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East of Eden (film)

East of Eden
File:East of eden poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Elia Kazan
Produced by Elia Kazan
Screenplay by Paul Osborn
Based on the novel East of Eden 
by John Steinbeck
Starring James Dean
Julie Harris
Raymond Massey
Richard Davalos
Music by Leonard Rosenman
Cinematography Ted D. McCord
Edited by Owen Marks
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • March 9, 1955 (1955-03-09) (New York City)
Running time
115 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $5 million (rentals)[1]

East of Eden is a 1955 film, directed by Elia Kazan, and loosely based on the second half of the 1952 novel of the same name by John Steinbeck. It is about a wayward young man who, while seeking his own identity, vies for the affection of his deeply religious father against his favored brother, thus retelling the story of Cain and Abel.

The film stars Julie Harris, James Dean (in his first major screen role), and Raymond Massey. It also features Burl Ives, Richard Davalos and Jo Van Fleet, and was adapted by Paul Osborn.[2]

Although set in early twentieth century Monterey, California, much of the film was actually shot on location in Mendocino, California. Some scenes were filmed in the Salinas Valley.

Of the three films in which James Dean played the male lead, this is the only one to have been released during his lifetime and the only one Dean personally viewed in its entirety.[3]

The film, along with Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, has been named by the American Film Institute as one of the best 400 American films of all time. [4]


The story is set during 1917 and 1918, leading into American involvement in World War I, in the central California coastal towns of Monterey and Salinas. Cal (James Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos) are the sons of a modestly successful farmer and wartime draft board chairman, Adam Trask (Raymond Massey). Cal is moody and embittered by his belief that his father favors Aron. Although both Cal and Aron had long been led to believe that their mother had died "and gone to heaven," the opening scene reveals Cal has apparently learned that his mother is still alive, owning and running a successful brothel in nearby Monterey.

After the father's idealistic plans for a long-haul vegetable shipping business venture end in a loss of thousands of dollars, Cal decides to enter the bean-growing business, as a way of recouping the money his father lost in the vegetable shipping venture. He is advised that if the United States enters the war, the price of beans will skyrocket. Cal hopes this will finally earn him the love and respect of his father. He goes to his mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) to ask to borrow the capital he needs. Though she remains hostile toward Adam for inflicting his "purity" on her and her sons, Kate reluctantly lends him $5,000.

Meanwhile, Aron's girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris) gradually finds herself attracted to Cal, who seems to reciprocate her feelings.

Later on, Cal goes to the carnival and sees Abra alone, waiting for Aron. To accompany her, they soon go together on several rides and play games, increasing their ongoing attraction for each other. On a Ferris wheel, they kiss, but Abra in tears admits that she still loves Aron. Afterwards, there is a fight between the townspeople and Aron regarding the Germans. To help him, Cal breaks up the fight and helps Aron. Although his intentions were pure, Aron sees this deed as just an act to impress Abra, also noticing that Abra is holding Cal's jacket. In a fit of rage, Cal hits Aron, but Abra stops and reassures him.

Cal's business goes well, and he decides to give the money to his father at a surprise birthday party for him, which he and Abra plan together. As the party gets under way, Aron, who is jealous at what Cal and Abra have done for Adam, suddenly announces that he and Abra are engaged. While Adam is openly pleased with the news, both Abra and Cal are uneasy, having recently discovered their emerging mutual attraction despite their suppressed feelings. Aron has stolen Cal's thunder and once again triumphs as the favourite.

Cal makes a surprise birthday present of the money to his father. However, Adam refuses to accept any money earned by what he regards as war profiteering. Cal does not understand and sees his father's refusal to accept the gift as another emotional rejection. When the distraught Cal leaves the room, Abra goes after him to console him as best she can with several kisses. Aron sees this and orders Cal to stay away from her.

