Tuesday, June 16, 2009
East of Eden (1955)
John Steinbeck's books have made some great films. The Grapes of Wrath was made into a fantastic movie by director John Ford and starring actor Henry Fonda. There have been a few versions of his novella Of Mice And Men. East of Eden continued this tradition. Director Elia Kazan (On The Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, A Gentleman's Agreement) directed this version which gave James Dean his first leading role.
It's hard to imagine the 1950's without thinking of James Dean, and yet for all of his smaller roles he really only had 2 or 3 movies as a lead actor. He had just started getting lead roles in the year before he died. East of Eden was his first lead actor role in a film. He was only 24 when the movie was released, but man(!) does he nail this role! It's not so far off from his role in A Rebel Without A Cause, so it's easy to see how he developed his public image.
The movie version of East of Eden is the story of the Trask family in Salinas, California right before and during World War I. Adam is the father to Aron and Cal (played by Dean). The movie starts off with James Dean following a lady running a 'house of ill repute' from the bank to her home. She gets spooked by him and when she gets home sends a man out to talk to him. After being roughed up a little, Cal tells the man to tell his boss that he hates her. From there, the movie moves to a house and we are introduced to Adam, Aron, and Aron's girlfriend Abra. We can see right off that Aron seems to be the golden child. He can do no harm in the eyes of his father. Cal, on the other hand, can't seem to do anything right. As the movie progresses, Adam invests all of his money into a business venture that would provide ice to keep lettuce cold during transportation - allowing it to be sold to more locations further away. For some reason the venture fails and Adam is left broke. After losing his fortune, Adam is forced to take a job a the draft board sending young men off to war. Cal eventually goes back to the house of ill repute and confronts the woman - Kate. We learn that Kate is Cal's mother and that she doesn't want her other son Aron to know of her existence. Kate is really well off. Cal comes up with an idea to make money to give his father back the money he lost in his venture by borrowing money from his mother and investing in beans - an industry suddenly thriving during the war. As the movie progresses, Cal gets close to his brothers girlfriend and things seem to be improving for Cal. Eventually Cal's investment pays off and he arranges to give the money he makes to his father at a birthday party. At the birthday party, as he his about to give his gift his brother interrupts him to announce that his gift to his father is that he is engaged. Adam is very happy and says it was the best gift he could have imagined. When Cal makes a gift of the money, Adam is not happy at all. He refuses the money saying he couldn't profit off of sending young men to war. All Cal ever really wanted was for his father to accept him and all the work he put into getting his father's money back was his last ditch attempt to save the relationship. From there all hell breaks loose. In anger, Cal takes Aron to meet his mother. Upon his father finding out, he has a stroke and is bed ridden. The final scene, Abra begs Adam to tell Cal that he loves him saying it is the only way he could be a man. In an emotional scene, Cal visits his father and his father whispers something in his ear. The viewer is left hoping that Adam professed his love for his son, but hopes are dashed when it turns out his father told him to stop fighting. And with that the movie ends.
This movie is fantastic. The story is interesting - darker than you'd ever expect from a movie in the 1950's. John Steinbeck had a genius for instilling strong emotions into his readers (viewers). You honestly want things to work out for Cal and are really bummed out when they don't. Rebel Without A Cause is the work that James Dean is most known for, but I'd have to say that his acting here is a little better. If you haven't seen this film, you should!