Saturday, October 3, 2015

Stubs – The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) Starring: George Sanders, Hurd Hatfield, Donna Reed, Angela Lansbury, Peter Lawford. Directed by Albert Lewin. Screenplay by Albert Lewin. Based on the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890). Produced by Pandro S. Berman. Run time: 110 minutes. U.S. Black and White with Color Inserts. Drama, Horror.

Irish author Oscar Wilde was a man whose beliefs and lifestyle were often at odds with contemporary mores. An example of this would be his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. When it was first published in the July 1890 edition of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine was assailed by critics for its decadence and homosexual allusions. Even rewrites prior to being published in book form didn’t assuage such criticism. The Picture of Dorian Gray might therefore seem like an odd choice to be adapted in a production code controlled Hollywood.

Prior to MGM’s production, there were three films made based on the novel, all silent released in consecutive years 1916, 1917 and 1918, the last one being a Hungarian film starring future Dracula Bela Lugosi.

MGM’s interest began back in 1943, when several actors were considered for roles, including Basil Rathbone and Herbert Marshall for the role of "Lord Henry Wotton" and Michael Dyne, Kenneth Donner, John Good and Robert Alton, Jr. were tested for the lead role of Dorian Gray.

You can be sure that anything remotely decadent or homosexual was excised from the screenplay, as they would not pass muster with the Production Code Administration.

Paintings would be crucial to the story, director Albert Lewin turned to a painter whose works he admired, Ivan Le Lorraine Albright. Originally he was commissioned to paint four portraits and while he completed the ravaged Dorian Gray, he fell behind and did not paint the others. MGM hired Henrique Medina to paint the picture of the young Dorian.

The film went into production on March 8, 1944 and was completed in mid-June, but was not released until March 3, 1945.

The story opens in London, 1886 and Lord Henry Wotton (George Sanders) is an aristocrat with little to do but check on his friends’ lives. He decides to drop in, quite unexpectedly, on Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore), who is involved with painting a portrait of a young, handsome 22-year old gentleman, Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield). 

Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore) introduces the young and impressionable Dorian Gray
 (Hurd Hatfield) to Lord Henry Wotton (George Sanders).

While Hallward wants Lord Wotton to leave, Dorian lets him stay and Wotton imparts the rather shallow advice that youth is fleeting and the pursuit of desire is the only real goal in life. Lord Wotton's words strike a chord in Dorian, and as Basil completes his portrait, Dorian makes what would be considered a Faustian-like deal, trading his soul if the painting would grow old while he remained forever young. But instead of the devil, Dorian makes his wish in front of a statue of a minor Egyptian God represented by a statue of a cat.

The original portrait of Dorian Gray.

Inspired by Lord Wotton’s advice, Dorian starts his pursuit of desire in a part of town unaccustomed to the presence of a gentleman. He wanders into the Two Turtles music hall and catches the eye of the young singer Sibyl Vance (Angela Lansbury).

Dorian sees Sibyl Vance (Angela Lansbury) singing at a music hall 

After a short romance, Dorian informs Hallward and Wotton that he and Sibyl plan to marry, but Wotton has more advice for Dorian. He suggests that Dorian test Sibyl’s integrity by inviting her to spend the night. If she accepts, then she is not virtuous and not worthy to marry. But if she refuses and leaves, then she is worth it.

Dorian brings Sibyl back to his house where he tests her virtuosity.

Sibyl at first refuses Dorian’s request, but agrees in order not to displease him. Dorian is disillusioned and writes her a letter telling her that she has killed his love and that he never wants to see her again.  When he glances at his portrait, he sees that the face has grown hardened, reflecting his own soul. In a last ditch effort to change his fate, Dorian writes Sibyl again, begging her to forgive him. But just as he finishes the letter, Lord Wotton arrives to inform him that a distraught Sibyl has killed herself.

