Classic Film of the Week #9: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the rare cases where I made myself read the book before seeing the film. I finished the novel several months ago, and finally just got around to seeing this classic Hollywood adaptation of it--and to my delight, it turned out to be a pitch-perfect film version, capturing all of the qualities I appreciated in the original novel.
Directed by Albert Lewin and starring Hurd Hatfield, George Sanders, Angela Lansbury, and Donna Reed, The Picture of Dorian Gray follows Oscar Wilde's classic tale of a young socialite named Dorian Gray (Hatfield) who finds himself befriended by contrarian Lord Henry (Sanders). Lord Henry's cynicism and narcissism quickly rubs off on impressionable Dorian, and in a moment of vanity after seeing a completed portrait of himself, he makes a wish that he could stay forever young and the portrait would age in his stead. He soon finds himself in love with the beautiful and talented Sybil Vane (Lansbury), and for a moment he forgets Lord Henry's outrageous philosophies and even his own self-absorption, resolving to marry her and live happily ever after--but when a rash decision on his part leads to a tragic end for the affair, he returns to the portrait and finds that his wish has come true. The portrait has become a window to his soul, leaving him to be young and beautiful forever, unmarked by either the passage of time or any physical manifestation of his sins--the only evidence of either is in the paint on the canvas. Dorian locks the painting away where no one else will ever see it, and proceeds to live a life of debauchery--but as whispers of his misdeeds begin to spread, how long will he be able to keep his secret?

Oscar Wilde's novel is a grandiose, wordy masterpiece filled to the brim with interesting philosophical observations and concepts. I couldn't picture how such a novel could be adapted for the screen, especially in 1945; I imagined that a lot of its intellectual depth, as well as the darker undercurrents of the story, would have to be altered to comply with the Production Code. Surprisingly, this isn't the case at all: most of Lord Henry's best incendiary monologues remain, and some plot points are actually changed to be even more twisted in the film, such as Dorian's motivation for rejecting Sybil Vane. In the novel, he becomes angry with her because she loses her acting talent after falling in love with him, embarrassing him in front of his friends. In the film, Lord Henry wickedly suggests Dorian test Sybil to see if she's marrying material, and Dorian complies--he asks her to stay the night at his house, and when she refuses, he becomes cold towards her, trying to make her change her mind. When she does, he spends the night with her and proceeds to break off the engagement the very next day because according to him, her choice proved her to be unworthy of marrying him. It's one of the coldest actions I've seen in a film of this era, especially considering its done by the protagonist. I must also give a big shout-out to Angela Lansbury in this film: she's not only incredibly beautiful, but perfectly captures the fragility and gentleness of the character--her best moment is a series of close-ups as she walks away from Dorian's test and you see her mind racing as she tries to decide if being "good" is worth the risk of losing the most wonderful thing that's ever happened to her.  It's such a difficult choice for her--this is the 1880s--and seeing it play across her face is heartbreaking, especially knowing how it will all end.

Something that really impressed me about this film was its visual style, both the cinematography itself and the production design. Every location in this film is ridiculously elaborate, much like the set dressing for a play; the grand Victorian rooms are filled to the brim with intricate and interesting objects and pieces of furniture. It makes for a perfect visual representation of the showy, artificial nature of the novel. Even better is the special effects used for Dorian's portrait: I didn't know before I started watching the film, but the close-ups of the painting are shown in color rather than black-and-white. It looks gorgeous, and is the perfect way to give the painting that larger-than-life quality that all of the characters remark upon, especially once the painting begins to change. I didn't know what to expect of the "evil" version of the painting, and while it's perhaps not what Wilde envisioned when he wrote the novel, it's certainly an unforgettable visual. It's surreal and nightmarish--something that would fit right in among a horror film, which I suppose this film kind of is.

The film's one flaw is that it is a very faithful adaptation, and as the novel is so wordy, so must the film be also, filled with dialogue-heavy scenes that are sometimes even inter-cut with narration for good measure. While it is very good dialogue, most of it copied straight from the novel, it does lead to the film dragging at times, especially with an unusually long run-time (for 1945, anyway) of 110 minutes. But ultimately, I have to give the film a lot of credit for being so faithful to the story-line of the novel--the only significant change is the addition of Donna Reed's character Gladys, who really is just an amalgamation of several female characters who appear over the course of the book, and serves as a moral compass for Dorian, something that probably helped a lot of the other incendiary material make it past the censors. While unnecessary, her character is much less intrusive than most other Code add-ins, and she's certainly worth it for the dark, twisted masterpiece this film is in every other respect.

A cold and intellectual adaptation of a great novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray stands as one of Hollywood's truly successful literary adaptations, wonderfully capturing the spirit of the novel while still making the subject matter uniquely cinematic. A bold and daring film with subject matter that remains surprising even today, it comes highly recommended. The film can be found on DVD, Blu-ray, and as a showing on TCM.


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