James Byron Dean was born in 1931. He began acting in his late teens in a theatre company run by James Whitmore. His early work consists of TV commercials and bit parts in feature films. (You can see him in 1951’s Sailor Beware and Fixed Bayonets, Has Anyone Seen My Gal in 1952 and Trouble Along the Way in 1953.) He continued to work on American TV, with some of his work surviving in the archives and other examples not. Particularly intriguing amongst the lost work is a 1954 TV play called The Dark, Dark Hours which costarred Ronald Reagan. Dean also worked on Broadway, and his role in André Gide’s The Immoralist in 1954 led to a Tony Award and a screen test at Warner Brothers. As a result Elia Kazan cast him in East of Eden.
Based on the final third of John Steinbeck’s bestseller and set in Salinas, California, in 1917, East of Eden tells the story of Cal Trask (Dean) who struggles to find the affection of his father (Raymond Massey). But all along, the father favours Cal’s brother Aron (Richard Davalos). Top-billed Julie Harris plays Abra, a young woman who comes between the two brothers.
Of Dean’s three major films, East of Eden is likely to seem the most dated. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a compelling, well-acted film. If Rebel Without a Cause is the film on which Dean’s cult following depends, East of Eden is still a showcase for his Method-inflected acting talents. It’s a difficult one to call, but Eden seems to me a kind of earnest, heavy-breathing drama of a kind we don’t tend to see very often nowadays. Although the talent is there, it seems to strain a little for effect and significance.
This was Elia Kazan’s first film in colour and the then-new process of CinemaScope. Although he uses the wide frame (nearly twice as wide in relation to its height as Academy Ratio was) adeptly, you can sense a little selfconsciousness, particularly in his considerable use of tilted shots. While Nicholas Ray in Rebel found an affinity with the format and used it consistently in his later work, Kazan after this film returned to black and white and 1.85:1 with his next film, Baby Doll. Although he returned to colour as the industry gradually abandoned black and white, he used Scope only twice more, in two of his minor films (Wild River and The Arrangement). Quite often, he seems to want to reduce the screen’s width, often by blocking out parts of it. In one striking scene, he frames an altercation between Cal and Aron by placing Abra dead centre and facing the camera, partially obscuring Aron who is facing away and who is completely obscuring Cal.
You can’t deny Kazan his ability with actors, though. The conflict between father and son is played out in acting styles: Massey the classical-style actor learning his lines beforehand and not deviating in his reading, versus Dean with his Brando-style Method realism, never being the same from one take to the next and even daring to speak over Massey at times. Richard Davalos has certainly never been better than he is here, while Julie Harris is almost ethereal as Abra. The film’s one Oscar though went to Jo Van Fleet, as Massey’s estranged wife become brothel madam. Dean was nominated for Best Actor, Kazan for Best Director and Paul Osborn for Best Screenplay. The 1981 TV miniseries might be more faithful to Steinbeck’s novel – dealing with the whole story, rather than just the last third – but this film is still the definitive version.
East of Eden is available both separately and as part of the Complete James Dean Collection. This NTSC DVD is encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4 and comes in two DVD-9 discs.
Being an early CinemaScope film, East of Eden has an original aspect ratio of 2.55:1. (With the use of optical soundtracks on the film prints, the Scope ratio became 2.35:1 – often projected at 2.40:1 – which it is today.) It’s actually a rare thing to see an early Scope film at its full width, as more recent cinema prints, with optical soundtracks, crop some of the image at one side to achieve 2.35:1. East of Eden was shot in WarnerColor, the studio’s own Eastman Colour process, and some of the colour is more saturated, and the skin tones comparatively over-ripe, than you might see nowadays. Some scenes are grainy and I did notice some edge-enhancement halos here and there. But colours are vibrant and black are solid. Shadow detail is a little lacking in places, but I suspect that’s due to the original materials.
The film was originally released in showcase venues with a four-track magnetic soundtrack. This has been transferred to DVD in Dolby Digital 5.1, though 4.0 would be nearer the mark. The surrounds are used for ambience and the music score, and I didn’t hear any examples of the rear channels being split. Most of the dialogue comes from the centre speaker, but there are examples of directional speech and effects in left or right. There’s a little bass in the music, but generally the subwoofer had little to do. The French dub is 3.0 (left, centre, right).
There are twenty-nine chapter stops, the first being the film’s three-minute overture. Subtitles are provided for the feature, but not the extras.
The only extras on the first disc are the commentary and the trailer. The trailer is anamorphic 2.55:1 with a 2.0 soundtrack with very noticeable left-right separation, running 2:53. It’s a very declamatory and melodramatic 50s effort. The commentary is by critic Richard Schickel. He has much of interest to say about the film, about Kazan, Dean and Massey, but his delivery is none too lively and he spends some of his time simply interpreting the scene in front of us.
The bulk of the extras are on the second disc. Forever James Dean is an hour-long documentary made in 1988. It’s a solid if fulsome run-through of Dean’s life, career and death, including interviews with friend William Bast and Kenneth Kendall, whom Dean had commissioned to make a statue of himself, an assignment Kendall completed after the star’s death. This documentary is in 4:3 and has twenty-one chapter stops.
Next up is a newly-made documentary, East of Eden: Art in Search of Life (19:28). This has a different emphasis, with the first interviewees being a Steinbeck-specialist academic and Steinbeck’s son. Richard Schickel turns up here as well, as do actor Lonny Chapman (who played Roy) and Julie Harris and Elia Kazan, the latter two in archive interviews. This is non-anamorphic 16:9, with the film clips letterboxed to 2.55:1.
A screen test (6:19) featuring Dean and Davalos follows, in black and white and 4:3. On the other hand, the wardrobe, costume and production design tests (22:15) are in colour and non-anamorphic 2.55:1 but without sound. The actors are clearly talking, though my lipreading was not up to following what they were saying. Dean is enjoying himself and clowning around. This is divided into eight chapters, depending on which actor or actors are on screen. Each test can be selected individually; alternatively there’s a “play all” option.
Deleted scenes are next (19:12), again in non-anamorphic 2.55:1. These consist of two different takes of a scene where Cal and Aron discuss their father in their bedroom, plus six takes of the birthday party scene. As with the screen test, there’s a distinct hiss to the soundtrack. The final extra is TV footage of the World Premiere of East of Eden in New York on 9 March 1955 (14:41). The host is Martin Block, smarminess incarnate, who chats to several of the luminaries present, including Raymond Massey, John Steinbeck, Eva Marie Saint (who was one of the usherettes for the evening), Red Buttons (ticket collector) and Carol Channing, who is notably taller than her interviewers. Julie Harris and James Dean are not interviewed. Look quickly for Marilyn Monroe. This is in 4:3 and the footage is not in wonderful condition: grain and other artefacts, not to mention two white scratches down the right hand side.
East of Eden, despite my misgivings, is a fine film, made more noteworthy by being the first of James Dean’s three starring roles. For its DVD debut, Warners have done a very good job.