EAST OF EDEN (Elia Kazan, 1954)

John Steinbeck himself recommended to Elia Kazan the scenarist of Madame Curie (Mervyn LeRoy, 1943), Paul Osborn, to adapt for the screen his—Steinbeck’s—sprawling new novel, East of Eden, at least in part, one presumes, because Osborn was capable of nailing the science: rather than the process that led the Curies to the discovery of a new element, here, the technology of refrigeration for keeping fresh truck-transported farm produce. The high-up ice house in Kazan’s film evolves into a symbol of aspiration: Adam Trask’s, as an entrepreneur as well as Salinas Valley farmer; his teenaged son Cal’s desperate attempt to help make his father rich, to win his father’s love and approval. Cal uses a confiscated coal chute to deliver ice to the trucks. The entire plan fails, ending in wilted lettuce. Adam, a bible-thumper, takes this as a sign from God that he has been presumptuous.
     The time is 1917; the U.S. is about to enter the First World War. Osborn and Kazan make many changes to Steinbeck’s (for once, underrated) book; perhaps the two most prominent ones is that they lop off the first half, about young Adam and his failed marriage to Kate, and their transformation of Adam from a man uninterested in faith, in fact opposed to it, into a religious fanatic. This reduces Steinbeck’s family drama to family melodrama and sharpens the contentiousness between Adam and his “bad,” rebellious son, Cal, who gets none of the affection and support that his brother, Aron, gets. (The novel is clearer as to why this is the case.) Kazan’s film reeks of artificial, exaggerated opposition.
     As Cal, James Dean (best actor Jussi Award) gives the finest of his three film performances; his adolescent ache and emotional turbulence are achingly quick, although Dean seems a bit beyond adolescence, at least to me. Julie Harris is dreamily kind as Abra, who becomes a bone of contention between the two brothers who adore her. Raymond Massey and Richard Davalos are wash-outs as Adam and son Aron. Jo Van Fleet, her part mightily cut from what it is in the book, dynamically earns her supporting actress Oscar as Kate, the madam/prostitute in a brothel who Cal learns isn’t (as his father has told his sons) dead. The film opens dramatically, with Kate walking to her successful place of business and Cal shadowing her. Might his mother at least accept him?
     Although at times visually striking, especially inside the dark, somewhat labyrinthine cathouse, the film is a mess. Kazan has elected to make the material more “personal” for him by identifying with Cal and relating Cal’s ordeal to his own naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee—a self-pitying, self-aggrandizing stretch. “Friendly witness” Burl Ives’s appearance, as a sheriff, enhances the nauseating impression that the film makes.
     Nonetheless, Kazan won a number of prizes for this film and his direction, including in Japan and Spain, at Cannes, and from the international Hollywood press.
     Ted McCord contributed lush, gorgeous color cinematography to the widescreen images.

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