East of Eden (1955)

east of eden poster 1955 movie
9.5 Overall Score
Story: 9/10
Acting: 10/10
Visuals: 9/10

Classic Hollywood story that helped propel James Dean to stardom

Story truncated, could have pushed some more visuals further

Movie Info

Movie Name:  East of Eden

Studio:  Warner Bros.

Genre(s):  Drama

Release Date(s):  March 9, 1995 (Premiere)/April 10, 1955 (US)

MPAA Rating:  Not Rated

east of eden mother cal james dean jo van fleet

Hey, Mom…what’s new?

Cal Trask (James Dean) and Aron Trask (Richard Davalos) are brothers growing up in the Salinas Valley in California as the world marches to war in Germany.  While Aron is the favored son and destined to marry his childhood love Abra Bacon (Julie Harris), Cal is sullen and constantly seeking the approval of his father Adam (Raymond Massey).  When Cal discovers a secret of his family in the form of his long-believed-to-be-dead mother (Jo Van Fleet) who works as a Madam in Monterey, he realizes the ideals he has been living up to are false.  With never fervor, Cal sets out to earn Adam’s love…and leaves a path of destruction in his wake.

Directed by Elia Kazan, East of Eden is a drama.  The film is an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel which in turn is a modern novelization of the story of Cain and Abel.  The film was the only one of James Dean’s film to be released during his lifetime before his death on September 30, 1955.  The film won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Jo Van Fleet) with nominations for Best Actor (Dean), Best Director, and Best Screenplay.  The film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2016.

east of eden fair ferris wheel james dean julie harris

Cal…Aron kind of sucks

East of Eden is a classic both in novel form and film version though the film version is a very truncated version of the book (lopping off the first half of the novel).  I read the book before seeing the film and remember thinking “Did I miss the first part somehow?”  Despite the changes, East of Eden remains a strong film with a memorable cast.

The movie is odd in that it points out the oddity of the biblical story itself.  Cain and Abel both make sacrifices to God and God favors Abel…leading to the first murder.  It can be argued that Cain’s anger and wrath was created by God’s action but it is generally seen that Cain always had the anger inside him.  This is the case likewise with Cal and Aron.  Cal has always been treated differently than his brother, but as a result his brother is also softer and has less ingenuity.  Cal thinks with logic, acts with logic, and is told he should act with compassion…but he also is far more emotionally driven.  This creates this odd love triangle with their father and a second love triangle with Aron’s girlfriend who sees the pain of Cal as an outsider to the family dynamic.

east of eden adam abra cal beans money julie harris, james dean raymond massey

Ok…at this point, you’re just being unreasonable, Adam

The cast is good, but it also must be noted that it is a different style of acting than many modern actors.  While often actors try to hold back their emotions in today’s films, Dean emotes every emotion on the screen.  You can tell when he’s angry, sad, nervous, and happy…you ride the emotions with him and he make great use of this ability.  Dean famously didn’t get along with Massey who played his father and this probably actually helped the performance.  While Jo Van Fleet was often noted for her performance, I really like Julie Harris’s kind Abra who flirts with darkness like Cal.  I think Davalos is the weakest of the core cast though he still is pretty good at making a “nice” unlikable character.  The movie also features appearances by Burl Ives, Albert Dekker, and the first film role of Lois Smith.

east of eden cal aron mother james dean richard davalos

Dick move, Cal

Visually, the movie looks good with its California farm land location, but it could have also increased the seedy nature of Kate’s world more than the film does.  While Monterey has the bars and whorehouses, it still doesn’t look as grimy as it could.

East of Eden is a classic and like most classics, I recommend it simply due to that classification.  Classic films help you understand how movies evolved and changed.  Here, you get to a solid story but also how the short lived James Dean became an idol…and you can draw comparisons to his contemporaries like Brando (who was considered in the role).  It is also interesting to compare him to Paul Newman who was also considered but has a totally different acting approach.  Either way, East of Eden is a film worth seeking out.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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