching for love and acceptance. The highs and lows of the film were accentuated beautifully by Leonard Rosenman's expressive musical score.

[Note: The emotionally-brooding film told only a small portion of Steinbeck's work, roughly adapting only the final third of the novel (Chapters 39-55) and leaving out the childhood of the parents and the Chinese character of Lee, the Trask family servant.]

The many taglines on the film's posters exclaimed:

  • "EAST OF EDEN is a story of explosive passions and Elia Kazan has made it into a picture of staggering power."
  • "Sometimes you can't tell who's good and who's bad!..."
  • "The most shocking revenge a girl ever let one brother take on another."
  • "Of what a girl did - what a boy did - of ecstasy and revenge..."
  • "The searing classic of paradise lost."

The almost two-hour long, intense family drama and coming-of-age tale (Kazan's first color and widescreen Cinemascopic film) was set in 1917 at a time just before the US entry into World War I (known at the time as The Great War). It portrayed the relationship between under-appreciated, insecure, tortured, love-starved and neurotic loner Caleb "Cal" Trask (James Dean) and his dutiful, favored, idealistic but dull, conventional and stuffy brother Aron (Richard Davalos).

They were temperamentally-different fraternal twin sons in their late teens (representing respectively the two rival and warring Biblical brothers in the Book of Genesis, the sons of Adam and Eve). The Biblical myth of Cain and Abel was modernized in this film. As in Steinbeck's book and the Biblical story, the first letters of the main characters began with C and A:

  • C: Cain - Caleb (or Cal)
  • A: Abel - Aron, Adam, and Abra

Cain tilled the ground (as a farmer), while the favored and respected son Abel was a shepherd (keeper of sheep).

[Note: The maligned and misunderstood Cain character, who eventually became the redeemed hero of the film, was a symbolic representation of the unlikeable and outcast director Kazan himself. He had a tortured relationship with his parents, and he had also been ostracized by society for naming names before the HUAC Committee in 1952. Actually, James Dean also had difficult problems with his father, so the film was persuasively autobiographical in many ways.]

Both males vied for the affections of a mutual female love interest, Aron's decent and intelligent girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris) and of their father Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) who was a stern, hardened, highly-principled, devoutly religious, and self-righteous (stiff-necked) man - a lettuce farmer living with his two Biblically-named boys in Salinas, California.

The plot became emotionally charged during a love triangle that was established when the rejected and moody Cal expressed his competitive liking for Abra. Simultaneously, he learned that his supposedly-dead mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) was actually alive and operating a nearby profitable brothel in Monterey.

[Note: To carry the Biblical allusions even further, Kate was Adam's Eve, who refused to be tied down, and broke up the family and marriage. Metaphorically, she left the 'Paradise' of the Garden of Eden, partaking of 'forbidden fruit' by adopting a sinful profession. Cal assumed that the no-good badness and sinful nature of his mother were passed down to him, while his brother was a mirror reflection of the upright and conservative goodness of his father.]

Actor James Dean was electrifying and raw in the film as a "method" actor, similar to his contemporary Marlon Brando - however, Dean was more representative of non-conformist, anguished and introspective youth in the conservative and oppressive 1950s era than Brando. The film provided commentary on two time periods: the WWI era in the film, and the social milieu in which the film appeared, when Dwight Eisenhower was President and social mores were extremely Puritanical. But the status quo was being challenged by the rise of juvenile delinquency and angry teenaged rebels such as Dean (reflected in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)), the beginnings of a generation gap, and the rise of rock 'n' roll renegade Elvis Presley.

Dean had starred in only three films: East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Giant (1956) before his death, that occurred only five-six months after East of Eden's release.

[Note: Tragically, young star James Dean -- the prototype of an iconic, misunderstood, and moody rebellious adolescent -- was killed in a car accident at age 24, driving his new 550 Porsche Spyder sportscar. On September 30, 1955, his car collided with a 1950 Ford at 5:45 p.m. at the intersection of Routes 466 and 41 near Cholame, California. He was on his way to the Salinas road races.]

