East of Eden (1955)
East of Eden (1955)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 58 min.

Release Date: April 10th, 1955 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Elia Kazan Actors: James Dean, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, Richard Davalos, Burl Ives, Jo Van Fleet, Albert Dekker, Lois Smith

 


 

T

he running time isn’t long enough to warrant an overture, yet it begins with one anyway – perhaps signifying the intended epical qualities of this John Steinbeck story, directed by the great Elia Kazan (having received countless accolades for “On the Waterfront,” released the year before). The story proper opens in 1917, near California’s Santa Lucia Mountains, just outside the city limits of the fishing port of Monterey, where young Caleb “Cal” Trask (James Dean) from neighboring Salinas, loiters near a bank. He follows one of the clients, Kate (Jo Van Fleet), back to her house, where he throws some stones and makes a scene, insisting that he hates the elderly woman, despite not even knowing her name.

He leaves without speaking to Kate, regretting his failure to confront her, eventually returning to Salinas where his brother Aron (Richard Davalos) and father Adam (Raymond Massey) await, disappointed at Cal’s unexplained disappearance. Loner Cal is clearly the black sheep of the family. With the war looming, Adam focuses on his latest idea of preserving food with ice, while Aron goes to school and plans his future with girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris); but Cal wanders around aimlessly, being disrespectful to his father, upsetting acquaintances, and inexplicably destroying property. He’s a troublemaker but he’s clearly distraught, contending with wayward thoughts, psychological angst, and a revelation about his mother, whom he was told died long ago, but is in fact still alive.

Dean plays a rebel, perhaps perfecting his signature persona (“Rebel Without A Cause” would be released a little later in the same year), combining precociousness with irreverence and an insatiable curiosity. Expectedly, adults can’t seem to adequately communicate with Cal, while he’s unable to respect authority figures or stay out of trouble with the law (represented by a kindly sheriff played by Burl Ives). As Cal sulks his way through the mystery of his mother, gleaning information from all over town, and eventually finding opportunities to be productive – which soon changes the way people interact with him – his life begins to turn around. There just might be a hope for normalcy for this headstrong youth. “I don’t have to explain anything to anybody.”

Between reconnecting with his mother and trying to get rich quick, Cal’s tale involves plenty of mature, dramatic themes, particularly about freedoms from familial restrictions – something bold and ahead of its time for a movie of the ’50s, especially when it features a woman venturing off into a successful (though controversial) business of her own to escape the confines of parenthood. It’s frequently smart, engaging, emotional, and intermittently historical (presenting various attitudes toward international conflicts, patriotism, profits, and foreigners living in Salinas). “What’s a farmer got to do with war?”

Curiously, a love story for Cal doesn’t take hold until more than halfway through the film, and it creates an uncomfortable complication, made more intricate by the pervasive theme of moral righteousness versus inherent badness. Anti-war sentiments, jealousy, and anger play off of failed expectations, upstaging, and Cal’s inability to gain his father’s approval, culminating in an inevitable, bitter confrontation with the truth – and Cal’s realization that he can’t buy his father’s love. It’s a poignant, tragic, downward spiral destined to return Cal to the relational distance he started with; his story is one of isolation and guilt and loss – a dour affair, though one not without a welcome glimmer of reconciliation and a powerful parting shot.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10