The TCM Classic Film Festival might be a little further south than the stomping grounds of writer John Steinbeck in the wine valleys of northern California, but it still feels appropriate kicking off a Friday morning with one of the quintessential adaptations of his work. Steinbeck has generally adapted well to the big screen with classics like The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, with the novelist himself taking a shot at writing directly for the screen with Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and serving as on-camera host for O. Henry’s Full House.
Taking a page from the Wuthering Heights school of Hollywood adaptations, EAST OF EDEN (1955) tackles a dense, richly eventful Steinbeck novel from 1952 by simply telling only the second half of the story. That proved to be enough, however, as its incendiary performances immediately overcame whatever quibbles purists might have with changes to the source material. Kazan and Steinbeck had already formed a professional relationship as director and writer of Viva Zapata! in 1952, though for this translation into vivid WarnerColor and CinemaScope, writer Paul Osborn (The Yearling) was brought aboard for screenplay duties.
The epic American story set in early 20th century Salinas Valley, California zooms in on the dramatic relationship between two brothers, Caleb (James Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos), whose tragedies and rivalries mirror the American experience of the time. With the Production Code in full swing, many of the seamier aspects of Steinbeck’s characters and dialogue had to be toned or made more oblique, particularly when it came to prostitution and premarital sex. In fact, director Elia Kazan concurred and wrote a note to production manager Steve Trilling opining that “I do not want to make the brothel attractive. The place in From Here to Eternity was full of dancing and music and had one very very pretty girl, Donna Reed, and plenty of other that no one in the audience would ever pass by. I think it would be really ‘moral’ and uplifting if we were to show one of these dumps as they really are, drab, evil and dull.” Truth be told, if you were watching the film and didn’t know what kind of “house” everyone was talking about, it seems more like a slightly grungier-than-usual pool hall.
After a welcome from TCM’s Scott McGee, the digital screening (a recent HD restoration by Warner Bros.) at the Chinese Multiplex was introduced by The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Feinberg, movie buff and Oscar pundit extraordinaire. He gave a special shout out to TCM for fostering his love of the classics and helping him see films that would have otherwise been out of his grasp, a sympathy probably shared by everyone in the room. Not surprisingly, more than a few patrons were younger female fans who applauded appreciably when James Dean first appeared on camera right after the opening credits. Feinberg offered his own thoughts on the film as a struggle between the old and new guard of Hollywood mirroring the father and sons battling on the screen, with Raymond Massey having a less than warm relationship with Dean off camera. (Tragically, this would prove to be the only one of Dean’s three films he would live to see released.)
Those contrasting acting styles provide some real fireworks, of course, but there’s no question that method acting gets the upper hand here under Kazan’s guidance with Harris and Dean (who became friends in real life) ably supported by stellar turns from Jo Van Fleet (who won an Oscar for what amounts to only three dialogue scenes) and Burl Ives, both of whom lend remarkable gravitas. If you love your character actors, there’s also a fine role for Dr. Cyclops himself, Albert Dekker, as the town’s “good German,” and an uncredited Timothy Carey jolts the screen in a scene-stealing bit part as Van Fleet’s main bouncer.
Seen today, it’s clear that this first foray into ’50s widescreen dramatics wasn’t the smoothest transition for Kazan, who was best known at the time for the more traditionally composed A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. The film is technically rough around the edges with huge amounts of strange post-production dubbing and random repeated shots spackling over awkward editing problems (love that cackling neighbor at the beginning!). However, Kazan also experiments with some dynamic compositions like Dean’s peeping tom routine among eerie stacks of ice blocks and his Dutch angle swinging towards the camera. Then there’s the finale, easily the single worst birthday ever committed to film, in which the frequently overlooked Davalos finally gets to shine with one horrifying gesture on an outbound train that still makes audiences jump. With a film this big, there’s no substitute for seeing it in a full house of fellow film fans.