Based on one of the best-selling novels ever, Peyton Place is the ultimate small-town soap opera, which spawned a sequel and numerous TV versions and reunion films. It concerns the fictional town of the same name, a beautiful hamlet with perfect, picturesque settings, but layered with a topcoat of smotheringly upright morals that hide a lot of sins. Unwanted pregnancy, illegitimacy, sexual assault, promiscuity, hints of incest and teen sex are just a few of the hot button topics of the 1950s that are found in the story.
A lot of time has passed since this film was released and, though it has been carefully constructed to avoid showing too much or talking about too much that might offend the sensitive viewers of its time, it still packs a surprising wallop. Most people back then wondered how it could be filmed at all with the strict Production Code still in place. What resulted was a sumptuously beautiful film with a mostly unspoken core of ugliness. The film would be no better if words like abortion, rape and suicide were used or if said acts were shown more graphically. The Code made the filmmakers come up with other vivid, yet subtle, ways to get the story across.
Some of the posters for the movie employed a sort of scorecard-like approach, in order to help sort out the many varying problems plaguing the citizens of the town. This device has always appealed to my sense of wanting everything organized, each person’s story is compartmentalized and depicted in a little capsule to make it easier to digest! Ha ha! Note also how foreign promotional posters used a far more garish and dramatic color scheme and more emotionally gripping shots of the stars in order to draw viewers in.
Miss Lana Turner heads the cast in one of her most unusual roles...that of an uptight, sexless mother of a teen daughter. She even dimmed her platinum hair a bit and wore some more matronly clothes than was her trademark. (Never fear, come Christmas, she still gets to put on a curve-hugging red dress with some chest showing!) She won the only Oscar nomination of her lengthy career for her trouble. If one likes her, one will love her in this as she rises to the occasion beautifully. If one doesn't, there's not too much point in watching this type of movie anyway! Casting the sexpot against type lends a simmering quality of frustration that would have been absent in the more obvious choices available during casting.
Though she is top-billed, the story isn’t really hers as much as it is her on-screen daughter Diane Varsi’s. As Allison MacKenzie, Varsi gives a solid, if a bit stiff at times, performance as the kind, thoughtful, caring girl who has been brought up strictly and suffers for it when contrasted with her more daring and fun-loving friends. Her mother puts propriety above all and stifles the burgeoning freedom Varsi is starting to experience. She longs to express her feelings and observations through writing. The mother and daughter eventually clash over some misunderstandings and that is when Turner really shines. Suffering on the big screen was her specialty!
Varsi was an unknown when she was hired on to replace Susan Strasberg, who had requested a salary hike that producer Jerry Wald didn’t feel inclined to pay. After briefly (thankfully very briefly!) considering Debbie Reynolds, two-dozen or so other actresses were tested until they went with Varsi. The swift wave of publicity and pressure that accompanied her success in Peyton Place drove her to abandon her promising career and flee from her contract with 20th Century Fox. She lived a very uneven and unorthodox life, later coming back to the screen in the 60s in some parts that would have made the ladies of Peyton Place drop dead from shock!
In addition to Turner and Varsi, there is a whole gallery of solid supporting actors and featured players, notably Hope Lange as a gorgeous, yet tortured, teen who finds herself in way over her head. Living in a (more than!) ramshackle shed with her cruel drunken stepfather, her dejected mother and her high-spirited little brother, Lange gets put through the emotional and physical wringer more than once! As Varsi’s best friend, her problems eventually encompass her and the other citizens of Peyton Place.
I always wished that Hope Lange would have written an autobiography before she died. It fascinates me that she worked side-by-side with not only Turner, but also Bette Davis (in Pocketful of Miracles) and Joan Crawford (in The Best of Everything.) I felt sure she’d have had some great anecdotes. Both Davis and Crawford loathed her for her entitled behavior during these films that were made as their stars were dipping and hers rising. She also worked with Elvis Presley and Montgomery Clift, so a really great book was lost when she left us early.
