Flashback: on 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

Nostalgia has often died hard, here in the Flashback feature of the blog, and this month’s selection is no exception. I adored director Albert Lewin’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” when I was a young teenager, and I was all hyped up to revel in its greatness again. Never will I forget the very first time I watched it: a late 1970’s(or 1980, maybe), local PBS showing on Channel 13, when I lived in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey—just a few miles west of Manhattan. The broadcast was hosted by celebrity critic Rex Reed(a big “star” then, even though few take him seriously now), and included an interview(live?)with “Dorian Gray” star Angela Lansbury! She was in her early 50’s by then, already revered and adored for her work in film and on the stage(Lansbury has won FIVE Tony Awards), but people still can’t seem to grasp why I’m captivated by her without ever having watched an episode of television’s “Murder, She Wrote”(that show began years later, and sadly, so many still believe it to be her main “claim” to fame). Reed, who told Angela that he loved the 1945 film, presented Ms. Lansbury with a stuffed animal version of a yellow bird, in honor of the haunting rendition her character(Sybil Vane)gives of the song “Good-Bye, Little Yellow Bird” when the character of Dorian Gray(played by Hurd Hatfield)first becomes enamored of her. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was only Lansbury’s 3rd motion picture(just 19 years young when the movie was released), but already her second Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress(her debut in 1944’s “Gaslight” was the first, plus Lansbury would garner one more for 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate”). She’s never taken home an Academy Award, btw, but “Gray” did bring her a Golden Globe acting trophy. Anyway, Reed gushed, Lansbury was classy and polite in accepting the praise, and it’s a very fond remembrance for me. If only the film held up in 2014.

Oh, there are still a number of highlights, with Lansbury’s singing and performing chief among them. And the marvelously witty work of the wonderful George Sanders being another. Plus, the 3-strip Technicolor inserts of Ivan Le Lorraine Albright’s legendary Dorian Gray portrait remains a spectacular device(although I question the loose framing of the shot on at least one occasion in particular). Also, the story, based on Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel(the only one the renowned playwright and poet ever published)is a macabre classic. You know the basic plot, right? The impossibly youthful and unblemished Mr. Dorian Gray, goes through decades without ever seeming to age a day. Early on, Dorian is mostly kind, if somewhat naive, but idolized by many for his wealth and good looks. While posing for a portrait being painted by a local artist friend, Gray is convinced by the cynical Lord Henry Walton(Mr. Sanders)that a life dedicated to hedonistic pleasures is the only kind worth living. What follows is a fleeting romance, a tragic development, and an increasingly dastardly lifestyle perpetrated by Mr. Gray, as an ancient curse of some kind, shields him from the ravages of age and poor choices—while astonishing changes occur to the framed likeness that he keeps hidden away in a locked room on his estate. But Mr. Hatfield’s performance as Gray is a bit flat and uninvolving. And the choice of voiceover narration to present us with Dorian’s thought process was a misguided failure. Plus, the production is nowhere near as elegant or subtle as I’d remembered it—and even manages to be a little bit cheesy at times. Oh well, it was still an enjoyable revisit overall, with notable work from Donna Reed and Peter Lawford. And the movie still looks fantastic(it did win an Oscar for Best Black-and-White Cinematography). It’s just not nearly as sumptuous as the youthful attic of my mind had kept it…as time marched on.     Grade:  B-


2 comments on “Flashback: on 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

  1. Oh how sad to hear it didn’t hold up! I was so excited to read this when I saw you chose Dorian Gray. I was also a big fan of the movie as a teen. I think I’ll skip viewing it any time soon so that I can still think it’s a great piece. Thanks for the warning!

    • I was a little melancholy, Sandy, because I had once loved it so. Pleased to learn that you shared my adoration, but don’t be too afraid to revisit! There’s enough stuff in there to still make it worthwhile. Thanks for sharing your memories! ML

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