Tag Archives: James Dean

‘East of Eden’: Follow Van Fleet

Original poster.

Original poster.

If you’re a sensitive white American teenage boy or girl, it’s entirely likely that you’ll consider “East of Eden” (Warner Bros., 1955) to be the greatest picture of all time, especially if you’ve got a little yen for James Dean. Then, when you get a little older, if you have any sense, you’ll begin to think different. Happily, for those of us with a little sense, there’s still plenty to like and admire about the picture, but you’ve got to be willing to choke down many things that somehow manage, paradoxically, to be steamed up, boiling over and half-baked — all at the same time. The screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s elephantine novel has got an almost awesome amount of emotional pull to it. The Central California locations are gorgeous, and look great in CinemaScope (Ted McCord did the cinematography); Leonard Rosenman’s imposing romantic score keeps working your emotions into a lather; the young actors are attractive and achingly sensitive; the old-timers are pros who can bend the baloney any way they like. The only trouble is that it makes no sense at all. But what a swell, emotional ride it is when you’re a teenager! I remember how terrifically it used to get my nuts in a bunch when I was in high school. It’s the motion picture equivalent of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” which is fantastically engrossing when you’re young, but ludicrous once you’ve got a plenitude of rings on your tree.

I continue to like “East of Eden” a lot. In fact, I love it. But I love it for reasons that I seriously doubt were what director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Paul Osborn had in mind. For instance, I love to watch Jo Van Fleet act that jittery kid right off the screen. He’s up to all his usual tics, but Van Fleet shrugs at him, then backs up her truck and proceeds to steal the picture out from under him. When she narrows her eyes and lets the smoke come chuffing through her dragon nostrils, she seems to be saying, “G’ahead and ham it up, kid: won’t do ya no good, though: they ain’t even lookin’ at ya — not s’long as I’m in the frame.” He’s in the foreground, going through his catechism of spasms; she’s sitting still and scowling, smoking her stubby behind her big manly desk with her plum-colored gloves on . . . you can’t take your eyes off her, and you can’t wait to hear what she’ll say next, or how she’s gonna say it. To hear her say “Makes me mad just to think about a rrraannch” gives me a thrill of pleasure that lasts for the next fifteen minutes. (I have a brother who once told me, “She’s not sexy: she’s obscene.” Bingo.)

Jo Van Fleet won the Academy Award for her performance, and boy did she deserve it. (She’s even better in her one short, unforgettable scene as Arletta, Cool Hand Luke’s mother, in 1967, but she wasn’t nominated for that one.) Frank Langella gave her the back of his hand in his mean-spirited book. She may well have been the bitch he claims she was, but all I care about is the quality of her work. You’ll have to go a long way to find her equal.

Jo Van Fleet: 'Now, whaddaya want with five thousand dollars?'

Jo Van Fleet: ‘Now, what do you want with five thousand dollars?

I heard a story from a friend who, when he was a little kid, knew Marlon Brando: Brando was one of his father’s best friends. Apparently, James Dean once attended a party that Brando was at, and spent the whole evening trying, but failing, to impress him. Before Brando left, he purred: “Young man, I would recommend for you . . . psychoanalysis.” I think of that story just about every second that James Dean’s onscreen. I can’t help thinking that it’s not neurosis that I’m seeing, but hamming. He’s definitely got something, though. I just hope it’s not catching.

The story is essentially a highly steamed up Papa-Drama, loosely based on the Cain and Abel story: well-beloved “good” son Aron (Richard Davalos) versus much-reviled “bad” son Caleb (called “Cal,” James Dean), vying for the love of their stern father, Adam Trask (Raymond Massey, who loathed James Dean), and it all leads up to an extremely emotional happy ending, which happens after the comely, neurotic “bad” son’s Bible-thumping dad suffers a massive stroke, and Julie Harris slips into the old man’s room to deliver an exquisitely modulated Grand Remonstrance, the gist of which is: “Oh, Mr Trask, let Cal do for you, or he’ll never be a man!” It’s astonishing how fine she is in this scene. Julie Harris was hugely admired throughout her long career, and I saw her many times on stage and in pictures, but I never saw her come close again. At any rate, her speech takes its effect, whereupon the old man yields just enough to give the picture a happy ending. And what a sacrifice he makes: now that he’s a helpless, all-but-speechless invalid, he’ll permit his beautiful, no-count son to do for him. He’ll allow the boy to spoon pablum into his pie-hole, and change his diapers, and wait on him hand and foot until that fell arrest without all bail shall carry him away. What tears of joy this used to make me shed!

‘The Bad Seed’: Evil under the Scuppernong Arbor

Patty McCormack as The Bad Seed:  'I've got the loveliest mother . . . '

Pippi Wrongstocking: Patty McCormack as The Bad Seed. ‘Mother, when we move into our house, can we have a scuppernong arbor? They’re so shady and pretty . . .’ Say what?

It’s hard to imagine it, but Maxwell Anderson’s wonderfully foolish horror melodrama, “The Bad Seed,” was taken seriously when it was first presented on Broadway in 1954.  Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times wrote a favorable notice and singled out Nancy Kelly’s performance as being exceptionally fine.  “Miss Kelly acts it magnificently — beautiful and cool in the beginning, but gradually succumbing to a harrowing ordeal that tragically destroys her.  Miss Kelly’s performance is one of ordered tumult.”

One of the chief pleasures of the Warner Bros. picture (1956) is the spectacle of what mid-20th century theatrical acting looked like before the Actors Studio and “The Method” (Lee Strasberg’s variation — many would say violation — of Stanislavski’s approach to acting) came into vogue and swept away the older style that had been in place since the early part of the century.

