East of Eden

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” — John Steinbeck, East of Eden

We recently watched the movie version of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Our main motivation for renting the movie was to see the village of Mendocino as she was captured on film in 1954. Mendocino exteriors were used to represent Monterey circa 1917, and if you’ve ever been to Monterey and Mendocino you’ll wonder why anyone, let alone an acclaimed filmmaker, would do such a thing; and if you’ve never been to Monterey and Mendocino you won’t give a hoot.

Directed by Elia Kazan from a putrid screenplay by Paul Osborn, the movie is a big mess, though the first half-hour of the film does feature some neato shots of the village in a time before many of the streets were paved and when there were still several buildings on the south side of Main Street. The space now occupied by Out Of This World was a bank in those days and a scene takes place therein, a scene in which, incredibly, two different women who own whorehouses are congratulated by the teller for their “nice deposits” and for being “in the right business.”

Wooden planks cover the stretch of sidewalk just west of Gallery Books that 60 years after the film was made still slopes steeply down to the street, several unmoving people with fishing nets occupy an alley near Crown Hall, and James Dean sits on the curb in front of where Dick’s bar is today, that hallowed curb unchanged since those famous buttocks lingered there.

Indeed, seeing James Dean traipsing along Main Street sporting a 1950’s hairdo and wearing 1950’s clothing (when the story is supposed to be taking place in 1917) is beyond surreal. Historical and geographical veracity meant nothing to these filmmakers, so if that sort of thing is important to you, avoid this movie. Nevertheless, we enjoyed seeing our village appearing so sunny and empty, vacant lots abounding—the population of Monterey in 1917 imagined by the filmmakers to be hovering somewhere around twenty-nine.

There’s more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty.” — John Steinbeck from East of Eden

East of Eden, the movie, is very loosely based on the second half of John Steinbeck’s verbose allegorical novel that reimagines the myth of Cain and Abel, among other things. Steinbeck said of his novel East of Eden, “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years. I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”

As much as I love Steinbeck’s short stories and some of his earlier novels, I fear his writing powers were on the wane when he wrote East of Eden, an overblown, preachy, poorly edited work, brimming with moralistic platitudes Steinbeck previously spared his readers.

“Sometimes a man wants to be stupid if it lets him do a thing his cleverness forbids.” — John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Much has been written about James Dean’s performance in East of Eden, largely because James Dean only made three movies before he died in a car crash at the age of twenty-four, after which he became a cultural icon, his name synonymous with disillusioned youth. The bad reviews that greeted his performances when he was alive were quickly forgotten and replaced with posthumous raves and a posthumous Academy Award for his role of Cal in East of Eden, an award that says much about our idolatry of the dead and little about Dean’s acting ability.

“When a man says he does not want to speak of something he usually means he can think of nothing else.” — John Steinbeck, East of Eden

I am curious to know what James Dean was aiming for with his performance in East of Eden. At the beginning of the movie, he seems to be imitating a petulant five-year-old trapped in the body of a Hollywood heartthrob. A few scenes later, he exhibits symptoms of brain damage resulting from a severe blow to the head. And then he acts like a sullen idiot who, despite his mental deficiencies, knows more than anyone else in the movie. Did Dean and Kazan hope to portray Cal as emotionally damaged as a result of his father telling him his mother was dead when she was really alive and making nice deposits in Mendocino, er, Monterey? Was Dean forever falling silent and doing crazy violent things to show the effects of the father, played in monotone by Raymond Massey, never loving his son? Or was Dean just a cute guy with nothing much to say?

“A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more.” — John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The real star of the movie is the prototypical girl-next-door played by a relentlessly upbeat Julie Harris. Talking a mile-a-minute, bathed in golden light whether day or night, she strives valiantly to make up for the movie’s massive deficiencies with rivers of earnest blabber about good and bad, love and hate, truth and lies—and she does so in scene after scene with her face about four inches away from the adorable mug of James Dean. Indeed, so close are their faces in dozens of scenes, that when Julie and James finally kiss, I sighed with relief that the inevitable collision was a fait accompli.

“Perhaps the less we have, the more we are required to brag.” — John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The movie East of Eden begins with something called Overture. We know this because overture is spelled out in huge letters that clog the center of the screen for several minutes and obliterate the lovely shot of the village of Mendocino (ostensibly Monterey) seen from the south side of the mouth of Big River Bay. Yes, while cloying pseudo-modern 1950’s orchestral music sets the scene for 1917, a giant graphic turd—OVERTURE—hangs in the sky and blocks our view of paradise. And so the stage is set, the style and pace of the movie established, the trouble about to begin.

(Todd Walton’s website is UnderTheTableBooks.com)

6 Responses to "East of Eden"

  1. William Ray   December 23, 2014 at 11:43 am

    Dear Todd,

    Thank you for the rave-not review of ‘East of Eden’. To represent the other side for a moment, although 1950’s Mendocino was not 1900’s Monterey, neither was 1950’s Monterey, and since at that time U.S. geographical regions were still nearly separate nations, NYC’s Elia Kazan made the artistic decision, Monterey schmontery.