This was the only one of his three major films released before his death. [Note: Rebel Without a Cause was released in late October of 1955, just a month after Dean's death.] The year's Oscar ceremony (held on March 21, 1956) was overshadowed by the death of Dean about six months earlier. Both of his Best Actor Oscar nominations - for East of Eden (1955) and later for Giant - were announced posthumously. [Note: Dean was NOT nominated for his acting role in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).] With his nomination for East of Eden, Dean became was the first actor to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and he remains the only person to have two posthumous acting nominations.

It received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Director, Best Screenplay (Paul Osborn), and two acting nominations: Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. Jo Van Fleet (with her sole career nomination - and only Oscar win for her first film) won the Best Supporting Actress award for her performance as Kate (a mysterious mother-figure and Madam of a brothel) who deserted her family - with tragic consequences. The film was denied deserved nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (for Raymond Massey), and Best Supporting Actress (for Julie Harris).

Overall, the dramatic adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel was a financial success and made $5 million, and was the 10th highest-grossing film of the year. But its critical reviews were mixed (as was Steinbeck's book, which was repeated banned or challenged because of its profanity and subject matter). Later, to incorporate the missing content of Steinbeck's lengthy novel, a more comprehensive six hour-plus film adaptation was produced - this version East of Eden (1981) was a three-part ABC miniseries adaptation of Steinbeck's massive novel. Jane Seymour starred as the estranged mother/Madam (Cathy/Kate Ames), with Warren Oates as the previous generation's Cyrus Trask, the father of Adam (Timothy Bottoms), and Adam's two rival sons were: rebellious Cal (Sam Bottoms) and pious Aron (Hart Bochner).

Plot Synopsis

The Opening Credits:

After the playing of the opening credits atop views of the coastline of Monterey, California, where the Pacific Ocean clashed with the rocky shore, a title card compared the peacefulness of the town of Salinas to the rowdy Monterey port:

"In northern California, the Santa Lucia Mountains, 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."

Just outside the city limits

[Note: Although the film's setting was early 20th century Monterey, California, most of the film was shot on location in the coastal town of Mendocino, California, although some scenes were filmed in the fertile Salinas Valley.]

Introduction of Cal Trask in Monterey - Prowling After Woman Known as Kate:

The striking opening sequence, set in 1917 Monterey, introduced young Caleb "Cal" Trask (James Dean) from Salinas, as he sat on the curb of a city sidewalk. He was stalking and/or trailing after a dark-green shrouded figure as she strode to the local Bay City Bank to make a deposit. The male teller tried to engage in a conversation with two customers making deposits. After the first customer (a plump black woman named Sally) made a sizable deposit, the teller noted her "nice, fat deposit. You're sure in the right business, Sally." He also congratulated the second depositor - the dark figure: ("Another nice deposit. You and Sally are sure in the right business"). The customer was impatient and in a hurry. Cal followed at a distance as the woman walked back from the main street to a large two-story Victorian home a few blocks away. It was learned that she was known as Kate (Jo Van Fleet in her film debut) and had a reputation - respectable-looking women in the bank gossiped toward her direction, and males on the street accosted her.

Leery at having a young "kid" following her to the bank and back, Kate instructed her scared young cleaning maid Anne (Lois Smith in her film debut) to summon her long-haired enforcer Joe (Timothy Carey, whose entire dialogue was redubbed). Out on the street, Joe confronted the "young squirt" who had just thrown a large rock at the house and was suspiciously prowling around. Cal responded with a question: "Would she talk to me?...Just wanna talk to her." Joe wanted to know Cal's reason for being there: "Why are you followin' Kate around? What's the idea, squirt?" Cal felt he wasn't breaking any laws by following the Madam. Joe warned and forbade Cal from loitering around another building closeby that Kate also owned (the separate, more lucrative brothel?): "You're too young. Now come on. Now beat it." Kate was seen peering out of a curtained window at him. Cal ended the conversation with a request for Kate: "Well, you tell her, I hate her." [Note: Cal appeared to be tormented with the suspected thought that his estranged mother was the Madam of a brothel.]

Afterwards, Cal hopped a Southwest Pacific freight train and rode atop a car back to the farming valley of Salinas, where he berated himself for not being bolder: "Should have gone right on in there and talked to her."