In anger, Cal takes his brother to see their mother, then returns home alone. When his father demands to know where his brother is, Cal tells him. The shock drives Aron to get drunk and board a troop train to enlist in the army. When Sam (Burl Ives), the sheriff, brings the news, Adam rushes to the train station in an attempt to dissuade him, but can only watch helplessly as his son steams away from him, smashing the rail car window with his head and maniacally laughing at him.

Because of the stress, Adam suffers a stroke, leaving him paralyzed and unable to communicate. Cal and Abra enter the bedroom. Cal tries to talk to him, but gets no response and dejectedly departs the bedroom, leaving Abra alone with Adam. Abra pleads with Adam to show Cal fatherly love he wants so desperately and let Cal "do" for him, before it is too late. She persuades Cal to go back into the room. When Cal makes his last bid for acceptance before leaving town, his father manages to speak. He tells his son to dismiss a self-absorbed, obnoxious nurse and not to replace her, but to take care of him himself. Cal embraces Abra and they share their first kiss free from Aron's shadow; and he pulls up a chair to sit next to his father. The film ends with Abra leaving the room and Cal sitting by Adam's bedside.


Critical reaction

Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader praised the adaptation by Kazan and the "down-to-earth" performances of James Dean and Richard Davalos.[5] Bosley Crowther, writing for The New York Times, described the film as having "energy and intensity but little clarity and emotion"; he notes:

In one respect, it is brilliant. The use that Mr. Kazan has made of CinemaScope and color in capturing expanse and mood in his California settings is almost beyond compare. His views of verdant farmlands in the famous Salinas "salad bowl," sharply focused to the horizon in the sunshine, are fairly fragrant with atmosphere. The strain of troubled people against such backgrounds has a clear and enhanced irony.

For the stubborn fact is that the people who move about in this film are not sufficiently well established to give point to the anguish through which they go, and the demonstrations of their torment are perceptibly stylized and grotesque.[6]

Bosley Crowther calls Dean's performance a "mass of histrionic gingerbread" which clearly emulates the style of Marlon Brando.[6]

Fifty years later, film critic Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, was much more positive, saying East of Eden is "not only one of Kazan's richest films and Dean's first significant role, it is also arguably the actor's best performance."[7] The film's depiction of the interaction between Dean and Massey was characterized by Turan as "the paradigmatic generational conflict in all of American film."[7]

Themes and character motivations

The underlying theme of East of Eden is a biblical reference to the brothers Cain and Abel. Cal is constantly struggling to earn his father's approval. The relationship between Cal and his father is a stressful one and is not resolved until late in the story, after his father suffers a paralyzing stroke. In his paralyzed state and with the help of Julie Harris' character, Abra, Cal's father finally expresses his suppressed love for the boy.[8]

Other themes touched upon in the film include anti-German xenophobia, specifically as wrought against a local German immigrant as resentment about United States entry into World War I grew. The themes of young love and sibling rivalry are also present in the film, as Aron's girlfriend finds herself increasingly drawn to the more rebellious Cal.




  1. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1955', Variety Weekly, January 25, 1956.
  2. ^ East of Eden at the American Film Institute Catalog.
  3. ^ James Dean at the Internet Movie Database.
  4. ^ "American Film Institute's Top 400 American Films". 
  5. ^ Kehr, Dave. East of Eden. Chicago Reader. Accessed: August 4, 2013.
  6. ^ a b Crowther, Bosley (March 10, 1955). "The Screen: 'East of Eden' Has Debut; Astor Shows Film of Steinbeck Novel". The New York Times. Retrieved August 4, 2013. 
  7. ^ a b Turan, Kenneth. Los Angeles Times, "Dean personifies anguished youth", film review, June 10, 2005. Accessed: August 4, 2013.
  8. ^ "Pop Culture 101: EAST OF EDEN". Retrieved November 22, 2013. 
  9. ^ "Special Achievement Award(Previous Award Given)"
  10. ^ "Festival de Cannes: East of Eden". Retrieved August 4, 2013. 

External links

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