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James Dean in EAST OF EDEN

This is open for debate, but Humphrey Bogart did say, “If (James Dean) had lived, they’d have discovered he wasn’t a legend.” 

On April 26, 1954, on the eve of production for EAST OF EDEN, based upon John Steinbeck’s 1952 best-selling novel, James Dean wrote to a friend, “Wow. Am I fucked up. I got no motorcycle, I got no girl.” He signed it, “Jim (Brando Clift) Dean.”

Shooting began the following day, and actually he did have a girl, who dumped him during production. It was Pier Angeli. There has been speculation that this failed relationship aroused all of Dean’s sexual insecurity.

James Dean and Paul Newman both tested, and together, for the parts of rival brothers. The other brother was cast instead with Dick Davalos, and he was actually sharing an apartment at the time with Dean. It was the first film for both actors.

Years before appearing in PSYCHO (1960), Anthony Perkins also tested for the role given to Dean.

When Steinbeck was introduced to Dean, the author said, “Jesus Christ, he is Cal (the character).” In real life, Dean’s actual grandfather was named “Cal Dean.”

The film, like its literary source may seem intellectual, introspective in mood, and complicated. But the real message is simple — everyone craves affection.

Director Elia Kazan on Dean: “He had violence in him, he had a hunger within him, and he was himself the boy he played in the film.” Kazan was “The High Priest” of The Actors Studio. He wanted naturalistic acting. He basically picked his whole cast from Lee Strasberg’s The Actors Studio which espoused the Stanislavsky “method” of acting.

The picture wrapped on August 9.

On March 9, 1955 the picture premiered at The Astor Theater in New York. The evening was a benefit for The Actors Studio. John Steinbeck attended. The ushers, present to walk you down the aisle and escort you to comfortable seats, included Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe (who was about to join Strasberg’s The Actors Studio). The post premiere party nearby at The Astor Hotel in mid-town Manhattan was covered as the sole subject of the one hour and 45 minutes long episode of THE TONIGHT SHOW starring Steve Allen.

Five days later THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER disclosed that Dean and Brando were seeing the same psychiatrist! Dean seems always to be performing in the Brando mold.

In the cast, veteran star Raymond Massey despised Dean, as did many, saying, “Jimmy was a rebel at heart. He approached everything with a chip on his shoulder. Jimmy never knew his lines before he walked on the set, rarely had command of them when the camera rolled, and even if he had was often inaudible. Simple technicalities, such as moving on cue and finding his marks, were beneath his consideration.”

EAST OF EDEN was issued to movie theaters nationwide on April 16, 1955.

The picture cost $2.3 million, generated a worldwide gross of $7.6 million, for a net profit of to Warner Bros. of $3.8 million. The return in investment was 165%!

Dean became a cult figure because he tapped a whopping generation gap no one else suspected even existed — not until Brando, Elvis Presley, Hugh Hefner, and Dean triggered it. In EAST OF EDEN, Dean was a symbol of a generation which no longer had anything in common with its parents. Dean was worshipped for his youthful rebellion. A new generation discovered itself in the combined potency of Dean’s personality and Steinbeck’s situations.

“Brando was Dean’s hero,” explained Elia Kazan. “Everyone knew that. On my film, Jimmy would either get the scene right immediately, which he did 95% of the time, or he couldn’t get it all….We had a first preview at a theater in Los Angeles, and the instant Dean appeared on the screen, hundreds of girls began to scream….Dean was a sick kid. If it hadn’t been for Julie Harris, I don’t think he would have gotten through the picture.”

EAST OF EDEN received Oscar nominations for James Dean as Best Actor, Jo Van Fleet as Best Supporting Actress, Paul Osborn for Best Written Adaptation, and Elia Kazan as Best Director.

On September 17, Dean filmed the famous TV commercial with Gig Young for The National Highway Safety Committee, urging viewers to “drive safely.”

On September 22, Dean shot his final scene for the film GIANT (1956).

On September 30, Dean set out for Salinas, California, where he was to compete in an auto race. Driving his brand new Porsche Spyder, which he named “The Little Bastard,” Dean was pulled over for speeding just outside of Bakersfield. Two hours later his car crashed head on into another. Dean was killed instantly. His mechanic, a passenger in the Porsche, was thrown clear and survived. The other driver suffered only a broken nose. Dean had been driving 85 MPH and ended in a tangled mess of burnt steel, flesh, and cartilage. He was 24.

Today that desolate intersection looks exactly the same, all these years later.

James Dean only made three movies, and when he died, only one of these had been released to movie theaters — this Warner Bros. powerfully somber prestige film, EAST OF EDEN. Steinbeck said at the time it was “probably the best motion picture I have ever seen.” Which constitutes amazing praise, especially from an author, much less an author of Steinbeck’s stature.

From The Bible, Genesis IV, 6, not Steinbeck: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the East of Eden.”