Probably the best known work of Oscar Wilde, brought to the screen here with Hurd Hatfield as the soul-selling Dorian Gray. Lord Henry Wooten (George Sanders) is his mentor, that is, Dorian’s portal to debauchery and hedonism. Gray’s early love interest, Sibyl, is played by Angela Lansbury.
Wilde’s novel takes a unique tack on the fountain-of-youth theme by objectifying it as a portrait. Basil (Lowell Gilmore) is the artist, Donna Reed his niece Gladys; and there’s her suitor, David Stone (Peter Lawford). Jim/James Vane (Richard Fraser) is Sibyl’s brother, who becomes Gray’s antagonist. Then there’s a friend, Allen Campbell (Douglas Walton).
Basil tells Lord Henry that Dorian Gray’s portrait is “mystical” in some way. Henry’s introduced to Dorian. It’s clear that Henry is a mouthpiece for Wilde’s witticisms, if not exactly a stand-in for Wilde himself. The clever juxtaposition of color for Dorian’s portrait–with black and white for everything else–definitely heightens its romantic, but increasingly lurid nature.
Soon Dorian explores the lower rungs of London nightlife. At the Two Turtles, he’s smitten with a singer, Sibyl. This gentleman-fish-out-of-water stuff is similar to another Victorian-era London horror story, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. What’s weird here, though, is that Dorian’s demeanor is so mask-like, that, in contrast to the innocent, good Jekyll v. the guilty, evil Hyde, Dorian effectively is a blank-slate.
Anyway, soon Dorian and Sibyl are pretty much in love. But Sibyl’s brother is Immediately suspicious of that “dandy” Dorian. At dinner with Sir Henry, Dorian tells Henry that he’s engaged to Sibyl. One ever-present side issue is the motor-mouth that Henry indulges to make the requisite Wilde-esque comments and aphorisms. Anyway, Henry has the idea of inviting Sibyl to see the portrait; it’s really a trap though, as Henry talks Dorian into trying to keep her there, like a mistress. Since it’s inevitable that she’ll be upset, he rudely rejects her. As predicted though, she doesn’t really want to leave, as she can’t bear to lose his favor. He plans to scoop her up once she’s utterly distraught.
He notices a slight change in the portrait, “lines of cruelty.” Significantly, it’s no longer in color. With all of Sir Henry’s sidebars, the narration is just another distraction. Guess who comes calling? Henry has the horrific news that Sibyl is dead. Henry, of course, is glib and dismissive of the issue. (By this time I’m completely done with that dumb yellow bird song.) Basil is correct that Dorian has picked up Henry’s disdainful. At the same time, he’s skittish about Basil even looking at the portrait.
Dorian shows a somewhat gothic touch by putting the portrait up in an attic room–already stuffed with relics of his childhood. His continuing youthful look attracts some attention; also his secretive whereabouts, “visits to the abyss.” Now, at least, he can shift his attention to Gladys, who’s all grown up. She thinks he’ll propose to her, but there’s David, already in line. Needless to say, he’s no fan of Dorian’s.
Then, at a get-together at Dorian’s, we get the mystical Asian ritual that somehow infuses the youthful blessing/curse. (But it’s been in operation, so to speak, for some time, right?) Gladys and David attend; but when she asks Dorian if he loves her, she only gets a robotic “if you like.” David, meanwhile, is prowling about near that upstars, off-limits room with the portrait. Shortly thereafter, Dorian sees Basil. He tells Dorian that he and Gladys are going to Paris; plus “things are being said against you in London…hideous things.” Other acquaintances of Dorian’s have come to bad ends. He warns her off Gladys.
Anyway, he promises to show Basil the painting. Again it appears in color, showing “indescribably corruption.” He stabs Basil. Very creepy scene with the swinging gas light casting silhouettes of the body. Now the painting’s bloody. Dorian’s got a slight bit of cover, as no one knows he was there when the killing happened. He calls for Allen to dispose of the body, which, rightly, he refuses to do. But Dorian has dirt on Allen, so he eventually agrees to cooperate.
At a dinner at Sir Henry’s, Dorian has the nerve to propose to Gladys; remarkably, she accepts (Basil’s not there to dissuade her). Now more dominoes fall, as we discover that Allen’s dead. Back in the dregs of society, Dorian’s noticed by Jim Vale. Coincidentally, they both wander into the same dive (the Two Turtles). Fortunately for Dorian, his youthful looks convince Jim that this can’t be the same man who’s responsible for his sister’s death. They end up on the same train, in different cars. He gets home safely. At a hunt, a guy is accidentally shot, it’s Jim. Strangely–maybe not so strangely–Dorian wants to make restitution to his family.
Instead of Dorian showing up at Gladys’s, it’s David. He’s got into the locked room at Dorian’s, and saw the portrait. That doesn’t mean much in itself, except that he can attest that not only does it vagely resemble Dorian, but that Gladys’ uncle painted it (there’s a tell-tale initial the young Gladys’ had put on it). “There’s something strange and evil about him” David persists.
Now, the narrator says that Dorian has to destroy the painting. Aha! The portrait returns its original condition, and Dorian has aged, not eighteen years, but about eighteen hundred years. The fact that he dies praying for forgiveness is a little late in the game.
I was glad I caught this on TCM, because it wasn’t as good as I expected; not quite worth buying, anyway. Although I haven’t read the book in about eighteen hundred years myself, other than the tacked-on Asian magic bit, I don’t think the plot is much altered. The period detail is excellent; other than some obviously shabby-chic sets for street scenes, we’re very much in c.1885-1900 London.
What’s fogging things up, as I’ve hinted, is the insidious mixture of Hatfield’s performance and all the mouthfuls coming from Sander’s character. In any movie based on a novel, especially one with the sometimes ornate vocabulary of an Oscar Wilde, we might be in for a chat-fest. But this has enough talking for three movies. We don’t have to have a narrator giving us, in effect, an abridged recitation of the novel when it’s acted out in front of us. In resplendent, copious, excruciating detail.
Sander’s performance is so blase that the guy looks more cadaverous than youthful. If that’s the intent, it’s successful; but who is going to have either sympathy or scorn for someone so boring? Lord Henry is much more interesting in every way. I do get that Dorian Gray ought to be a sort of guileless, but well-born Montgomery Clift or Henry Fonda type. But those two could easily project winning sincerity, even in their often hapless roles. This Dorian Gray portrayal has all the emotional depth of a boy scout earning a merit badge.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is worth watching for a good telling of a timeless story. Both Donna Reed and Angela Lansbury are interesting to see as two very different, but equally good-hearted ladies. But their characters’ inherently decent natures make it all the more difficult to buy their attraction for this clod, Dorian Gray. 7/10 nuggets o’ wisdom.