Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Picture of Dorian Gray, The [1945]

US movie (1945). MGM. Pr Pandro S Berman. Dir Albert Lewin. Paintings of Gray Ivan le Lorraine Albright, Henrique Medina. Dir ph Harry Stradling. Screenplay Lewin. Based on The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) by Oscar Wilde. Starring Richard Fraser (James Vane), Lowell Gilmore (Basil Hallward), Hurd Hatfield (Dorian Gray), Angela Lansbury (Sybil Vane), Peter Lawford (David Stone), Morton Lowry (Adrian Singleton), Donna Reed (Gladys Hallward), George Sanders (Lord Henry Wotton), Douglas Walton (Allen Campbell). Voice actor Sanders (Narrator). 110 mins. B/w with four brief colour inserts.

London, 1886. While having his portrait (> Pictures and Portraits) painted by Hallward, young Gray meets older roué Wotton and is almost corrupted by his cynical, epigram-laden worldliness. Wotton's comment that the portrait will remain young as Gray ages prompts the latter to say, in the presence of a Statue of a divine Egyptian Cat, that he would trade his Soul if matters could be the other way round. Soon Gray, exploring the low-spots of London, meets and woos chanteuse Sybil Vane; Wotton guides Gray in her seduction – after which Gray rejects her entirely. Next day he glances at his portrait and sees it has new lines of cruelty; full of remorse, he plans to wed Vane, but almost immediately hears she has suicided.

18 years of debauchery later, he is still youthful while his portrait is vile. When Hallward's niece Gladys seeks to marry him, however, he has enough decency to refuse her. Soon after, on the spur of the moment he shows Hallward what has become of the portrait; the painter, guessing the dreadful truth, is horrified; Gray kills him to keep the secret, and then, after all, woos Gladys. Just before their marriage Gray once more repents, and stabs the portrait through the heart. Through sympathetic Magic, this blow kills him, but as he dies he babbles a prayer begging God's forgiveness: the portrait becomes once more youthful while Gray's corpse takes on the hideous features.

This is a striking movie on many counts, not least a script packed with Wildean aphorisms. Almost as much happens off-screen as on, and there is virtually no visible violence; the characters, especially Gray, are presented with passionless exteriors – a notable exception is Sybil (for whose portrayal Lansbury won an Oscar nomination). Yet, probably because of these self-imposed disciplines, TPODG packs a considerable emotional punch, aided (despite some slightly cumbersome direction) by the excellent, film noirish cinematography, which substitutes for spfx (and for which Stradling received an Oscar).

Comparisons should certainly be made between this and Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1931) (> Jekyll and Hyde Movies), since the two – and, of course, their respective source novels – deal with the very similar theme of respectability as a veneer disguising an individual's, if not humankind's, inherent component of Evil. Moreover, both movies take it as axiomatic that good will look good, evil will look evil (although Wilde and TPODG play this both ways, in that Wotton's studied Decadence must be equated with evil – this is a work with not one but two Villains, and it is hard to decide which is the more villainous). The moral quandary posed by this assumption appears to have occurred to neither author, as it has not to innumerable writers since. In the case of Robert Louis Stevenson we might blame it on a Calvinist-style upbringing; Wilde has no such excuse – and certainly would have been offended had it been offered on his behalf. The respective moviemakers were, of course, simply aping their sources. In terms of the two movies as movies, the big difference is that, with the passage of 14 years, Lewin clearly felt that the increasing sophistication of his audience meant a movie no longer had to rely on sensationalism in order to tell a sensational tale. An evidence of the evolution of Fantasy in both its literary and, some decades later, its Cinema modes is that, while Stevenson felt the necessity to dress up his notion in quasi-science – i.e., to make it a Technofantasy – Wilde (and TPODG) did not.

TPODG is the classic movie version of Wilde's novel but was far from the first – the earliest was probably a Danish version released in 1910. The most frequently quoted precursor is the 1913 US version released by the New York Motion Picture Company. The story was filmed in Denmark in 1913, in Russia and again the USA in 1915, in the UK in 1916, and in Germany and in Hungary in 1917. There were also a UK/Italian coproduction in 1969 (as Il Dio Chiamato Dorian; vt The Picture of Dorian Gray; vt The Secret of Dorian Gray), a straight US production in 1975, and a soft-porn US version, Take Off (1978), in which the central character, Daren Blue, has remained youthful through three decades of sexual conquest. There have been innumerable stage versions. Most recently Dorian Gray: A Musical, by the Rock Theatre Budapest, was given its Western premiere in London in 1995 (original Hungarian presentation date not known, through probably 1994). [JG]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.