More than a few eyebrows were raised with the publication of Grace Metalius' scandalous novel Peyton Place in 1956; a smoldering cesspool of illicit extra martial affairs, pre-martial teen sex, incest and even an incestuous rape that stood small mid-western America on its head and caused a considerable itch with the Catholic League of Decency. Metalius, who had obviously based many of her fictional characters on people she actually knew, made no apology if the parallels between art and life came close to the truth. But the author was caught in a whirlwind of controversy that served to catapult book sales into the publishing stratosphere. The book remained #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list for a record 59 weeks!
Fox couldn't wait to option the property and turn it into a big glossy Cinemascope movie. But Mark Robson's Peyton Place (1957) isn't quite the steamy affair it might have been - thanks to the Production Code that absolutely forbade such lascivious behavior on the big screen. John Michael Hayes was assigned to write the screenplay. Hayes had done absolute wonders in subverting the conventions of the code in Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1955). But he doesn't quite lick the problem on Peyton Place; a film that desperately wants to suggest more than it can, but really doesn't unless one is clever enough to either read between the lines, or has read Metalius' novel before going into the theater.
Set in 1941 small town America, the tale is told from the vantage of sexually repressed widow and mother, Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner). Content to be a very prim role model for her daughter, Allison (Diane Varsi), Constance’s celibate world is turned upside down with the arrival of hunky English teacher, Michael Rossi (Lee Philips). Very shortly, Mike puts the moves on Connie at school, in the parlor and anywhere he can get some action. But Constance will have none of Mike and so the affair that might have been turns to chalky coal dust before striking the flint.
Meanwhile, Allison has become smitten with mama’s boy, Norman Paige (Russ Tamblyn). In the novel, Norman is actually having a sexual relationship with his own mother. The film is less than clear about this for obvious reasons, preferring to omit the character of the mother entirely (she doesn't appear in the film) and merely suggest through town gossip that Mrs. Paige is an 'over possessive' clingy woman. Norman’s insecurities, his inability to procure a date with girls his own age, and his repressed sexual feelings are all passed off as his just being overtly awkward and shy.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, high school stud muffin, Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe) is carrying on an torrid affair with girl of easy virtue, Betty Anderson (Terry Moore) against the strenuous objections of his overbearing father (Leon Ames). But Rodney and Betty are the real deal. They want to settle down and start a family.
At the slums on the other side of the railway tracks, impoverished Selena Cross (Hope Lange) is preparing to marry boyfriend, Ted Carter (David Nelson) when she is brutally raped by her stepfather, Lucas (George Kennedy), who is a janitor working at the school. Pregnant with Lucas’ baby, Selena resolves to make the best of her circumstances. She is shunned by the narrow mindedness of the town’s people who think her a wanton tramp, but ably supported by the ever loyal Ted and the town’s compassionate doctor, Matthew Swain (Lloyd Nolan) who threatens to expose Lucas' shame unless he leaves Peyton Place.
Lucas agrees and disappears for many years. In the meantime, Rodney and Betty are married, incurring Mr. Harrington's wrath. The wealthy industrialist disowns his only son and refuses to speak to Betty. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Rodney enlists with the fighting men and is killed overseas, leaving Betty to struggle back home and raise their only child by herself.
While Ted is away, Lucas returns to Peyton Place to see his child and perhaps to rape Selena once again. In self defense Selena stabs Lucas, incurring the wrath of the town who now believe she is also a cold-blooded killer. At the trial, Lucas' despicable acts come to light.
During his testimony Doc Swain admonishes the town for its cruel behavior. Mr. Harrington has a complete change of heart, offering to help Betty provide for his grandchild as Rodney would have wanted. Ashamed for having misjudged her, the town rally to Selena's side and acquit her of the crime of murder.
Peyton Place undeniably suffers from its watered down script, but still manages to generate enough incendiary melodrama behind the scenes to keep the story moving along. A bigger hurdle to overcome is the film's central miscasting of Lana Turner as the good woman with a very bad past that she's desperately trying to cover up.
There is absolutely zero on screen chemistry between Turner and Lee Philips, the latter about as virile as a stick of kindling. And Turner, despite her well publicized off camera 'queen of the nightclubs' party girl image, and the even greater notoriety derived from the real-life murder of her boyfriend, mob muscle Johnny Stompanto, never defrosts on camera. Oddly, she comes across as one sexually frigid, emotionally brittle gal.
The best performance belongs to Hope Lange's tortured innocent who must make a life from the tattered rags of a reputation she had absolutely no hand in sullying. Lange gives a tender, introspective and intelligent interpretation of Selena Cross that has withstood the test of time.
The rest of the cast are marginally compelling at best, and that's a shame because there are some very fine actors thrown into the mix - Arthur Kennedy and Lloyd Nolan among them - though none seem to make much of a splash. Franz Waxman furnishes the film with a lush underscoring that captures the surface appeal of rural America with an evocative romantic strain. William C. Mellor's cinematography is gorgeous and beautifully composed, utilizing the breadth of Cinemascope to its full advantage. Undeniably good looking in color by DeLuxe, Peyton Place regrettably never reaches such lurid heights in its melodrama. That's a pity.
Fox Home Video delivers a fairly impressive DVD of this wildly popular pot boiler. Colors in the anamorphically enhanced widescreen image are eye popping and resilient. Contrast levels are very nicely realized with deep velvety blacks and pristine whites. Fine detail is realized throughout. The inherent transitional flaw between dissolves and fades in all Cinemascope films of this vintage crop up with renewed graininess and a momentary lapse in color fidelity.
One flaw to be noted: during the film’s graduation dance sequence a gigantic horizontal tear flashes across the screen. It would have behooved the restoration experts to find an alternative print master or to restore this tear before exporting the film to DVD. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and is remarkably vibrant – particularly in its musical underscoring. Extras include the AMC Backstory on the making of the film as well as an audio commentary, restoration example and theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)