The Picture of Dorian Gray Review
Lord Henry Wotton (George Sanders) visits his artist friend Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore). Sitting for Basil is a beautiful young man called Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield). As the men talk, Dorian becomes enthralled by Lord Henry's world view: to experience is everything, and only beauty and the life of the senses is worth pursuing. Dorian wishes that his own youthful beauty will never fade: instead, let Basil's portrait age in his place...
The Picture of Dorian Gray, first published in 1890 and revised the following year, was Oscar Wilde's only full-length novel. This was the time of the Decadent movement, which preached art for its own sake, and that the pursuit of art and beauty was its own morality. Something of this outlook can be seen in Lord Henry's philosophy: intimations of homosexuality caused some stirrings in Victorian England and contributed to an initially poor critical reaction. Nowadays, the novel is often allied to the gothic movement earlier in the nineteenth century, with Dorian's fateful bargain going all the way back to Faust.
Albert Lewin's 1945 adaptation wasn't the first. There were five silent versions of the story made in the teens, including a Hungarian version from 1918 (Az Élet királya) with the intriguing casting of Bela Lugosi as Lord Henry. Lewin, born in New York in 1894, was a Harvard graduate who became a drama and film critic for the Jewish Tribune before going to Hollywood as a script reader. By the end of the 1920s, he had become personal assistant to Irving Thalberg. Active mostly as a producer, he directed the first of his six feature films, The Moon and Sixpence (based on Somerset Maugham's novel inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin) in 1942. Its success enabled him to make Dorian Gray.
The Picture of Dorian Gray remains the definitive film adaptation of Wilde's novel. When you think of 40s horror films, Val Lewton's B pictures for RKO loom inevitably large, and Dorian Gray often resembles a film that Lewton might have made given a far higher budget. On the other hand, MGM was not the usual studio for horror, even if it had made an adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with Spencer Tracy, in 1941. In 1945, Lewin had the Production Code Administration to contend with, so he had to tread carefully around Dorian's offscreen excesses, but even so it's pretty clear what's going on.
Production values are high indeed: Herbert Stothart's score, the art direction of Cedric Gibbons and Hans Peters and especially Harry Stradling's Oscar-winning black and white camerawork. (The portrait itself is, except at the end, shown in brief Technicolor insert shots.) The cast could hardly be bettered either. If there was a role which top-billed George Sanders (who had starred for Lewin in The Moon and Sixpence) was born to play, it was Lord Henry. But the Oscar nomination went to twenty-year-old Angela Lansbury, who makes an indelible impression as the singer Sybil Vane, doomed by Dorian's attentions. Her introductory scene, singing “Goodbye Little Yellow Bird” is one of the best in the film. Hurd Hatfield was forever ambivalent about his success in the role of Dorian, despite his long career that followed. If he seems blank and expressionless for most of the film, that's intentional: Lewin instructed him to play the part that way, only hinting at what lies behind that mask-like, never-changing face. By contrast, Donna Reed does her best with the role of Gladys Hallward, who has loved Dorian since she was a child, but ultimately the film is much less interested in her than in the central trio.
There have been adaptations of Dorian Gray since for big screen and small, often taking advantage of greater permissiveness. Yet for me this remains definitive: the highlight of Lewin's short directing career. (The only later film of his I've seen is the berserk Technicolor extravaganza Pandora and the Flying Dutchman from 1951, much admired by the surrealists.) Yet it's better seen as a collaborative effort, with career-highlight contributions from much of its cast and crew. Albert Lewin died in 1968.
An MGM production – and hence now owned by Warner Bros - The Picture of Dorian Gray is released on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4.
As a product of the pre-widescreen era, The Picture of Dorian Gray was shot in Academy Ratio and is thus transferred to DVD in 4:3 without anamorphic enhancement. This is a very good transfer. The black and white material has the contrast just right, and the grain is natural and filmlike. And when the film goes into colour, it has a suitable impact.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and as you would expect it's perfectly serviceable and well-balanced. Subtitles (white) are available in three languages for the feature, but not the extras.
The audio commentary is a duet between writer and historian Steve Haberman and the now-octogenarian Angela Lansbury. Lansbury's memories of the production, where she made a lifelong friend in Hurd Hatfield, are very clear more than sixty years later, while Haberman fills in the details of Lewin's career and the background to the novel and this film version.
The extras are completed by the theatrical trailer (2:27) and two short films, both Oscar-winners. “Stairway to Light” (10:22) is a black-and-white documentary about Philippe Pinel and his reforms in the treatment of mental patients. And accompanying this we have Technicolor Tom and Jerry in “Quiet Please!” (7:37).