Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Age of Innocence (1934)

From the birth of the idea of producing motion pictures with a storyline, spurring on the industry of motion picture production, most stories provided for the screen came from previously written works as source material, including novels, magazine, plays, or even history books. The trick with film is that story must be the developed for the screen in a way that would grab the audience’s attention for the entire length of the picture, without the lulls that sometime come in sections of books or other material. With creative screenwriters and good directors this can be done effectively in many cases (despite the lack of some key points that can only be covered in the written medium).

RKO’s 1934 feature The Age of Innocence stars the beautiful Irene Dunne, we find an adaptation of the 1920 novel of the same name that tends to draw on slowly, which in my humble opinion brings down the story despite being enjoyable. A story of a forbidden affair was meant to swell emotions within the viewers, but it can easily be drowned into the slow, wordy movie that attempts desperately to stay true to the novel.

The Age of Innocence is a drama about a relationship that grows between an engaged attorney and a divorcee set in 1870s Manhattan. The film takes place in one giant flashback of Newland Archer (John Boles) as he shares a time of his life to his son. As a young attorney in 1870 he was deeply in love with his fiancée, May (Julie Haydon), until May’s beautiful cousin, Ellen (Irene Dunne), returns from Europe hoping to divorce her husband, a Polish Count. Ellen’s relatives fear her divorce would bring great controversy and shame to the family, but her steadfast beliefs on love and marriage begin to win over the mind of Newland. Slowly Newland’s admiration turns to affection, finding himself falling in love with Ellen and losing interest in his fiancée. In fear of doing the wrong thing to, giving in and professing his love to Ellen, Newland convinces May to marry him immediately, hoping it would erase Ellen from his mind. However, Newland is very much still in love with Ellen. Just when he believes he may leave May to be with her cousin, his wife informs Newland of her pregnancy. In a moment of panic and clarity Newland decides to stay with May for his child’s sake. After concluding his tale of forbidden love to his son, decades later, and after the death of May, Newland is set up with the chance once again see Ellen, delivered to the apartment building she lives in, but decides not to visit Ellen, rather remembering her as she was in his memory.

In review, the story itself is beautiful as a tale of forbidden true love versus the doing what is right, keeping together for the sake of his unborn child. The costumes and art direction overall was very well done, bringing to life the 1870 Manhattan culture that is originally perceived as the “age of innocence,” which the story manifest is not entirely true. The real fault of the movie is the slow pace of the story and the overly word expositions. Like a novel, or even a play, the movie is devoid of action and relies on the power of dialogue to reveal the plot piece by piece. That may sound like the usual way all stories are played out, but here it becomes too drawn out, even for an 81 minute movie. When you think about it, the movie is about a man telling a story about people just talking. Words, and more words. I found the film lacked things happening and relied too heavily on this overly simple story structure.

One reason, perhaps, for this film being made the way it ended up was because of its director, Philip Moeller. He was a veteran director of the stage and a playwright himself. It was his first time directing a motion picture and it produced similar styles of a stage play. Scenes were long and usually contained to one location for extended periods of time, much like a play. Dialogue was forced as to push the story forward in an unnatural manner, much as an old play. Nothing beyond what one would see contained on a stage would be used for this film. So in this case Moeller was just directing and plotting a play that happened to be filmed and distributed by RKO. Moeller would direct only one more motion picture as his love and skill was clearly best for the stage.

The saving grace of the picture was that it contained two fairly well known stars. Irene Dunne, who played the divorcee Ellen, was the catalyst for the story, helping to create the cause of the story’s arch and give the film a legitimate star. John Boles was not as big as Dunne in the overall scheme of history, but was a well respected leading man. His movies were not as well known, but his charm and voice made him a star in the decade just after sound was added to movies. Boles, however, would probably be best known for his side role in Frankenstein, but even there he was forgettable in the long run.

Important to the story were the supporting characters played by Julie Haydon and Lionel Atwill. Haydon plays May, Newland’s fiancée who is full of innocence and you feel sorry for as Ellen starts to take Newland’s love away from her. Haydon was a lesser actress with small roles, but played well here with a sympathetic character of incorruptibility. Her career was short as she retired from movie in 1937. Atwill on the other hand was a stage actor turned to film character acting, managing many roles in science fiction horror movies. Here Atwill would be used as just another flat character, but an important one as a pawn for Ellen trying to forget Newland, for Newland’s and her own sake.

You can tell how I feel about this film. The picture was slow and wordy creating a rather lackluster feature film. If anything can be said about the movie that would be the story of the continual rise of Irene Dunne as a star in RKO. I find this picture to be a prime example of how not to adapt a novel. The story idea has plenty of gripping emotion if done correctly; by this execution of it the story lack the draw that allows myself to get really enthralled into the narrative. The story would eventually be remade six decades later, in 1993, directed by Martin Scorsese It too was not a success beyond costume design and art direction. Sadly it seems this story is best left on paper, despite the possibility seen in its words.


  1. he story would eventually be remade six decades later, in 1993, directed by Martin Scorsese It too was not a success beyond costume design and art direction.

    Is this your opinion or are you stating this as a fact?

  2. The 1993 remake was a commercial failure ultimately, thus my statement that it was unsuccessful. As for its critical success, the 1993 version was given recognition for it art direction and costumes as seen it its Academy Award nominations in those categories. My blanketed statement manifests the later adaptation was recognized more for it being a period piece rather that "good movie."

  3. I enjoyed this film but felt color would have made it look more authentic. The rich houses looked like studio props. I liked the outdoor snow and ship scenes and Florida. Actors for me were better than in the Scorsese production.


Out of the Past (1947)

RKO Pictures Director: Jacques Touneur Starring: Robert Mitchum , Jane Greer , Kirk Douglas Honors: National Film Registry ...