#56) East of Eden (1955)

#56) East of Eden (1955)

OR “Cal’s State”

Directed by Elia Kazan

Written by Paul Osborn. Based on the novel by John Steinbeck.

Class of 2016

The Plot: Set in the towns of Salinas and Monterey, California just before World War I, “East of Eden” is the story of twin brothers; troubled Cal (James Dean – in his first starring film role) and do-right Aron (Richard Davalos). They work on the farm of their father Adam (Raymond Massey), who clearly favors Aron over Cal. Aron is intent on marrying his long-time girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris), but as they grow apart Abra finds herself attracted to Cal. Meanwhile, Cal learns that his thought-to-be-dead mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) is alive and the madam of a nearby brothel. And this family just gets more messed up from there.

Why It Matters: Most of the NFR’s praise goes to Osborn and Kazan for adapting Steinbeck’s novel into “the teen angst theme popular in the ‘50s”. The rest of their description goes to a Kazan quote about how he did nothing to stop the off-screen tension between Dean and Massey. A dick move to be sure, but hey it worked.

But Does It Really?: Of the three films in which James Dean is credited, this was the first to be released, but the last to make it onto the Registry (“Rebel Without a Cause” made it on the second round in 1990, “Giant” followed in 2005). I suspect the film, while still very good, is on the list to “complete the trilogy” if you will. “Rebel” will always be the essential James Dean film, but “East of Eden” is the overlooked one with a fine breakthrough performance by the 23-year-old newcomer, to say nothing of the excellent work being done by everyone else.

Everybody Gets One: Legendary stage actress Julie Harris, and that “big, bearded potato full of song” himself, Burl Ives.*

Wow, That’s Dated: This is from that point in time when some films were shot in epic widescreen lenses like CinemaScope, but really didn’t need to be.

Title Track: Burl Ives says “East of Eden” once, towards the end. And yes, I only mentioned Burl Ives again so I can link to another one of his songs.

Seriously, Oscars?: Though it missed out on a Best Picture nod, “East of Eden” did manage four nominations, including Director, Adapted Screenplay, and a posthumous Best Actor nod for James Dean. Jo Van Fleet won Best Supporting Actress, boosted by her work in two other Oscar contenders that year; “The Rose Tattoo” and “I’ll Cry Tomorrow”.

Other notes

  • James Dean died six months after the film’s release. It was the only one of his three starring roles that he got to see completed. “Rebel Without a Cause” was released just one month later.
  • The Overture is giving me “13 Lakes” flashbacks.
  • Say what you will about James Dean, he does teen angst very well. And look at those puppy dog eyes of his. Who could resist them?
  • Shout-out to Lois Smith, who plays Anne, the servant at Kate’s place. She is the film’s last surviving cast member and still a major player on the New York stage at 86!
  • Why the crooked angles during dramatic moments between Cal and Adam? Is the house sinking?
  • Adam says he got his shoulder injury during the “Indian campaign”. How old is he?
  • In addition to Dean’s starring debut, this is Jo Van Fleet’s first film, and boy does she hit it out of the park.
  • The photo of young Adam and Kate must be the first instance of Photoshop in a film.
  • Quick appearance by the Michelin Man on a poster. Turns out he’s been around since 1894!
  • Seems like Cal and Abra make the most of being stuck on a janky carnival ride. Wait until OSHA hears about this one.
  • Abra suggests that Cal go with her to a 5 & 10. I say he should come back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.
  • Dean’s good, but you can definitely see the Brando influence. Apparently, so could a lot of 1955 film critics.
  • Geez Burl, just spell out the film’s biblical metaphor for everyone. Good thing he wasn’t in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”.


  • Seeing as how this film covers only the second half of Steinbeck’s epic novel; a more all-encompassing remake was inevitable. In 1981 “East of Eden” got the TV miniseries treatment starring Jane “Dr. Quinn” Seymour.
  • I guess they’re remaking it again with Jennifer Lawrence? What say you, readers from the future?
  • And like so many great pieces of literature, “East of Eden” was turned into a mediocre Broadway musical. “Here’s Where I Belong” opened and closed on the same night in 1968.

Further Viewing: Couldn’t find anything from “Here’s Where I Belong” so…one more Burl Ives song?

*UPDATE: I stand corrected – Burl Ives also makes a cameo in Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd“. Guess I’ll just have to link to another song.

6 thoughts on “#56) East of Eden (1955)”

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