    As right as you are about Steinbeck being wrong, Kazan being wrong, James Dean being wrong, and the screenplay being wrong, yet and still there are redeeming social characteristics that saved ‘East of Eden’ from that year’s Supreme Court review of obscenity cases. The first was Julie Harris, whom you mention and who died just recently. The other was Jo Van Fleet the madam-Cain-mama in the dark whorehouse, closely resembling the Salinas house Steinbeck grew up in.

    Like Piper Laurie, Julie Harris got overlooked as a great American actress because she did not fit the bombshell mythology. She consciously modeled her whole acting approach on Ruth Gordon, another Hollywood-neglected acting great until ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ brought her fame at the age of seventy or so. She thanked the Academy members who voted for her and said to the rest, “EX-CUUUSE ME!” ‘Harold and Maude’ is her cinematic monument. Her triumph as Maude was reversing the Catskills joke, although she wasn’t Jewish she looked it.

    Interested readers can find an archive of the ‘East of Eden’ filming experience at the Fort Bragg Library. There may be another archive for ‘The Russians Are Coming’ and ‘Racing With the Moon’, also placed in Mendocino, the latter film with the young Sean Penn, Nicholas Cage, Elizabeth McGovern, and Carol Kane (as the prostitute; wow Mendocino is rich ground for movie prostitutes!) We can barely recognize Elizabeth McGovern as the grand-daughter-like version of the English ma’am in our current horrible-heart-throb filmic Epic Downton Abbey, scheduled to be inflicted world-wide in early Jan. Or as we call it around the house, Downtown Nabby. Don’t know how the Irish in-law felt he had a learning curve ahead of him, circa 1921.

    But not to worry (another anachronistic line hatched up by the porky screenplay writer for his intensely anti-Semitic upper class of the time). The schlock goes on. We row backwards into the past trying to get away, only to eventually find ourselves cast down East of Eden, compelled to till the ground whence we came. That all would be accompanied by Beatles songs mid-volume in the rest-home––who knew? best wishes, William Ray

    Reply
    • Todd Walton   December 25, 2014 at 9:23 pm

      You’re such a good writer, William. I read your comment twice, and now I want to read it again. Bravo!

      Reply
  2. malcolmlorne   December 24, 2014 at 9:34 pm

    Just as Mendocino was not Monterey, Mendocino is not a “village.” As much as an obvious break in continuity jars a viewer out of the movie-going experience, the use of the “v” term prevents me from believing that Mr. Walton has anything more than a pretentious view of Mendocino in the 1950s or now.

    Reply
    • Todd Walton   December 25, 2014 at 9:22 pm

      Well, I’ve lived in Mendocino now for nine years and I know many people who have lived here much longer than I, and lots of us refer to the town as the village. Not always, but sometimes, and no one seems to mind. When I walk down Little Lake Road to do my errands in the town/village/hamlet, one of my neighbors likes to call out to me, “Off to the village, are you?” So I don’t know why in your estimation Mendocino does not qualify as a village, but I and lots of people who live here call it that. Which doesn’t make us right, but I don’t think it makes us pretentious either. Maybe stupid, in your estimation, but not pretentious.

      Reply
  3. malcolmlorne   December 26, 2014 at 10:25 am

    Now that I can read beyond the “village” references, I have to agree with Todd Walton’s take on the film version of East of Eden. I’d go into detail, but William Ray took all the salient points and wrote them eloquently. The term “village” has been used in the selling of Mendocino, to make it into nothing more than a phoney prop for well-heeled tourists, a place where the vast majority of folks who work there cannot afford to live within the “village.” It was once a town with working class and middle class people residing in the houses that are far too often now used as expensive vacation rentals. Use of the “v” word merely perpetuates that economic and class divide. Almost all the people who grew up in or near Mendocino at the time of the East of Eden filming and for another two or three decades (before it became nothing but a tourist or well off retirement community) despise the “village” appellation for the very reasons I’ve just described. From a historical perspective, the town was called Mendocino City throughout the latter half of the 19th century and on into the 20th.

    Reply
    • Todd Walton   December 26, 2014 at 8:14 pm

      I’ve been thinking about the word village and what it means to me, a relative newcomer to the area and being someone at the bottom of America’s middle-class, economically speaking. I looked the word up in my trusty OED, and what I refer to as the village of Mendocino is, according to that dictionary, very much a village. I know several people who have lived here for forty-plus years, many of whom distinguish Mendocino from the village of Mendocino. When I meet longtime locals for the first time and say I live in Mendocino, the response is frequently, “In the village?” And I say, “No, a couple miles up etc.” This helps clarify things. What I and they mean by the village is the area on the west side of Highway One bordered on the south by Big River Bay and extending north to the northernmost entrance onto Highway 1. I could call it the commercial sector of Mendocino, but village is more accurate because the village is not just a commercial sector. Nor are all the newcomers to Mendocino tourists or retirees. I’d been hankering to move here since I was in my early twenties, and it was only when it became much cheaper to live here than in the Bay Area that I was able to make the move. Others of my kind have moved here for the same reason and I’ve met a number of them and we’re all relieved to be here. That said, I thank you for letting me know why you and people you know don’t like to call the village part of Mendocino a village. It is too big to be a hamlet, so I’ll be on the lookout for another good word for what I mean by village.

      Reply

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