It’s hard to believe that screen icon James Dean, whose name is known to probably every filmgoer in the world, starred in only three films before his tragic death in a car accident. When Warner Bros. call their boxed set the “Complete James Dean Collection,” they aren’t kidding. There was “East of Eden,” released in 1955, “Rebel Without a Cause” also released in 1955, and “Giant” in 1956. And that was it. (The three movies are available separately as well as in the box.)
What was there about this young man whose mystique so enthralled the world half a century ago and continues to enthrall it to this day? A look at his first starring role in the screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” may help to explain part of it. After all, the movie not only starred Dean, it also starred Richard Davalos, Raymond Massey, Julie Harris, Jo Van Fleet, and Burl Ives. Yet, good as the cast is, who but a dedicated film buff remembers anyone in the picture but Dean?
Although the movie is widely accepted as the definitive version of Steinbeck’s novel, it contains, of course, less than half of what Steinbeck wrote, appropriately centering on the relationship of the father and son. I say “appropriately” because even though James Dean gets second billing in the credits, it is his picture all the way. He is, in a word, unforgettable.
Director Elia Kazan, no stranger to “message” pictures (“Gentleman’s Agreement,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Viva Zapata,” “On the Waterfront,” “Baby Doll,” “The Last Tycoon”), was a friend of Steinbeck, and when Steinbeck’s novel became a best-seller, Kazan was quick to pick up the movie rights and sell the idea to Warner Bros. He was not quite so quick to choose Dean as his star, however. His first thought was to cast Marlon Brando in the part of the son, Cal, with an eye toward then-unknown Paul Newman as well. But Brando, whom Kazan had directed in “Zapata” and “Streetcar,” was at thirty too old for the role, and small-time stage and TV actor Dean caught the director’s attention. In screen tests, Dean seemed to possess just the right combination of youthful angst and enthusiasm. When Steinbeck met the actor for the first time, he is said to have exclaimed, “Jesus Christ, he is Cal!”
With a little help from Steinbeck, noted Broadway and Hollywood writer Paul Osborn adapted the script. Osborn had already done “Madam Curie,” “The Yearling,” and “Portrait of Jennie,” and he would go on to do the screenplays for “Sayonara,” “South Pacific,” and “The World of Suzie Wong.” However, neither the director nor the writer (both of them Oscar nominated here for their work) could stop Dean, a “method” actor, from improvising many of his scenes. In an audio commentary, Richard Schickel notes several instances where Dean completely threw himself into the part and began doing things spontaneously. Among the most celebrated is a climactic moment with Raymond Massey as his screen father that so threw Massey off, he could hardly respond to the young actor. Massey apparently came to hate Dean, but Kazan loved the young man’s abilities and left much of Dean’s impromptu bits in the picture.
Steinbeck’s story line, as the title suggests, is based loosely on the Cain and Abel story in Genesis. Here it is the rivalry between two older teen brothers for their father’s love. Dean plays Caleb Trask, the brooding teen, always slumped, inarticulate, intense, and confused. Richard Davalos plays his brother Aron, the supposedly “good” son. And Raymond Massey plays the father, Adam, ultraconservative, ramrod straight-arrow, always quoting the Bible, proud of Aron but frustrated at the unruly behavior of the bad seed, Cal.
The setting is Steinbeck country: the town and agricultural valley of Salinas, where the author grew up, about twenty miles inland from the fishing village of Monterey on the central California coast. The time is 1917, just before America’s entrance into the First World War.
The Trasks used to be farmers but now live in the town of Salinas. Cal is jealous of his father’s love for his brother and feels that his father neglects him. Meanwhile, the father’s dream is to freeze vegetables in order to ship them across country without spoiling. When Adam’s dream fails, Cal determines to win his father’s love by engaging in a business deal to repay him all the money he lost in the refrigeration scheme.
At the same time, Cal is determined to find his mother, a woman the father says left them when they were babies, went East, and disappeared. Cal doesn’t believe it and through sheer intuition (and the suggestion of an acquaintance) suspects that the madam of a Monterey brothel may be his mother. The woman, known in the film only as Kate, is played by Jo Van Fleet in an Academy Award-winning portrayal for Best Supporting Actress. After some pestering, Cal gets Kate to admit that she is, indeed, his real mother. At which point he asks her for money! No, not hush money or blackmail but a serious business deal. Kate’s house of ill repute makes a good profit, and Cal asks her to finance the business deal for him that will get him the money he needs to give to his father. It’s a sweetly naive occasion for Cal. At first she tells him he’s got a lot of nerve coming to her. “Why?” asks Cal. “I didn’t do anything to you.”
