East of Eden
East of Eden (1955 film poster).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byElia Kazan
Screenplay byPaul Osborn
Based onEast of Eden
by John Steinbeck
Produced byElia Kazan
CinematographyTed D. McCord
Edited byOwen Marks
Music byLeonard Rosenman
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release dates
  • March 9, 1955 (1955-03-09) (New York City)
  • April 10, 1955 (1955-04-10) (United States)
Running time
117 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$5 million[1]

East of Eden is a 1955 American period drama film directed by Elia Kazan, and loosely based on the fourth and final part 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.

The film stars Julie Harris, James Dean (in his first major screen role), and Raymond Massey. It also features Burl Ives, Richard Davalos, and Jo Van Fleet (also her first screen role), and was adapted by Paul Osborn.[2]

Although set in early 20th century Monterey, California, much of the film was actually shot on location in Mendocino, California. Some scenes were filmed in the Salinas Valley. Of the three films in which James Dean played the lead, this is the only one to have been released during his lifetime.[3]

The film, along with Dean's other films Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, was named one of the 400 best American films of all time by the American Film Institute.[4] In 2016, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[5][6]


The plot line is loosely based on the biblical story of Cain and Abel. The story is set in 1917, during World War I, in the central California coastal towns of Monterey and Salinas. Cal and Aron are the young adult sons of a farmer and wartime draft board chairman, Adam Trask, with whom they live in the Salinas valley. Adam is a deeply religious Christian. Cal is moody and embittered by his belief that his father loves only Aron. Aron is courting his girlfriend, Abra. According to Adam, the boys' mother, Kate, is dead and "gone to heaven". However, Cal discovers Kate operates a brothel in nearby Monterey, but does not immediately reveal this to Aron.

After Adam's idealistic plans for a long-haul vegetable shipping business venture end in a loss of thousands of dollars, Cal decides to enter the bean-growing business, as a way of recouping the money his father lost. He knows that if the United States enters the war, the price of beans will skyrocket. Cal hopes this will finally earn him the love and respect of his father. He asks Kate to loan him the $5,000 capital he needs.

Meanwhile, Aron's girlfriend Abra gradually finds herself attracted to Cal, who seems to reciprocate her feelings.

Cal's bean venture is successful, and he decides to give the profits to Adam for his birthday at a surprise party planned by him and Abra. As the party begins, Aron suddenly announces that he and Abra are engaged. While Adam is openly pleased with the news, both Abra and Cal are uneasy due to their emerging relationship with each other. Cal makes a surprise birthday present of the money to his father; however, Adam refuses to accept any money earned by what he regards as war profiteering. Cal does not understand, and sees his father's refusal to accept the gift as just another emotional rejection. When the distraught Cal leaves the room, Abra goes after him, to console him as best she can. Aron follows and orders Cal to stay away from her.

In anger, Cal takes Aron to see what has become of their mother, pushes Aron into Kate's arms, and returns home alone. When his father demands to know where his brother is, Cal initially responds "I'm not my brother's keeper," but then tells him. The shock drives the pacifistic Aron to get drunk, lose his mind and then board a troop train to enlist in the army. When Sam, the sheriff, brings the news, Adam rushes to the train station in a futile attempt to dissuade him; he fails and watches helplessly as his son smashes his head through the rail car window, and the train steams away from him with Aron's head out the window maniacally laughing at him. Adam then suffers a stroke, which leaves him paralyzed and unable to communicate. Cal tries to talk to him, but gets no response and leaves the bedroom. Abra pleads with Adam to show Cal some affection before it is too late. She persuades Cal to go back into the room. When Cal makes his last bid for acceptance before leaving town, his father manages to speak. He tells his son to get rid of the annoying nurse and get another, then whispers to him. Cal tells Abra that he said not to get anyone else, but to stay and take care of him himself, then they kiss. The film ends with Cal, alone, sitting by his father's bedside, the emotional chasm between the father and son apparently healing.



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Julie Harris and James Dean in East of Eden
Julie Harris and James Dean in East of Eden

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.

