Note: For the next three days on TMP we’ll be looking at The Complete James Dean Collection box set, a DVD collection of all three of the actor’s major roles. First up: East of Eden.
Loosely based on the novel by John Steinbeck, East of Eden tells the story of two brothers in Salinas, California. The year is 1917. Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) has moved to Salinas with his sons, Cal (James Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos). Their mother, Kate (Jo Van Fleet), isn’t in the picture. Adam has told his sons that she’s dead, but he really thinks that she moved east.
As for the brothers, they couldn’t be more different. Aron is the golden child, the favored son. Far less rebellious than his brother, Aron has a bright future ahead of him, including a marriage to Abra (Julie Harris). Cal, meanwhile, is erratic and somewhat troubled. He wants nothing more than to earn the respect and affection of his father, and when he doesn’t get that, it further fuels his rebellion. Things get even more complicated when Cal discovers the truth about his mother.
Directed by Elia Kazan, East of Eden was written for the screen by Paul Osborn. The film was nominated for four academy awards — Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Van Fleet), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Dean), Best Director (Kazan), and Best Writing, Screenplay (Osborn) – winning the supporting actress trophy.
East of Eden is very emotional, at times even melodramatic. The performances are quite heavy, well-suited to the film’s tone. Jo Van Fleet in particular is stellar. That scene where Cal comes to ask her for money… such a strong performance! Her award accolades were well-deserved.
Though somewhat melodramatic, East of Eden is also quite a quiet film, centered in realism. As such, the performances absolutely make the film, but it’s also worth noting that the cinematography (by Ted McCord, who also served as director of photography on films such as The Sound of Music and The Damned Don’t Cry) is stunning.
There are a lot of fascinating character relationships and dynamics throughout the film. Cal and Aron, Cal and Adam, Cal and Abra, Cal and Kate… these relationships are all very different, which keeps the film interesting to watch. The variety allows Dean the chance to show off different sides of his character through his interactions with these other characters, playing off of their distinct personalities.
This was Dean’s first starring role in a feature film – the first of only three he made before his untimely death at just 24 years of age — but you’d never really guess it by watching him. He had so much intensity as a performer, and it shows in all three of the films that appear in “The Complete James Dean Collection” box set.
Special features on DVD:
The two-disc edition included in The Complete James Dean Collection comes with quite a few neat features — two documentaries, and some behind-the-scenes material. Here’s a list of it all:
- Commentary by Richard Schickel
- Theatrical trailer
- East of Eden: Art in Search of Life (50th anniversary documentary)
- Forever James Dean (Documentary)
- Additional scenes
- Screen tests, plus wardrobe, costume, and production design tests
- Footage from the New York premiere