Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

By Jeffrey C. Kessler, Indiana University

If Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray distilled an aesthetic attitude of the 1890s, the 1945 adaptation of the novel aspired to capture its own aesthetic of the silver-screen. According to The New York Times, that aspiration failed. At times the film feels rather melodramatic with heavy orchestral music guiding viewers’ emotions, and a narrator diminishing most of the film’s subtelty. Some of the silver screen’s classic actors are featured in Dorian Gray, including George Sanders as Lord Henry Wotton, Angela Lansbury as Sybil Vane, Peter Lawford as Basil Hallward, and Donna Reed as Hallward’s niece Gladys. Despite what The New York Times reviewer called the film’s “mawkish pomposity,” the film adaptation merits further attention on both aesthetic and historical grounds.

Directed by Albert Lewin, the film translates much of the original novel, though incorporating a more orientalist tone and adding a second love interest for Dorian. Reed’s character deviates from the original plot. She embodies an angel-in-the-house-like purity absent from the novel. Gladys begins the film as a child in Basil’s studio and remains in the background of the film until she grows up to be of marriageable age during the time when Dorian has become most dissolute. Towards the end of the film Dorian enters into a triangulated romantic competition between Gladys and her suitor. In fact, at the end of the film, Dorian considers repentance for the sake of Gladys in order to restore him into her graces and redeem his soul.

By including Gladys as a romantic interest for Dorian, the film washes over much of the homoeroticism of Wilde’s original novel. Instead of changing some of the suggestive dialogue or attempting to portray the sexually suggestive passages of the novel, the film affirms heterosexual norms with this change in the plot. Dorian loves not just one woman, but a second one. Even when his soul is most corrupted, he finds the possibility of redemption through heterosexual marriage.

The film may be best remembered for commissioning two original paintings to represent Dorian’s transformation: the portrait by Henrique Medina (1908-1988) showing Dorian’s original beauty and the portrait by Ivan Albright (1897-1983) showing Dorian’s corrupted soul. The film recreates the fateful painting of Dorian with particular cinematic effect. The painting appears in full Technicolor in an otherwise black-and-white film, overwhelming the viewer and literally coloring Dorian’s key moments of realization into aesthetic brilliance. One can’t help but hear Lord Henry’s words: “Sin is the only real color-element left in modern life” (31).

The paintings provide both the film’s grandest cinematic effect and its highest aesthetic ambition. While Medina’s portrait of the handsome Dorian is a remarkable work, I’ll focus on Albright’s painting of Dorian’s corrupted soul, which is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago with a number of other Albright paintings. In the film, the painting comes as a shock to the viewer with its iridescent and swirling colors infecting both Dorian’s dress and the entire painting’s atmosphere. Dorian’s dissolution manifests itself not only in his physical decrepitude but also throughout the painting’s background. Albright places on the table in the painting the knife Dorian used to kill Basil, the same knife that Dorian uses at the end of the film to destroy the painting, and, as a result, himself.

While Albright’s painting is an original twentieth-century work of art, Lewin fills the film with allusions to the nineteenth century. In the film, Dorian quotes Wilde’s poem “The Sphinx” in a playful rhyme, Basil reads Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia (1879), and the film begins with an excerpt from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám (1859).

Although the film may be imperfect, if at times heavy-handed, it offers both students and critics a chance to think through some of Wilde’s own meditations about the critic and artist. Lewin translates the novel into a new form of art that emerges from its own moment, using technological advances in film and Technicolor as part of the film’s reimagining of Dorian. The Albright portrait is a genuine work of art in line with Albright’s other work (see his “Into the World Came a Soul Called Ida” and “That Which I Should Have Done”). Lewin’s Dorian Gray is not one work of art but a collection of different moments and attempts. If, as Wilde suggests, it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors, this film still has a lot to show viewers.

Questions for discussion

Take some time and look at the painting by Henrique Medina, showing the youthful Dorian. How does it convey Dorian’s beauty?

Now take some time to look at the Albright painting. How does the portrait attempt to convey the corrupted soul of Dorian? What passages from the novel might have inspired Albright? What individual details contribute to this effect?

In the Preface to Dorian Gray Wilde writes that “The Critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impressions of beautiful things.” How does the film translate the novel? Can a film be a work of criticism? Is beauty something we value as students and critics?

Also in Preface, Wilde writes: “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” Albright’s painting of Dorian is ugly, and intentionally so. Does this contradict Wilde’s definition of the artist? Can there be an aesthetics of ugliness? How so?

