This article by Rob Nixon tells so much about the personalities of James Dean and the other players.
East of Eden (1955)
The principal photography on East of Eden began in May 1954. In addition to substantial studio work for interiors and such, the production also traveled to the Salinas-Monterey area and the northern California town of Mendocino for location work.
Steinbeck stayed away from the set during production. His son Tom has said that Steinbeck felt it was Elia Kazan’s movie and not his and that he didn’t want to be an intimidating factor to the director and cast. “He’d bend over backwards to help if he thought you were going in the right direction, and he thought Kazan was,” Tom said. “They worked very well together.”
When they first arrived in Los Angeles to begin production, Kazan accompanied James Dean to visit his estranged father, who was living there at the time. He witnessed first hand how badly the father treated Dean and how much the boy wanted to please him. As he got to know Dean better, Kazan saw how this relationship had instilled in him a great deal of anger because of frustrated love, the key to the character of Cal. “It was the most apt piece of casting I’ve ever done in my life.”
Before shooting began on East of Eden, Kazan sent Dean off to Palm Springs to gain some weight and get some sun so that he looked like a “real” farm boy. Dean hated getting a tan, having his hair cut, and drinking a pint of cream a day to put on pounds.
Dean’s wild behavior and late night carousing worried Kazan. At first, he arranged for Dean to share an apartment with Richard Davalos. When that didn’t work out, Kazan put him up in a dressing room on the Warner lot and moved into the adjoining room to keep an eye on his star.
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.
Kazan gave Dean full rein to approach the role as he saw fit, and encouraged any emotions, however difficult, brought up by the similarities between actor and character. He was impressed by Dean’s willingness to take risks. “He’d do anything to be good. He was way open.”
It was Dean’s idea to do the little running dance in the bean field, and Kazan said he kissed him for that valuable contribution. He also noted that the far more contained Marlon Brando would never have been able to do a scene like that, “but Dean was actually like a kid.”
Kazan noted that Dean’s tension and shyness always manifested itself physically, so he allowed the actor to use contorted, awkward postures to convey the character. “It was almost psychotic. He was exactly like the people you see in insane asylums.”
In order to feel as uncomfortable as possible in the Ferris wheel scene, Dean refused to urinate the entire day until the sequence was completed. Dean also refused to play a scene with Julie Harris on a pitched roof. Kazan overcame his reluctance by getting the actor drunk.
In the original take of the roof scene, Dean crawled through the window into Harris’s bedroom where he crouches beside her while she sleeps, fondling her slipper like a fetishist. That part was cut from the film, as was another highly eroticized scene between the two brothers in their room.
Dean hated being made up and, according to Richard Davalos, they would run into the bathroom at various intervals to rub off a little make-up at a time. “I don’t think we had any make-up on at the end of the day.”
Davalos said that with Dean’s help he got so into the role of the brother that it took him two years to get over it. The two behaved together off set just like they did in the story. When they shared a small apartment for a time, Davalos said, they became Aron and Cal “to the teeth. It crept into our social life. He would do something and I would reject him, and he would follow me down the street about twenty paces behind.”
Davalos said the most difficult scene for him was when Dean as Cal hits him after an argument. Dean didn’t really hit him, of course, but the emotions felt so real Davalos believed Dean really did hate him. He left the set after the take and cried “for about four hours” until Julie Harris had to calm him down.
Several cast members reported that Dean’s emotions overtook him so strongly he would frequently cry. Kazan usually just let those moments pass before resuming shooting, but he did leave one of Dean’s breakdowns in–the scene in which Cal is crushed by his father’s rejection of the money he earned for him.
Julie Harris found Dean very exciting to work with. “He was always inventing; you never knew what was coming. You had to listen, watch; you had to be there.” She found him exciting and highly imaginative and was impressed with the way he studied music with composer Leonard Rosenman and played Bach on his recorder alone in his dressing room.
Tom Steinbeck said Raymond Massey looked down his nose at everyone: “Anyone he hadn’t done rep with wasn’t worth working with.”
Massey was especially put off by Dean’s acting and behavior on the set. Dean’s improvisations and line changes drove the older actor to distraction, and he often complained bitterly to Kazan about it. Kazan would promise to talk to Dean but then let the younger man do it his own way and keep the cameras rolling to capture Massey’s frustration and anger, such as his aversion to Dean’s wailing, tearful embrace in the scene where Adam refuses the money Cal has earned for him (the script had called for Dean only to turn and walk away). This was how Kazan effectively heightened the conflict between father and son. “You think I’d do anything to stop that antagonism?” he later said. “No, I increased it. It was the central thing, the hatred they felt for each other–that’s precious!” No wonder Massey hated the way Dean would keep everyone waiting before a take while he went off by himself to prepare.
