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EILEEN BATTERSBYponders James Dean and John Steinbeck

IT WAS AN accident, nothing more sinister than a craving for fast cars that had a young actor eager to try out his Porche 550 Spyder attempting a pre-race spin. Earlier in the afternoon of September 30th, 1955 – 57 years ago tomorrow – James Dean had already been cautioned by the Californian Highway Patrol for speeding in a 55 mph zone.

He slowed down and then headed for the desert. His German mechanic, who survived the crash, later mentioned that Dean had seen the Ford saloon about to turn ahead of them and tried to avoid it. Dean was pulled dying from the wreck. He was 24 and had made three movies: East of Eden (1955), Rebel without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). Dean’s death fitted his screen image of a troubled young man at war with himself. He was an ambivalent character and his early life had been dominated by his mother’s death when he was nine-years-old. Dean had been born in Indiana, but his father moved the family to California. Aware that he could not deal with his son alone, the widower sent the boy back to Indiana to be raised by relatives. Dean enjoyed sport, but has little aptitude for school. Acting introduced a new dimension.

Impressive TV and theatre work both on and off Broadway gained him entry to Lee Strasberg’s legendary Actor’s Studio which had produced exponents of method acting such as Marlon Brando.

Elia Kazan wanted a young Brando-type for the role of Cal Trask in East of Eden, a loose adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1952 family saga spanning three generations of the lives of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, in California’s Salinas Valley. Steinbeck did not like Dean, yet approved the casting. Dean worked on instinct and there are flashes of improvisational genius in his performance. His Cal Trask was reiterated in Dean’s approach to his seminal portrayal of disaffected teenagers in Rebel Without a Cause. East of Eden had made Dean famous; it would later secure him the first of two posthumous Academy Award Best Actor nominations, the second would be for Giant. A week before the crash, British actor Alec Guinness cautioned Dean about driving the Porche, warning him he would die in it.

Steinbeck had reservations about the screen adaptation of East of Eden, yet remained philosophical, aware that his finest work, The Grapes of Wrath (1939) published when he was only 37, would prove his legacy. It describes the epic journey of a farming family fleeing the dust bowl of Oklahoma for a new life in the promised land – California. The literary world appears to be divided between admirers of Hemingway versus Steinbeck. Both won the Nobel Prize, Hemingway in 1954; Steinbeck in 1962, the year after Hemingway shot himself.

Steinbeck died in 1968 aged 66. Yet James Dean, who had he lived would now be 81, is forever young, as Cal Trask, a son seeking a father’s love, and a screen immortal revered as a spokesman for misunderstood youth.

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