Had it been shot at Universal in the 1930s, Oscar Wilde’s queer-eyed telling of the Faust legend would have fit snugly into the studio’s cycle of psychosexual horror classics. Unfortunately, The Picture of Dorian Gray was filmed a decade later and became instead just a mildly decadent entry in MGM’s stable of tasteful literary adaptations. As the eponymous young aristocrat in fin-de-siècle London whose moral deterioration is reflected in the portrait he hides in his attic, Hurd Hatfield is certainly not the Dorian Gray Wilde wrote about (“with his finely-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair”), yet with his high cheekbones under a top hat, he’s nevertheless a striking cross between a petulant juvenile and a death’s head. As the doomed music-hall singer Sibyl Vane, the 20-year-old Angela Lansbury embodies spoilable purity with nary a drop of saccharine preciousness, while George Sanders offers a steady cascade of sardonic epigrams (“Faithfulness is merely laziness”) as the Machiavellian Lord Henry Wotton. With such elements at hand, the film should entice and unsettle; with the bookish Albert Lewin at the helm, however, the figures remain pinned like earnest butterflies to a gorgeous frame. A fastidious aesthete suspended between American origins and European aspirations, Lewin would seem an apt choice to adapt Wilde’s acidly perfumed prose, yet in his hands the author’s subversion of conventional morality is turned into little more than a well-dressed rehash of the dusty be-careful-what-you-wish-for chestnut. Worse, Lewin’s fascination with assorted objects d’art—a Baudelaire volume here, a Mozart reference there—often makes the picture look like a nouveau-riche garage sale. (Harry Stradling’s sharp, deep-focus cinematography is used mainly to show off the clutter.) Picture of Dorian Gray isn’t awful, though it’s certainly an instance in which an outright debacle would have made a much more interesting film.
Despite some blurriness at the edges, the level of sharp detail in the compositions is strong and pleasing. The mono sound is a notch above serviceable.
Angela Lansbury is class personified in her commentary with film historian Steve Haberman; their subjects range from Greta Garbo's interest in playing Dorian Gray in drag, Hurd Hatfield's regrets at being identified with the character, and the way Lansbury was never more attractively photographed. Two Oscar-winning shorts (the historic drama Stairway to Light and the Tom and Jerry cartoon Quiet Please!) are included for no particular reason.
A tasteful rendition of a story that demanded a more macabre grasp.