Q: What do you get when you cross Oscar Wilde with Louis B. Mayer and Albert Lewin?
A: Oscar Mayer Baloney.
Writer-Director Albert Lewin’s labor of love, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” was, surprisingly, Metro’s big prestige picture for 1945. It’s doubtful that Old Man Mayer would have chosen to give it the deluxe treatment if he had ever bothered to read Oscar Wilde’s extremely irritating, silly, pretentious book. The basic plot provides an excellent premise for a clammy little Val Lewtonesque shocker: the portrait in oil of a handsome young man grows old and diseased while its subject retains eternal youth — and his soul decays until it “be as damn’d and black/As hell, whereto it goes.”
The Artist at Work
Here’s the opening scene. Wonderful Cedric Hardwick narrates wonderfully. Except for Gladys Cooper, he is the only person I’ve heard pronounce “secretive” as seh-KREET-ive. You will hear later in the scene that the equally wonderful George Sanders (who is the best reason to see this picture in its entirety) pronounces it in its conventional way. The painter, Basil Hallward, is played by an American actor, Lowell Gilmore, who is able to slice the Oscar Mayer Baloney pretty thin, but not quite as thin as the supremely droll and capable Mr Sanders.
Sanders dashes through the thickets of Wilde’s language with the nimble lightness of a wood sprite. Listen to how quickly he rattles off the line “I like persons better than principles and persons with no principles better than anything else in the world. Now I remember . . . !” He often gives the impression that there’s a martini waiting for him in his trailer — and it’s getting warmer by the second.
“Who’s that at your piano, Basil?” After Lord Henry asks this question, a fatal alliance is formed. When the novel was first published, there was a sharp critical outcry against the homosexual overtones of Lord Henry’s friendship with Dorian Gray. Those overtones do not exist in the screen adaptation, mainly because one can imagine wicked old George Sanders capable of indulging just about any sybaritic pleasure except homosexuality. Hurd Hatfield and Lowell Gilmore are rather more sexually ambiguous. Anyhow, it’s a Hollywood picture: you’ll find fell actions on the bill, but never fellatio.
Be Careful What You Wish For — Especially When There’s an Egyptian Cat in the Room
And here’s the scene in which Dorian Gray unwittingly strikes the impious bargain that he will live to regret. How strange that Lewin should have selected Hurd Hatfield to play the perfect embodiment of male beauty in the morn and liquid dew of youth . . . ! He’s not at all a bad looking fellow, though as I mentioned several months ago, he always looks as if he’s just come from a chemical peel. But did Lewin honestly think Hatfield was the loveliest lad in Tinseltown? The way Lewin directs him, he’s like one of the historical automatons at Disneyland. His eyes, in particular, have no more life in them than a pair of polished marbles.
The Egyptian cat fetish is Lewin’s contribution, not Wilde’s. No mention of Egypt or feline divinities is made in the book. Lewin had his own brand of mad nonsense that he wanted to explore under Wilde’s epicene ægis; their sensibilities are similar, but their touchstones are different. In the book, Wilde makes up for the absence of cats and the Seventy-three Great Gods of Egypt with a lot of other ponderous nonsense, about which he goes on interminably, especially with regard to a certain evil “yellow book,” which leads Dorian into the most febrile deviltries. (This “yellow book” appears to be Joris-Karl Huysmans’ oddball decadent novel, “À rebours” (“Against the Grain”). You can get it for free on Kindle, but I don’t recommend it.) Unhappily for the reader, Wilde’s novel is little more than an excuse for him to ride his three favorite hobbyhorses: Art, Morality and Æsthetics. About debauchery, Wilde is surprisingly (and Lewin unsurprisingly) prim. Wilde barely describes the low haunts that his hero frequents, but Lewin takes us into a noisy pub, The Two Turtles, where the piano is out of tune and a creepy puppet duo known as Mr and Mrs Ezekiel beat frantic tattoos upon the xylophone. Lewin’s demi-monde is no more depraved than a demitasse. No sinner’s soul ever became wreathed in garlands of boils and buboes from listening to xylophonic envois!
Wilde’s moralizing is exasperating; the conclusions he draws are the sheerest balderdash. But it’s when he yammers on about æsthetics that he’s at his punishing worst: sententious, narrow-minded, wrong-headed, dictatorial and stupendously long-winded. He’s Ayn Rand for faggots. Here is a much truncated version of the preface to his book. Since Wilde makes declarations without supporting or developing them, I can assure you that my abridgment loses no thread of logic; it merely cuts the nonsense in half.
The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.
The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. No artist desires to prove anything. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless. [Wilde’s emphasis, not mine]
To be sure, with “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Wilde created a thing that is quite useless, but that doesn’t make it a work of art. When Wilde dons his High Art vestments and clambers into his pulpit of ebonized wood with gilt highlights, the gospel he preaches is all wet. As a philosopher and critic, he’s a stultifying prig. As a wit, he relies heavily on ironic paradox (“The only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer”) and antimetabole (“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul”), but both of these examples, like many of his aphorisms, are what I consider imitation wit, because they simply don’t fit the facts. What good is a cynical paradox that is patently false?
A few years after Wilde’s novel was published, in a terrible miscarriage of justice, he was sentenced to two years’ hard labor for “gross indecency.” Had he been on trial for being a bore, they’d have broken him on the wheel.
On the other hand, Wilde deeply impressed William Butler Yeats, who wrote the following passage in his memoir, “Four Years”:
My first meeting with Oscar Wilde was an astonishment. I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all over night with labour and yet all spontaneous. There was present that night at [critic, poet (“Invictus”), editor William Ernest] Henley’s, by right of propinquity or of accident, a man full of the secret spite of dullness, who interrupted from time to time and always to check or disorder thought; and I noticed with what mastery he was foiled and thrown. I noticed, too, that the impression of artificiality that I think all Wilde’s listeners have recorded, came from the perfect rounding of the sentences and from the deliberation that made it possible. That very impression helped him as the effect of metre, or of the antithetical prose of the seventeenth century, which is itself a true metre, helps a writer, for he could pass without incongruity from some unforeseen swift stroke of wit to elaborate reverie. I heard him say a few nights later: ‘Give me “The Winter’s Tale,” “Daffodils that come before the swallow dare” but not “King Lear.” What is “King Lear” but poor life staggering in the fog?’ and the slow cadence, modulated with so great precision, sounded natural to my ears. That first night he praised Walter Pater’s ‘Essays on the Renaissance:’ ‘It is my golden book; I never travel anywhere without it; but it is the very flower of decadence. The last trumpet should have sounded the moment it was written.’ ‘But,’ said the dull man, ‘would you not have given us time to read it?’ ‘Oh no,’ was the retort, ‘there would have been plenty of time afterwards — in either world.’ I think he seemed to us, baffled as we were by youth, or by infirmity, a triumphant figure, and to some of us a figure from another age, an audacious Italian fifteenth century figure . . . And when I dined with Wilde a few days afterwards he began at once, ‘I had to strain every nerve to equal that man at all’; and I was too loyal to speak my thought: ‘You & not he’ said all the brilliant things. He like the rest of us had felt the strain of an intensity that seemed to hold life at the point of drama. He had said, on that first meeting, ‘The basis of literary friendship is mixing the poisoned bowl’; and for a few weeks Henley and he became close friends till, the astonishment of their meeting over, diversity of character and ambition pushed them apart, and, with half the cavern helping, Henley began mixing the poisoned bowl for Wilde. Yet Henley never wholly lost that first admiration, for after Wilde’s downfall he said to me: ‘Why did he do it? I told my lads to attack him and yet we might have fought under his banner.’
Of course, Yeats is writing about Wilde’s masterful use of rhetoric in everyday conversation, his unflappability and his creamy Irish charm; he’s not appraising his merits as a novelist and playwright. The passage offers an interesting example of how personal magnetism can be so overpowering that even a man of Yeats’ intelligence can fall entirely and rapturously under its spell. Wholeheartedly do I accept the accuracy of Yeats’ observations, yet I find the substance of most of Wilde’s eloquently expressed observations to be idiotic — especially his remarks about “King Lear” and his blithely nonsensical repartee about reading Walter Pater in the afterlife. Brilliant, perhaps; false, certainly. But is it possible that Yeats, in the cold light of day, could have believed “The Picture of Dorian Gray” to be a good novel?
Well, whatever Yeats thought of “Dorian Gray,” Albert Lewin considered it a work of genius — he was obsessed with the book; over the course of more than a decade, he worked out the picture to the minutest detail. According to Angela Lansbury, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Sybil Vane (the first victim of Dorian’s cruelty), “It was his baby.” When at last the picture went into production, Lewin was given an enormous budget and a long shooting schedule, yet went way over budget and over-ran the schedule by more than a month.
Albert Lewin was hired as a screenwriter at Metro in 1924, and not long afterwards, became Irving Thalberg’s personal assistant and closest associate for many years. On account of Lewin’s diminutive stature, wags in Hollywood referred to him as “the Metro-Gnome.” When Thalberg died in 1937, Lewin went over to Paramount, where he produced pictures until 1941. He turned to directing in 1942 — he took Maugham’s enjoyably middle-brow fictional account of Gaugin, “The Moon and Sixpence,” and turned it into earnestly unenjoyable middle-brow crap. Next came “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” which is considerably more enjoyable than the novel; then in 1947, “The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami,” which is considerably less enjoyable than Maupassant’s “Bel-Ami.” Lewin’s “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” (1951) is the most lunatic of the bunch. I haven’t seen the two that followed it. Judging from what I’ve seen, especially “Pandora,” I have the distinct impression that the Metro-Gnome was one wacky, pretentious little dude.
The Sorrows of His Changing Face
Here is what we’re to accept as Basil Hallward’s masterpiece “The greatest thing you’ve ever done, Basil,” murmurs George Sanders. The early paintings of Dorian are by Henrique Medina; the later, ghastly ones are by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright. The final painting now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. Originally, Albright’s twin brother Malvin painted the early portraits, but Medina’s work was used in the picture. Adam Emory Albright, father of the twins, was himself a popular painter at the turn of the last century, famous for his sentimental pictures of children in bucolic settings — you know the genre: barefoot lads in picturesque tatters, with floppy straw hats and fishing poles. One of his paintings showed up on the Antiques Roadshow the other week — Ivan and Malvin were two of the three models in it. Ivan’s work appears to have been a fairly violent rejection of his father’s style.
On the DVD’s commentary track, film historian Steve Haberman says he’s never been able to detect the difference in Dorian’s expression. I shrug and am silent . . . except to say that the painting is rather a better actor than Hurd Hatfield. According to Angela Lansbury, Lewin was so adamant about line-readings, facial expressions, body language and everything else about his conception of the role, that poor Hurd Hatfield never had a chance. (She and Hatfield were lifelong friends.) The Metro-Gnome simply would not print a take until he was satisfied that Hatfield’s performance was the real McCoy.
Sanders Cracks Wise
This is why the picture is watchable, why it’s fun: George Sanders.
Only Bad Witches Are . . . Beautiful?
Well, so things go from bad to worse. Dorian gives into his shameful proclivities (never described in the book or the movie; the book does mention something about opium) until finally he commits murder. Here is his portrait as it looks minutes before he commits murder. This is Ivan Albright’s work.
Neither Lewin nor Wilde explains why eternal youth leads irrevocably to infernal deeds. I really do not understand the connection: why should Dorian Gray go round eating opium and killing people just because Time has no power to dig deep trenches in his beauty’s field? What’s Wilde’s moral? Is he suggesting that absolute beauty corrupts absolutely? Had Dorian aged like everyone else, would he have pursued the same vices? Or did he pursue them only because his changeless beauty gave him carte blanche? If that’s Wilde’s point, then he is arguing that a man’s honesty and goodness are tuned to the degree of his homeliness. But that’s preposterous. So what the hell does he mean? “O Time, thou must untangle this, not I./It is too strong a knot for me t’untie.”
Don’t Go In the Attic!
Obviously, Dorian Gray must pay for his crimes with his own life. Upon his demise, the picture and he trade places. Donna Reed and Peter Lawford (both play characters who don’t exist in the book) break into Dorian’s attic hideaway, where they find The Picture of Dorian Gray in its original condition (but with a knife through its heart) and a grotesquely disfigured corpse stretched out at its feet. When I first saw this climactic scene on TCM several years ago, I blurted out, “Why, if it isn’t Jack Nicholson!”
Harry Stradling’s cinematography is excellent. He won that year’s Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black and White. Herbert Stothart’s score is predictably plush and humdrum. Angela Lansbury is poignant; Donna Reed is pretty; Peter Lawford looks like Jiminy Cricket with the eyebrows of John L. Lewis.