Both the 1955 feature film and the 1981 miniseries based on John Steinbeck’s 1952 blockbuster best-selling novel East of Eden have females top-billed: Julie Harris and Jane Seymour, respectively. They did not play the same role (Abra and Cathy/Kate, respectively). Moreover the actresses playing Cathy/Kate won awards: Jo Van Fleet the best supporting actress Oscar and Jane Seymour a Golden Globe. They played a meaty role, though the character verges on being a demon onf Steinbeck’s misogynist imaginings.
The novel is “about” two generations of Cain and Abel antagonists (Trask brothers), though Steinbeck seems to have wanted there to be an offsetting focus on the Hamilton clan, the patriarch of which was to some degree based on the author’s mother’s father. And in the third part (the part on which the movie was based) Kate’s orneriness is balanced by the very sympathetic Abra (Harris).
In that the 1955 movie directed by Elia Kazan is a masterpiece, the primary interest of the miniseries is in the first two parts that provide the East Coast backstory of Adam (and his disfavored, brutal bully of a brother, Charles). Their father Cyrus (Warren Oates) is a rascal bilking the Civil War veterans (GAR), who forces Adam (Timothy Bottoms) into the army and Indian wars (and away from Charles, who nearly slew Adam after the initial version of the welcome and unwelcome gifts from the boys).
Adam returns home to find Cyrus dead and learns he is a beneficiary of a $100K inheritance (in addition to his half-interest in the Connecticut farm). For a while the brothers work the farm. Adam knows their father swindled the money but assures Charles that he must have come by it honestly (if insider trading is “honest”).
The miniseries also follows the life of destruction and false innocence of Kate, whose most recent patron (Howard Duff) beat her to a pulp. She crawls up the Trasks brothers’ steps. Charles recognizes her innocence as fraudulent, but Adam dotes on her and marries her. She knocks him out (laudanum in his tea) on the wedding night and seduces Charles. Then Adam and Kate go west.
Adam wants to irrigate in California’s Central Valley (somewhere between King City and Salinas), buys a ranch, and hires Will Hamilton (Lloyd Bridges) and his sons to drill wells.
Kate attempts to induce a miscarriage, but carries a pair of non-identical twins to term. After which she leaves Adam and the farm, shooting him in the shoulder when he attempts to stop her. The boys, the goody-goody Aron and the bad boy Cal are raised by a wily Chinese servant, Lee (Soon-tek Oh) and believe their mother is dead and buried in the East. Lee’s character was dropped form the movie.
Cal learns otherwise. Cathy, now known as Kate, was doted upon by the madame of a bordello, Faye (Anne Bancroft), whom she kills pretty much immediately upon seeing a will that leaves everything to her. Kate’s is the plushest bordello on “whorehouse way” in Monterey (19 miles across a mountain range from Salinas, where the male Trasks reside).
Adam’s scheme to ship lettuce to the East with icebox boxcars fails. Cal wants to make money to restore Adam’s wealth and hooks up with the savviest of the Hamiltons to buy bean futures in anticipation of a price rise when the US goes to war (which Woodrow Wilson has just been re-elected promising to keep out of).
Cal cannot borrow money from Lee, who is not a character in the movie, and convinces Kate to lend him the money. In both versions the scheme succeeds and Cal presents an envelope with fifteen grand to his father (for Thanksgiving in the miniseries for his birthday in the movie, also celebrated with a turkey dinner). Adam is on (miniseries) or heads (movie) the draft board and rejects the profiteering loot. In the movie Aron very deliberately upstages Cal’s gift by reporting that he and Abra have gotten engaged, which comes as a surprise to her, and a surprise she does not at all welcome, having tried to help Cal squeeze some love from his father. In the miniseries, Aron only lets his father assume what he wants (that Aron will return to Stanford).
(James Dean, Burl Ives, and Richard Davlos sending off train with lettuce)
(Sam Bottoms and Hart Bochner, looking less twin-like!)
Heartbroken that Aron again has received all the paternal approbation, Cal takes Aron to Monterey to meet his(/their) mother. That he is the sone of a whore shakes Aron (planning to be an Episcopalian priest in the miniseries and even more moralistic than his father) who gets drunk and enlists in the army, going off to be killed. Cain de facto kills Abel in the guise of Cal and Aron (though the movie’s Aron exceeds Cal in sibling rivalry in the movie version, and is rather Cain-like, even if his offerings are pleasing to the family god, Adam).
