The Age of Innocence (1934) vs. The Age of Innocence (1993)

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Posted: Nov. 11, 2017 11:34 AM
Updated: Nov. 11, 2017 11:34 AM

Are you suffering from insomnia? Do you lie in bed at night futilely waiting for the Sandman to arrive? Need a quick power nap in the middle of the afternoon? Then this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown is for you. We’re going to take a look at two films so life-sappingly dull it’s like living through that scene from “Pulp Fiction” (1994) in reverse as Eric Stotlz sticks a needle in your heart and sucks all the adrenalin out of your body. It’s “The Age of Innocence” (1934) vs. “The Age of Innocence” (1993) in a contest that shows filmmaking may change but boring remains the same.

Adapted from the 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edith Wharton, the plot of both films is virtually identical…which is pretty damn amazing considering that first is 81 minutes long and the remake is 139 minutes long. Do the math. That’s nearly an hour longer despite being perilously close to a scene for scene recitation of the same material. When I sat down to watch these, I thought “Well, the 1934 version must leave out a bunch of stuff from the book that co-writer/director Martin Scorsese included in his version. Or maybe Scorsese added some stuff to jazz up the stuffy and dated storyline from the novel.”

Nope. Outside of a handful of superfluous scenes that could have been cut from the film without losing a thing, the 1993 version is an almost beat-for-beat remake of the 1934 movie. There’s just a hell of a lot more space in between the beats as Scorsese’s camera dwells on…

Plates!

1870s line dancing!

Men holding their hats in the wind!

Opera!

Characters staring into the camera and telling us what they wrote in a letter!

More plates!

All of which becomes retroactively more inexplicable when you remember that Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” (2002) is set a scant few years before the events of “The Age of Innocence” and focuses on a parallel but starkly different version of New York City. Scorsese started thinking about making “Gangs of New York” in the 1970s but, for some reason, brought none of that story’s perspective to his version of Edith Wharton’s tale. I mean, it’s not as if 1990s audiences would have been outraged if Scorsese tinkered a bit with a book that only a scant few of them had ever read. And it wouldn’t be noticeable if the remake was only 10 or 20 minutes longer than the 1934 version. But taking nearly an extra hour and adding NOTHING substantive to the mix? 62 years after the book and 59 years after the film, there wasn’t a single meaningful thing that could be added, expanded, or revised in the story?
Set in 1870s New York City, the main character of “The Age of Innocence” is Newland Archer. A young lawyer from a prominent family, Newland is engaged to another offspring of high society, May Welland. Things open with the announcement of their long engagement and Newland being introduced to May’s black sheep of a cousin, Ellen. Having married a Polish count and been away for many years, Ellen has returned to New York City as a refugee from her apparently loveless and intolerable marriage.

I write “apparently” because neither film makes it clear exactly what was so intolerable or how Ellen wound up in such a loveless union. That may not have been a problem in 1921 or 1934, when people of that time may have had an established knowledge and understanding of the cultural norms being referenced but it’s a serious flaw to modern eyes. One of the central conflicts in the narrative is that Ellen wants to divorce her husband but doing so would bring scandal and shame upon her family. But while a few generations of no-fault divorce makes it hard for 21st century viewer to appreciate or empathize with the pain it would cause the family, the lack of any context or explanation in either film for exactly what is so terrible about being married to a wealthy European royal makes it impossible to identify or empathize with Ellen.

If you can’t see where the story is going already, Newland falls in love with Ellen only to wind up marrying May anyway and the rest of the story is an extended meditation on Newland’s frustration with the social niceties that push him into a life he doesn’t want and keep him away from the only person he truly loves. Ellen, meanwhile, consorts with a married scoundrel named Julius Beaufort and the naïve May learns how to use her feminine wiles to hold onto her husband. Both films end many decades later in a world of motor cars and telephones where Newland has raised a family with May, only to get a chance to see Ellen again at last.

The structurally similar yet tonally distinct conclusions of both films are probably the most interesting things about them. “The Age of Innocence” (1934) opens with an elderly Newland trying to dissuade his grandson from an ill-considered affair with a married woman, with the very clear signal that such relationships are no longer that scandalous. Newland’s story with May and Ellen is then told in flashback and the film ends with a sense that Newland’s sacrifice was admirable but pointless. The viewer seems intended to salute Newland for doing the “right thing” but it’s also undeniable that the world has changed and it doesn’t really matter. His grandson remains committed to his adulterous adventure but without any indication from the film if that’s now the “right thing” or not.

“The Age of Innocence” (1993) has a much clearer and more provocative finish that Newland sacrificing his own happiness was not only key to creating and maintaining the happiness of May and their children, but that it was essential to maintaining social order. There’s no getting around Scorsese’s ending message is that what makes the world work is people NOT following their heart’s desire but following the rules that promote general stability. We’re shown the happy, functional family created by Newland and May which would have never existed if he’d run off with Ellen and forced to consider the misery and absence that would have replaced it if he had.

Both films will put you to sleep like a right hand from a heavyweight boxer, but this Throwdown must go to the Scorsese remake. It’s far superior visually, with Scorsese’ tracking shots and camera movement making the 1934 version look like crude drawings on a cave wall. And while “The Age of Innocence” (1934) might have brevity on its side, it also has so…much…bad…acting. John Boles is a block of wood with a pencil mustache as Newland. Julie Haydon as May is practically a coat rack for most of the film. The rest of the cast comes off like they were serving lunch to the real actors, then had to take over the roles after an outbreak of food poisoning. Irene Dunne is great as Ellen but it is impossible to tell if it’s because she simply sucks so much less than everyone else.

These are bad films, though Scorsese’s version certainly isn’t badly made, but they might make good study guides if you’ve been assigned the original Wharton novel in school. It all depends on how much you’re willing to suffer for that grade. The 1934 version might get you a D on the test and the 1993 film could land you a C. Is that worth an extra hour of jabbing yourself in the leg with a pen to stay awake?


The Age of Innocence (1934)
Written by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman.
Directed by Philip Moeller.
Starring Irene Dunne, John Boles, Lionel Atwill, Helen Westly, Laura Hope Crews, Julie Haydon, Barry O’Moore, Theresa Maxwell Conover, Edith Van Cleve, and Leonard Carey.

The Age of Innocence (1993)
Written by Jack Cocks and Martin Scorsese.
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Daniel Day-Lewise, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, Richard E. Grant, Alec McCowen, Geraldine Chaplin, Mary Beth Hurt, Stuart Wilson, Miriam Margolyes, Sian Phillips, Carlyon Farina, Michael Gough, Alexis Smith, and Clement Fowler.

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