At the Icehouse - The Revolutionary Investment Idea of Adam Trask:

Speaking to his pretty sweetheart and fiancee Abra (Julie Harris), Cal's twin brother Aron (Richard Davalos) anticipated that their worried father would want to know where Cal was for the entire night he was out - and that he would be punished by their stern father Adam Trask (Raymond Massey). Cal joined the couple and then met up with his father at an icehouse, where he was negotiating to purchase a refrigerated container "to freeze the vegetables with." Cal did not offer an apology for his absence, as Adam explained his idea to family friend Will Hamilton (Albert Dekker). Adam had decided - with all of his funds - to develop a method for shipping his ice-packed produce to the marketplace. He would ingeniously transport his crop in refrigerated train cars long distances across the country to far-away wintry markets (such as NYC) to keep the produce fresh:

"I got the idea from an article I read. They dug up a mastodon somewhere in Siberia. Been in the ice for thousands of years and the meat was still good....Sweet as a pork chop."

[Note: In historical reality, refrigerated train cars for shipping produce were already in common use almost 30 years earlier.]

Visibly excited, Adam felt he was getting out of a "rut" and was catching up with the times with his progressive and inventive, but risky idea. He was energized for finding a new purpose in life after 16-17 years: "But now I feel that if I could only do something, some little thing for - before I die, some little thing for progress - uh, for people, maybe....I might make up for all the years I've been lyin' fallow. So, lately I've been readin' up all I can about refrigeration. And I can't get it out of my head that you can keep anything good, as long as you can get it cold enough. Like that mastodon there."

[Note: Adam's philosophy of coldness to preserve things ("You can keep anything good, as long as you can get it cold enough") was also his viewpoint on parenting and his approach to dealing with Cal. Shortly later, he admitted he could never "understand" Cal, and therefore was coldly unloving and neglectful toward him.]

Although Aron thought his father's idea was a sound one, Cal disagreed with his father about the best approach to make a profit - and suggested another idea. He speculated that if the US entered the Great War in Europe, there would be a greater need for corn and bean crops:

"I read in the Monterey newspaper that if we get into this war, there are gonna be some fortunes made. But you're gonna make 'em in beans and corn, and stuff like that. You don't need all this ice."

Businessman Will Hamilton agreed with Cal: "Oh, you're perfectly right. Beans are up to 3 cents. You wanna make a profit, you plant beans." But Cal's father thoughtlessly and curtly disagreed, even though Cal's idea would prove more promising: "But I'm not particularly interested in making a profit, Cal." It was clear that Adam favored his more pious "good" son Aron, and was more critical of his restless, erratically-behaving, "inconsiderate" and "bad" son Cal:

"I'm at my rope's end with that boy (Cal). I don't understand him. I never have. Aron I've understood since he was a child."

It was no surprise, then, that the embittered Cal strongly believed that he was the unfavored son of his stiff, self-righteous father - who biasedly doted on Aron.

Cal's Eavesdropping on Brother Aron and His Fiancee Abra:

Inside the icehouse, Cal spied on Aron and Abra, who briefly mentioned that Cal was an anti-social loner ("Why is he so alone all the time?"). Aron speculated: "He wants to be," but Abra disagreed: "Nobody wants to be alone all the time." While Abra said she didn't know Cal very well, she thought he was "scary...when he looks at you. Sort of like an animal." Aron spoke out: "I love him."

Aron seemed to have everything, including fatherly pride and support, and the love of his beautiful and "perfect" fiancee Abra: (Aron: "When we get married, it's gonna be perfect...You're gonna make a wonderful mother, Abra...a perfect one"). As Kate had peered out at him through a small space between window curtains, Cal also peeked at their necking through a narrow space between two big blocks of ice - he could only secretly worship Abra and spy on them coldly from afar.

When Cal was discovered closeby and listening to them, Abra pulled Aron to a distant corner of the icehouse to hide their sexual passion, where she expressed her fear: "I feel as if he can still see us." Cal disruptively and deliberately knocked over a few large blocks of ice as he heard them passionately vow their love for each other. And then he wildly and destructively pushed multiple ice blocks down an ice chute to the ground - symbolically rejecting the coldness in his life. His father rushed over with reprimands: "What are you doing? Stop it!"

