Film revivals are all too often a shattering experience. For six years I have reverently remembered East of Eden as the first of the three James Dean greats; after a second viewing at the Brattle yesterday, Dean (fortunately) seems as convincing as before, but the film itself is little more than hackneyed and unconvincing Hollywoodism.
It's hard to get angry at anyone directly responsible for the picture; the script is riddled with cliche, but script writer Paul Osborn was obliged to follow a text, and most of his grating lines are merely transcribed from John Steinbeck's novel, a diffuse and stilted book of well over 600 pages.
The plot is self-consciously biblical (Steinbeck gives Old Testament names to almost every one of his characters), and it is peopled with stereotypes (the gruff-but-kindly sheriff the shrewd-but-kindly businessman, and even the wicked-and-abandoned-but-kindly prostitute. The structure is as simple and as unenticing: hostile, alienated, confused James Dean battles a pacifist, puritanical brother for the blessing of the patriarchal father (Raymond Massey) and the affections of the brother's girl (Julie Harris). It's a wonder the film has any merit at all.
Dean, somehow, manages to remain oblivious to the inanities of the script. As in his other films, his portrait of inarticulate and rejected adolescence is magnificently--and almost frighteningly--convincing. Puffing furtively at a forbidden cigarette, rubbing his hair in sudden embarrassment--every gesture fits, and even some of the lines sound right.
The supporting cast is every bit as game, but it doesn't cope quite so successfully. Jo Van Fleet (the prostitute and, as it turns out, the boys' mother) got an Oscar, but probably for sheer stamina; at least no one else in the film is required to say (with pride and disdain): "I run the toughest house on the coast, and I've got the finest clientele."
As the father, Raymond Massey thunders wondrously, but he often seems faintly embarrassed by the part, and much of the time speaks with a flatness that would startle even Jason Robards, Jr. Julie Harris is her usual elfin self; and Burl Ives, the sheriff, is paternal and friendly.
The direction--by Elia Kazan--and the photography are passing fair, and, all in all, the film is still, I suppose, a good one. But the illusions of youth die a horrible death; and I'm not sure whether I can conscientiously recommend the thing to anyone who saw it in 1955. It gets pretty painful.