It’s impossible to un-see it. You can try, but I don’t believe it can be accomplished. As many know, the iconic James Dean only managed 3 major film roles in his tragically cut short life. But “East of Eden” was his debut…and he burns up the screen. I first experienced this film on broadcast television, late one night, during my teen years. Officially that means(to me), I’d NEVER seen it. With commercial interruption, and who knows what edited out, and probably on a 19-inch television screen maximum—far from the optimum conditions. So, my recent revisit to Dean’s “coming out” was essential. And the screen is 40+ inches now, and its in its proper aspect ratio, with all scenes intact and sans interruption. But, you know what hasn’t changed? The fire of Mr. Dean’s portrayal still blazes like the Great Chicago Fire.
The role of Cal Trask was the only one audiences got to witness while he was still alive, and roughly a year later it would garner James the first of two posthumous Academy Award nominations(the next would be for 1956’s “Giant”). He is the only actor to hold that distinction until this day, while the performance that he wasn’t nominated for, probably remains the one he’s most closely identified with(more on 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause” in a future Flashback entry). One wonders where his career would’ve taken him had he managed to celebrate his 25th birthday.
“East of Eden” is based on John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel, and apparently the film only chronicles the 2nd half of the book. No matter—1939’s motion picture version of “Wuthering Heights” is similarly truncated, and it remains a beloved classic even now. And what we get from the “East of Eden” film is the loosely interpreted biblical fable of Cain and Abel. Loosely I stress, but the parallels are obvious. Raymond Massey is the religious, plantation-owning patriarch, Adam Trask, while Mr. Dean and Richard Davalos take on the role of the “dueling” sibling brothers, Cal and Aron. The legendary Julie Harris portrays the torn Abra, in only her 2nd big screen appearance. And Jo Van Fleet grabbed the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, as the “mystery woman” who Dean stalks in the film’s opening scenes. You’ll also get an Oscar-nominated screenplay from Paul Osborn, and, of course, direction from the controversial, yet renowned director Elia Kazan(also nominated for an Academy Award). But when you absorb it today, it really is all about Dean. His handsome face, his energy and charisma, his Brando-channeling histrionics. This was a born superstar.
Set during the World War I period(1917-18), the story mostly takes place in the California coastal towns of Monterey and Salinas, while the spectre of America’s involvement in the war hangs over the entire community. You’ll never be able to shake the images of Dean hitching a ride on the top of a freight train, or hiding from Abra and his brother behind blocks of ice, and climbing down the Ferris wheel at the country fair. It’s a searing portrait. And the movie-star legend of James Dean began right here. A car crash would snuff out his young life months after the film opened. So, don’t miss “East of Eden” for the power of what was—as well as what could have been. Grade: A