The Dinner Table Bible-Reading Session:

The next scene was a tense Bible-reading session at the dinner table, filmed with a disorienting tilt (in cinematic terms, a "dutch angle") to show the unbalanced nature of the relationship between father and son. Adam was always on the upper side of the angled tilt, while Cal was on the lower side. Cal's stern, moralistic, and religiously-strict Salinas valley lettuce-growing father read to the family from the Scriptures, Psalm 32, verse 2 (King James Version - KJV):

"Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity and in whose spirit there is no guile."

Adam forgave Cal for destroying the ice, but couldn't understand Cal's motive: "Was it vengeance? Anger? Fear that I would punish you for not coming home last night? What was it?" When Cal wouldn't provide a satisfactory answer, Adam antagonistically instructed his son to read from an appropriate Bible passage to learn a lesson and acknowledge his sins and iniquities - Psalm 32, beginning at verse 5 through verse 7:

Verse 5: "I acknowledge my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. Selah."
Verse 6: "For this shall every one that is godly pray unto thee. And surely in the floods of great waters, they shall not come nigh unto him. Selah."
Verse 7: "Thou art my hiding place, thou shalt preserve me from trouble. Thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance. Selah."

Cal further annoyed and provoked his father by deliberately and disobediently not following his directions like a little child - by reading too fast and also including each verse number, and for reading an extra verse, verse 8. Mr. Trask lost his temper, blurted out his anger and condemned Cal's character for "the iniquities of his sins" - referring to verse 5. He shouted:

"You have no repentance. You're bad, through and through, bad."

After the outright condemnation, Aron abruptly dismissed himself from the table. Cal answered his father: "You're right. I am bad. I knew that for a long time." Although Adam immediately apologized for speaking out in anger, the outburst confirmed Cal's understanding of his own lack of self-worth:

"Well, it's true. Aron's the good one. I guess there's just a certain amount of good and bad you get from your parents and I just got the bad."

Cal's father then reiterated one of the film's major themes - the ability of human beings to make choices in their lives - although he then reminded Cal of how often he would stray and not listen:

"You can make of yourself anything you want. It's up to you. A man has a choice. That's where he's different from an animal. You don't listen. You'll never remember."

Cal's Confrontation With His Father About His 'No-Good' Mother:

Cal confronted his father, revealing that he knew that his father had spread bold-faced lies about his 'no-good' mother to spare his family pain. His father had spread the falsehood that she had gone East from the ranch shortly after the boys' birth, and presumed that she died there. Cal told his father that he believed that his mother, who was supposedly "in heaven," was still alive after abandoning him and the family:

"My mother - she's not dead and gone to heaven, is she?...She's not dead at all. She's not buried in the East like you said, either. She's alive....How come you told Aron and me she died?"

Although Adam admitted the revelation (and confirmed that he had kept it a secret to avoid the family pain, by spreading the belief that she had moved East after her twin boys were born, but he hadn't heard from her since), Cal pressed for more evidence of his mother's 'bad-ness': "What was she like? Was she bad?" Adam described his wife from years earlier:

"I never really knew what she was like. She wasn't like other people. There was something she seemed to lack. Kindness, maybe. Conscience. I never knew what she was after...She was so full of hate....for everything."

Cal's father was adamant about keeping the truth from his other twin son Aron: "You won't tell Aron that she didn't die?" Cal reluctantly agreed with the long-held pre-supposition that Aron was the anointed one: "Must not do anything to hurt Aron." Adam also repeated his long-held falsehood about the scar on his shoulder - allegedly an old wound suffered "in the Indian campaigns." Cal was also curious about his mother's past appearance ("What'd she look like? Was she pretty?"), and Adam only dreamily described her hands: "She had the most lovely hands. Like ivory. She took such good care of them. Her mother had arthritis. She was always afraid it would come to her in her hands."

Cal begged his father for more information: "Talk to me, Father. I gotta know who I am. I gotta know who I'm like. I gotta know...," but Adam simply deflected Cal's earnest request: "I'm telling you, truthfully, Cal, after she left, I never heard from her." Knowing that his father was hiding something, Cal rose and left the table. As he rushed past his brother and Abra outside, Cal sarcastically spoke under his breath to Aron: "You're the one he wants."

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