Sunday, December 21, 2008
Elia Kazan came to the movies in the mid 1940s with a reputation as a brilliant theater director and as might be expected, his first few films - such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) - were a bit theatrical in their staging. Mindful of this, Kazan purposely opened up the action in his underrated film, Panic in the Streets (1950), where he made the city of New Orleans the focus, filming the back streets, cafes and harbor with a gritty, cool detachment. He continued his maturity as a location director with Viva Zapata! (1952) and On the Waterfront (1954), but it was with East of Eden (1954) that Kazan accomplished his finest work visually.
I will address two topics regarding the look of this film. One is the Cinemascope process used in this film, the first of Kazan’s career. I will begin however with the color pallete designed by Kazan, his director of photography, Ted McCord and his costume designer, Anna Hill Johnstone.
Inspired by the Northern California setting of John Steinbeck’s celebrated novel, Kazan settled on two major color schemes; one an earthy look, focusing on brown and dark red, the other, a bright expression of the countryside with an emphasis on green. While the color green symbolizes beauty for much of the film, it would take on a much different sensation at the film’s conclusion.
The dark brown wood tones are the basic color of a few of the principal settings in the film, such as the bordello run by Kate (Jo Van Fleet), who now lives in Monterey away from her former husband Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) and her two sons, Cal (James Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos). Along with the sherrif’s office and the dining room where Cal must read the Bible to his father, these locations are dimly lit, as though they are equated with darkness and evil. While the Bible reading is in effect, an action of faith and goodness, it becomes a point of dispair and conflict between Cal and Adam. The deep brown and dark yellow hues of this room embrace this mood.
Several characters are costumed in brown or other deep colors; Kate wears a scarlet outfit (complete with matching gloves) during her meeting with Cal at her office when she decides to loan him money, Albrecht, the local German-American is often seen in a dark brown suit, while Aron is wearing brown pants in his first scene. Adam by the way is often seen in a dark gray suit, which matches his serious, business-like, no-nonsense approach.
Two characters are dressed in a manner outside this color scheme. Abra (Julie Harris), the girlfriend of Aron who represents goodness, joy and life (as Adam Trask himself might have put it), wears a variety of brightly lit clothes, from the yellow skirt in her introductory scene to a strikingly beautiful pale green dress she wears at the ceremony at the train station. This dress, incidentally, is seen onscreen for approximately ten seconds, which tells you the freedom that costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone must have enjoyed for this project.
Johnstone also adds a gorgeous splash of color in a scene just preceding this, where employees of Adam are sorting the heads of lettuce. Johnstone designed a different dress for each of the Mexican women and the colors are bright and lucid with plenty of pastels of pink, powder blue and burnt orange. Again, these dresses are seen for only a few seconds; Johnstone was certainly given a demanding workload for the film and she responded brilliantly. (A wonderful bonus on the superb 2005 DVD release celebrating the 50th anniversary of the film is a 22-minute film of the wardrobe tests of Dean, Harris, Davalos and a few other characters.)
The other character that has a different color design for his wardrobe is Cal, who we first see in a tan sweater and light gray (almost cream-colored) pants. As Cal is seen as an outcast – the “bad son” – naturally the look of his clothes are outside the norm. Interestingly, Cal does embrace the earthy color scheme himself later in the film, wearing a brown suit that we first see as he performs his lively dance in the bean fields and later at the birthday party for his father. Clearly this shift away from the brighter colors to the more typical look of brown for the film marks a desire for Cal to fit in with the others, first as a businessman (the bean fields are part of his business plan to earn money) and then yearning for love from his father.
While the earthy tones mark much of the film’s visuals, the color green plays a critical role in this approach as well. Green represents the beauty of the local vegetable fields, which provide the characters with their living. The green lettuce is equated with money and the hopes of Adam, who plans to ship the crop on boxcars filled with ice (this is several years before air conditioning). Thus green represents more than everyday beauty; it signifies hope and future success or doom for the Trasks.
Green takes on a very different meaning in the last sequence of the film. Felled by a stroke, Adam lies almost motionless on his bed in a room in which green seems to be everywhere. The walls are various shades of green, there is a green lamp by the side of the bed, a framed photo sits inside a dark green mat and even Abra wears an olive green dress in this sequence. Here the brightness of green (money and stability for the future) is replaced by the darkness of this color, as a last hope for reconciliation and love before the ultimate calling of death. The last shot of the film, as the camera cranes back to show Cal at the side of the bed watching over his father is highly emotional, made more so by the dark, detached nature of the green in this room (as well as the deep brown wood of the large headboard – signfying a final return to the earth).
