A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that East of Eden is one of the quintessential films about a seemingly modern problem -- disaffected youth. It's based on the John Steinbeck book of the same name. The movie focuses on the need to find one's identity and the struggles some kids experience in the effort to earn parental approval. Drinking to excess figures in some plot developments, but the film is largely notable for presenting James Dean, with 1950s pompadour and Atomic Age anguish, in one of the iconic roles of his brief career, one that mimics the emotional intensity of his senior, Marlon Brando, and that helped fuel a shift in cinematic acting style from static and theatrical to more naturalistic. Men get into a brawl as they fight a neighbor of German origin after hearing reports of German atrocities committed during World War I. A brother punches a brother. A man suffers a debilitating stroke. A woman admits she shot her husband. A woman runs a brothel. Cal runs around with girls who aren't considered "nice" in polite company. A so-called "nice" girl thinks she is "bad" because she wants to have sex with her boyfriend. Much of this is unspoken and will go unnoticed by younger kids. "Damn" is heard.
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What's the story?
James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause, Giant) is EAST OF EDEN's Cal, the seeming ne'er-do-well son of Salinas vegetable rancher Adam (Raymond Massey). It's 1917, the eve of America's entry into World War I, and Adam is a pillar of the community, Bible-reading, decent, and unbendingly correct. His other son Aron (Richard Davalos) is much like him -- a well-behaved good student, in love with Abra (Julie Harris), a "good girl" who is looking forward to marriage. The brothers are set against each other in temperament and character and even their names echo Cain and Abel of the Bible. Cal acts out, desperate for his father's love, always coming up short. The boys have been told their mother (Jo Van Fleet) left when they were small and since died, but Cal finds her nearby in bustling Monterey, the successful businesswoman running a saloon, real estate, and prostitution empire. Cal immediately labels her "bad," seeing her character as the explanation for the badness he has been taught to see in himself. When he learns that she ran away from the stifling correctness of her loveless husband, he relates. For Aron's sake, he keeps her existence a secret. When Cal's father loses money betting on the early frozen foods business, Cal sets out to earn money through hard work to restore his father's loss, a feat made possible by America's entry into the war. Aron grows more depressed about the killing overseas and alienates his girlfriend. She admits to Cal that she too feels unloved and wonders if Aron actually cares for her or just wants to control her. When Cal presents his father with his hard-earned cash, instead of expressing gratitude for Cal's generous and caring gesture, Adam rejects it as war profiteering, tainted money he will never accept. Aron sides with the father and admits lifelong frustration with his brother. Aware that nothing he can do will earn his father's love, Cal angrily drags Aron to meet their mother, an encounter that sends Aron into a frenzy of drinking and fighting. He enlists and chugs off on a troop train. Adam tries to stop him but suffers a stroke just as Cal make plans to leave forever. Abra forces Cal to try to reconcile with his paralyzed father "before it’s too late," and although the ending is ambiguous, Cal seems at peace.
Is it any good?
This adaptation packs a wallop as it examines sibling rivalry, as well as the nature of good and evil and whether we truly know what they are. Based on John Steinbeck's 600-plus-page 1952 novel of the same name (referring to a Bible passage that means "outside the presence of God"), East of Eden condemns high-mindedness for its own sake, showing how easy it is for someone to be right but also inhumane and cruel. Here a madam running a brothel, supposedly a moral outlier, can embody many virtues, while a religious upright citizen can be harsh and unloving in the name of goodness and decency. When we learn that Cal's mother, now a successful businesswoman, left her two young sons because her husband's righteousness stifled her, the movie makes as much of a statement about women's rights and personal freedom as it does about a rigid ideological father who needs to control his family members more than he needed to love them.
For teens who may also be struggling with identity issues, there is much to relate to in James Dean's portrayal of the confused, alienated Cal as he seeks a disapproving father's love. But although director Elia Kazan was remarkable for tackling difficult issues, he's still prone to presenting unnecessary speechifying in a 1950s Hollywood style that will seem too obvious, too slow, and far too overstated to suit the taste of today's average filmgoer. A tendency to over-explain rather than trusting the audience to feel what the story and characters beautifully convey on their own will probably turn many viewers away who might otherwise find much to appreciate here. Those who love the book will be disappointed as the film narrowly focuses on only one small conflict from the novel's multigenerational sweep. Note that the first three minutes are taken up with an "overture" -- anxious, tense string and orchestral music setting up conflict to come, which some younger viewers may have no patience for at all.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why Cal seeks his father's approval. Do you think his "bad" behavior is the only way he knows how to get his father's attention?
In what ways does East of Eden set up two extremes of morality? Is Cal's mother supposed to represent the "bad"? In what ways does she also seem good? Is Cal's father supposed to represent "good"? In what ways does he also seem bad?
How do you think the acting style of James Dean as Cal looks different from performances by the actors playing his father and brother?
- In theaters: April 10, 1955
- On DVD or streaming: March 3, 2009
- Cast: James Dean, Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet, Julie Harris, Burl Ives, Richard Davalos
- Director: Elia Kazan
- Studio: Warner Home Video
- Genre: Classic
- Run time: 118 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: for thematic elements and some violent content
- Awards/Honors: Academy Award
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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