It's not that I think it's a particularly bad film, I just don't think it's a necessarily good one, either.
Based on John Steinbeck's novel of the same name, “East of Eden” (1955) takes us into the “Salad Bowl” of California's Salinas Valley in 1917. It is there that we meet Cal (James Dean), an aimless young man desperate to attain the approval and affection of his father, Adam (Raymond Massey). Cal believes his father unduly favors his older brother, Aron (Richard Davalos), and so spends much of his time moping about, but also hopping a train to nearby Monterrey, where he believes a brothel owner may also be his mother (who his father claims died soon after Cal's birth).
Steinbeck wrote the story (as both novelist and uncredited co-writer of the screenplay) essentially as a retelling of Cain and Abel, though Aron (Abel) mostly floats in and out of the narrative, allowing us to spend most of our time with Cal.
Hard work and initiative are the only things that Cal's father understands, so Cal takes it upon himself to capitalize on the looming world war with Germany and takes out a large loan to get into the bean-growing business. But winning his father's approval, apparently isn't so easy.
There's definitely a good movie in here somewhere. The themes of familial bonds and yearning for approval and purpose are universal in their appeal. But to make those themes connect, they have to be attached to a character who feels worthy of our attention and sympathy.
This was Dean's first major starring role, one of only three he had before his untimely death less than a year later. It's not difficult to see why he became such a heartthrob. Cal has perfectly coiffed hair (despite working roughneck jobs) and is just oh-so tortured and misunderstood. It's just too bad he comes off as insufferable in the process.
I lost count of how many times Dean put on his pouty expression and buried his face in his arms. It was about a half-dozen too many. The worst moment, though, and the part that made me absolutely loathe Dean's performance was when Adam wholly rejects the wad of cash Cal has made through bean futures. Instead of yelling at his father or lashing out or storming off or just looking really hurt, Dean instead begins wailing and limply throws himself into his father's arms.
Was this intentional? Does Kazan want us to be irritated and disgusted by Cal's sniveling? I can't imagine that he does given that Cal's desire for approval is framed largely as sympathetic for the entirety of the film.
This isn't helped by the fact that I just never really found Cal to be an interesting character or even the story at large very engaging. Kazan does a marvelous job on the technical side of things, make tremendous use of CinemaScope, the then-new process of shooting with an anamorphic lens for widescreen. It feels lush and colorful and wide open. Plus, he makes some interesting choices with his camerawork.
That said, it's still not enough to get me to enjoy the film as a whole. Oh well.
Next week will be my second to last entry in this series on Kazan with a look at “A Face in the Crowd,” starring Andy Griffith and Walter Mathau. Following that will be “Splendor in the Grass.”