Play It Again – East of Eden

Play It Again – East of Eden. By Jess Lomas.

Play It Again is a weekly feature in which classic-film connoisseur Jess Lomas revisits a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).

Drawing on the biblical story of Cain and Abel, Elia Kazan’s 1955 East of Eden is an impressive and grand-scale adaptation of the latter half of John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name. At the time, Kazan was a force to be reckoned with, having already given us such classics as Gentleman’s Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. He was now about to introduce the world to a bright young talent by the name of James Dean.

Set in 1917 on the Californian coast, Dean plays Cal Trask, the “bad” son to Richard Davalos’ “good” son, Aron. Their father, Adam (Raymond Massey), is a bible-bashing lettuce farmer who lets his boys believe their mother Eve (Jo Van Fleet) is long dead. While Aron takes his father’s word, Cal seeks the truth and discovers his mother working as a Madam at a local brothel, having “fallen” from grace. When Adam’s farm comes upon hard times, Cal borrows money to establish himself in the bean-growing business, with the hope of recouping his father’s losses and earning his love. Cal’s business is successful but does not bring him what he seeks the most: his father’s approval. The film also delivers a blistering love triangle between Aron and his girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris) who later develops feelings for Cal. This doesn’t stop Aron from announcing the couple’s engagement despite her wandering affections.

Opinion varies on Dean’s performance here, from overly calculated and methodical, to enlightened and even legendary. It was a mere six months from the film’s release to Dean’s accident that would see him immortalised. Kazan was known for drawing rich performances from his cast, and, much like Brando in Streetcar or Waterfront, Dean gives an energetic turn while toeing the over-the-top line. The mutual dislike that developed between Dean and Massey on set further aided their performances on screen, with Kazan making the most of an otherwise uncomfortable situation.

Employing unusual and at times vertigo-inducing camera angles, East of Eden makes it clear Kazan was always more at ease when directing theatre than film. His films gave a platform for many legendary performances; however the films themselves are far from perfect.

East of Eden is now available on Quickflix streaming.

Discuss: East of Eden!

4 Responses to “Play It Again – East of Eden”

  1. Hi Jess. Interesting review. What is your opinion of the 1970s (think it was way back then) television mini-series of East of Eden? I remember thinking that Jane Seymour was fantastic in that.

  2. HI Bev,

    Thanks for the comment – unfortunately I haven’t seen the mini-series that you speak of but am intrigued to track it down now!


    • Oops, just started typing a reply and my computer seems to have had a hiccough, so if you get two responses, ignore the first. It’s well worth chasing down the mini-series, Jess. It’s got some great reviewes on IMDB. And the best thing about the mini-series: it follows the whole of the novel, not just the section when Adam is a bitter older man with two sons, living in California. Oh, just talking about it makes me want to go out and source it myself to enjoy it again. Let me know what you think if you do manage to see it.

      Cheers, Bev

  3. Oh man, I love this film so much, even more so than Rebel Without A Cause. It influenced me to such an extent that I couldn’t stand Raymond Massey for years and have only just recently discovered how utterly awesome and multifaceted he was an actor … I still can’t believe that was him in Arsenic And Old Lace, and then in one of the most awesome bits of The 49th Parallel and omg Chauvelin in the 1930s version of The Scarlet Pimpernel! Still boggles my mind, especially when I see him and Leslie Howard practically glow in each other’s presence. What a legend.

    As for East Of Eden, oh man, that scene on the top of the ferris wheel. I can totally see why people would call James Dean’s performance overly calculated but I confess I still have a fondness for it, even though now I can see exactly how he’s copying Montgomery Clift. *sigh*

    I really want to watch it again to pay better attention to Lois Smith. She played the mother, didn’t she? I’ve seen her in an amazing episode of SVU and she seems to pop up all over the place so you could have knocked me over with a feather when I suddenly discovered she was also in East Of Eden.

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