Judge Brett Cullum has recently sold his soul, so you can now watch as his avatar ages.
From 1945 comes one of the best adaptations of Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Remarkably we get a dry and witty George Sanders (Addison DeWitt in All About Eve), a 20-year-old Angela Lansbury (Murder, She Wrote), an equally young Donna Reed (The Donna Reed Show), and fabulous Oscar-winning photography mixing black and white with a little splash of color for effect when they show the painting. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a unique fantasy horror film that could easily slip into your collection next to the moody Universal monster classics, but containing more subtlety and wit to write it off as merely a creature feature. The story revolves around a man who sells his soul for eternal youth. He has a painting made that will age instead of him, and all of his sins will be wrought on the image of his visage in oil. He adopts a libertine immoral code, and loses all compassion and anything truly good about being human. Dorian transforms in to a young dashing beautiful monster.
The film follows Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield, King David) in 1886 as he has a portrait painted of himself and wishes to the heavens to sell his soul in exchange for never-ending youth. Somehow Gray's wish comes true, and his soul ends up in the painting, which will now age instead of him. Dorian is a concert pianist, and he engages in philosophical discussions with Lord Wotton (Sanders) who speaks of beauty as being important for its own sake removed from morality and religion. Dorian begins to test the waters and his friend Wotton's theories by entering in a cruel and destructive relationship with a vaudeville singer named Sybil Vane (Lansbury). He seduces her, and then says he resents her for falling for his machinations. This crushes the young beauty, and she ends up taking her own life out of devastation. Dorian becomes more and more callous and decadent, and he locks the painting up in his attic. His life begins to spiral down in to living only for the sake of beauty and pleasure, and Gray finds himself a mere shell without anything to keep him in check while the painting turns uglier and uglier. He is beautiful but his life is ugly beyond imagination.
Where Dr. Jekyll turned in to the hideously deformed Mr. Hyde, Dorian Gray retains his good looks even though he has no soul. Wilde's premise is kept intact for the movie translation written and directed by Albert Lewin. The novel's author was fascinated by the Robert Louis Stevenson tale, but he wanted to apply his own "dandified" spin on the proceedings for his version of a Gothic horror story. Wilde was unabashedly homosexual, and fans of the novel's homoeroticism may find this 1945 The Picture of Dorian Gray lacking in truly scandalous aspects. But the film does get the mood and essence of the story down pat, even if it does have to adhere to the strict moral codes placed on movies of the time. It's almost a pity the film couldn't have been made a decade earlier when the film world was allowed to be more kinky. It's all not nearly as macabre as it could be, but there is a nice idea about "is beauty enough" running through the film to make it interesting and to qualify it as a classic. Ironically the production is so beautiful it doesn't capture the uglier sides of the novel.
Warner Bros. offers this highly collectible piece at a low price point, and it's amazing to see what they have managed to do with the film. The transfer is an upgrade from the PAL release with an excellent use of contrast during the black and white sequences and some pop when the painting shows up in color. You'll see some scratches and grain, but they are minimal for a film from over six decades ago. The soundtrack retains the original mono which is theatrically correct and serviceable. Extras include an insightful commentary from star Angela Lansbury who is joined by film historian Steve Haberman. They have an easy conversation incorporating Angela's surprisingly clear set memories with Haberman's academic interest in the work. As an added bonus we are given two shorts to replicate what audiences would have seen if they went to 1945 movie house for this feature including a cartoon and a documentary. "Stairway to Light" is a dramatized short live action look at reforms Dr. Phillipe Pinel wrought on mental health hospitals, and "Quiet Please!" is a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Overall we get a great transfer and enough extras to make the DVD a nice package.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is an interesting look at how a man can
become a monster when he is a slave to beauty and releases himself from
morality. Gray becomes capable of crushing people without remorse, and the 1945
adaptation does a nice job of relating all of this without showing the viewer
too much of the gristle. The film won an Oscar for its beautiful photography
which incorporated moody black and white with color sequences of the decaying
portrait where all the evil lives. It's a chance to see masterful actors such as
Angela Lansbury and George Sanders do early turns for MGM. Warner Bros. offers
just enough extras to make the DVD a nice affair with an insightful commentary
and a couple of shorts to round things out. This one is a must for fans of
classic horror driven much more by its characters than extraordinary spooky
events. It's a monster movie about the cruelty of youth and beauty living
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Angela Lansbury and Film Historian Steve Haberman
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