In the Fall of 2019, September and October, I began a systematic review of early science fiction films, and adjacent horror films, going all the way back to the beginning of modern film, so to speak–excepting the many silent-movie era adaptations of 19th century novels like Frankenstein and Dracula. That beginning being a silent film yet a significant early science fiction film (Metropolis), followed by the earliest sound-film versions, and still most famous, of Dracula and Frankenstein. My directory of those films to watch and comment on is here, http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/bibliographies-and-reviews/skiffy-flix/. In the past month or two I’ve returned to this project, having now watched all the films in the first group up to 1945, watching them on Fridays (or yesterday, on a Monday), days when my partner is away at work.
So I’ll fill in comments about those not yet posted. Perhaps not detailed plot summaries, as in some earlier posts, just some general comments. Detailed plot summaries for all of these are on Wikipedia.
Monday 6 July: the 1945 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. This was originally a novel by Oscar Wilde, and has apparently no fewer than 8 film adaptations (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Picture_of_Dorian_Gray_(disambiguation)).
The version I watched is, I think, the most famous; Wikipedia’s take is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Picture_of_Dorian_Gray_(1945_film). This page has a detailed plot summary.
So then just a broad outline and my comments.
I’ve never read Oscar Wilde’s book, nor seen any of the film adaptations, but I’ve been aware, as a sort of cultural meme, that it’s the story of a man who avoids growing old by having a painting of himself, hidden in closet, grow old in his place. The man remains eternally young.
- The film is set in 1886 London. The settings of the main protagonists are enormous mansions like those in other 1930s and ‘40s Hollywood movies—fantasies, I think, even for wealthy districts like London’s Mayfair (which we visited in our April 2019 London trip, so I know where that is!), because these fantasies appealed to move-goers at that time.
- The story breaks fairly cleanly into five or six sections, or acts.
- The opening scene, or first act, is in the home of a painter, Basil Hallward, where he’s visited by bon vivant Lord Henry Wotton. (Who’s played by George Sanders, in a haughty and cynical characterization reminiscent of his theater critic in All About Eve, five years later.) Lord Henry goes on about how life should be devoted to pleasure, with many cynical characterizations of common social customs, like marriage. Meanwhile, Hallward’s subject for a painting is one Dorian Gray, a lovely young handsome young man….
- Dorian Gray in this film is played by Hurd Hatfield, who did much further film work, but who in this one gives the most blank, expressionless performance I’ve ever seen. Why? I can think, given the story’s premise, only that he’s playing the aspect of his character that was captured in the portrait, somewhat serene, but rather blank.
- (So, what is the fantasy premise?) While in Hallward house, having his portrait done, Dorian Gray notices a small statue of an Egyptian cat. It’s one of the 73 great gods of Egypt, Hallward claims. Inspired by Lord Henry, Dorian Gray wishes he could be young forever. And apparently his wish to the Egyptian cat god comes true.
- The second act, so to speak. Inspired by Lord Henry, Dorian Gray seeks out worldly experience. He travels to a tavern in Bluegate Fields (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluegate_Fields), a famous slum in northeast London, and is smitten by a tavern girl singer (played by Angela Lansbury, in her first Oscar nominated role, as supporting actress), named Sibyl Vance. She sings a pretty little song about a yellow bird. He calls himself Sir Tristan. Later, when he tells Lord Henry about her, Henry in turn gives Gray cynical advice about dealing with women, which Gray follows: he invites her to his home, asks her not to leave (for the night), and when she hesitates but accepts, he condemns her as a harlot, and dismisses her.
- (Now why, pursuing a life of pleasure, should Dorian Gray immediately head for the lowest class slum in all of London, as apparently Bluegate Fields was? It’s not as if he’s…. picking up whores. Or perhaps he was, in the book, and for movie sensibilities in 1945, that was glossed over. Another possibility: Oscar Wilde was a famous, relatively open homosexual, and perhaps the places in his era where he would meet compatriots was in that area. Was there any hint of this in the book, perhaps? Well, apparently not; a quick skim of the book’s plot shows that this film version was remarkably faithful to the book.)
- Third act: Dorian Gray decides his real life will begin. He recants to Sibyl Vance, asks her to marry him; but learns she’s committed suicide instead of accepting his proposal. Then he sees the painting has changed: there’s a cruel look in his face. Fearing what this means, he hides the painting in his top floor school room, and blocks access to the room so no one will ever see it.
- Fourth act. Years pass. He looks the same, others have aged; he’s developed a reputation for ruining people’s lives, with even a couple allusions about ruining boys’ lives. Gladys, a girl in the first act when his portrait was painted, is now all grown up (she’s played by a young Donna Reed), and is intent on marrying him, despite her engagement to another man, David (played by a young Peter Lawford). At a party (featuring Balinese dancers, very exotic I suppose for 1945), Gray rebuffs her.
- One late foggy night Dorian passes Basil, the painter, in the street (near Grosvenor Square, at the center of Mayfair), and is obliged to invite him to his house, where he tells him the truth, showing him how the painting has changed – and now we see the painting in its final form, a grotesque monster, as shown on the Wikipedia page. Basil appeals to God and tries to pray; Dorian, fearing Basil now knows the truth, and could betray him, kills him with a knife. And then blackmails an old acquaintance to dispose of the body.
- At a dinner, he asks Gladys to marry him, and she agrees.
- Fifth act. He visits Bluegate Fields again, where Sibyl’s brother recognizes his name—but sees Gray as too young to be the man who caused his sister’s death 18 years before. Gray withdraws to his country estate in Selby, where a group of men hunt rabbits. The brother, having followed, is accidentally shot lurking in the bushes. This is a convenient bit of plotting, perhaps installed to push Gray over the edge with guilt at having caused the deaths of both Sibyl and her brother. So he abandons Gladys and returns to London, intent on withdrawing himself to live anonymously on the continent. But first he’ll slash the horrible portrait, stabbing it in the heart. He collapses in sympathetic magic. Gladys and the others arrive moments later, and see the painting in its original form, and a grotesque man dead on the floor.
- Narration. Much of the back-story and character motivation is described in a calm, soothing narration by Cedric Hardwicke, whose long career included appearances in various TV shows in the early 1960s. That’s how we know, for example, Dorian Gray’s final intentions as he returns to London at the end.
- We don’t see more than three versions of the painting; presumably production costs didn’t allow a broad range. The second version, with the cruel look, is only subtly different from the original. Remarkably, though the film is in black and white, two or three times we see full screen shots of the portrait in full color, including the grotesque version at the end.
- Already mentioned: a scan of the novel’s plot shows the film is remarkably faithful to it.
- So bottom line, this is a story that equates pleasure, or hedonism, with corruption, and death. That Dorian Gray dies reflects Victorian morality, I suppose, that traditional conventions are best, and self-indulgence must be restricted. On the other hand, Lord Henry (the George Sanders character) dominates the first part of the film with many witty and subversive opinions, and apparently has been living the life he’s recommended to Dorian Gray (or perhaps not; perhaps he says things merely to provoke?). And though he shocks his friends on occasion, his position in society seems secure. I suspect his character is a reflection of Wilde’s. Wikipedia notes on the novel reveal more.