“If only the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now. For that, I would give everything. Yes, there’s nothing in the whole world I would not give. I would give my soul for that” – Hurd Hatfield, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
One of my favorite midnight movies I have found over the past few years is The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), the MGM adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel of the same title. As a former English major, I had encountered the novel multiple times; it only took the first time for it to become one of my favorite classics. I did not know what to expect with a movie adaptation, but I was not disappointed.
The story begins in 1886 London. Lord Henry (George Sanders) visits his friend Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore). Basil is preparing for a final portrait painting session with his client, a wealthy young man named Dorian Gray. The latter joins the scene by playing Basil’s piano and drawing the men to him. Dorian and Lord Henry soon become acquainted. Lord Henry educates Dorian on the value of youth and living life only for pleasure. When Dorian sees the finished painting, he appears upset. After listening to what Lord Henry said, Dorian laments that he will grow old and the portrait will remain the same. He wishes aloud for it to happen the other way around; little did any of them know, Dorian would get his wish.
One night, Dorian meets Sibyl Vane (Angela Lansbury), a singer in a pub. They are immediately taken with each other and become a part of each others’ lives. Eventually, Dorian rejects Sibyl by telling her in a letter that she is not what he wants for his life. After sending the letter, Dorian looks upon Basil’s painting. While the portrait still looks as it did the day it was completed, Dorian notices a change in the portrait’s expression. His mouth appears to sneer as it had not before. Dorian fears that the change will be noticeable to others and hides it. When he changes his mind and decides to give marriage a chance with Sibyl, he discovers that she has taken her own life as a result of his cruelty.
Dorian hides the painting in his attic and forbids anyone to see it. People begin to recoil from Dorian due to a dark change in him they cannot place. He begins spending time in less desirable places (opium dens per the book), among people who will not recognize him. He begins a relationship with Gladys Hallward (Donna Reed), Basil’s niece. Gladys was a child when she first met Dorian, but she is reluctant to listen to the warnings of others when it is clear something dark is happening with him.
When Dorian finally allows Basil to see his painting almost sixteen years later, the painter sees that the painting has taken on a grotesque appearance. Dorian within the painting has become deformed and deranged, and the entire painting itself appears to have rotted from the inside. Determined not to let his secret go any further, Dorian murders Basil and hires someone to dispose of the body. The secret Dorian has held for many years only becomes darker, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
It had been a while since I re-watched this film, and I noticed details throughout the movie that elevated the story even more. Lord Henry draws attention to a statue of an Egyptian cat when Dorian claims he would wish to be young forever. The cat sits upon a table in the area where Dorian posed, and it is also part of the painting. Once I noticed that detail, I saw the cat reappear consistently throughout the film. I cannot recall if this was a detail in the book, but it offers some kind of theory as to why this phenomenon with Dorian and his picture occurred. The repetition of “Little Yellow Bird” (which is actually a great song, check it out) throughout the years of Dorian’s life was another detail I had not noticed before. Some of my favorite components of this film included the painting being the only technicolor component of the film and Dorian reading a poem by Oscar Wilde to Sibyl.
Quick note: There is no reason we cannot still make movies like this: intricate production design, orchestral scores, immersions in art and literature, etc.. Just saying.
I would not necessarily label this as a horror film, but it does accomplish something that is common practice in horror: taking something we all fear and making it tangible. The themes in this story are youth, beauty, and morality. The novel was written during a time when excess and leisure were synonymous with the upper economic and social classes. Dorian’s anxieties about growing older and possibly losing what gives his life meaning led him to give up anything to hold on to that forever and live a life of enjoyment. When he gives up his morality and good will to the painting, it changes in his place. In addition to aging instead of Dorian, it also reflects the state of his soul: increasingly vile and deteriorating. In this way, this story combines the fear of change and obsession with material possessions…something any generation can relate to.
As someone who just celebrated another birthday, I am not surprised I was drawn to this film as my next subject. I knew that face of Dorian’s when he looked at the portrait for the first time. I have found myself over the past couple of years feeling anxious around every birthday or upon realizing a passage of time. I get stuck in a mindset of not having done enough or running out of time to do something great (both of which are untrue). Revisiting Oscar Wilde’s story has reminded me that there are more important things than age and taking the time you need. Anyone who has taken an English literature course knows the towering symbolism of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but it has come to mean something special to me. Thankfully, we have a beautiful and timeless film that captures that magic.
Until next time,