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While it may not be one of her best-remembered films, The Age of Innocence (1934) nonetheless provided Irene Dunne with a role that perfectly matched - and contributed to - her developing persona. As Ellen Olenska, the countess who returns to 1870s New York and is ostracized by high society for her impending divorce from a Polish count, Dunne is elegant and dignified yet also modern and independent, the very qualities by which moviegoers would always remember her. The Age of Innocence also enabled Dunne to add "period piece" to her impressively versatile resume. Prior to this film, she had made several romantic dramas, comedies, a western, and a musical, proving her ability across the board. Dunne would continue to jump from one genre to the next for the rest of her career.
Dunne got the role of Ellen after Katharine Hepburn turned it down. RKO borrowed John Boles from Fox to co-star as Newland Archer, no doubt looking to repeat the huge success of Back Street (1932), which had also starred Dunne and Boles. But lightning wouldn't strike twice. Aside from the laborious nature of the movie itself ("painstaking but emotionally flaccid," said The New York Times) was its timing. The height of the Great Depression was perhaps not the best time for a movie about the problems of upper-crust New Yorkers. People craved films that spoke to their problems, or, more often, they just wanted escapism. As Variety put it, "[the film] has doubtful appeal for younger folks wanting action and excitement on the screen." The best reason to look at The Age of Innocence today is Dunne's performance, although Helen Westley as Mrs. Mingott, the flighty but good-natured grandmother, also stands out in the cast.
The Age of Innocence has been a popular source for adaptation since it was published in 1920 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Edith Wharton. A 1924 Warner Bros. movie was directed by Wesley Ruggles. A 1928 Broadway stage adaptation by Margaret Ayer Barnes starred Katharine Cornell and ran 209 performances. It turned up on radio in 1947 with Gene Tierney and in 1951 with Claudette Colbert. Martin Scorsese's 1993 movie, however, will no doubt remain the definitive version.
Interestingly, the part of Ellen Olenska in the Scorsese remake went to an equally versatile and elegant modern-day leading lady: Michelle Pfeiffer. Prior to her superb take on Ellen Olenska, Pfeiffer had already established herself as comedienne (Married to the Mob, 1988), romantic singer (The Fabulous Baker Boys, 1989), and dramatic actress of thrillers (The Russia House, 1990) and costume pictures (Dangerous Liaisons, 1988). Oscar has looked down on Dunne and Pfeiffer fairly equally, too. Dunne had five Academy Award nominations over her career, and Pfeiffer has had three so far (as well as six Golden Globe nominations and one win). Like Dunne before her, Pfeiffer's nominations have been for roles across a very wide variety of genres.
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Philip Moeller
Screenplay: Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman, Edith Wharton (novel)
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Film Editing: George Hively
Art Direction: Alfred Herman, Van Nest Polglase
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Irene Dunne (Countess Ellen Olenska), John Boles (Newland Archer), Lionel Atwill (Julius Beaufort), Helen Westley (Granny Manson Mingott), Laura Hope Crews (Augusta Welland), Julie Haydon (May Welland).
BW-71m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold