The Picture of Dorian Gray and Hurd Hatfield

From the ill-fated Wallace Reid in 1913 to Ben Barnes in 2009, the onscreen representation of Dorian Gray and his Adonis-like good looks have gone through as many different interpretations as there have been film versions of the novel, but perhaps still the most memorable is that of Hurd Hatfield in Lewin’s 1945 film.  This is not to say that Hatfield bore a great deal of resemblance to Wilde’s description of the character, which states that “he was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his fine-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair” (Wilde, 1891: 19).  One would be hard-pressed to say that Hatfield was “wonderfully handsome”, and his hair is dark rather than golden, and yet he does fit a different, often ignored, description which comes slightly earlier in the first chapter of the novel where the artist Basil Hallward, looking at his unfinished portrait, described Dorian as looking “as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves” (ibid: 6).  This notion of Dorian being delicate, even precious, may be what Lewin was trying to portray when he cast Hatfield in the title role of the film.  Richard Barrios concurs with this idea, writing that he is in fact “a memorable Dorian, wearing his youth like fine pottery wears its glaze, with an extra shimmer courtesy of Harry Stradling’s Oscar-winning cinematography” (Barrios, 2003: 195-196).   This fragile, breakable version of Dorian clearly plays on Lord Henry’s comments that youth is short-lived, and that, one day, a look in a mirror will confirm that it has gone without us realising it.  Of course, due to the magical painting, Dorian’s fragile face, never cracks or becomes crazed in the way that pottery would.

Even though an argument can be made that Hatfield was a valid choice as Dorian Gray, it still seems slightly bizarre (even reckless) that a relative unknown actor who had made just one film prior to this was given the title role in a film which was such a massive undertaking for MGM.  Interestingly, the advertising posters for the film contain artistic impressions rather than photographs from the film, and make Hatfield appear considerably more conventionally handsome than he actually was.  Despite this, MGM were taking no chances; Hatfield’s name appears in joint 2nd billing on the poster (alongside Donna Reed), and in considerably smaller lettering than top-billed George Sanders, with Angela Lansbury (in a showier role than Reed) and Peter Lawford sharing 3rd billing.

The film was both a blessing and a curse for Hatfield in his subsequent career.  Despite a number of substantial supporting roles during the 1960s and 1970s, his career as a leading man was effectively killed off by The Picture of Dorian Gray, and he did relatively little film work during the 1950s.   Just four years later he was reduced to playing The Prince Of The Lionians in Tarzan And The Slave Girl (Lee Sholem, 1950), quite a drop from the title role of MGM’s most expensive production since Gone With The Wind.  Hatfield said The Picture of Dorian Gray  “didn’t make me popular in Hollywood.  It was too odd, too avant-garde, too ahead of its time…The decadence, the hints of bisexuality and so on, made me a leper.  Nobody knew I had a sense of humour, and people wouldn’t even have lunch with me!” (Barrios, 2003: 194-5).   This would clearly not have been helped by Hatfield’s performance, which was hardly conventional, with Crowther suggesting that he, “yielding plainly to direction, is incredibly stiff as Dorian Gray, and walks through the film with a vapid and masklike expression on his face” (Crowther, 1945).   Hatfield’s characterisation certainly does not give an audience the impression that his life is happy after he realises he will indefinitely remain young.  He rarely smiles throughout the film, and is as if he is carrying a huge weight on his shoulders.  It would be fair to assume that this is guilt for his sins, but then surely this would be unlikely for someone who has given away his soul? And would the guilt not be portrayed in the painting itself?

Hatfield’s looks and performance deprive the film of what, in fact, could have been an ultimate selling point: sex.  Unlike later portrayals by the likes of Helmut Berger and Ben Barnes, Hatfield is not as much sexy as sexless, not as much handsome as he is pretty. His androgynous looks, combined with the soft-focus cinematography which often accompanies his presence onscreen, sometimes makes him look more like a woman in drag a la Katherine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor, 1935) than a man committing the sins of Dorian Gray.  One can only wonder what it is other than his pretty face that allows him to become the lothario in the film that we understand him to be following the giving of his soul to remain young.  While far more pleasing (and polite) in company than Lord Henry, one could hardly call him charismatic, although charming would be a fair description.  Of course, the androgynous nature of Hatfield’s appearance and performance help to instil the character (and, therefore, the film itself) with an unmistakable queerness akin to that in the novel itself but which would never have been allowed to be more explicit due to the production code.

Barrios, Richard., 2003.  Screened Out.  Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall.  London: Routledge.

Crowther, Bosley, 1945.  THE SCREEN; ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ Film Version of Wilde Novel, With Hatfield and Sanders, Opens at Capitol Theatre.   In New York Times (online).  http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=980DE7D91F38EE3BBC4A53DFB566838E659EDE.

Wilde, Oscar., 1891.   The Picture Of Dorian Gray. 2003 edition.  London: Penguin Classics.

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