Excellent support also comes from Lloyd Nolan as the town’s doctor who knows every citizen’s secret. Nolan played many, many doctors and other authority figures in his lengthy acting career, but this time he was given plenty to say and do and got to mouth some biting dialogue to both Lange’s stepfather Arthur Kennedy and to the people of the town at large in the pivotal courtroom scene. Nolan has a little corner of honor in The Underworld because not only did he play the persnickety chief of security in Airport, but he was also Lorne Greene’s doctor in Earthquake and had to put up with Ava Gardner hollering at him continually!
Russ Tamblyn got one of his best teen roles as Varsi’s backward friend Norman. The victim of a possessive, mentally oppressive mother of his own (who makes Turner look like Glinda the Good Witch!), he is awkward, unhappy, disassociated and shy except when in the company of the affirming and friendly Varsi. At one point, he and Varsi opt to go swimming together and (what are the chances?!) they both have taupe colored swimsuits that appear nude when wet and from a distance! The town gossip has a field day with this and the seemingly innocent act leads to all sorts of trouble.
On hand as eye candy are the delicious Barry Coe and the curvy, fast Terry Moore. Coe is the dreamiest high school senior imaginable. Varsi spends half her time wondering when or if he’ll ever acknowledge her and I can see why! He’s the most popular boy in school and has the face of a post-pubescent cherub, all ready for action. Moore is his steady girlfriend, the gleefully racy tart whose manner and clothing make Turner’s blood boil. Moore says something to the effect that she was a flashy girl because that’s the type of girl that Coe’s character wanted. Kind of makes me wonder why I stayed in my Izod pullovers and penny loafers in high school if I really wanted to land the star quarterback.
Coe was given several opportunities to make it as a young leading man, but somehow never connected. Sadly, he wound up in walk on roles and bit parts, even when he still had his handsome face. Moore had a more substantial career, but it petered out pretty quickly once she reached a certain age. She made a splash in the wake of multi-billionaire Howard Hughes’ death when she claimed to have been married to him secretly back in 1949! (She’d been married several times and had a son since then, but was still awarded a settlement in 1984.) She continued to make news when she posed for Playboy at age 55 to prove the appeal of women her age (all the while maintaining strict Morman beliefs…)
Coe’s father in the film, a successful factory owner and pillar of the community, was played by Leon Ames. A very busy film actor with parts in countless classic films, he had appeared in one of Turner’s most rousing successes, The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1946. His affection for Coe is strained to the hilt when he seems bent on continuing to romance the saucy Moore. Later, he is forced into an uneasy truce with the young lady.
Arthur Kennedy has to be one of the all-time pros when it comes to playing despicable jerks on screen. His slimy work here as Lange’s stepfather is loathsome in the extreme, but Kennedy is fascinating to watch nonetheless. As his beleaguered wife, Betty Field scores points for effectively demonstrating a broken woman. Once the pretty female star of such classics as Of Mice and Men and The Great Gatsby, Field later emerged as a fascinatingly frumpy sort of character actress. She played Kim Novak’s mom in Picnic and was a petrified, pregnant missionary in 7 Women, but my favorite thing of hers is as the caustic, baiting neighbor lady in Elizabeth Taylor’s BUtterfield 8.
Cast as Lange’s patient, upstanding boyfriend was quite possibly the most squeaky-clean person in the world at that time, David Nelson. Nelson was the eldest son of legendary TV show icons Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and practically grew up before America’s eyes on their series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet along with his little brother Ricky. It wasn’t a large or particularly demanding role and he doesn’t make a ton of impact, but he certainly fit what the part called for.
Of all the actors in the film, from the top down to the very extras, the film is beautifully cast with the possible exception of one. The leading man, Lee Philips, is not only a rather colorless and unremarkable personality, but he is also hamstrung by dramatic changes made to his character due to the censorial mandates of the era. Philips, while amiable and reasonably attractive, seems to disappear when up against the more seasoned film actors (this was his first movie!) His character’s confidence in his career is nice, but the character in the book was radically different. A hot-blooded Italian with a major swagger, he wasted no time in seducing Turner’s icy mom and proceeded to take her practically whenever and wherever he wanted!
