George Sanders in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)


(director/writer: Albert Lewin; screenwriter: from the novel by Oscar Wilde; cinematographer: Harry Stradling; editor: Ferris Webster; music: Herbert Stothar; cast: George Sanders (Lord Henry Wotton), Hurd Hatfield (Dorian Gray), Donna Reed (Gladys Hallward), Angela Lansbury (Sibyl Vane), Peter Lawford (David Stone), Lowell Gilmore (Basil Hallward), Richard Fraser (James Vane), Morton Lowry (Adrian Singleton), Douglas Walton (Allen Campbell), Moyna MacGill (Duchess), Lydia Bilbrook (Mrs. Vane), Cedric Hardwicke (Narrator); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Pandro S. Berman; MGM; 1945)

“Sterling adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel about a handsome young Victorian aristocrat.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Albert Lewin’s (“Pandora and the Flying Dutchman”/”The Moon and Sixpence”) sterling adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel about a handsome young Victorian aristocrat, Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield), in the London of 1886, who remains eternally young after he makes a Faustian bargain and sells his soul. His portrait ages and in its corrupted form bears the ugly scars of his dissolute life, while in the eighteen years of the narrative Dorian looks just as he did when he was 22 and posed for the portrait drawn by Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore). The only thing that changes is his innocent Tristan-like character of being a noble knight into a monstrous cold-hearted narcissist who causes ill to those around him and even resorts to committing murder by his own hands.

The film’s pleasures revolve around the scintillating black-and-white photography of Harry Stradling, earning him an Oscar, and the superb effortless meanie performance by Hatfield that is matched by the skillful cynical egomaniacal performance of George Sanders as the witty Lord Henry Wotton–brilliantly tossing around epigrams in the sharp manner the actor has built his reputation on. Lord Henry is the spooky friend of Wilde’s and the artist, who is living only for his selfish pleasures– in actuality Lord Henry is the alter ego of Wilde and speaks for him throughout. Moyna MacGill, the real-life mother of Angela Lansbury, has a small role as the Duchess.

The film opens as Lord Henry barges in on Basil putting the finishing touches on his portrait of the handsome and noble Dorian. The artist is so pleased with his work that he refuses to sell it or put it on exhibit, but presents it to Dorian as a gift. Basil says there was something mystical about that painting–it had a life of its own. After signing the painting, along with the artist’s young niece Gladys signing it with a G, it hangs in Dorian’s house at Mayfair. Before he leaves, Lord Henry fills the young man’s head with his cynical views of life such as the bon mot “To yield to temptation is the only way to get rid of it.” The comment that Lord Henry expands on that profoundly affects the young man centers around the belief that “One who loses youth, loses everything.” Lord Henry goes on to say “If I could get back my youth, I’d do anything in the world – except get up early, take exercise or be respectable.” The fearful Dorian succumbs to Lord Henry’s mastery of words and follows his dictum of “Live, be afraid of nothing!” In secret, Dorian makes an innermost wish for never growing old and willingly pays the high price of losing his soul to get this so-called advantage no other person has. When Dorian notices a cruel expression come across his lips in the portrait, he locks it in his childhood attic room and will have no one else ever look at it. Dorian then gives up living a virtuous life and visits the East End slum section to go to the Two Turtles pub. There he falls in love with the beautiful innocent singer Sibyl Vane (Angela Lansbury). After she agrees to marry him, he cruelly dumps her by following a wicked plan schemed out by Lord Henry to test her modesty. Sibyl is so shaken by this rebuff that she commits suicide, while her roughneck sailor brother James (Richard Fraser) vows revenge on the high hat he never saw but heard him play to her Chopin’s Prelude. When Gladys (Donna Reed) grows into a beautiful young woman some eighteen years later, Dorian selfishly takes her away from her noble suitor David Stone (Peter Lawford). But Dorian finds that in his heart he really loves her and decides to abandon Gladys for her own good. Anxious to see how his one good deed will be pictured in his leprous portrait (shown in color)–which holds all his sins–he becomes overcome with grief when looking at it and his downfall comes about when he tries to destroy the portrait in the same way he destroyed the artist who painted it.

Filled with understated Wilde ironies, outstanding performances by the entire cast and elegant sets of the Victorian era, this Hollywood film remarkably captures the spirit and remains faithful to the book–something that’s rarely ever achieved in film as well as it is here. If only there wasn’t such an abomination as the Hays Office, this might have been a masterpiece showing Dorian’s wicked libertine hedonism at its fullest.