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Classic of the Week: East of Eden (1955)

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 stars Julie Harris, James Dean, Raymond Massey, Richard Davalos, Burl Ives, Jo Van Fleet and Albert Dekker. The story is about a self-willed young man, who fights for the affection of his very religious father against his favored brother, while trying to find his own identity.

The story is set in 1917 during World War I, in the coastal California towns of Monterey and Salinas. Cal and Aron are the young adult sons of a wartime board chairman and successful farmer named Adam Trask. He is very religious. Temperamental Cal believes that his father only loves Aron. They fight sometimes about favoritism.

The Trasks own a farm in Salinas valley. Although the sons had long been led to believe that their mother had died “and gone to heaven,” the opening scene shows that Cal has apparently come to realize that his mother is still alive and owns a successful brothel in nearby Monterey.

After the father’s unrealistic plans for a long haul vegetable shipping business journey ends in a loss of thousands of dollars, Cal decides to start in on the bean growing business, as a way of gaining back the money his father lost in the vegetable shipping. He knows that if the United States enters the war, the price of beans will soar. He hopes this will earn him the love and respect of his father. He goes to his mother Kate, in Monterey to ask to borrow the money he needs.

Meanwhile, Aron’s girlfriend Abra starts to fall for Cal, who starts to fall for her too. The two eventually start meeting up secretly, telling stories to each other and even start confessing their feelings towards each other. Aron eventually finds out about them, banning Cal from coming around Abra and vows to protect her. Aron becomes violent towards Cal, so Abra leaves him for Cal, but Aron comes back, saying he’s changed and begs her to take him back.

This story is filled with farming, family problems, gain and loss, violence and romance. The acting is superb from James Dean who played Caleb Trask and equally great from Richard Davalos who was Aron Trask. Raymond Massey did a splendid job as Adam Trask, as did Julie Harris as Abra Bacon. Burl Ives did a good, not great job as Sam the sheriff. Jo Van Fleet did fine as Kate Trask.

This film does start out pretty slow, but eventually picks up speed and becomes more interesting. There is some violence, but nothing like Dean’s other major films Giant or Rebel Without a Cause. There is romance, but it doesn’t makes this film a complete romantic drama, like From Here to Eternity or Love is a Many Splendored Thing. At times, this film is bit intense, at other times, it makes you angry or sad it also is lovely at times as well. The harsh moments turn into sweet ones towards the end, making this a masterpiece of a motion picture.

Whether you’re a Steinbeck fan or not, a James Dean fan or not, you can still enjoy all this film has to offer from the madness, to sadness, to the beauty. This one film that will always make you feel so many different emotions. In the end, it leaves you teary eyed, but smiling. This is a wonderful story from a wonderful storyteller, John Steinbeck and an equally fantastic film from a fantastic filmmaker, Elia Kazan. James Dean might have lived a short life, but his few works, have stood the test of time, making him an icon, that is still copied today. Magnificent movie! 13+ 4.5/5
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