Kazan denied rumors 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.[8]

Themes and character motivations

The underlying theme of East of Eden is a biblical reference to the brothers Cain and Abel. Cal is constantly struggling to earn his father's approval. The relationship between Cal and his father is a stressful one and is not resolved until late in the story, after his father suffers a paralyzing stroke. In his paralyzed state and with the help of Julie Harris' character, Abra, Cal's father finally expresses his suppressed love for the boy.[9]

Other themes touched upon in the film include anti-German xenophobia, specifically as wrought against a local German immigrant as resentment about United States entry into World War I grew. The themes of young love and sibling rivalry are also present in the film, as Aron's girlfriend finds herself increasingly drawn to the more rebellious Cal.[citation needed]

Critical reaction

Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader praised the adaptation by Kazan and the "down-to-earth" performances of James Dean and Richard Davalos.[10] Bosley Crowther, writing for The New York Times, described the film as having "energy and intensity but little clarity and emotion"; he notes:

In one respect, it is brilliant. The use that Mr. Kazan has made of CinemaScope and color in capturing expanse and mood in his California settings is almost beyond compare. His views of verdant farmlands in the famous Salinas "salad bowl," sharply focused to the horizon in the sunshine, are fairly fragrant with atmosphere. The strain of troubled people against such backgrounds has a clear and enhanced irony. For the stubborn fact is that the people who move about in this film are not sufficiently well established to give point to the anguish through which they go, and the demonstrations of their torment are perceptibly stylized and grotesque.[11]

According to Truman Capote, "many critics reviewing [the film] remarked on the well-nigh plagiaristic resemblance between [Dean's] acting mannerisms and [Marlon] Brando's."[12] Bosley Crowther called Dean's performance a "mass of histrionic gingerbread" which clearly emulated the style of Brando.[11] Kate Cameron, of the New York Daily News, on the other hand, proclaimed Dean "a new star" who had "walked away with most of the honors." While conceding that he did "sound at times like Marlon Brando," she called him "a fine actor" who "plays his first film role with a naturalness that is completely convincing."[13]

Fifty years later, film critic Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times was much more positive, saying East of Eden is "not only one of Kazan's richest films and Dean's first significant role, it is also arguably the actor's best performance."[14] The film's depiction of the interaction between Dean and Massey was characterized by Turan as "the paradigmatic generational conflict in all of American film."[14]

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio stated in an interview with MTV that East of Eden was the film that made him "obsessed with movies".[15]

Awards and honors

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards Best Director Elia Kazan Nominated
Best Actor James Dean (posthumous nomination) Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Jo Van Fleet Won
Best Screenplay Paul Osborn Nominated
Blue Ribbon Awards Best Foreign Film Elia Kazan Won
Bodil Awards Best American Film Won
British Academy Film Awards Best Film Nominated
Best Foreign Actor James Dean Nominated
Most Promising Newcomer to Film Jo Van Fleet Nominated
Cannes Film Festival[16] Palme d'Or Elia Kazan Nominated
Best Dramatic Film Won
Cinema Writers Circle Awards Best Foreign Director Won
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Won
Special Achievement Award James Dean (given posthumously) Won
Jussi Awards Best Foreign Actor James Dean Won
Kinema Junpo Awards Best Foreign Film Elia Kazan Won
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films 2nd Place
National Film Preservation Board National Film Registry Inducted
Online Film & Television Association Awards Hall of Fame – Motion Picture Won
Picturegoer Awards Best Actor James Dean Won
Saturn Awards Best DVD or Blu-ray Collection James Dean Ultimate Collector's Collection Nominated
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Written American Drama Paul Osborn Nominated

See also


  1. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1955', Variety Weekly, January 25, 1956.
  2. ^ East of Eden at the American Film Institute Catalog.
  3. ^ James Dean at IMDb.
  4. ^ "American Film Institute's Top 400 American Films". Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2014-12-29.
  5. ^ "With "20,000 Leagues," the National Film Registry Reaches 700". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-09-30.
  6. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-09-30.
  7. ^ Lois Smith is the last surviving credited film cast member, as of February 1, 2019.
  8. ^ Kazan, Elia (1988). Elia Kazan: A Life. McFarland.
  9. ^ "Pop Culture 101: EAST OF EDEN". TCM.com. Retrieved November 22, 2013.
  10. ^ Kehr, Dave. East of Eden. Chicago Reader. Accessed: August 4, 2013.
  11. ^ a b Crowther, Bosley (March 10, 1955). "The Screen: 'East of Eden' Has Debut; Astor Shows Film of Steinbeck Novel". The New York Times. Retrieved August 4, 2013.
  12. ^ Capote, Truman (November 9, 1957). "The Duke in His Domain". The New Yorker. Retrieved April 29, 2021.
  13. ^ Cameron, Kate. New York Daily News, "A new star is born on the Astor screen", film review, March 10, 1955.
  14. ^ a b Turan, Kenneth. Los Angeles Times, "Dean personifies anguished youth", film review, June 10, 2005. Accessed: August 4, 2013.
  15. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt & Margot Robbie on 'Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood' | MTV News". YouTube.
  16. ^ "Festival de Cannes: East of Eden". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved August 4, 2013.

Further reading