The film is chock full of gorgeous location scenery and authentic elements of small town life at that time, all counterpoint to the unpleasant things happening beyond the facade. No still photo (and certainly not all of these black & white, nor tinted ones here) can do full justice to the radiant beauty of the vividly colorful cinematography. Wonderful Franz Waxman music compliments everything terrifically as well.
If the title sounds crusty and old-fashioned to you or you think you will be in for a stagnant experience, think twice and give it a shot. This is a handsomely made, fascinating film... almost a time capsule, and well worth seeing even if most of its problems are things seemingly accepted as normal now (teens sleeping together, people having kids every which way but loose, legalized abortion, etc...)
Highlights include: Turner coming unglued when she finds Varsi at home in the dark with boys (Coe had suggested playing “The Photography Game.” You turn out the lights and see what develops!), Turner confessing her own past transgressions to Varsi, Turner tearfully breaking down on the witness stand of a murder trial, Lange running ferociously through the woods, Lange solving her very significant Christmas problem and Nolan deciding, at great risk to himself and others, to reveal private information.
Over the last several summers, I’ve been reading major works of fiction that I had never undertaken before. A voracious reader of autobiographies and film-oriented books, I rarely delve into anything that isn’t nonfiction. Some of my recent favorites have been Back Street, Rebecca and Gone With the Wind. I’ve been slogging through From Here to Eternity this year and it has been something of an ordeal for me. When it comes to Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, however, the book goes down like melted ice cream! Even today, it’s a zesty read and quite a page-turner with every other page revealing yet another tidbit of gossip and scandal, including all the parts they had to clean up for the cinema. I can’t recommend it enough!
For her part, Metalious was unhappy over practically everything. She seemed to think that a 1956 Hollywood movie was somehow going to retain all of the dirt revealed in her book and was bitter when it didn’t. She also drew the ire of her New Hampshire hometown residents who felt that she’d painted an ugly picture of their lifestyle and inhabitants (though she always claimed that the bulk of the story was pure fiction.) She wrote a sequel to her book that dealt with this outrage along with a new raft of Peyton Place scandals. They very nearly prevented her from being buried there when she died at 39 of alcoholism (a decent film could be made just out of her own troubled life!)
A sequel, Return to Peyton Place, based on Metalious’ second book, came out in 1961 and was only moderately successful, mostly due to the almost complete lack of original cast members present and also due to some editing room hacking, which took away the climax of the picture! Still, there was enough notoriety to the name that a primetime TV soap opera was developed (and became a smash) and, in time, a short-lived daytime soap emerged as well. A few 1980s TV movies reunited some of the primetime series’ stars.
Peyton Place’s director Mark Robson was Oscar-nominated (and the film gleaned nine nods in all, but went home empty-handed) for his restrained, but vivid, work here. Interestingly, he would go on eleven years later to helm the squalid, lurid and unintentionally hilarious Valley of the Dolls (which does have its own merits! See the posting about it here at The Underworld by clicking on it to the right.) It goes to show the difference between being forced to rein in the subject matter versus being given permission to display more. He is also responsible for Earthquake, another hooty film that holds a special place in my heart. (As I mentioned above, for Earthquake, Robson brought Peyton’s doctor Lloyd Nolan in to care for Lorne Greene. Interestingly, Greene was also in Peyton Place as a fiery prosecuting attorney. Never underestimate the power of cronyism in showbiz. Connections are everything!)
The term “Peyton Place” came to be synonymous with anyplace where people act one way on the surface while behaving another way behind closed doors. Jeanne C. Riley’s hit song Harper Valley P.T.A. referenced the movie with the line, “Well, this is just a little Peyton Place and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites…”
The world of Peyton Place is one that is gone forever, though there are still plenty of small towns who like to think they are respectable while any number of sordid things are happening right there. Despite the insufferable narrow-mindedness of the town, there’s something strangely comforting and desirable about it. Perhaps it is the unattainable harmony that the town thinks it has and maybe that appeals to my often-thwarted hopes of belonging somewhere peaceful and serene. There was a time I lived a life exceedingly close to this, but I am an Allison MacKenzie myself, having realized the artificiality of my hometown and left it for more worldly pursuits, never really able to come back to it the same way it was.