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.

Clare B. Dunkle’s The House of Dead Maids

By Sonya Sawyer Fritz, University of Central Arkansas

Cover of House of Dead Maids, from Clare B. Dunkle’s website.

Cover of House of Dead Maids, from Clare B. Dunkle’s website.

One of the greatest mysteries of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) is the origin of Heathcliff. Plucked from the streets of Liverpool by the benevolent Mr. Earnshaw, Heathcliff is introduced as a strange, dark child who at first speaks nothing but “gibberish”

and who reveals over time an almost inhumanly cold and cruel nature; the narrator Nelly Dean speculates in the novel’s final chapter, “‘Is he a ghoul, or a vampire?….where did he come from, the little dark thing, harboured by a good man to his bane?’” (Brontë 313). Clare B. Dunkle’s The House of Dead Maids (2010) does not fully address these questions, but it does speculate on the situations and events that formed this orphan boy into the terrible yet compelling anti-hero he would become as Brontë’s Heathcliff.

This young adult novel follows Tabby Akroyd, an eleven-year-old orphan living at a charity school in eighteenth-century England, as she is hired by a mysterious lady to serve as nanny and playmate to a young child at a strange and gloomy estate called Seldom House. Tabby soon realizes that the house and its inhabitants are in no way ordinary or benign, and that she and her young charge—a wild and fearless boy with no name and no clear origins whom Tabby eventually just calls “Himself’—are in great danger. It is not until the end of the story that the novel’s connections to Wuthering Heights and the Brontës are revealed: Tabby grows up to become the Brontë family’s housekeeper, the real-life Tabitha Akroyd, who thrills her employer’s children with tales of her terrifying childhood experience at Seldom House. The last time she sees the child Himself is when a gentleman in Liverpool takes pity on him and decides to carry him home to a place called Wuthering Heights. But the Gothic elements that characterized much of the Brontës’ work are explicitly woven into Dunkle’s text from the beginning, reflected in the ghosts that terrorize the residents of Seldom House and the ancient, evil power the estate holds, as well as in the grotesque parody of family created by the house’s residents: the disingenuous Mr. Ketch, his prickly consort Miss Winter, and the two children Tabby and Himself/Heathcliff.

Overall, the novel is clearly inspired by its inter-text Wuthering Heights, but the scope of its relationship with the Brontës extends beyond that: by linking the fictional Heathcliff to the real-life Tabitha Akroyd, Dunkle seeks to provide a backstory not only for Emily Brontë’s most famous character but for the genre and tone of the Brontë sisters’ oeuvre itself, creating metafictional connections between what the Brontës created as writers and what shaped them as writers. As a result, while The House of Dead Maids works as a standalone novel, the book becomes its most interesting when read alongside Wuthering Heights and other Brontë novels or within the larger context of the Gothic tradition, making it a great work to include in a course on Victorian British literature or on Gothic literature through the ages.

Questions for Discussion:

Dunkle represents herself as having “done what every published literary critic does: I’ve used my book to call attention to the elements of Wuthering Heights that most interest me,” which includes first and foremost the character of Heathcliff. How might Dunkle’s novel change our interpretation or understanding of Heathcliff as Brontë originally represented him? In what ways is Dunkle’s portrayal of the character in dialogue or even contention with Brontë’s?

Aside from Heathcliff, how might other characters in the novel be interpreted as mirroring or speaking to the characters of Wuthering Heights in some way? Can we find echoes of Brontë’s original characters in Tabby, Miss Winter, Mr. Ketch, Mrs. Sexton, or Arnby?

One key element of the Gothic narrative is the way in which it builds psychological terror. What aspects of The House of Dead Maids might be considered particularly psychologically disturbing, especially when it comes to the novel’s representation of children and how they are treated by adults?

Through connecting a real-life figure, Tabitha Akroyd, to a fictional figure, Heathcliff, Dunkle’s novel blurs the line between fiction and reality, encouraging readers to interrogate the relationship between the two. How might this metafictional move affect readers’ perceptions of or attitudes toward Wuthering Heights as a work of fiction? What added meaning or significance might it lend to Brontë’s original novel?

Further reading:

Allen, Graham. Intertextuality. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. New York: Signet Classic, 1959.

Hoeveler, Diane Long. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1998.

Jackson, Anna, Roderick McGillis, and Karen Coats. The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Kohlke, Marie-Luise, and Christian Gutleben, eds. Neo-Victorian Families: Gender, Sexual, and Cultural Politics. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011.

Stoneman, Patsy, ed. Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.