The conflict between the two actors came to a boiling point in the scene where Cal angers his father because of the way he reads from the Bible. Kazan, who found Massey to be a rather rigid and unemotional “stiff” off screen and on, wasn’t happy with the way it was going, so he took Dean aside and whispered some suggestions. Dean came back and read the Old Testament passages interlaced with the most offensive curses and crude sexual expressions. The very religious Massey became incensed, storming off the set and threatening to call his lawyers. But before the outburst, Kazan was able to capture the heightened anger he was going for.
Even though he appreciated the tension that came through on the screen, Kazan later said he didn’t do justice to the character of Adam by hiring Massey, who he said “had only one color.”
Despite the annoyances and difficulties he faced making East of Eden, Raymond Massey called the role of Adam Trask one of the best parts he ever had on screen and one of the few three-dimensional characters he played in movies.
Kazan thought Jo Van Fleet was brilliant, capable of taking analytical direction and turning it into completely spontaneous emotion.
Kazan later called Julie Harris “one of the most beautiful people I’ve known in my life” and credited her with getting James Dean through the picture. Kazan appreciated her voice, her lack of pretension, her intensity, and what he saw as the perfect combination of purity and sexual awareness the role demanded.
Harris found Kazan easy to work with and very stimulating. “He adored actors because he was an actor. He was exciting to be with and got everyone excited about what they were doing.”
Lonny Chapman, who played Roy the mechanic, said Kazan told him on a Monday they would film the scene that Friday in which Roy explains the new Model T car to Adam and instructed him to spend the week learning absolutely everything about the car. “He wanted the actor to contribute as much as the director.”
Kazan had high praise for a woman in the wardrobe department who was a great help to him in the town parade segment. Anna Hill Johnstone did extensive research and then handled hiring the extras, getting them costumed, arranging the floats, and other important tasks.
Shooting in the fairly new CinemaScope process proved to be a challenge for Kazan, but he was lucky to have a good working relationship with longtime Warner Brothers cinematographer Ted McCord. The studio camera department gave him instructions up front to keep the camera at least six feet from the actors, which rankled Kazan. So he and McCord made some tests to see how close they could push in. It caused the side edges of the screen to appear a bit curved, but Kazan decided to use that distortion for dramatic expression. McCord suggested that, as long as they were distorting anyway, they should tip the camera angle in certain shots. This technique was used a few times, most prominently in the tense dinner table scene in which Cal and his father fight over the boy’s antagonistic reading of Bible passages.
Kazan also strove to achieve dramatic effects with color, particularly by emphasizing green throughout. He later claimed to have innovated the use of the wide screen by placing objects in the foreground to cut around.
Kazan was proud of his use of CinemaScope to get what he thought was the best shot in East of Eden, the train pulling away with all the lettuce on it. In the carefully calibrated shot, the train disappears behind the railroad station and then reappears much smaller, going off toward the distant mountains. “It’s a perfect shot because it shows that their hope is going off,” He said. “It’s sentimental and still emotional.” Kazan also liked the shot of Cal and Abra after his father’s rejection, standing behind the willow tree, audible but with only their feet showing.
Kazan had to coordinate the filming of the bean field scene with a local farmer so that the crop would be exactly three inches high when the shoot began. Then the sprouts (in reality mustard plants) had to be replanted every five minutes since they would wilt and discolor under lights.
Instead of using rear-projection process shots for the scene on the Ferris wheel, Kazan rented a real one from a carnival, set it up on the Warner Brothers back lot, and borrowed an additional crane, one used by Disney on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), to hoist lights, sound equipment and crew members up to capture the intimate romantic scene.
Leonard Rosenman was hired to do the score on Dean’s recommendation. The two men were friends back in New York, and Dean told Kazan to listen to a score Rosenman had done for a stage production, The Women of Trachis. Kazan was impressed, but Rosenman, a serious composer of orchestral music, was nervous about scoring a film. His friend Leonard Bernstein, who made his film composing debut on Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), encouraged him.
Contrary to the usual practice of composing the music after the film was shot, Rosenman actually wrote some of it beforehand. Snippets of his score are heard being hummed by Julie Harris early on in the story.
East of Eden wrapped on August 9, 1954, after ten weeks of shooting. On that last day, Julie Harris went to James Dean’s trailer to say goodbye because she was not sure she would attend the wrap party. She found Dean crying because the production was over. “It was so moving. It was his first picture [sic], it meant so much, and now it was over.”
by Rob Nixon
(found online at: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/16719/East-of-Eden/articles.html)