The first scene of the 1945 movie The Picture of Dorian Gray and the opening of the 1891 Oscar Wilde novel are the same—a “studio . . . filled with the rich odor of roses” and “the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-colored blossoms of a laburnum . . . ,” though the film predates William Castle’s smell-o-vision gimmick for the theaters and the screen is black-and-white. There may be no real aromas in the movie, but there are several isolated, yet important moments of color.
The last color shots reveal the changes in the portrait of this young man Dorian Gray, not second-thought alterations by the painter, but changes in the canvas itself, seemingly of its own volition—and, over time, deteriorating changes at that. As the artist himself said, it’s as though the portrait had a life of its own, that “a power outside myself was guiding my hand.” The separate existence the painting exhibits compared with Dorian’s unaltering youthful appearance is the crux of both novel and movie.
This Wilde tale is only one variant, though one of the better ones, on the German legend of Faust, realized in fiction by both Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—youth, eternal life, personal gratification, money, what have you, in exchange for a man’s soul, or, in Dorian’s case, for youth and everlasting beauty. But is his so-called “gift” worth it—to him or to anybody? Much as Dorian would discover about his own unchanging looks, the words from a character in an episode of television’s Twilight Zone can speak for both: “We love a rose because we know it’ll soon be gone. Whoever loved a stone?”
The dates of the novel and movie aren’t really that removed, and, anyway, I always thought the title should have been The Portrait of Dorian Gray, as I most often associate a “picture” with a photograph.
The film opens and closes with a quote from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:
I sent my soul into the invisible,
Some letter of that after life to spell.
And by and by my soul returned to me
And answered, “I myself am heaven and hell.”
Wilde, however, opens his novel with a preface. It begins “The artist is the creator of beautiful things” and ends in a seeming contradiction: “All art is quite useless.” In between, Wilde touches upon morality and art, criticism as a mode of autobiography, ethical sympathy as an unpardonable mannerism of style, vice and virtue as artistic materials. Included is one of the author’s most famous quotes: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
These musings seem like maxims or didactic theories transferred to the mouth and mind of one of the novel’s characters, the erudite but cold Lord Henry Wotton, for, in fact, the author and Wotton are one in the same, though, in body, Wilde would surely wish to be the attractive Dorian. In Lord Henry’s film introduction, Cedric Hardwicke’s eloquently detached narration provides a thumbnail glimpse into the man’s temper: “His greatest pleasure was to observe the emotions of his friends while experiencing none of his own. He preferred to influence the lives of others.”
The movie quickly plunges the viewer—maybe before he is prepared—into the milieu of the late nineteenth century, that period of gas-lit London, hansoms on foggy streets, seedy dance halls contrasted with cluttered Victorian salons and elegant dress. Another element, all real to many more people then than now, is the world of art, literature, opera and the mere pastime of intellectualizing.
Dorian Gray plays Chopin on the piano and goes to the opera as instinctively as he would attend a garden party. He is encouraged to study The Wisdom of the Buddha and reads aloud from Omar Khayyám, the poem quoted above. As a tie-in to an Egyptian cat statue, an objet d’art and idea not in the novel, Dorian reads a stanza from “The Sphinx,” a Wilde poem published later in 1894, added by screenwriter Alfred Lewin, also the director:
Dawn follows Dawn and Nights grow old and all
the while this curious cat
Lies couching on the Chinese mat with eyes of satin
rimmed with gold.”
As a film, The Picture of Dorian Gray is much in the mode of two other M-G-M movies made in the same half decade—the American version of Gaslight (1944) and Spencer Tracy’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1942), all three set in Londonat about the same time and all about a man out of kilter with the equilibrium of life. The three films share as well the polish of this most prestigious of studios. So tightly interwoven are two of these films that flat No. 9 in Gaslight, the scene of a murder and a husband’s attempt to drive his wife mad, is conceivably the same set, only slightly altered, which serves as the home, now No. 18, of the painter in Picture.
The film opens in 1886. In the Mayfair studio of painter Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore), Lord Henry Wotton (George Sanders) is admiring his friend’s nearly-completed portrait of, as Wilde writes, “a young man of extraordinary personal beauty.” Wotton inquires as to the subject’s name—Dorian Gray, Hallward replies—and that he would like to meet him.
When Wotton—a play on the word “wanton”?—meets Dorian (Hurd Hatfield) at the piano later in the same scene, he tells him that having pleasure is the purpose in life and that his youth and good looks are the key to everything he should desire. “There is only one thing in the world worth having,” Lord Henry tells him, “and that is youth.”
Dorian casually wishes that he could remain as he is now, that, instead, the painting would grow old (two separate color shots of the portrait). Present in the room, and shown frequently throughout the film, is the tall, graceful statue of the cat. Lord Henry muses that perhaps Dorian should be careful what he says in its presence, this image of one of the seventy-three deities of Egypt, a god who can, after all, grant wishes.
