James Dean makes his motion picture debut in this Elia Kazan movie film (shot in gorgeous Cinemascope) of John Steinbeck’s novel set in rural California, just prior to America’s involvement in World War I. Kazan took only the final third of Steinbeck’s novel, figuring the film would only work if it focused on the relationship of a father with his two sons–one loyal, one disaffected (guess which one Dean played?).
In the film East of Eden a “seriously disturbed” young man is played by the newcomer, James Dean; and in The Blackboard Jungle an even more shocking delinquent is played by the newcomer, Vic Morrow. Dean is directed by Elia Kazan and Morrow by Richard Brooks, but the mentor of both appears to be Marlon Brando.
It would be over cynical to suggest that they are trying to cash in on a fad, and in any case I doubt that the actors and directors would be so foolish as to think it was smart. But Brando is a powerful theatrical personality and his mannerisms are so explicit and so often repeated that other performers can easily fall into them as the “sincere” way to behave. Dean and Morrow both employ his trick of standing with one hip dropped, the opposite shoulder thrust toward but half turned away from whoever is admonishing them; they both speak under stress with his stuttering, slurred, explosive cadence; they both relieve their inarticulateness with sudden open-mouthed howls, often accompanied by the sound of breakage. Morrow is portraying a contemporary city-street tough and it could be argued that the leather jacket gangs all move and sound today like Brando; but Dean’s role is that of a Salinas, California, farm youth at the time of the First World War and for him the excuse will not hold. The mimicry is more unfortunate in his case, also, because he is the more interesting actor and presumably capable of inventing his own methods of communication.
The Blackboard Jungle is a tract for our times, proof that Hollywood is not heedless of the ulcers that here and there disfigure our pleasant land. But Hollywood has a strong aversion to leaving a bad taste in the customer’s mouth; it likes to end the Zola act with a round of lollipops for all present. And this rather canny social zeal may do more harm than good; it calls the citizen’s attention to a pressing evil only to assure him immediately that a very pretty remedy is at hand.
The present excursion into sociology notifies us that in a typical big city high school discipline has fallen off to the point where unarmed teachers walk the corridors in fear of their lives and where for lady teachers death may be a comparatively merciful fate. The students in such an institution play with switch blades instead of marbles and after class–when sufficiently sober–divert themselves with mayhem and armed robbery.
But do not be alarmed. Fortunately, there is nothing in this undesirable situation that cannot be remedied by a teacher (in this case Glenn Ford) endowed with the endurance of St. Sebastian, the ingenuity of Horace Mann, and the infighting techniques of a Marine commando. Mr. Ford “gets through” to the boys and from then on the school hums with industry and love.
I don’t know how carefully MGM has “researched” the school situation, but they have permitted some casual boners to slip into the picture. It seems that the school is in New York (or at least in some large city where there is an elevated and where heavy snows are not uncommon), but one day Mr. Ford takes a morning off to seek advice and encouragement from a former professor, now headmaster of a model school some ten miles away. Palms are growing on this campus and the architecture strongly suggests UCLA. At another point Ford remarks that, at $2.00 an hour, a school teacher makes no more pay than a baby sitter. Perhaps the scenes of carnage are similarly inflated. But supposing that our schools – or at least some of our schools–are now only institutions of temporary confinement for armed and remorseless criminals, they are not going to be reformed into educational paradises by superman turned pedagogue. The Blackboard Jungle is a sentimental melodrama masquerading as a social document, which in its own way is as dangerous a little gadget as a zip gun.
The problem in East of Eden, based on the novel by John Steinbeck, is lovelessness. Carl Trask, son of Adam Trask and brother of Aron, is as moody and bitter and dangerous as Cain.
Or so it seems to him and he finds the explanation in the discovery that his mother, officially reported dead, is really the madam of the most prosperous “house” in Salinas. He tells himself that he has inherited her badness, as his brother has inherited their father’s infallible virtue. In fact, of course, brother Aron is a monster of priggish self-interest and Carl is driven by his own sensitivity and his father’s lack of it into the self-destructive paroxisms that periodically overwhelm him. He tries to earn his father’s love, he tries to buy it, and he tries to do without it. He is lectured for his pains. In the end he is saved by a girl who loves him for no reason except that she understands what is biting him.
This sounds pretty bad, but in fact it is not bad at all. The motivation is sadly hazy throughout (I understand that only a fragment of the novel has been brought to the screen), but the basic observation that a child who is not loved cannot possibly grow up is true and not unimportant. James Dean (despite the Brandoisms mentioned above) gives a painfully unmasked picture of what such a child looks like as it becomes older; Raymond Massey is sufficiently convincing as the good stick of a father, and Julie Harris is a quite marvelous girl-woman – too thin, burning too brightly because she sees too clearly.
The fault of the picture is that it drags. I think that is because it has been impossibly stretched across the heroic span of Cinemascope. East of Eden deals with inner conflict; the entire story could be played out in a living room. Instead it sprawls all over the eye-filling landscape and the real action is padded and interrupted by a great deal of rushing to and fro that is inserted to justify all that expensive new machinery. The picture keeps looking like a Western, but it lacks that kind of excitement; and the very real excitement it does have is dulled by the giant sweep of technicolor.