The Picture of Dorian Gray
Directed By: Albert Lewin
Cast: George Sanders, Hurd Hatfield, Donna Reed, Angela Lansbury, Peter Lawford, Lowell Gilmore, Richard Fraser
In Albert Lewin's MGM adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Hurd Hatfield plays the title character, a wealthy young man who we meet as he is having his portrait painted by artist Basil Hallward (Gilmore). Spurred on by comments on fleeting youth by Basil's witty, caddish friend Lord Henry Wotton (Sanders), Dorian expresses a desire that he could retain his youthful appearance and the painting could age instead. He discovers his wish has been granted when his callous treatment of lower class music hall performer Sibyl Vane (Lansbury) leads to tragedy. Lines appear on the face of the portrait while Dorian himself appears uncorrupted. Shattered by the experience, Dorian hides the portrait away in his childhood play room and throws himself into a life of sin and debauchery. Over the next two decades, the corruption of Dorian's soul wreaks havoc on his painted image while he remains untouched by it, both physically and through a seemingly supernatural tendency to avoid punishment for his sins. Dorian's best shot at redemption seems to be through his love for Basil's niece, Gladys (Reed), but even that may be out of reach when he commits the ultimate transgression to avoid the exposure of his secret.
Albert Lewin was given an unusual amount of autonomy by MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer to produce this film. Mayer was hoping for a prestige picture in line with the studio's many successful literary adaptations of the pre-war years, and Lewin certainly did his best to accommodate that wish. The film allows Lewin to indulge his fine art sensibilities starting with the film's literary pedigree, and building on it with elements of classical music, poetry, painting, and sculpture. Through the character of Lord Henry as played by George Sanders, he even incorporates expressions of the philosophy of aestheticism which informed much of Wilde's early work and was largely indicted by the novel.
The film was marketed as a horror film, and while it is not an entirely unfair categorization, it shows an unusual amount of restraint for the genre, taking a cue from its source novel and leaving most of its leading character's lurid activities off screen to play in the viewer's imagination. Lewin's restraint extends to his shooting methods, which employ relatively long takes with infrequent and very deliberate camera movements.
Lewin's adaptation takes some liberties with characterization, particularly by casting Hatfield, who looks nothing like the fair haired Adonis described by Wilde. Hatfield was instructed by Lewin to portray almost no emotion across his face through most of the film. This proves to be an effective visual representation of the character's imperceptible corruption that works well in the context of the film medium. All sense of Dorian's inner turmoil is filled in by the viewer who sees the external manifestation of it during glimpses of the painting. These glimpses include four brief Technicolor inserts in the otherwise black and white film which emphasize the grotesqueness of the painted Dorian's transformation.
My only disappointment with Lewin's adaptation stems from its overreliance on narration, but my usual distaste for the device is muted by the fact that it is read by Cedric Hardwicke who is always easy on the ears.
Aside from Hatfield's performance, the strongest elements of the cast are Lansbury and Sanders. Lansbury plays Sibyl Vane as a representation of pure goodness and creates a strong enough impression that the audience believes that Dorian would be haunted by her for decades. This role capped off an amazingly successful quick start to Lansbury's Hollywood career, earning her second Oscar nomination for her third film released in less than one year. Sanders appears to have been born to espouse "Wildeian" wit on screen, and is a delight every time he appears as the devotedly amoral Lord Henry Wotton. He is almost literally the devil's advocate who drives Dorian in the direction of his Faustian bargain and first tragic transgression.
The (mostly) black and white 4:3 transfer is a generally quite good representation of Harry Stradling's Oscar winning cinematography. That being said, the level of contrast and occasional print flaws reveal that the element used for transfer was not derived from the original negative, which is the case with most classic MGM titles. Film grain is rendered acceptably by the compression with artifacts barely noticeable from a reasonable viewing distance. Grain does seem to increase on some of the later reels, suggesting that the video transfer may have come from multiple sources.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack is well-presented with very low noise and decent fidelity. It is a fairly restrained mix highlighted by Herbert Stothart's score arranged and recorded in typically lavish MGM fashion.
The film is presented on disc with a modest number of extras, the most significant of which is a newly recorded Commentary by Angela Lansbury and Steve Haberman who sit together for the duration. Scholar and filmmaker Haberman leads the conversation and has clearly done his homework with respect to the source novel, the movie and those who made it. He occasionally lays on the praise a bit thick, but if he was not fond of the film, I suppose he would not have agreed to speak about it for 110 minutes straight. Lansbury participates frequently and offers her unique insights into the film's production, the personalities behind it, and myriad other topics. There is one unintentionally funny moment where Lansbury uses the term "homophobic" when she means "homoerotic", but at least she is making an interesting point when she does it. She displays a good memory and sharp critical thinking skills throughout the commentary to the extent that I suspect she would make for an interesting commentator on films she had nothing to do with as well. The most intentionally funny bit for me is when she reveals the diminutive Albert Lewin's nickname around the studio: "The Metro-Gnome". I had not heard that one before.
Next up is a pair of two Oscar-winning MGM one-reelers from 1945. Stairway to Light (10:22) is a black and white short from the "Passing Parade" series narrated by John Nesbitt. Through silent reenactment accompanied by narration, it tells the story of French Physician Dr. Phillipe Pinel who successfully advocated the compassionate treatment of the mentally ill in the late 18th century.
Quiet Please (7:37) is a Technicolor Hanna-Barbera Tom and Jerry short in which cat Tom strives mightily to catch mouse Jerry without waking-up a sleeping bulldog.
Finally, the Theatrical Trailer (2:27) plays up the potentially lurid aspects of the story, using the most suggestive shots in the film and a lot of narration to make audiences think they would be seeing a lot more graphic depictions of Dorian's night-life than the film actually contained.
The film is presented in a standard Amaray case with an insert advertising Warner Blu-Ray products. The cover art is derived from original theatrical art from the best of the film's theatrical posters.
The classic MGM adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray arrives on DVD with a very good representation of its black and white cinematography as well as the film's brief Technicolor segments. Extras are top-lined by an engaging audio commentary from author/filmmaker Steve Haberman and actress Angela Lansbury. A couple of vintage Oscar-winning shorts and a trailer are also included.