East of Eden (1955)

Directed by Elia Kazan
Cinematography Ted D. McCord

East of Eden is a 1955 film, directed by Elia Kazan, and loosely based on the second half of the 1952 novel of the same name by John Steinbeck. It is about a wayward young man who, while seeking his own identity, vies for the affection of his deeply religious father against his favored brother, thus retelling the story of Cain and Abel.

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Casting

Director Elia Kazan first toyed with the idea of casting Marlon Brando as Cal and Montgomery Clift as Aron, but at 30 and 34 years old, respectively, they were simply too old to play teenage brothers. Paul Newman, who was one year younger than Brando, was a finalist for the part of Cal, which eventually was played by James Dean, who was six years younger than Newman.

Newman and Dean, who were up for the part of Cal, screen tested together for the parts of the rival brothers. In the end, Richard Davalos got the part of Aron. This was his screen debut.

Julie Harris was cast as Abra James. Executive producer Jack L. Warner was opposed to her casting, because she was ten years older than her character.

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Principal photography of East of Eden lasted ten weeks. Before filming began, Kazan sent Dean off to Palm Springs to gain some weight and get some sun so that he looked like a “real” farm boy. Dean hated getting a tan, having his hair cut, and drinking a pint of cream a day to put on pounds.

When they first arrived in Los Angeles to begin production, Kazan accompanied Dean to visit his estranged father, who was living there at the time. He witnessed first hand how badly the father treated Dean and how much the boy wanted to please him. As he got to know Dean better, Kazan saw how this relationship had instilled in him a great deal of anger because of frustrated love, the key to the character of Cal. “It was the most apt piece of casting I’ve ever done in my life.”

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Kazan denied rumours that he didn’t like Dean: “You can’t not like a guy with that much pain in him….You know how a dog will be mean and snarl at you, then you pat him, and he’s all over you with affection? That’s the way Dean was.” Kazan did intervene sternly, however, when Dean started to feel his power as a hotly emerging star and treated crew members disrespectfully.

When Kazan introduced Dean to Steinbeck, the author exclaimed that he was the perfect choice for Cal Trask. Steinbeck himself enjoyed the final film very much.

Shooting in the fairly new CinemaScope process proved to be a challenge for Kazan, but he was lucky to have a good working relationship with longtime Warner Brothers cinematographer Ted D. McCord.

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The studio camera department gave him instructions up front to keep the camera at least six feet from the actors, which rankled Kazan. So he and McCord made some tests to see how close they could push in. It caused the side edges of the screen to appear a bit curved, but Kazan decided to use that distortion for dramatic expression. McCord suggested that, as long as they were distorting anyway, they should tip the camera angle in certain shots. This technique was used a few times, most prominently in the tense dinner table scene in which Cal and his father fight over the boy’s antagonistic reading of Bible passages.

Kazan was proud of his use of CinemaScope to get what he thought was the best shot in the film, the train pulling away with all the lettuce on it. In the carefully calibrated shot, the train disappears behind the railroad station and then reappears much smaller, going off toward the distant mountains.

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“It’s a perfect shot because it shows that their hope is going off,” he said. “It’s sentimental and still emotional.” Kazan also liked the shot of Cal and Abra after his father’s rejection, standing behind the willow tree, audible but with only their feet showing.

Kazan noted that Dean’s tension and shyness always manifested itself physically, so he allowed the actor to use contorted, awkward postures to convey the character. “It was almost psychotic. He was exactly like the people you see in insane asylums.”

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