Both naïve and likable in many ways, Dorian quickly takes Wotton’s advice to live a carefree life of sensual self-indulgence. He visits a dance hall, where members of the upper class never go, and is captivated by a young singer, Sibyl (Angela Lansbury). Dorian, however, is soon swayed by Wotton’s advice that there is a better route to sensual pleasures than marriage and calls off the wedding. “You have killed my love,” he tells her and leaves her a large sum of money as recompense.
Even when Wotton tells him that Sibyl has killed herself, the young man, little moved, goes with him to the opera, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. After returning home, he feels an inexplicable urge to look at the portrait, which still stands in the studio. He had earlier looked at it and realized “there would be a day”—quoting the novel—“when his face would be wrinkled and wizen, his eyes dim and colorless, the grace of his figure broken and deformed,” while the painting would remain the same. But now, “In the dim arrested light that struggled through the cream-colored silk blinds, the face appeared to him to be a little changed. The expression looked different. One would have said that there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth. It was certainly strange.”
Time has passed and Dorian celebrates yet another birthday. After twenty years or so, everyone who knows him is astounded by his unchanged, and unchanging, appearance. Although rumors of his decadence abound and many women now avoid him, he is still young and handsome. Yet upstairs in the attic, unseen by any one, is that portrait that becomes more and more ugly, reflecting the debauchery, the cruelty, the paranoia, the sins of his life.
At this point in the novel, Chapter XI, Wilde writes:
“He would examine with minute care, and sometimes with a monstrous and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth, wondering sometimes which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age. He would place his white hands beside the coarse bloated hands of the picture, and smile. He mocked the misshapen body and the failing limbs.”
In a change of heart, Dorian decides to show Basil the portrait—it’s his work, he should witness what it has become. Seeing now his painting transformed into a grotesque fiend (two separate color shots of the portrait), the artist says, “This is monstrous—beyond nature, beyond reason.” But he says Dorian can still repent of his ways, and suggests they pray together. Now regretting he has shown the portrait, Dorian takes a knife from a table and stabs Basil. As he falls, Basil accidentally hits a suspended lamp, which swings back and forth, casting shifting shadows on the wall and on Dorian’s face, à la the discovery of the corpse of Norman’s mother in Psycho.
Dorian blackmails a friend (Douglas Walton) into disposing of the body (last color view of the portrait).
In the meantime, Gladys, Basil’s once little niece (Carol Diane Keppler in her only screen role) and now an adult (Donna Reed), has been romancing Dorian. He has proposed marriage, but through a growing remorse, Dorian realizes his life is out of control, that he can only continue to hurt people, now most of all Gladys, for whom he does have feelings. He addresses a letter to her—“You’ll never see me again.”—and has it delivered by messenger.
A suitor of Gladys’, David Stone (Peter Lawford) confides to Gladys and Wotton that he believes there is something bizarre about Dorian and something sinister in the attic, which he has been prevented from entering. The three head for Dorian’s flat.
In the last pages of the novel, Chapter XX, Wilde makes a final reference to the painting: “[Dorian] could see no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning, and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite. The thing was still loathsome—more loathsome, if possible, than before—and the scarlet dew that spotted the hand seemed brighter, and more like blood newly spilt. . . . And why was the red stain larger than it had been? It seemed to have crept like a horrible disease over the wrinkled fingers. . . .
“He looked around, and saw the knife that had stabbed Basil Hallward. . . . As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter’s work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead he would be free. It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace. He seized the thing, and stabbed the picture with it.”
When Dorian stabs the art work, the camera angle is from behind the portrait, so that only the knife piercing the canvas is seen. This time it is Dorian, staggering back from the painting, who accidentally hits the lamp before he collapses. In the fluctuating light from the lamp as it swings back and forth, the portrait gradually changes, through multiple dissolves, from its repugnant image to the original one of a beautiful young man. (The canvas here is not shown in color, as it should have been.)
Gladys, Wotton and David arrive. In the light of the still swinging lamp, they see the pristine painting and on the floor, a knife in its heart, the body of a man—old, withered, a face dreadfully deformed, the likeness once seen in the painting.
An obscure New Yorker, Albert Lewin, born only three years after the publication of Wilde’s novel, and director of only seven films during his career, provides Picture with less than spectacular direction and an annoying slow pace, especially toward the end. These faults are ably offset by Harry Stradling, Sr., who won Picture an Oscar for B&W cinematography, and Cedric Gibbons, head of a team nominated for Best Art-Set Decoration. The film editor, Ferris Webster, worked on some of the best films around, receiving three unrewarded Oscar nominations.
