These notes accompany screenings of Elia Kazan’s East of Eden on January 2, 3, and 4 in Theater 3.
From a technical standpoint, East of Eden marked a new departure for Elia Kazan (1909–2003): his first use of color and widescreen, and his most lavish Hollywood production. Kazan felt that he had not fully used the resources of cinema until Panic in the Streets in 1950, even though he had won multiple Oscars for Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947. He believed his use of color in East of Eden was very effective, and the film has the reputation of being one of the most innovative of the early pictures shot in scope. Occasionally this newly acquired technical virtuosity may seem obtrusive, but it also results in the marvelously skillful night scene, in which Julie Harris pursues James Dean into the garden following his rejection by Raymond Massey. Here, Kazan seems to be anticipating Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up by more than a decade.
As always with Kazan, the performances are superb. (He went on to cast Massey as the star of his 1958 Broadway production of Archibald MacLeish’s J.B., which I managed to see. It also starred Christopher Plummer and Pat Hingle.) Harris, Lois Smith, and Jo Van Fleet (whom Kazan used again in his 1960 masterpiece Wild River), as good as they are, are ultimately little more than props about which Kazan moves James Dean in this most haunting of portrayals. Of the three major roles Dean was to play before he was gone (East of Eden, Rebel without a Cause, Giant), this was the first and the best. Here the Dean screen persona, as we are to remember it, materializes, and surely in the visualization of this magical, mystical, yet all-too-mortal creature there is more than a little directorial legerdemain—Ala-Kazan!
Actually, as Kazan once confided to me, he found Dean a very troubled young man. There seems to be ample evidence for this well before his tragic accident. A doctor whom I visited for treatment recounted the experience of finding the then-unknown actor asleep on a bench across the street from his Fifth Avenue office. And it is hard to imagine another actor from that period who might pose for the famous photo of Dean in which he is up a tree, naked, and fully erect. I’m sure other stories abound, but it is to Kazan’s credit that he managed to mold something so moving and beautiful as Dean’s performance from such volatile, potentially explosive material. As Kazan put it, “Jimmy Dean…had violence in him, he had a hunger within him, and he was himself the boy that he played in the film.” It should come as no surprise that the director who provided signature career achievements to such sexually ambivalent mega-talents as Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront) and Montgomery Clift (Wild River), and whose closest collaborator was Tennessee Williams would have the sensitivity to find genius in Dean, even in an era when Dean’s Oscar competition ranged from macho types like Ernest Borgnine (who won) to James Cagney. In all fairness, Kazan gives much credit for Dean’s performance to Julie Harris, “an angel on our set…she was goodness herself with Dean, kind and patient and everlastingly sympathetic.”
Contributing also, I think, was Kazan’s identification with the material, and with John Steinbeck’s Cal Trask. In a sense, Kazan’s early film mentor was John Ford, his fellow director at Twentieth Century-Fox in the 1940s. Ford’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was one of the very greatest films made from a major novel. Even more importantly, East of Eden, in Kazan’s words, “is more personal to me; it is more my own story. One hates one’s father; one rebels against him; finally one cares for him, one recovers oneself, one understands him, one forgives him…one has accepted him.” In my judgment, this qualifies the film as an auteurist masterpiece.