Filmsite Movie 

Review
East of Eden (1955)
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Background

East of Eden (1955) is director Elia Kazan's updated re-telling of the Biblical story of rival brothers, Cain and Abel and a paradise lost. Writer Paul Osborn's screenplay adapted John Steinbeck's 1952 novel with the same title for this dramatic Warner Bros. film. [The film tells only a small portion of Steinbeck's work, leaving out the childhood of the parents and the Chinese character of Lee.] One of the film's posters exclaimed:

East of Eden is a story of explosive passions and Elia Kazan has made it into a picture of staggering power.

James Dean represents the unappreciated son Cal (representing Cain) who vies against his dull, stuffy brother Aron (representing Abel) for the affections of their father. The maligned Cain character, representing the unlikeable and outcast Kazan himself (for naming names before the HUAC Committee in 1952), becomes the hero of this film. As the poster stated, "Sometimes you can't tell who's good and who's bad!..." (This was the only one of James Dean's three major films released before his death.)

The film, set in 1917 at a time just before the US entry into World War I, portrays the relationship between insecure, tortured, neurotic loner Caleb "Cal" Trask (James Dean, his first major role and film) and his dutiful, favored brother Aron (Richard Davalos) - twin sons. Their father is a stern, hardened, devoutly religious, self-righteous man, Adam (Raymond Massey), a lettuce farmer living with his family in Salinas, California.

The Story

Bible-reading father Adam loses his temper at Cal for "the iniquities of his sins," and shouts: "You have no repentance. You're bad, through and through, bad." Cal replies:

You're right. I am bad. I knew that for a long time...It's true. Aron's the good one. I guess there's just a certain amount of good and bad you get from your parents and I just got the bad.

He knows his father lied to the children that their mother had died and tells him he believes his mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) is alive. He asks if she is bad, knowing she is a brothel madam in nearby Monterey. He justifies to himself why his father loves Aron more than him:

...she ain't no good and I ain't no good. I knew there was a reason why I wasn't (good)...I hate her and I hate him too.

Cal also worships Abra (Julie Harris), his brother Aron's sweetheart. Next to a lettuce field, when a Mexican field worker who is interested in Cal interrupts a talk he is having with Abra, she advises him to tell the jealous woman that she is his brother's girl, but Cal counters with: "I don't have to explain anything to anybody."

In a dramatic scene, he speaks to his mother in Monterey, telling her he is more like her. He asks her why she abandoned Adam and the family. She responds:

He wanted to tie me down. He wanted to keep me on a stinking little ranch away from everybody. Keep me all to himself. Well, nobody holds me...He wanted to own me. He wanted to bring me up like a snot-nosed kid and tell me what to do...Always so right himself, knowing everything. Reading the Bible at me!

She praises her own successful brothel business and the town's hypocrites: "I've got the toughest house on the coast - and the finest clientele. Yeah! Half the stinking city hall go there."

Cal requests and receives $5,000 from her to finance an investment in profitable beans, to aid his father who has failed in a costly scheme to refrigerate lettuce (and to "buy" his father's love).

In the memorable "Ferris wheel" scene, Abra confides and confesses to Cal that she thinks she isn't good enough for Aron. Their intimate conversation leads to a kiss, but then she pulls back immediately: "I love Aron, I do, really I do," hurting Cal tremendously.

In the film's most memorable scene, the birthday gift scene at his father's surprise birthday, Adam joyfully accepts the announcement of the engagement of Aron and Abra as a birthday present - and blesses their news. Then, he rejects Cal's gift of earnings (an investment on bean futures "at five cents, and the war came along and the price went sky high") to help restore the family's lost resources - for all the money his father lost in the lettuce business. His father declines for lofty moral reasons:

Do you think I could take a profit from that?...I don't want the money, Cal. I couldn't take it...I'll never take it. Son - I'd be happy if you'd give me something like, well, like your brother's given me, something honest and human and good...If you want to give me a present, give me a good life. That's something I could value.

Filmed with a slanted camera angle, Cal (with aching and self-pity) completely breaks down with the money splayed out in his hand as he attempts to hug his father. When empathetic Abra comforts him in his grief outside the house under a weeping willow tree, Aron threatens him:

Don't you ever touch her again! I don't trust you. You're no good. You're mean and vicious and wild. And you always have been. You know it too, don't you? Father and I have put up with every mean and vicious thing you could think of ever since you were a child, and we've always forgiven you. But now, I don't want you to go near Abra. I don't want you to talk with her. Just stay away from her.

Cal retaliates by revealing "the truth," taking Aron to their mother and revealing the secret lies about their mother and her sinful profession.

Mother, this is your other son Aron. Aron is everything that's good, Mother. Aron, say hello to your Mother.

The good Aron falls apart, and Adam suffers a stroke. Abra tries to explain to bed-ridden Adam why Cal behaved like he did:

It's awful not to be loved...makes you mean and violent and cruel.

Her words bring about a reconciliation between Cal and his father, and Cal sits at his father's bedside to care for him.