WHY DID WOMEN TALK ABOUT DORIAN GRAY IN WHISPERS?
It was meant to shock audiences, the painting of Dorian Gray, and it certainly did, partly thanks to the filmmakers’ strategy of building dread and anticipation before revealing it. Two versions of the painting were commissioned. The first one, by Henrique Medina, is a photorealistic study of actor Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray. The second one, by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, was a portrait of sheer horror; known as the ”master of the macabre”, Albright painted Gray as a rotting corpse, a grotesque, stunning creation. In this black-and-white film, its appearance is in color, for maximum impact. I remember seeing the painting on display in Chicago a few years ago. It’s hard to take your eyes off of it.
Making a fateful wish
London, 1886. The young gentleman Dorian Gray (Hatfield) is posing for a painting by his friend, Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore). A friend of Hallward’s, Lord Henry Wotton (George Sanders), comes to visit and he finds Dorian’s beauty remarkable, telling him that youth and good looks will bring him everything he desires in life. Dorian is a naive man who believes Henry’s cynical nonsense. In the presence of a mysterious Egyptian cat statue, Dorian wishes the portrait would age instead of him.
Some time later he meets Sibyl Vane (Angela Lansbury), a performer at a local tavern. They fall in love and the future looks bright… until, once again, Dorian listens to Henry’s ill-considered remarks and decides that a life of hedonism is more attractive to him than having a family with Sibyl. He ends the relationship in a cruel way that has shocking consequences… and it becomes the first time that he notices a peculiar change in the painting.
The novel was considered immoral
Director Albert Lewin had a rich Hollywood history before becoming a filmmaker, as a critic, script clerk and screenwriter. He only directed six movies and The Picture of Dorian Gray became his most famous, a thrilling adaptation of the eerie Oscar Wilde tale, the only novel he ever wrote, which by the time of its initial publication in 1890 was considered immoral. Wilde once said that the leading characters of the novel were versions of himself, Henry Wotton being what the world thinks of him and Dorian Gray what he would like to be.
Young and beautiful, I presume, because Dorian’s other qualities are less desirable. He turns into a monster, but slowly and in secret at first; the world around him doesn’t realize how dark his soul becomes until many years later when his looks are still exactly the same as in his early twenties. By then he has already ruined the lives of several people who were close to him, even committed murder. All that horror has over the years been bottled inside the painting that Dorian early on, wisely, decided to hide from the public; it has taken the brunt of his evil. The handsome Hatfield is a good choice in the lead, crafting a quiet, cold performance, assisted by Cedric Hardwicke’s mournful narration. Sanders brings a lot of life and contrast to Hatfield as the wicked lord whose manipulations aren’t so easily averted.
Lansbury gives a memorable early performance as the singer who charms Dorian in his youth; with a history in musical theater, she knows how to make her rendition of ”Good-Bye, Little Yellow Bird” reach not just Dorian’s heart, but ours.
The film won an Oscar for its cinematography. Harry Stradling had a history of working with Alfred Hitchcock and found the right dark, menacing look for this urban Gothic tragedy. Dorian Gray had it all wrong. If you think the best part of your life is in your teens or early twenties, you need a big change.
The Picture of Dorian Gray 1945-U.S. 110 min. B/W-Color. Produced by Pandro S. Berman. Written and directed by Albert Lewin. Novel: Oscar Wilde. Cinematography: Harry Stradling. Cast: George Sanders (Henry Wotton), Hurd Hatfield (Dorian Gray), Donna Reed (Gladys Hallward), Angela Lansbury, Peter Lawford, Lowell Gilmore. Cameo: Reginald Owen. Narrated by Cedric Hardwicke.
Trivia: Remade many times for TV and the cinema, including as Dorian Gray (1970) and Dorian Gray (2009).
Oscar: Best Cinematography. Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actress (Lansbury).
Last word: “I really went to town on every setup. I was even careful about the table linen and the cutlery and whatever was on the wall. All the upholstery was built for me… I packed it full of symbols.” (Lewin, “The Real Tinsel”)