Dorian is at first shocked and guilt-ridden by the news, but takes Lord Wotton’s advice to expunge the experience from his mind. To Hallward’s annoyance, Dorian goes to the opera that night and that he night he goes to see him and tells him so. After Hallward leaves, Dorian locks the portrait away in his childhood nursery. Having given up on trying to be virtuous, Dorian sets out to live a more sinful life.

Years pass and even though Dorian is approaching his fortieth birthday, he still looks like he did when he was 22. The only vulnerability he still has is Gladys (Donna Reed), Hallward’s niece, who has had a crush on Dorian since she was a child. Now grown up, Gladys impetuously proposes to Dorian at a dinner party in front of her date, David Stone (Peter Lawford). Dorian rejects her offer, but Hallward is still concerned.

A fancy dinner party Gladys (Donna Reed) proposes to Dorian.

One foggy night, on his way to catch a train on a trip to Paris, Hallward runs into Dorian in the street. He asks Dorian to deny the rumors of his wicked ways, but instead, Dorian takes him up to the nursery to see the portrait. By now, it is so disfigured by Dorian’s rotting soul that Hallward barely recognizes his own work.

Hallward barely recognizes his own work.

But Dorian quickly realizes that he has revealed his great secret to Hallward, who will no doubt tell Gladys. In a moment of panic, Dorian stabs Hallward to death in front of the portrait. He then blackmails an old friend, Allen Campbell (Douglas Walton), into disposing of the body.

After killing Hallward, Dorian covers up his portrait.

Dorian then proposes to Gladys and she accepts. Months pass and the police search in vain for Hallward. The police then notify Dorian that Campbell has committed suicide.

Finally, Dorian’s decadent life begins to catch up to him. Sibyl's brother, James Vane (Richard Fraser), has for years been looking for the man responsible for his sister's death. He only knows him as "Sir Tristam," a pet name of sorts that Sibyl called Dorian when she first met him.

One night, in a cheap pub, Vane hears Dorian called “Sir Tristam” and thinking he’s found his man, follows him out into the alley, with the intent to kill him. But Dorian explains that he is too young to be the man who knew his sister eighteen years before.

But soon, James learns Dorian’s strange, but true story. He tracks Dorian to his country estate and while waiting for him behind a clump of bushes, James is accidentally shot by a hunter.

Suddenly, Dorian starts to feel guilt, blaming himself with being indirectly the cause for Vane’s death. He decides he can’t hurt Gladys and decides to break off their engagement. He leaves her a letter before returning to London.

In an attempt to free his soul, Dorian tries to destroy the portrait, plunging a knife through the heart of the portrait. But as the knife pierces the painting, Dorian falls to the floor, mortally wounded. Dorian prays as he lies dying on the floor.

Soon after, Lord Wotton, Gladys and David burst into the room and find the horribly deformed creature lying on the floor, but the portrait in the room has returned to the original portrait of a young, handsome Dorian.

As mentioned above, there had to be certain changes to the book in order to make it into a movie under the Production Code. For this film version, one can assume that anything too decadent was removed, leaving most of Dorian’s indiscretions to happen off–screen; told rather than shown. As an example, Dorian has something on Allen Campbell to blackmail him into helping Hallwell's body, but we're not sure exactly what. While no doubt necessary to pass the PCA, this tactic unfortunately takes away some of the film’s power as well. Only through his portrait do we really see what a bad man Dorian is. 

Other changes were also made to the story, including changing Sybil Vance from a Shakespearean actress, in the novel, to a tavern singer. Her nickname for Dorian in the book is "Prince Charming" in the movie, "Sir Tristan." Also, Gladys, the last woman Dorian has an affair with, is changed from a village girl to the painter Basil Hallward’s niece, who has had a lifelong crush on Dorian. The mystical Egyptian cat to which Dorian makes his plea, is not found in the book, but was added by the filmmakers. 

