A modern retelling of Oscar Wilde's classic masterpiece. In the wealthy and vain hedonist Dorian Gray, painter Basil Hallward has found his muse. Only when Dorian's portrait begins to age, ... See full summary »
It astounds me how silent films, even this primitive two-reeler from 1915, sometimes were so much more visually competent than the talkies made a century or more thereafter. After reading Oscar Wilde's novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," I sought every movie adaptation of it I could find, which isn't many: only 10--eight really, not counting very-loose reworkings, and half of those are from TV or direct-to-video (I had much more luck with fellow Gothic English-language literature for Dracula, Frankenstein and Jekyll/Hyde, of course). Not one Dorian Gray movie, save this one, realizes the self-reflexive cinematic potential of Dorian's relationship with Sybil. Following the example of the 1945 MGM version, which is a fine film in other ways, most of them change Sybil's occupation to something other than a Shakespearean actress and, consequently, alter the reasons for Dorian's loss of affection for her. I don't usually insist that an adaptation be faithful to its source, but it seems to me to be a significant blunder for any relatively-straightforward adaptation of this book to miss the opportunities of mise-en-abyme here, of a play-within-a-play, an actress playing an actress and Dorian becoming our surrogate spectator within the film.
These scenes are well structured here, too, alternating between shots where Dorian is in the foreground and Sybil on stage in the background, closer views of Dorian as spectator, ones of Sybil on stage, and others of the rest of the theatre's audience. The film shows her performing in both "Romeo and Juliet" and "As You Like It," the latter of which features the actress playing Sybil performing Rosalind pretending to be Ganymede. Moreover, while in this male disguise, Sybil kisses Dorian, for the only time in the film, in her dressing room. This is surely the closest this 1915 production could get to alluding to the homosexual subtext of Wilde's story. This might be the most clever of a few visual cues in the silent abridgement--there's also a star of David on the dressing room door, which alludes to the manager's Judaism, and, naturally, the decorations of Dorian's home offer a hint of his aestheticism and decadence. The commentary provided by the Thanhouser Company Film Preservation on DVD and Vimeo for this film by Judith Buchanan also points out how the window drapes and Shakespeare bust in Dorian's home help to visually connect these scenes to the ones in the theatre. As well, there's some good use of mirrors, which complement, or reflect, the film's self-reflexivity and its doubles theme, of Dorian and his doppelgänger portrait, which displays his true age and sins while Gray remains eternally youthful.
There are a couple interesting alterations to the novel, too. Instead of a painting, the portrait is a photograph, which seems apt for an updated film adaptation. The picture's changes are accomplished via dissolves and stop-substitutions, a technique also employed in later films for the transformations of Jekyll/Hyde and werewolves. This Dorian also becomes a cocaine fiend, whereas he visited an opium den in the book; the commentary by James Williams points out that the change to cocaine had special resonance with the then-recent passage of the Harrison Act, an early gateway bill in America's War on Drugs, criminalizing the sort of drug addiction Dorian displays here. His addictive behavior also stems to his seemingly impulsive need to view his changing portrait. This emphasis on addiction is also a welcome substitute for the film's general lack of the sexual depravity alluded to by Wilde, although there's still a party scene here where Dorian kisses and places one of his female guests on his lap. Additionally, there's some nice crosscutting for a slightly different ending from that of the book, and Lord Henry, whose role is otherwise greatly reduced here, provides the catalyst for his friend's Faustian bargain with a toast, replacing the wish that Wilde's Dorian made.
The most obvious difference between this film and the novel, however, is the absence of Wilde's words, especially his famous epigrams. Seemingly, adapting any of Wilde's works into a silent film seems folly, given the importance of clever word play in them. Ernst Lubitsch faced this problem in a somewhat better-known instance with his 1925 adaptation of "Lady Windermere's Fan." Both Lubitsch and Thanhouser before him decided to excise Wilde's epigrams entirely. This film, instead, employs title cards only to describe the plot and quotes Wilde only once at the end. What it offers instead is what remains one of the better cinematic realizations of Wilde's novel. It's heavily abridged, but it retains the right stuff. Unfortunately, many filmmakers seem to have lost this focus on visual storytelling with the advent of sound synchronization. Sure, they give us Lord Henry's amusing witticisms, but many of them don't reflect the art of Wilde's tale visually.
This may explain why there were actually a few adaptations of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" in the early silent era--because filmmakers realized this visual potential. Unfortunately, this is the only one that seems to be available today. The others appear to be either lost or otherwise unavailable, which is too bad because they seemed potentially interesting. The earliest is a Danish film featuring one of cinema's first stars, Valdemar Psilander, and Danish cinema in the 1910s was in the forefront of mise-en-scene, including the use of mirrors. There's also a 1913 film made by Lois Weber, one of the most intelligent filmmakers of the era, and her husband and starring Wallace Reid. Another 1915 version was directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold, a well-regarded Russian theatre director, and featured a woman in the lead role (something repeated much later in the 1983 TV-movie "The Sins of Dorian Gray"). And a 1918 Hungarian adaptation is said to have starred Bela Lugosi as Lord Henry. At least, we have this Thanhouser edition, and it holds up well.
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