In both versions, Abra had become increasingly dissatisfied with Aron and eager to repair Cal even before the re-enactment of the pleasing and the rejected filial gifts.
(Dean and Harris)
Though Aron’s visit is unwelcome to Kate in the movie, on rewatching it I did not find any hint that it drives her to suicide or to leaving her wealth to Aron with whom she has no affinity (she has some with Cal for rejecting Adam’s self-righteousness).
In the movie, Adam has a stroke after his favorite son flees. In the miniseries Adam has a stroke upon receiving news that his favorite son has been killed in action. Both versions end with Adam being convinced (by Lee in the miniseries, by Abra in the movie) to bless Cal and help him become whole.
The movie is electrified by the yearning and hopelessness of James Dean (who had similar problems trying to please his father). In his first movie role, and the only one that he lived long enough to see the finished version, Dean was nominated for an Oscar. Sam Bottoms could not compete with (the memory of) Dean for anguish and comes across as much less neurotic, more resigned to always being judged inferior to Aron. Richard Davlos’s Aron in the movie is less puritanical, but more jealous and competitive to his brother than Hart Bochner in the miniseries.
Given the much longer time span of the miniseries, Jane Seymour was more demonic than Jo Van Fleet. The latter’s Kate was bitter, but more sympathetic to Cal (having to lend him his start-up capital with Lee excised).
(Jo Van Fleet)
The miniseries has an earlier-generation Cain, Charles, played by Bruce Bochner, Oh’s wise Chinese male mother, Anne Baxter’s naïve lesbian madame, Howard Duff’s whoremaster betrayed by Kate, and a flamboyant turn by Lloyd Bridges as the other one who dares to speak truth to Adam. Both have sheriffs maintaining order through personal authority (Burl Ives and M. Emmet Walsh).
Though Sam Bottoms was criticized for not being James Dean or a reincarnation of him, my casting problem is with Timothy Bottoms as his father (Adam). There is a family resemblance, but Timothy was only four years older than Sam. And for me, Timothy Bottoms was not convincing as a patriarch. Raymond Massey (in the movie) was, though showing an occasional sense of humor (especially when getting driving instructions). Kazan conspired with Dean to get Massey riled, and Massey has a fury I can’t imagine Timothy Bottoms coming close to conveying.
Julie Harris’s Abra was a bigger part than Karen Allen’s. Jack Warner opposed casting her, thinking her too old, but Harris had continued playing Frankie in “A Member of the Wedding” into her mid-20s. She does not look or seem her age (30) in “East of Eden.” Dean was six years younger, but could not pass for 17 (IMHO). Nor could Davalos, who was 25. (Sam Bottoms was 26, Hart Bochner 25 when the miniseries was made).
I think Frank Stanley’s cinematography for the miniseries (it was Emmy-nominated), but the look, not just the sweeping exteriors, but the closeups Ted McCord (Treasure of the Sierra Made, The Sound of Music) shot, stretching the then newish CinemaScope color-film technology of the day, was superlative. It included some unconventional (outside the noir universe) angles. (I can’t say that I agree with Kazan’s decision to shoot Cal and Abra blocked by a willow tree for most of their post-dinner-blowout scene.
I also don’t understand the need for a movie running less than two hours to have an overture with a shot of waves breaking on Portuguese Beach with a view of Mendocino (standing in for 1917 Monterey). I’m less than enthused but not annoyed by the music in both versions: Leonard Rosenman’s for the movie, Lee Holdridge’s for the miniseries. The musical themes sound similar and for my taste are repeated too often in both.
I am glad to have the miniseries that has much more of the book (it had better, being more than three times as long!) as well as the Kazan/Dean classic. The current 2-disc video release of the movie has lots of interesting bonus features, the (belated, only appearing in 2009) version of the miniseries has a very entertaining interview of Jane Seymour and a reasonable text-based biography of Steinbeck.
©2017, Stephen O. Murray
On the corpus of screen adaptations of Steinbeck fiction see here.