The visual style of the film is also the result of the CinemaScope process in which it was filmed. Introduced in Hollywood in 1953, CinemaScope was a wide screen format with an aspect ratio of 2.66:1, twice as wide as the standard format at the time of 1.33:1. (The 2005 DVD is presented in anamorphic widescreen with a ratio of 2.35:1) East of Eden marked Kazan’s first venture into this sweeping visual approach and it gave the director the freedom and inspiration to tell his story with some striking compositions.
Perhaps the signature shot of the film is the one of the train carrying Adam’s lettuce out of town on its eastern journey. As the train curves from left to right in the scene, we see two small children running after it, adding a sense of depth to the composition. The camera pans in the same direction as Adam walks past the depot to a few feet past an abandoned structure, to get a better view of the train, as he watches his future slowly move away from him. Cal then enters the frame in the front left, adding a touching signifigance, as this moment represents a great deal for him as well as he embraced his father’s plan and worked diligently in order to achieve success and win his father’s love in return. The shot is beautiful to look at as well as being emotionally powerful.
There is another image involving this same train that is also quite remarkable, though few critics have remarked upon it. This takes place alongside the lettuce fields and in this remarkable shot, the train makes it way along the tracks on the extreme left of the screen; here the train is almost shot in a vertical fashion as opposed to the horizontal sweep of the previously mentioned scene. Just to the right of the train are two horse-drawn wagons and just to their right, we see crates of lettuce and a small ice truck. The background of this shot is dominated by the seemingly endless lettuce fields (dotted by a few workers) and the brilliant blue skies interspersed with puffy clouds that hang over the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains. Kazan and McCord have combined the width of CinemaScope with impressive depth of field in this image, adding a poetic touch worthy of Steinbeck’s vision.
Another remarkable scene is the encounter between Cal and Abra in the lettuce fields, as they sit upon a picnic bench and talk as Abra awaits the arrival of Aron. Kazan uses several over the shoulder shots of these two with Abra looking almost angelic in a cool pink dress contrasted with Cal appearing in a common laborer’s dull gray shirt and blue overalls. Although the deeply saturated yellows and greens are evident from both points of view, McCord photographs these images differently. As we see Cal through Abra’s eyes, the focus on him is razor sharp, making the background a bit hazy. However, as we see Cal’s view of Abra, both the flowers and she are equally in focus. This is a reflection of how the two characters view each other; Abra is fascinated with Cal, as she begins to move from fear to admiration of him (later during the celebrated ferris wheel scene, her emotions turn to love), while Cal merely sees Abra as he always has – as Aron’s girlfriend. This is the brightest, most verdant scene in the film and McCord’s excellent photography underscores the fact that the optimism of this moment would be a sadly fleeting one.
Over the years, some influential critics have knocked the film on matters ranging from Dean’s performance to the oversimplification (in their opinion) of the emotional truths of the subject. Yet the praise for the film’s visuals has been almost without question. If Steinbeck’s Biblical allegory was to work onscreen, Kazan had to create a remarkable series of images as a metaphor for the dreams and everyday realities of characters that were so deeply connected with their surroundings. He succeeded brilliantly.
Ted McCord was a veteran cinematographer who enjoyed a Hollywood career that lasted over 50 years. He was one of the best of the Warner Brothers house cameramen during the 1940s and ‘50s; he worked on films such as Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Action in the North Atlantic and 1948’s Johnny Belinda, for which he earned an Academy Award nomination. In all, he received three Academy Award nods, his last coming for The Sound of Music in 1965, his penultimate film. He never won an Oscar. Remarkably, he was not nominated for an Academy Award for his work on East of Eden.
Anna Hill Johnstone was a costume designer in Hollywood for more than 40 years. She worked on several of Kazan’s films from Baby Doll and A Face in the Crowd in the 1950s to later works such as America, America (1963) and his final film The Last Tycoon (1976). She was nominated for an Academy Award for her costumes for The Godfather (1972) and Ragtime (1991). She never won as Oscar. Remarkably, she was not nominated for an Academy Award for her work on East of Eden.