Levene, Bruce — James Dean in Mendocino

Posted on November 12th, 2014 in American History,American Society,Art,Film,Mendocino County,Travel by Barry

John Steinbeck’s novel, “East of Eden” was published September 1952 and the movie-made soon thereafter-is the subject of this edition of Radio Curious. Our guest is Bruce Levene, author of “James Dean in Mendocino: The Filming of East of Eden.” The Mendocino Film Festival will screen “East of Eden” on Friday, November 21 and Sunday, November 23, 2014.

Soon after “East of Eden” was published, plans began immediately for a motion picture. Warner Brothers bought the rights and director Elia Kazan hired playwright screenwriter, Paul Osborn to write the film script. After several attempts to encompass the sprawling 560-page novel, they decided to use only the last 90 pages—the story of Adam Trask, his sons Aron and Cal, their mother Kate, and the girl Abra.

It’s a story about the search for love, the desperate search for his father’s love, by the son Cal, the fanciful search for his mother’s love by Aron, and the futile quest by Adam for the love of all humanity. John Steinbeck wrote of his book, “The subject is the only one that man has used of his theme. The existence, the balance, the battle and the victory and permanent war between wisdom and ignorance, light and darkness, good and evil.”

By 1954, when Kazan began searching for locale to use for the filming of “East of Eden,” neither Monterey nor Salinas, where the stories took place, looked much like California in 1917. Warner Brothers had made “Johnny Belinda” in Mendocino in 1947, which might have influenced the director.

Or perhaps as one wire service reported:  “Like many other voyagers, he just wandered up the Mendocino Coast and found what he was looking for.”

In late April, preparations for filming began and the fist day of shooting took place on May 27. In that amazingly brief time the Mendocino scenes were completed and by June 3, the Warner Brothers production team was gone, leaving local residents with fond remembrances.

Bruce Levene writes, “I first saw “East of Eden” on the fan tail of a US Navy destroyer in the Caribbean in 1956. I’d read the book but never traveled west of Des Moines. California was unseen, Mendocino was unheard of. I thought “East Eden” had been filmed in Monterey and Salinas, wherever they were.”

“East of Eden” became Levene’s favorite motion picture. Not particularly because of James Dean, although he was certainly unforgettable.

“Whatever the man was in real life, saint or sinner,” Bruce Levene writes, “we will never really know.  It’s undeniable however, that in front of an audience or camera he was remarkable. And that, for an actor, is the best thing that can be said. Dean was just something else.”

For Bruce Levene, it was how he felt about the whole movie—the shoreline, the town, it’s people, the actors: Julie Harris, Joe Van Fleet, Raymond Massey and Burl Ives (Massey and Ives didn’t go to Mendocino), and Leonard Rosenman’s wonderful music. A totality in feeling, rare in motion pictures, was only enhanced to Bruce Levene when he moved to Mendocino in 1969.

When Bruce Levene and I visited from his home in Mendocino, California, on November 11, 2014, I asked him what prompted him to write his book “James Dean in Mendocino.”

The book Bruce Levene recommends is “The Immense Journey” by Loren Eiseley.

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