FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Age of Innocence
Reviewed by Leonard Quart

John Boles as Newland Archer and Irene Dunne as Ellen Olenska

John Boles as Newland Archer and Irene Dunne as Ellen Olenska

Produced by Pandro S. Berman; directed by Philip Moeller; screenplay by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman; based on the novel by Edith Wharton and the play by Margaret Ayer Barnes; photographed by James Van Trees; editing by George Hivel; art direction by Alfred Herman, Van Nest Polglase; music by Max Steiner; starring, Irene Dunne, John Boles, Lionel Atwill, Helen Westley, and Julie Haydon. DVD, B&W, 81 min., 1934. A Warner Bros. Archive release.

In 1993 Martin Scorsese radically veered from directing his usual contemporary, gritty films to produce his stunning, definitive version of Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning portrait of the 1870s New York upper class, The Age of Innocence (1920). Scorsese’s film brilliantly evoked the codes and texture of a stifling, custom-bound society bound by its possessions, rooms, and fashions. He also made use of a narrator and a moving camera to subtly depict the nature of his central characters’ emotional states.

In the hands of director Phillip Moeller, however, the earlier version of The Age of Innocence (1934) turns static and speechifying. Lacking Scorsese’s visual mastery, style, and eye for social detail, Moeller closely follows the novel’s narrative and its themes, but fails to capture its tragic essence. The film, told in flashback by Newland to his grandson, eschews subtlety, and has its characters heavy-handedly express their feelings in short speeches or telegraph them by obvious looks. A stiff John Boles plays Newland Archer in a single, unchanging mode (melancholy longing). He’s a sensitive, gentlemanly upper-class lawyer, who is engaged to the mother-dominated, devoted May Welland (Julie Haydon). Their relationship is built around adhering closely to social forms, rather than conveying any semblance of passion or intimacy. Archer falls deeply in love with May’s cosmopolitan cousin Ellen Olenska (Irene Dunne), who has returned from Europe after a bad marriage to a Polish count that causes her status in New York society to be an uneasy one (in fact, it makes her seem open to the advances of a predatory married man, who sees her as vulnerable prey). Ellen, who craves love and freedom rather than propriety, develops similar romantic feelings for Archer. They view their love as an escape from a world (“a glimpse of a real life”) where feelings and passion are diminished.

Dunne, often shot in dreamy soft focus, is elegant and dignified—a bit too much so. She fails to fully convey Ellen’s sense of entrapment, but succeeds in communicating some of Ellen’s relative independence from a world totally bound by social ritual and habit. (It’s a milieu that treats bohemianism or any type of untraditional behavior with disdain and ostracism.) There is one exception in this array of conformists, who include Newland and May’s respective intrusively conventional mothers: it’s Ellen’s doting grandmother, Granny Mingott (Helen Westley, who offers a singular performance). Granny may adhere to most of the tribe’s prescriptive rules, but always behaves in a warm, humane, good-humored manner.

The love between Newland and Ellen is fraught with insurmountable obstacles. Newland is hustled into marriage with May, followed by a long, unhappy European-tour honeymoon, but returns home still obsessed with Ellen. After settling in, the two meet surreptitiously—their passion intensified. Newland is ready to leave his marriage and sever his ties with his social world, but seemingly naïve and conventional May is much more aware and shrewder than they know. Her family is totally behind her in the struggle to save her marriage, and May is able to get (manipulate?) Ellen to sacrifice her love for Newland, and return to Europe.

Newland is left with powerful memories of Ellen, and that has to suffice. For he is too linked to the conventions of his milieu ever to leave his marriage, or even seek out Ellen again. One can see signs of Wharton’s intricate sensibility in this shallow, overstated film version of the novel. It took Scorsese in 1993 to capture the profound oppressiveness of the upper-class nineteenth-century social world, and depict the emotional pain of the romantic tragedy at the novel’s heart. Moeller’s film gives us only an outline version of the novel.

Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the fourth edition of American Film and Society since 1945 (Praeger).

To purchase The Age of Innocence, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.