Eileen Heckart goes at it hard and heavy as the wretched Mrs Daigle:  Ham on wry.

Eileen Heckart goes at it hard and heavy as the wretched Mrs Daigle: Ham on wry, Rye in ham.

For the picture, director Mervyn LeRoy retained most of the original Broadway cast; the picture was shot in a hurry and on the cheap (it’s one of the few post-1953 big studio pictures to be shot in square, rather than rectangular, format).

Round up the usual suspects.  The original Broadway cast:  Henry Jones, Evelyn Varden, Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack.

Round up the usual suspects. The original Broadway cast: Henry Jones, Evelyn Varden, Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack.

After a successful year-long run on Broadway, “The Bad Seed” had a successful year-long national tour, also with the same cast.  So by the time the picture was made, the principals had given nearly a thousand performances — and all of them played to the last row of the second balcony.  One thousand repetitions of a poorly written role can do terrible things to an actor’s performance.  LeRoy did nothing to tone down the theatricality of the acting.  In the picture, what Nancy Kelly does can hardly be called “ordered tumult”:   she’s certainly tumultuous, but “orderly” doesn’t come close to describing the tricks she gets up to.  Her acting is so mannered that it’s almost kabuki, and her vocal cords sound as if they have been tempest-tossed for years upon the billowy main of gin, under lowering clouds of tobacco.  It’s a husky voice that sounds best in its lowest register, but Kelly favors her upper register, which produces an asthmatic rasp, like the last few drops of bathwater being squeezed out of a rubber duck.

I have to say I love what she does with the role, but mostly for all the wrong reasons — except for one:  I’m interested in it as an historical curiosity.  Kelly won the Tony for this performance and was nominated for an Oscar (Heckart and McCormack were also nominated).  So this was what “great acting” looked like in the mid-50s.  Her Broadway co-stars (McCormack, Heckart, Varden and Jones) all give similarly theatrical performances — all absolutely artificial and tremendous fun to watch.  On Broadway in 1954 and in movie theatres in 1956, all of these big, hammy theatrical performances were highly celebrated and almost universally admired.  Within five years, this style was over.  Ever since 1960, “The Bad Seed” has been considered camp.  And so it is.

Henry Jones as the conniving, doomed handyman, LeRoy.  'Now I got yer number, miss!  I bin hearin' things about you that ain't nice . . . !'

Henry Jones as the conniving, doomed handyman, Leroy. ‘Now I got yer number, miss! I bin hearin’ things about you that ain’t nice . . . !’

Thirty years ago, when The Method was still the pre-eminent acting style, Kelly’s old-fashioned, declamatory acting looked not merely artificial, but also crazy.  But acting styles go out of fashion, just like everything else.  Nowadays, the supposed realism that Strasberg’s Method actors brought to their roles looks as artificial as the style it replaced.  To be sure, Nancy Kelly luxuriates in bathos (which I’ve heard described as being “pathos after three martinis”), but as artificial as she is, she means every word that she exaggerates, and she keeps the train on schedule.  Kelly delivers long expository speeches at a stunning breakneck pace; she’s as fast as John Moschitta, the guy who used to do the rapid-fire patter on the early FedEx commercials — and you never lose a word.  Taken purely as a technical achievement, her speed and precision are amazing.  She’s as funny as Ethel Merman was when she sang “I Got Rhythm” to Johnny Carson and clearly enunciated every word while her mouth was full of peanut brittle.  One could reasonably argue that such speeches aren’t intended to be funny, but I don’t see it that way.  The writing is terrible — really unbelievably lazy.  Here’s a passage that gives Kelly an intense workout in high-speed elocution.  On the DVD, Kelly’s express train pulls out of the station at 51:40.

Rhoda . . . when we lived in Wichita, Rhoda, there was an old lady who lived upstairs, Mrs Clara Post.  She liked you very much.


And every afternoon you used to go upstairs and visit the old lady and she used to show you all her treasures.  And the one you admired most was a . . . a . . . a crystal ball in which a little fish floated.  And old Mrs Post promised this to you when she died.  [Pause] And then one afternoon when her daughter was out shopping at the supermarket and you were alone with the old lady, she managed somehow to fall down the spiral backstairs and break her neck.  You said she heard a kitten meowing outside and went to see what was the trouble, and accidentally missed her footing and fell five flights to the courtyard below . . .

Yes, it’s true.

And then later you, you asked her daughter for the crystal ball and she gave it to you and it’s still sitting on the top of your treasure chest.

Yes, mother.

Rhoda, did you have anything . . . I don’t care how small it was . . . did you have anything to do with the way he got drowned?

What makes you ask that, mother?

Now look me in the eye and tell the truth, because I must know!

This whole passage takes just under a minute, and the intrepid Miss Kelly rattles off the long speech about Mrs Clara Post’s “accident” in exactly twenty-five seconds — complete with a pause and some stammering to “indicate” thought . . . and she acts up a storm all through it . . . and all the while, she’s on her knees.  (Nobody but actresses of the old school ever kneels in real life, except in church.  But old fashioned actresses did it all the time — especially if their knees cracked on the descent.)  You don’t believe a word of it, but she does . . . and she’s giving the folks a good show.

Yet for all the bravura phoniness of Kelly’s hamming, James Dean’s performances are more mannered and silly looking today than hers.  The difference is she’s far more accomplished — and  she’s much more fun to watch.

Nancy Kelly:  Sturm und Drang . . . und gin.

Nancy Kelly: Sturm und Drang . . . und gin.

Below is a montage clip from YouTube that gives a clear sense of the lunacy that goes on in this picture.  Alex North’s score is hilarious . . . Variations on “Itsy Bitsy Spider” (a/k/a “Au clair de la lune”) . . . I love the Halloween orchestration.