The Picture of Dorian Gray was shot in black and white, but there are four color inserts in the film used for effect every time the portrait is shown from the young Dorian to the hideous person he’s become reflected in the painting. The switch to color is very effective as it really emphasizes the difference between the reality we think we know, the black-and-white world; and the reality we don’t know, what is going on inside Dorian Gray's soul.

The Picture of Dorian Gray would garner three Academy Award nominations, one for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White, one for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Angela Lansbury and win for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White. (The movie has recently received a Blu-ray release by the Warner Archive, which restores the film’s crisp black and white cinematography to full effect.) Still, the film was not a financial success. According the MGM’s record keeping, the film, which cost $1.9 million, actually lost $26,000 after all was said and done.

Pandro S. Berman is not someone that you might associate with horror. He’s perhaps better known for his work at RKO spearheading the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films or the early career of Katherine Hepburn, before kicking her and director George Cukor out after the catastrophic box-office failure of Sylvia Scarlett (1936). After losing a power play at RKO, that saw his position there diminished, Berman moved over to MGM in 1940.

MGM, then known for glamour, might seem like an odd studio for horror, but this was far from their first endeavor into the genre. While they might be best remembered for having more stars than in the heavens, MGM had also made a few horror films along the way, including London After Midnight (1927) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941).

George Sanders, who gets top-billing despite not playing the main character, is almost always fun to watch. No one seems to play pompous better than Sanders; see All About Eve (1950) if you need a good example. He is so right for the part of Lord Wotton that it makes you wonder how the studio could have considered anyone else but him.

No one plays pompous blowhard aristocrat better than George Sanders.

For many of us, it may be difficult to picture Angela Lansbury as a young woman. An actress whose career is still going at the age of 89, she may be best remembered for her “older” characters like Jessica Fletcher, she played on television for a dozen years in Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996) or as the voice of Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast (1991), but her film career began back in 1944 with a role in Gaslight opposite Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. Lansbury’s nomination for her role as Sibyl would be her second in two years, no small feat for someone under the legal drinking age at the time. The Picture of Dorian Gray is only Lansbury’s third film.

Angela Lansbury as Sibyl Vance.

Donna Reed, by comparison, was an old pro at the age of 24 when Picture was released. She had been in about 16 films since her debut in MGM’s The Get-Away (1941), including Shadow of a Thin Man (1941), The Courtship of Andy Hardy (1942) and a couple of Dr. Gillespie films, Calling Dr. Gillespie (1942) and Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case (1943). The Picture of Dorian Gray would be a break out role of sorts for her with her most memorable roles in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and From Here to Eternity (1953) were still ahead of her. Reed is probably best known for her role as Donna Stone on the long running Donna Reed Show (1958-66).

Donna Reed plays Gladys, the last love interest of Dorian Gray.

If ever there was a role right for an actor’s range it was Dorian Gray and Hurd Hatfield. In the limited roles that I’ve seen Hatfield in, I’ve found him to have a rather narrow range of emotions, which is perfect for a character that doesn’t show any. I’m not sure he’s what I would consider Adonis-like, but maybe others prefer their Greek gods to be pasty-white.

Hurd Hatfield plays Dorian Gray.

Victorian London’s aristocracy has been the setting for many literary horror stories like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and science-fiction like The Time Machine, as well as the real life Jack-the-Ripper, that it must be something in the fog. Setting the movies in the locations of their novels has a down side; these films come off as period pieces as much as genre stories which “ages” this already melodramatic film even more. If you like your horror modern and truly scary, then this might not be the horror film for you.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is more of a psychological horror than what the genre seems to have descended to over the years. The only gruesomeness here is on canvas. If you like your horror raw and gory, then this is certainly not the film for you. But if you like your horror slightly melodramatic and hinted rather than shown then be sure to see this film as part of your Halloween viewing.

Be sure to check out our other Horror film reviews here.

The Picture of Dorian Gray on Blu-Ray is available through the Warner Archive Collection:

The DVD is also available through the WB Shop:

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