Picture of Dorian Gray, The (1945)
Director: Albert Lewin
When it comes to people who have an terribly unpleasant side to their personalities, most do their best to conceal this ugliness from others, but what if there was something, a singular object, that displayed clearly all the malevolence that is hidden underneath their persona’s façade? In this MGM adaptation of an Oscar Wilde novel audiences are provided a supernatural tale of one man’s journey into evil and the paranoia that haunts him that his secret front will be exposed.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is psychological thriller/horror of a young man who sets on a path of pleasure and vice, all the while his soul is supernaturally tied to a painting of himself he keeps hidden away with a fear that it will reveal his true nature to all, driving him to lethal madness. Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield) is a young, impressionable, and wealthy English gentleman whose mind is influenced to achieve a life of pleasure above all else by the witty and cynical Lord Henry (George Sanders). At the onset of this life decision Dorian wishes for himself a life of youthful pleasure in the site of his new portrait painted for him by friend Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore), desiring that his image may never age just as the image in his portrait.
Dorian’s life of debauchery finds him in bars and back ally areas, experiencing vices and pleasures not suited of gentlemen. His ways lead to a romance with beer hall singer Sibyl Vane (Angela Lansbury), whose heart he breaks in desire for mare pleasure, leading to her suicide. Shocked by her passing Dorian begins to see changes in his portrait that symbolize the ugliness within himself, shutting it away from all eyes. As the years pass by and Dorian falls deeper into his ways yet it appears he never ages a day, followed by more to some associated with him. It is revealed to us that the portrait of Dorian has become warped into a hideous being, taking on all the ugliness of Dorian’s true nature, while he remained ageless; a discover by its creator, Basil, before Dorian’s rage leads to his murder. In time Dorian comprehends he must alter his ways, so that he may not harm his beautiful fiancée Gladys (Donna Reed). During this reformation Dorian believes he must destroy his evil portrait, but by stabbing he brings about his own death. His friends come to the aid of Dorian only to discover his shockingly malformed body at the foot of the portrait, now is returned to its initial youthful state.
The picture is a psychological thriller that experiences ups and downs throughout the film, slow in pace throughout, but beginning with strong intrigue as it fades in interest at many points through its running time. The use of a few selective three-strip Technicolor shots capture the detail of the portrait and are spliced in with the black and white film making for an interesting creative use of the medium’s two forms to depict the supernatural qualities of the painting. As a curious picture to view from its time, the feature succeeds with a creative plot, with diverse and inspired performances, while suffering form a slower pace and poorly aging with time.
The 1890 Oscar Wilde novel is nothing new to the world of motion pictures, as it was adapted several times the early years of silent motion pictures, six in total between the years of 1910-1918, including two American takes on the story, as well as British, Danish, German, and Hungarian adaptations. As the first full length talking adaption of the story, the film pays homage to the story’s author as the film’s characters mention the Irish born writer, noting his work within a quick throwaway line.
Appearing in only his second motion picture Hurd Hatfield stars as the titular character who is easily influence nature and strong paranoia grows through the years. Hatfield’s performance as the anti-hero garnered new acclaim for the actor fresh to the Hollywood scene. However his stiff portrayal and eerie distant well-groomed, almost doll-like features, although delivering a fit portray for the role, it mistakenly created a negative depiction of Hatfield as an actor. Years later Hatfield claimed movie business people tended to stay away from him, because they associated him with is performance as the disturbingly distant Dorian Gray. It was a sad case for years for an actor that supposedly had a good sense of humor.
George Sanders depicts the gentleman that sways Dorian’s way of thinking, unintentionally leading him down the path of darkness. With his snide, stiff English demeanor, Sanders was a well utilized actor of his day in many roles for English gentleman, versatile used in roles both young and old.
Similar to Hatfield, supporting actor Lowell Gilmore was in only his second feature film, here as Basil, the artist of the portrait that haunts Dorian to his demise. A Broadway actor who was in transition to Hollywood, Gilmore was a native of Minnesota whose polished looks and style found him most often cast as British characters, such as we see him here.
The supporting actresses that portray the love interests of Dorian Gray include Angela Lansbury and Donna Reed, two future treasures of the cinematic world. For Lansbury, at 18 years-old during production, this was only her second feature film to be cast for (and third to release, as National Velvet premiered in late 1944, before the release of The Picture of Dorian Gray) and had quickly become one of the studio’s favorite young English actresses. Her young, innocent charm along with her lovely accent made her an easy woman to love in a tragic role, earning Lansbury her first major motion picture award, a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. She was also nominated for the same category at the Academy Awards, but lost to her National Velvet co-star Anne Revere, won happened to portrayed her mother.
Donna Reed had the girl-next door charm that MGM loved in young ladies, and here she was given an opportunity to mature, if only a little bit, in this drama. Reed would be better known as Jimmy Stewart’s wife in the future classic released the following year, It’s a Wonderful Life.
A young Peter Lawford makes an early career appearance in the picture, and like Donna Reed was given one of his earliest and more praised dramatic roles. Hired by studio head Louis B. Mayer, Lawford was slowly moving up in the studio as the 21 year-old was beginning to land more intense roles in more complicated pictures of late.
The portrait painted by the Basil character were commissioned during production of the feature by two separate artists. The normal portrait of Dorian was painted by Henrique Medina and kept as a treasure of the MGM archives until the famed studio auction in 1970s that saw the studio sell off most of its most famous belongings, as well as most of their backlot. Most recently in 2015 the piece was sold at auction in New York for $149,000. The much more macabre, demonic portrait took over a year to paint by Ivan Albright, with multiple alterations made throughout production to fit the changes to Dorian’s mortifying figure through the picture. This painting resides in the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago.
These two painting obviously play an integral role in the picture apart of being the title of the picture. To further accent the importance of the idea of the painting to the story there were four shots of just these painting produced in Technicolor to add to the power and richness of the detail lying within the portraits themselves. This uses of color harkens to the use of black and white contrasting with color as seen used in the 1939 classic fantasy The Wizard of Oz, but on a much smaller scale. With Technicolor being a much more expensive means of photography it might have been that producers wanted to keep the costs down for the feature by producing it in black and white with the acception of these few shots. However with the passage of time it can be seen that this affect, simply as it may be, actually makes the picture seem cheaper as its delivery was not a artistically presented as it was in The Wizard of Oz. However, this is one humble man’s opinion.
The Picture of Dorian Gray would release to mixed reviews and end up not making its money back at the box office. Its two Academy Award wins, which also included Best Cinematography for a Black and White feature, manifests how prevalent a picture such as this was in the movie culture for 1945, but ultimately would fade into the background of cinema history. Its Oscar Wilde plot makes for an interesting watch for contemporary audiences that are able to enjoy slower features, as this one does fall into the doldrums of pacing at moments, despite its twisted horror aspects.