The film contains many allusions to Victorian literature and culture. Are they just toss-away references to the nineteenth century? Look up one of the allusions above and think about how they might resonate with other ideas in the novel or film.

Read Bosley Crowther’s review from The New York Times. Is Crowther fair to the adaptation? What does he seem to value in a film?

Works Cited and Further Reading

Albright, Ivan. Picture of Dorian Gray. Art Institute of Chicago, 1944. Oil on Canvas.

Alexander, Jonathan. “Dorian Gray In The Twentieth Century: The Politics And Pedagogy Of Filming Oscar Wilde’s Novel.” Approaches to Teaching the Works of Oscar Wilde. 75-82. New York, NY: Modern Language Association of America, 2008.

Crowther, Bosley. “‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ Film Version of Wilde Novel, With Hatfield and Sanders, Opens at Capitol Theatre.” The New York Times. March 2, 1945.

Ellman, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1987. Print.

Hannon, Patrice. “Aesthetic Criticism, Useless Art.” Critical Essays on Oscar Wilde. Ed. Regina Gagnier. New York: Macmillan, 1991. pg. 186-201. Print.

The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dir. Albert Lewin. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1945. Film.

Ross, Alex. “Deceptive Picture.” The New Yorker, August 8, 2011.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003. Print.

von Hagen, Kirsten. “A Picture Is A Picture Is A Picture: Filmic Transformations Of Oscar Wilde’s Novel The Picture Of Dorian Gray.” Old Age and Ageing in British and American Culture and Literature. 107-119. Münster, Germany: LIT, 2004.

Mr. Holmes

By Victoria Ford Smith

Recent television shows, movies, and novels have transported Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, from the end of the nineteenth century to all manner of places and times, and director Bill Condon’s 2015 Mr. Holmes is no exception. The film begins in 1947, and the audience finds Holmes (played by Ian posterMcKellen) aged, troubled by a failing memory, and retired to a country house in Sussex. There he tends bees, pesters his housekeeper (Laura Linney), and befriends her young son Roger (Milo Parker). However, his country house idyll is disrupted by memories of an unresolved case: the death of a woman mourning two devastating miscarriages. Holmes has located a rare Japanese plant to help restore his memory, but when that remedy fails him, he attempts to untangle the case’s details by calling on his own fragmented recollections and the help of Roger, whose love and knowledge of Holmes’ methods makes him a convenient assistant.

The movie—itself an adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind—is an adaptation preoccupied with the pleasures and troubles of adaptation. The plot hinges on Holmes’ ability (or inability) to tell his own story amid other voices trying to tell it for him, and the movie includes sometimes-humorous asides to the misalignment of popular images of Holmes and his identity in the stories themselves. For example, McKellen’s Holmes chuckles at melodramatic film adaptations of his cases, and more than one character wonders aloud about the aged detective’s missing pipe and deerstalker hat. Condon’s movie, then, is an excellent resource for teachers looking to introduce questions of Conan Doyle’s creation as a cultural icon and issues of adaptation and fidelity. While perhaps too long to show during a single class meeting, as it runs just over an hour and 40 minutes, it would be a useful addition as an out-of-class screening or as material for students interested in researching the afterlife of Sherlock.

Questions for Discussion

How does Sherlock Holmes exist as a person, a character, and a legend in Conan Doyle’s original stories and in Condon’s movie? Where do these identities overlap? What are the consequences of defining Holmes in one way or another?

Some would argue that Holmes’ reputation as a detective relies on his attention to detail and his ability to access the truth through observation. How does Mr. Holmes reinforce or trouble those assumptions?

What strategies (narrative, filmic, etc.) does Condon use to represent Holmes’ astute observations, his failing memory, his emotional state? Are these techniques parallels of strategies Doyle uses in his stories?

Japan plays a vital role in Mr. Holmes. For example, the movie references throughout the devastations of WWII. How does the film represent Japan and Japanese characters? Do you see these representations as departures from or reiterations of representations of “the East” in Doyle and other Victorian literature and culture?

Further Reading

Cunningham, Henry. “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Race.” The Journal of Popular Culture 28.2 (Fall 1994): 113-25.

Leitch, Thomas. “The Hero with a Hundred Faces.” Film Adaptation and Its Discontents. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2007. 207-35.

Meslow, Scott. “Film’s 111-Year Obsession with Sherlock Holmes.” The Atlantic (16 December 2011). Web. 30 July 2015.

Porter, Lynette. Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century: Essays on New Adaptations. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2012.

Vrettos, Athena. “Displaced Memories in Victorian Fiction and Psychology.” Victorian Studies 49.2 (2007): 99-107.