Whenever I hear there’s going to be a remake of a classic film, I roll my eyes. Very rarely is the remake as good as the original. However, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is one film that I actually would like to see remade because the story is so relevant for today’s world. The witty and daring British writer, Oscar Wilde, wrote the novel back in the late 19th century. The Picture of Dorian Gray was Wilde’s only novel and it created quite a stir in Victorian society. In 1945, MGM released a cinematic version of the horror drama, which starred George Sanders, Hurd Hatfield, Angela Lansbury, Donna Reed, and Peter Lawford. Albert Lewin directed and Pandro S. Berman produced the film. Though the movie was not commercially successful, Angela Lansbury earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and the movie has become a beloved classic film.
The story for the film takes place in Victorian London. Artist Basil Hallward creates a portrait of the young and handsome aristocrat, Dorian Gray (Hatfield). While posing for the painting, Gray meets Lord Henry Wotton (Sanders). Lord Henry is witty and charming, but his cynical and hedonistic view towards life negatively impacts the young aristocrat. Gray is intelligent, gentle, and somewhat naive. However, his fear of getting older and losing his good looks, makes him susceptible to Lord Henry’s influence. When the portrait is completed, Gray makes a wish to his Egyptian cat statue, known for making wishes come true, that his portrait will age for him so that he can look young and handsome forever.
One night while searching for entertainment, Gray meets a singer named Sibyl Vane (Lansbury). The two fall in love, and Gray makes plans to marry her. Lord Henry suggests that Gray is making a mistake marrying, especially to a woman who is not of the same social status. Lord Henry is a hedonist. Though on the outside, it appears that he is following Victorian so- called conventions, he does exactly what he wants to do and cares little for how others think of him. Lord Henry is married, but he is emotionally detached from his wife. Lord Henry’s way of life takes a hold of Gray. Because Gray is obsessed with taking full advantage of his youth, he decides that he won’t marry Sibyl and he breaks her heart. For the first time, Gray notices a slight change in his portrait. The evidence is subtle, but his face in the portrait looks perceptibly meaner. Gray realizes that the wish he made to his cat statue might have come true. He stores the portrait in a locked room at the top of a winding staircase that houses his childhood toys. He promises himself that he will do better and be more kind. However, a series of events send him on a downward spiral of moral degradation.
Nearly twenty years go by and, while Gray looks the same, his portrait does not. His picture transforms in unexpected ways. People start to talk about Gray’s unchanging appearance and oddly reserved demeanor. The weight of his secret rests heavily on Gray’s mind, and one night he brings his friend and the painter of his portrait, Basil Hallward, to the forbidden room at the top of the staircase. Gray immediately realizes that he’s made a terrible mistake exposing his secret, and he makes a reckless decision that leads to his ultimate downfall. He does continue to try to overcome his mistakes. He even attempts to create a new life for himself by proposing to Hallward’s daughter, Gladys, who has loved Gray since she was a little girl. However, his guilt and past actions catch up with him, and, eventually, he has to deal with the consequences of his choices.
While it’s easy for us to think of Dorian Gray as some kind of monster, the truth is that we are all susceptible to becoming Dorian Gray. Especially today, where youth and looks are such valuable commodities in society, people will go to great lengths to be beautiful and stay that way. How do any of us know when we’ve crossed that line? Perhaps there’s no absolute answer because we have different opinions about where that fine line exists.
Although The Picture of Dorian Gray is a perfectly relevant film for today, there were some aspects of the movie that were distracting. Hurd Hatfield’s portrayal of the title character completely lacks emotion. After a while his expressionless face makes him come across as creepy and a little boring. While Dorian Gray loses his humanity in pursuit of youth and beauty, there were moments in the film where Hatfield could have inserted more emotion. Years after the film was produced, Hatfield confessed that he regretted playing the role of Dorian Gray because it hurt his career. People assumed he had no sense of humor. The other issue with the film was the difficulty in understanding Lord Henry. George Sanders does a good job playing the carefree aristocrat, but in some of the scenes he speaks so quickly that it’s hard to understand what he is saying. This is sad because the writing is brilliant. Part of this might be that it’s an older film, but there were times I wished there had been subtitles.
Angela Lansbury is an angelic figure in the movie. For those of us who watched her for years playing Jessica Fletcher on the television series, Murder, She Wrote, we get to see a different side of Lansbury. The Picture of Dorian Gray was made at the beginning of her career and it is immediately apparent why she has enjoyed such a long and successful career. She portrays the young Sibyl Vane as an innocent and virtuous woman, whose only mistake was falling for a man who was incapable of loving. Donna Reed, who plays the artist’s daughter, Gladys, and Peter Lawford, who plays David Stone, have smaller, less controversial roles. As a result, Reed and Lawford don’t stand out as much as the other actors in this film.
While this black and white classic film may have a couple of weaknesses, The Picture of Dorian Gray is important and is a movie still worth watching. In fact, no film could be more representative of the selfie-generation than this one. Oftentimes the most lasting films and stories are the ones that explore the deeper and darker aspects of humanity.