Thursday, September 22, 2011
EAST OF EDEN
(March 1955, U.S.)
In 1981, there was a four-part ABC-TV mini-series that was very faithful to John Steinbeck's original novel. I mention this only because it was due to this TV version that I later learned that Elia Kazan's theatrical version is only loosely based primarily on the second part of the novel, focussing on the story of a wayward young man named Cal (played famously by the great James Dean) who, while seeking his own identity, competes for the affection of his deeply religious father against his favored brother Aron (played by Richard Davalos).
But before getting into the film itself, there's something about this tale that brings to mind a fact I've often noticed, and that's this - have you ever noticed that nearly all stories featuring sibling rivalry have almost always pit BROTHER AGAINST BROTHER? Really, think about it. Cain and Abel, Moses and Ramses, Mufasa and Scar (THE LION KING), J.R. and Bobby Ewing (DALLAS), etc. If you're a fan of the British rock band, The Kinks, then you know that Ray and Dave Davies can't stand each other. I could probably go on and on. My point is, you almost never see stories of sibling rivalry featuring two sisters and I have yet to EVER see a story where a brother and sister go to war against each other. I'm not saying it doesn't exist. I'm only saying I have yet to see it.
But back to EAST OF EDEN...
Set in the central California coastal towns of Monterey and Salinas during World War I, Cal and Aron are the young adult sons of a modestly successful farmer and wartime draft board chairman named Adam Trask (played by Raymond Massey). Cal is very moody and embittered by his belief that his father favors Aron (which he does). Although both Cal and Aron had long been led to believe that their mother had died, the opening scene of the film reveals that Cal has come to realize that his mother is still alive, owning and running a successful brothel in nearby Monterey. Not exactly the "fitting" wife for a religeous farmer, is it? Although Cal has many reasons to despise his father, he still years to please him and gain his acceptance. To do that, he seeks to profit from bean farming during wartime in order to earn back all the money his father lost during a refrigeration enterprise. Meanwhile, Aron's girlfriend Abra (played by Julie Harris) gradually finds herself attracted to Cal, who yearns to reciprocate her feelings (first rule of brotherly relations - don't steal his woman!). Anyway, getting back to the money...Cal's efforts to make his father happy with the money are actually quite touching, but it all ultimately turns tragic when his father refuses the money because he considers any sort of profiteering during wartime to be "blood" money, and he can't live with that. We watch on screen, James Dean being the 1950's cultural icon and heart-throb male that he was, break down like a weak, pathetic child when his father refuses his kind financial gesture. As a viewer, you can actually hear yourself thinking, "Oh, shit! This is all going to get so much worse!" It does.
The end of the film plays out in symbolic tradion of life and death. The relationship between Aron and Cal is dead, as is Cal's relationship with Abra and his father, as well. Aron, bitter and spiteful, is off to fight in the war and will surely meet his death. Adam has suffered a serious stroke and will likely die. However, their is the birth of Cal and Abra's new love for each other, as well as a new love and understanding between Cal and his father. So, I guess one could claim, that amidst a domino effect of tragic circumstances, there is the birth of a happy ending, after all.
EAST OF EDEN was the first of only three films James Dean ever made.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Cal Trask: "I've been jealous all my life. Jealous, I couldn't even stand it. Tonight, I even tried to buy your love, but now I don't want it anymore...I can't use it anymore. I don't want any kind of love anymore. It doesn't pay off."