Interestingly, a young Julie Harris gets top billing in the movie, even though her role is smaller than that of any of the Trasks or the mother. Ms. Harris plays Abra, Aron’s girlfriend and soon-to-be fiancée. Why first billing? I suspect because Harris was the best-known name in a cast that, with the exception of Massey, consisted of relative unknowns. In any case, at first she finds Cal scary; but as time goes on, the innocent girl becomes attracted by his wild ways. “I don’t have to explain anything to anybody,” exclaims Cal.
Like so many young people, Cal craves attention and love but doesn’t know how to achieve it. He sees himself as bad, taking after his wayward mother rather than his “righteous” father. With the coming War come new battles, new conflicts, new prejudices, and new jealousies, all of them played out on the home front, within the Trask family circle. “Some day he’s gonna know who his real son is,” says Cal.
Cal starts out as a boy and ends up a man. Everything spirals forward to the inevitable climax, then resolution and reconciliation. Yes, “East of Eden” is heavy on melodrama, but it remains powerful. Dean is the ideal representation of the lonely, troubled teenager, the youth in turmoil, be it 1917 or any year. His performance alone, for which he was posthumously Oscar nominated, is worth the price of the movie. If that doesn’t do it for you, the fine supporting players and the widescreen cinematography should get your attention. Abridged or no, it’s one of the few screen treatments of a Steinbeck novel that the author is said to have loved.
This is another splendid transfer from Warner Bros. Their commitment to high bit rates pays off in colors that are solid, intense, and vivid, without being in the least bit excessive or flamboyant. There is a small amount of grain present, just enough to give the image some life, a realistic edge; and there is an equally small amount of line shimmer that is hardly noticeable. Then, too, the movie is presented in all its CinemaScope glory in a ratio that measured close to 2.30:1 across my television screen, about as wide as ratio as you will find on any DVD transfer.
The audio has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 to good effect, mostly in the soaring, lyrical music of composer Leonard Rosenman. The midrange tonal balance is smooth and natural, although the frequency extremes are somewhat limited. There is a modest stereo spread that is sometimes extended by the new remix, but rear-channel information remains understandably scant. Occasionally, one hears the ambient bloom of the musical score in the surrounds or the chirping of crickets on a warm summer night. There are also a couple of instances with uncredited actor Timothy Carey as a bouncer in the cat house where his lips don’t appear to match his words, as though his lines were poorly dubbed in later. Don’t know, but it seemed odd.
As usual with these two-disc affairs, disc one contains the movie plus a single, major bonus item, an audio commentary. This commentary is by Richard Schickel, the noted film historian and critic, screenwriter, director, and producer. His comments are obviously informed and informative, analytical and entertaining. He does not always praise the film, as so many folks do in these commentaries, and he will often point out the weaknesses of a scene. It’s a commentary worth pursuing. In addition, there are twenty-nine scene selections (but no chapter insert); a widescreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Disc two contains several more items of note, most particularly the new, fiftieth-anniversary documentary, “East of Eden: Art in Search of Life.” It is nineteen minutes long and contains interviews with director Elia Kazan; film historian Richard Schickel, who does the movie audio commentary; actress Julie Harris; John Steinbeck’s son, Tom Steinbeck; and others.
In addition, there is an hour-long vintage documentary, made in 1988, about Dean’s life: “Forever James Dean.” It is divided into twenty-one chapters and narrated by actor Bob Gunton. The documentary points out that Dean’s career as a star lasted approximately sixteen months, yet his presence is still felt around the world. “His would be the most spectacular but brief career that Hollywood has ever known,” says Gunton. The feature includes interviews with Dean’s friends and co-workers and covers his life from birth to death. Pictures of the bespectacled youngster, by the way, hardly indicate the legend we have come to know today.
Besides the two documentaries, disc two contains nineteen minutes’ worth of deleted scenes, some of them redundant; six minutes of screen tests with Dean and Richard Davalos; twenty-two minutes of wardrobe, costume, and production-design tests; and fourteen minutes of footage from the New York première of “East of Eden” on March 19, 1955.
“East of Eden” holds up as one of the better dramas Hollywood has attempted. Despite its being slightly hokey and exaggerated in parts, the sensitivities of the characters and their situations ring true. Most important, Dean’s performance continues to resonant, still evoking today the same anger, anguish, and confusion of growing up that it did half a century ago.
Dean’s early death was a tragedy, without question, and one can’t help but wonder where he would have gone after “Giant” and how much more he would have accomplished. But what his death did do was to preserve his image, forever young, forever rebellious, forever insecure, and, perhaps ironically, forever symbolic of an impulsive desire to be wanted and loved. Dean was not just an emblem of the fifties’ generation; he represented everybody’s generation.