A Wilde and Crazy Guy


The ultimate motion-picture adaptation of an Oscar Wilde work, Albert Lewin’s 1945 classic THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY gets the Blu-Ray upgrade from the eternally wunderbar folks at The Warner Archive Collection.

A movie that I constantly wanted to love as a kid (the brilliant subtlety whizzed by me), GRAY just seemed like an attempt from a studio known for musicals and women’s pics to do horror.  Watching at it now through adult eyes, it is the epoch of Golden Age screen horror – in look, in approach, in pure cold evil.

GRAY had long been on producer-director Albert Lewin’s bucket list (admittedly, before such a thing even existed).  He had moved from producing to directing with his extraordinary pseudo-bio flick, 1942’s The Moon and Sixpence, starring the movies’ dean of snark, George Sanders.  As a perk, Lewin included Technicolor inserts of the main character’s art works (the artist in question being Paul Gauguin, although “Charles Strickland” in the pic).  This device worked beautifully, and Lewin used it with greater success in GRAY.  The shimmering, luminescent monochrome photography jolts the audience when cuts are made to the infamous portrait in vivid Technicolor (especially once the painting starts to “turn”).  Again, in all due respects to the 1960s TV broadcasts, not only were the Technicolor inserts not printed in the imbibition process, but the cutaways were often removed altogether – considered too frightening for young viewers.  Suffice to say, this is the complete, uncut version.

The story is legend.  A narcissistic Victorian male glamor-puss poses for his portrait, courtesy of a friendship with a renowned artist, Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore). Hallward has an affinity for the supernatural and has his home decorated with cats – feline magical familiars of many an ancient civilization (here, being of the Egyptian variety).  The portrait’s subject, Dorian Gray, bemoans the fact that the canvas will outlive him – that soon, physically, he’ll pale next to it.  He vows he would essentially trade his soul if this inevitability were reversed.

And so it is.

But there’s a price to pay for vanity.  Every nasty aspect of the human condition will be etched into the painting, while the never-aging Dorian Gray will remain youthful, increasingly degenerate and, eventually, murderous.

An active, participating and thoroughly (at least, initially) amused bystander is London dandy Lord Henry Wotton (basically the Wilde character), the singular Greek chorus whose droll, witty comments on current culture, society, sexuality and (his favorite) vice guide us through this impeccable nightmare of hypocrisy.  Who else could play this but Lewin’s favorite leading man, top-billed George Sanders?  It’s a sensational performance that should have garnered him an Oscar for Best Actor (he wasn’t even nominated); outside of the winner (Ray Milland; agreed a fantastic job for The Lost Weekend), the other noms ranged from “okay” to “feh” (I mean, Gene Kelly for Anchors Aweigh?).  One of the few hilarious breathers in the movie comes when Sanders’ gallivanting Lord Wotton expresses annoyance by the attention of a woman at a formal dinner before realizing that the lady his wife (Lisa Carpenter).  As Gray, newcomer Hurd Hatfield enacted the role he seemingly was born to play – and it genuinely appeared as if he, too, had made a demonic pact, as the actor physically looked the same for more than twenty years after the pic’s release.  The remainder of the magnificent supporting cast includes Donna Reed, Peter Lawford, Douglas Walton, Richard Fraser, Miles Mander, Mary Forbes, Robert Greig (not as a butler), Lilian Bond, Billy Bevan and, best of all, Angela Lansbury, whose take as the sad, doomed lover of Dorian, Sibyl Vane, is concurrently sensual and pathetic (and WAS nominated for Best Supporting Actress).

Truth be told, I’ve never seen a bad print of this movie, but thanks to GRAY‘s going Blu, I’ve never seen one better.  The 1080p clarity and texture of Harry Stradling, Sr’s cinematography is epic (he deservedly won an Academy Award).  The soundtrack, featuring a score by house composer Herbert Stothart (whom I confess, I never warmed up to) is nevertheless perfect.  Producer Pandro S. Berman likewise did an outstanding job; however, the main kudos must go to writer-director Lewin, who pulled out all the stops.  Lewin’s fascination with phantasmagoria would continue with a subsequent 1951 MGM entry, the all-Technicolor fantasy Pandora and the Flying Dutchman; it is his masterpiece, and desperately needs a Blu-Ray evocation.

There are some marvelous extras on this platter, including audio commentary by Lansbury and film historian Steve Haberman, plus an Oscar-winning short (Stairway to Light) and cartoon Quiet Please!) from the period of GRAY’s release.  Sidebar trivia: my mom was terrified by this movie when she first saw it, and held on to the local Loew’s theater handbill.  That theater, long gone by the time I entered the world (becoming a Gristede’s supermarket), presented this chiller on a double bill with Boston Blackie Booked on Suspicion.  I have no words.

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY.  Black and white (w/Technicolor inserts).  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video.  CAT # 1000537539.  SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.




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