And then there is the cast. George Sanders, who receives top billing and is more fascinating a character than Dorian, plays with relish the typical cad that was his trademark—and is even called one by Gilmore. Sanders may be, even, a little too low-key, doing something of a “walk-through” performance. Hurd Hatfield never thought he was good looking enough for the role of Dorian, and, true, his somewhat hard, passive facial features make him seem drained of any evocable emotion. The screen never shows his mind working; it’s as if he assumes the changing oils on the portrait will do the emoting.
Angela Lansbury, who won a Best Supporting Actress nomination, and here somewhat defies the rumor that she was not attractive enough to be a romantic lead, plays a role first promised to Donna Reed. Reed herself also has a face type, one suitable for comedies and modern settings, perfect in It’s a Wonderful Life and From Here to Eternity, but like, say, Lee Remick’s face, somehow inappropriate in historical dramas.
The supporting cast consists of those familiar faces of the ’30s and ’40s: Miles Mander, Mary Forbes, Reginald Owen, Arthur Shields, Billy Bevan, Pedro de Cordoba, Rex Evans, Skelton Knaggs, Frank McClure, Frederick Worlock and so many others, most in non-speaking roles. Lansbury’s mother has a small part as well as her mother’s former husband Owen.
The music is by M-G-M’s house composer, the dependably second-rate Herbert Stothart, though the most effective parts may well be by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who worked, uncredited, on the score. Probably best remembered for his guitar concertos, he was yet another Jew who fled Nazi Europe in the ’30s, in his case to write mostly anonymous patchwork film music for others. He did receive credit for And Then There Were None (1949) and Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950). Ninety-five percent of the time, however, his music was uncredited.
The scoring highlights in Picture, which do indeed suggest the originality of someone other than Stothart, are often the eerie ones which give atmosphere to the film—when Basil describes that “other hand” that painted the portrait, when Dorian reads from a book or, in the end, when the music brightens as the canvas gradually changes. The one shot of Dorian’s final grotesque face is accompanied by a simple, bright staccato chord, nothing heavy or garish, as would be required today. The song Lansbury sings so tenderly, “Good-Bye, Little Yellow Bird,” is by C. W. Murphy and William Hargreaves. Its sentimentality perfectly captures the mood of the late nineteenth century.
After 1945, there would be other movie and television retellings of the Wilde story. In 1970, 1973, 2005, 2007 and 2009, they would range from the middling to the atrocious, from gas-lit London to modern updates, featuring Herbert Lom, Nigel Davenport, Josh Duhamel, David Gallagher and Colin Firth, either as Dorian or Lord Henry.
If somewhat distantly related—there is no deal for the exchange of a man’s soul—a well done version of the Faust legend comes readily to mind from the small screen. First aired in 1960, “Long Live Walter Jameson” was the twentieth of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone episodes, and one of the best of the 156 in the series.
Kevin McCarthy, most famous, perhaps, for the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), plays the title character, a history professor specializing in the American Civil War. He plans to marry a fellow professor’s daughter (Dody Heath), much younger than he, but Kittridge (Edgar Stehli), her father, notices in a book of Mathew Brady photographs a Union officer named Skelton who could be a doppelgänger for Jameson, down to the mole on his face.
Confronted by Kittridge, Jameson admits that he is the same man, and, pointing to a bust of Plato, says he actually knew the man. Yes, two thousand years ago an alchemist gave him the gift of immortality. Not a gift after all, for he has seen everyone he loves, including countless wives, die while he continues to live; he wants to kill himself, he says, but lacks the courage to use the gun he has at home. “It’s death,” he tells Kittridge, “that gives this world its point.”
During his return home, across the street from Kittridge’s, Jameson has been followed by an elderly woman (Estelle Winwood). He recognizes her as a former wife, who has come to prevent this latest marriage. When he refuses to call it off, she grabs the gun and shoots him. Before her, as he dies, Jameson ages rapidly. He slumps in the chair, first noticing his suddenly wrinkled and age-spotted hand. His hair and eyebrows turn white, deep wrinkles appear on his face and he begins breathing heavily. He gets up, staggers with the stoop of an old man and collapses on the floor as the delayed aging continues.
Kittridge, who has heard the gun shot, tries to shut the door against his daughter’s entry. Together, they see on the floor the clothes of a man. “What is that?” she asks, looking at the chalky, white substance above the collar and at the ends of the trouser legs and sleeves. “That’s dust,” Kittridge replies.
Despite the corny and seemingly unworkable idea—this was early B&W television, remember—the teleplay comes across quite effectively, thanks to the atmospheric photography of George T. Clemens, the makeup of William Tuttle (The Wizard of Oz, Young Frankenstein) and the total sincerity of McCarthy’s performance. For its time, the use of dissolve and three different age makeups, red facial lines and red and green light filters made for a quite convincing metamorphosis of Jameson.
I sent my soul into the invisible,
Some letter of that after life to spell.
And by and by my soul returned to me
And answered, “I myself am heaven and hell.”