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East of Eden: Special Edition

The James Dean Collection

  • East of Eden: Special Edition
  • Rebel Without a Cause: Special Edition
  • Giant: Special Edition
  • "It's a good thing James Dean died when he did," Humphrey Bogart once said. "If he'd lived, he'd never have been able to live up to the publicity." It's a comment that history is inclined to drop in a dustbin somewhere near Frank Sinatra's opinion that rock and roll was just a "fad," although Bogie's trite dismissal of Dean, before he became a legend, raises an interesting point. He photographed well; he even encapsulated the stifled rage of postwar youth. But just how good of an actor was he? Unlike Dean, Marlon Brando had the opportunity to mature on screen, eventually transforming the light and heat of Stanley Kowalski into the deeply human, spiritually wounded Don Corleone. Those who followed in Dean's wake, including Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, also were afforded roles later in life that fleshed out their angry-young-men personas with richer, more nuanced details. These actors, finally, were allowed to play complex men. Yet James Dean remains trapped in history — confined by his three major film roles, which spanned a Hollywood career that lasted a mere 16 months. Perhaps his early death contributed to an unwarranted legacy. Elia Kazan — no duffer at assessing talent — contrasted him with Brando, noting "Marlon had excellent technique. Dean had no technique to speak of. On (East of Eden), Jimmy would either get the scene right immediately — that was ninety-five percent of the time — or he couldn't get it at all." In fact, Kazan was not drawn to the unknown Dean upon first meeting him, considering him an irritable bore. But after sending the young actor to see novelist John Steinbeck, who took a similar assessment, they agreed to cast the Indiana native in Eden, simply because they were convinced, above all else, that he was Cal.

    Based on Steinbeck's novel, Dean stars in East of Eden (1954) as Caleb 'Cal' Trask, a young man in Salinas, Calif., who harbors an ill-concealed resentment toward his father Adam (Raymond Massey) and older brother Aron (Richard Davalos). At the story's outset, the brooding Cal appears oddly fixated on Aron's relationship with his fiancée Abra (Julie Harris). Meanwhile, he seems more hostile than indifferent to his father's latest business venture, which involves buying an icehouse to ship frozen lettuce by railcar. After unleashing his unspoken rage by demolishing numerous blocks of ice, Cal once again finds himself at odds with his stern father — Cal's only assessment of his own character is that he's simply "bad," while Aron is "good." He even holds a secret that lends his theory credibility: He's discovered that his long-absent mother (Jo Van Fleet) is actually a madam at a bawdy house in the coastal town of Monterey, something neither Adam nor Aron know. Eventually comforted by the realization that she, too, is "bad," Cal forms a tenuous peace with his father and lends a hand in the family's new business venture. But after the railcars are struck by disaster, Cal borrows $5,000 from his mother to invest in bean futures. The outbreak of World War I causes the crop's value to skyrocket, and yet despite Cal's best intentions, his naive attempt to finally buy his father's love and approval brings about tragic results.

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    John Steinbeck's multileveled novel East of Eden surveys a western United States that finds itself at a crossroads in history, with technology transforming the landscape via automobiles and large-scale farming, while headlines hover upon distant battles in Europe that the nation seems assured to join. The story itself is deeply archetypal as well, concerned with a father and two feuding brothers (as indicated by the title's reference to Genesis 4:16). However, in the hands of director Elia Kazan and scenarist Paul Osborn (with unaccredited contributions by Steinbeck himself), Eden becomes one of the seminal Hollywood films of the 1950s. Cal's feuding with his brother Aron is still a fundamental plot arc, in addition to his deep, unarticulated attachment to his future sister-in-law Abra. But now, abridged from the printed page and painted on a colorful widescreen canvas, Steinbeck's story comes across as a slow-burning lament for shattered relationships between parents and their children — a theme that found resonance in the growing "generation gap" that crept into postwar urban families. Dean would reprise his inimitable brooding twice more in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, but it's not hard to argue that his first leading role was his most transcendent. From the very moment he utters his first words ("You want me?"), we are introduced not only to a naturalistic acting style that audiences were only beginning to absorb from the new crop of Method stars, but also an awkward, lanky youth who just as often cants his body at crooked angles and looks away as he will engage those around him. From first scene to last, Dean's performance is captivating — and the passive-aggressive conflict between Cal and his father Adam is enhanced by Kazan, who occasionally tilts his CinemaScope compositions to heighten dramatic tension (and later, puts the angle in dizzying motion while an angry Cal argues with his father while astride a tree-swing). As the story draws to a close and Cal believes he has lost his father's love forever, Dean punctuates the loss with a howling, childlike embrace of the older man — a raw moment that remains among the film's most memorable. Perhaps Kazan was right about James Dean. Like Elvis Presley, his finest years may have been destined to exist in a brief and dazzling youth. But even if he was fated to struggle through an inconsistent acting career, no one can say that James Dean is simply a pop-culture icon. Despite his short life on screen, he also remains one of Hollywood's most indelible movie stars.

    Warner's two-disc DVD release of East of Eden features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a flawless color source-print that features barely a hint of collateral wear — after a decade-long moratorium on VHS, the title returns to home video in its finest presentation since theatrical release. Disc One includes a commentary from film critic Richard Schickel, who offers several behind-the-scenes comments, but also long moments of silence. Disc Two includes the vintage documentary "Forever James Dean" with chapter-selection (60 min.), the new featurette "East of Eden: Art in Search of Life" (19 min.), screen tests (6 min.), eight brief wardrobe tests, a deleted scenes reel (19 min.), and newsreel footage from the New York premiere (14 min.). Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
    —JJB



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