Movie Reviews 343 – The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Oscar Wilde‘s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel that straddles being a love story, a morality play and a Victorian gothic horror. This multi-angled plot is why many underrate or dismiss altogether the ‘Horror’ label and why MGM, not recognized for horror other than a few sporadic efforts decided to stray from their roots and produce this 1945 adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. This is quite a shame as the studio delivers in all the aforementioned elements in this finely crafted film that included great performances by the entire main cast.

Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield) is a young aristocrat who embraces his youth and upon seeing his finished portrait declares “As I grow old my picture will stay young. I wish it was the other way around”. But such Faustian desires are always fraught with danger and when Dorian first falters at holding societal norms, callously testing his lover’s morals, he notices that there are slight yet unmistakable changes in his picture. Over time he discovers that he is indeed ageless while his image ages in his place. But even worse than simply maturing, this portrait begins accumulating grotesque features for each and every of Dorian’s misdeeds. As his exploits and destruction continue in an ever widening spiral, so does the painting until it becomes a monstrous obscenity that even he cringes to look upon.

Dorian is the focus of the story but George Sanders takes top billing as the callous and heartless Lord Wotton who first leads Dorian down the poisonous path. The first victim is a poor, lovely singer (Angela Lansbury) who captures Dorian’s heart but is the one that he morbidly tests. Despite the terrible outcome this test, Dorian continues baneful ways for years, indifferent to the murmurs and lurid speculation among nobles. The second woman  to catch his affections is Gladys (Donna Reed), the niece of the painter that created the portrait when she was but a child. At this point Dorian becomes more perceptive of the harm inflicted on others around him and wishes to spare Gladys the evident eventual torment. But can he turn back to clock?

As lauded as the cast is the stunning mutating artwork that is the title of the movie. The movie was filmed in black and white but it does switch to color (a novelty at the time) for a few seconds at points in the film when the portrait is being shown depicting further decay. These brief expositions are quite effective, especially when Dorian has just stabbed his first direct murder victim and we now view ghastly red blood added to the portrait’s palette. Artist Ivan Albright, already celebrated for his time consuming, intricate detail work painted the ever deteriorating Dorian (as well as the freakish backdrop) but this was done on top of a painting of a young Dorian by another artist. Thankfully the painting can still be enjoyed as it was preserved and currently resides in the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is as celebrated on film as is the novel which is has remain in constant reprint across the world. There were British, German and Hungarian silent film renditions respectively released in 1916, 1917, 1918, well before this film. There have also been two remakes that were simply titled Dorian Gray, the first in 1970 an Italian production (Il dio chiamato Dorian) from B-movie maven Samuel Z. Arkoff that was quite indicative of the sexually liberal era in which it was filmed and the other in 2009 in a film that strays somewhat from the original version. And there is also a full title 2004 movie starring Josh Duhamel. But given all these choices, this is the version you want to see with your tea and crumpets.

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