22 April 2018

I know it's a hell of a gamble

After reading John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden (1952), director Elia Kazan immediately wanted to turn it into a film. Admittedly, Kazan didn't like the first part of the book and was only interested in filming the latter section which deals with the conflict between Cal, his father Adam and brother Aron. To write the screenplay, Kazan didn't choose Steinbeck --Steinbeck did write the screenplay for Kazan's Viva Zapata! (1952)-- but he chose screenwriter Paul Osborn instead. Kazan felt that East of Eden was the toughest dramatisation job he had ever seen and wanted a professional screenwriter to handle it. While Steinbeck (a good friend of Kazan) was not happy with Kazan's decision, he was busy writing a Broadway musical* so he agreed to Osborn doing the screenplay.

For the principal role of Cal Trask, Kazan briefly considered Marlon Brando with whom he had worked on A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954). Brando, however, was 30 at the time and Kazan thought him too old for the role. Paul Osborn then suggested 23-year-old James Dean for the part. (Osborn had seen Dean on Broadway doing a bit part in the play The Immoralist.) While Kazan didn't think much of Dean personally, he felt Dean did have that special quality which made him Cal. Later Dean was introduced to Steinbeck and, despite finding Dean a "snotty kid", Steinbeck also thought Dean wás Cal. 

When it came to the casting of Abra (Aron's girlfriend who later falls for Cal), Kazan chose experienced stage actress Julie Harris, 28 years old at the time. Jack Warner, studio head at Warner Bros, wanted someone younger and prettier than Harris but Kazan insisted on her being cast. Kazan never regretted his decision and later said that on the set Harris had been more important to Dean than he, the director, had been: "I doubt that Jimmy would ever have got through East of Eden except for an angel on our set. Her name was Julie Harris and she was goodness itself with Dean, kind and patient and everlastingly sympathetic. She helped Jimmy more than I did with any direction I gave him."

Other important roles went to Raymond Massey (Adam Trask), unknown actor Richard Davolos (Aron) and Jo Van Fleet (Kate, mother of Cal and Aron).

Pictured above: Marlon Brando visiting Elia Kazan, Julie Harris and James Dean on the set of East of Eden (1955); below: Dean and Kazan talking to some children on the set.

And now to the letter!

In March 1954, Elia Kazan wrote to his friend John Steinbeck, talking about the progress he and Osborn had just made with the script and about his wish to cast Jimmy Dean and Julie Harris in the roles of Cal and Abra. Kazan admits to it being "a hell of a gamble", seeing that Jack Warner was hoping for stars, but he was willing to take the risk. Well, as we know, Kazan's gamble paid off eventually. East of Eden was not only the start of what would later become a James Dean cult, but at the time it was also a huge success. The film received four Oscar nominations, i.e. for Kazan (Best Director), Dean (Best Actor), Osborn (Best Adapted Screenplay) and Van Fleet (Best Supporting Actress), with Van Fleet being the only one who took home the Oscar.

*Incidentally, the last paragraph of the letter concerns the Broadway musical which Steinbeck was working on with Rogers and Hammerstein ("R&H"); read more here. And at the bottom of the post I've also included a note from James Dean to a fan regarding East of Eden. 

Elia Kazan (pictured right) and John Steinbeck (left) were very close friends. In 1952 after Kazan had given his HUAC testimony, Steinbeck was one of the few people who stood by him. Steinbeck trusted Kazan implicitly and in the end was very happy with the way Kazan's East of Eden (1955) had turned out.

[Sandy Hook, Connecticut] 
[March 1954]
Dear John: 
Give our love to Elaine first of all. We had a hell of a time down there. A lot of new stuff like goggle swimming and all kinds of fishing esp. bone fishing. And esp real hot weather. I liked that. That was very welcome.
Now I'm back, feeling very different. I'm up in the country and Paul and I worked all day yesterday and today on the second draft. Yesterday was bewildering, but today was the day. Today we got somewhere.
We're reconstructing the first forty five odd pages pretty thoroughly. We feel it goes pretty well after that, but the first forty five were very bad. We're finally on a line for Aron. I hope you don't mind: we made him a Wilson (Woodrow, that is) enthusiast. We took out the two historical montages. We had Europe in the war at the beginning. And Aron convinced that we'd never get in, that Wilson would keep us out. Then, the night of the birthday party, Wilson lets him down. And a lot more. The script we had, it turns out, was simply what it was, a first draft. I kept saying that, but it was nevertheless a bit of a shock when it turned out to be what I had been saying: a first draft. We'll be working all this week up here, and then a couple of days in New York. Then I'll go to Salinas and look at your back streets (The ones you told me about). Then I'll go down to Burbank FUCK IT and make the film. I hate to leave N.Y.C. And maybe this will be the last picture I make in Cal. But this one belongs out there, so.  
I looked thru a lot of kids before settling on this Jimmy Dean. He hasn't Brando's stature, but he's a good deal younger and is very interesting, has balls and eccentricity and a "real problem" somewhere in his guts, I don't know what or where. He's a little bit of a bum, but he's a real good actor and I think he's the best of a poor field. Most kids who become actors at nineteen or twenty or twenty-one are very callow and strictly from N.Y. Professional school. Dean has got a real mean streak and a real sweet streak. 
I had an awful time with the girl. Terrible. The young girls are worse than the young boys. My god, they are nothing. Nothing has happened to them or else they're bums. Abra is a great part. I hope you don't die now. I want to use Julie Harris. Do you think I'm nuts? The screen play depends so on her last scene with Adam and on her strength, that I have to have a real, real actress. I couldn't find one aged twenty. They're nothing. Proms, dresses, beaus and all that, but nothing for my last scene. Finally I made a photographic test of Julie and she looks twenty when her face is in movement, I think. I'll just have to keep her face in movement. She's a marvelous actress. She is not Abra the way we saw her, but jeezuz I was stuck. 
One pro thing. She and Jimmy Dean look fine together. They look like People, not actors. I'm real pleased with that part of it. Two people. Dean has the advantage of never having been seen on the screen. Harris, practically.
Meantime WB? Jack esp. are dying. They hoped for stars. But they didn't come up with any names. And I haven't. I know you must be a little shocked with this casting. And I know its a hell of a gamble and all on my shoulders. But I'm delighted to take it. Its the kind of gamble I like. Write me. c/o Warner Bros. Burbank Cal.
I think R&H did fair on the lead casting. And I think Clurman is one of the three or four best directors in the world today. R&H will do the musical part of it. Lots of love to you and Elaine. Have a BALL!
Source: The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan (2014), edited by Albert J. Devlin.

Below: James Dean's letter to a fan, saying he found playing Cal "gratifying". Image of the letter courtesy of Heritage Auctions.


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