The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s tale of immortal youth and blinding excess, has been recounted in several adaptations throughout the decades, none best remembered as well as Albert Lewin’s 1945 take. Warner Archive’s recent Blu-ray release allows audiences the opportunity to indulge in Dorian’s adventures, even if the whole affair plays a bit too staunchly.
A painter captures the visage of the gorgeous Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield) who swears his soul to the Devil if he can remain as young and beautiful as he looks in the portrait. As the years go by, Dorian remains forever young, but his increasing need for debauchery and excitement finds itself manifesting in the portrait he so loves.
The problem with an adaptation of Wilde’s tome in 1945 is immediate: there’s only so much that can be discussed in light of the Production Code. Wilde, whose own exploits off the page were more inflammatory than anything he wrote about, used Dorian Gray to explore the emphasis on youth and beauty, society’s superficial nature, as well as homoeroticism and debauchery. Guess what element receives the shortest shrift? You obviously can’t expect audiences of 1945 to watch their main character whore around and commit lewd acts wantonly as later adaptations do, but that leaves the whole affair rather flat.
With how formulaic the movie is, especially for those who read the book, it’s odd how long-winded the two-hour affair is. The movie introduces Lord Henry Wooten (played by the wittily droll George Sanders), a character who seems more minor than he should be, and Dorian Gray. Wilde wrote Gray as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fey young man and this is where I think the movie trumps the source material. Hurd Hatfield’s walking mannequin creates an otherworldly, unnatural aura for Dorian Gray. He shouldn’t exist in this world for any reason other than to coast on his beauty and good looks. He’s the embodiment of all the upper classes represent, and while Hatfield is drab and monotone, the portrait does its job in reflecting what we can only dream about, one of those “the imagination conjures up worse images” elements that plays rather well in this movie.
Yet it’s easy for Hatfield, the seasoned Sanders, and even the luminous Donna Reed, to fall by the wayside with Angela Lansbury stealing scenes in her second film role. After playing the duplicitous maid in Gaslight, Lansbury took a turn as the dour vaudevillian trying to make ends meet, Sybil Vane. This is where the movie inches a taste too close to the superior 1931 take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Vane is cut from the same cloth as Miriam Hopkins’ Ivy, both playing poor girls from the wrong side of the tracks. Where Ivy reveled in being Hyde’s mistress, Sybil seeks security, a white knight to take her away from her sad upbringing in the ultimate Cinderella story. When Sybil succumbs to Dorian’s advances – advances is probably too flagrant a word…allusions? – she becomes a symbol of disrespect for him, leading her down an (unseen) road akin to Fantine in Les Miserables. The use of two love interests, another Jekyll/Hyde similarity, does nothing more than pad the runtime and because Lansbury outshines Reed. Donna Reed is good, but not even she wanted the role of nice girl Gladys, whose inclusion seems necessary for the third act climax.
So much of the earlier half does little more than serve the intriguing climax. Take away the flatness of the movie’s plot, and the core of Dorian Gray is still interesting. Despite being in black and white, there are four glorious Technicolor sequences showing off Gray’s portrait. Although we don’t watch Gray go through the gates of Hell, when he unveils the portrait that for decades has accrued the fruits of his horror, it’s a Technicolor morass of terrors, a Jackson Pollack suffering a gunshot to the face. If you can’t believe Gray capable of what he’s claimed, the portrait does the job for you. Unfortunately, this comes at the cost of stripping any deeper subtext from the film; gone are the connections of homosexual longing between Wooten and Gray, or anything else considered subtextual.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a worthwhile watch, particularly this Warner Archive Blu-ray which looks and sound fantastic. Angela Lansbury, Hurd Hatfield, and George Sanders are delightful to watch, even if there isn’t much beyond their performances. This is a movie that’s a launchpad for fine-tuning, although it also does more with less, especially in revealing a portrait as famous as Gene Tierney’s in Laura.