For more than half a century the name ‘Peyton Place’ has been a metaphor for salaciousness and sin, thanks to the runaway success of Grace Metalious’ scandalous novel; all about the comings and goings of a seemingly button-down conservative enclave of ‘church-going’ folk, dedicating their lives to hard work and Christian principles…at least…on the surface. But to pick at this seemingly smooth veneer, as Metalious so astutely did with her prose, was to discover an insidious malaise brewing beneath, peppered in dark family secrets and tantalizing bits of tawdry gossip, threatening to crush the moral high ground and faux respectability shoring up these middle-class hypocrites.
Peyton Place began its gestation in the mind of a disillusioned daydreamer: this thirty-two year old, unassuming housewife from Gilmanton, New Hampshire. No doubt, those dwelling within Gilmanton’s borders could see more than a few parallels between themselves and Metalious’ cleverly concocted fiction. For upon publication, Gilmanton’s citizenry wanted absolutely nothing to do with the novel’s tidal wave of publicity (selling over 10 million copies within the first year); nor Metalious’s overnight celebrity or, indeed, with Metalious herself. Deemed a bawdy, rebellious trailblazer elsewhere, to the narrow-minded living close by, Grace Metalious’ was little more the Judas and less of a person anyone could trust with their family secrets.
Metalious did, of course, have her own inner demons and confidences to keep; wed at the tender age of eighteen and living in squalid conditions with her three children; derelict in her payments on a broken down jalopy; perpetually broke, hungry, careworn and depressed; discovering hubby, George having had an affair while away during WWII, and combating this betrayal with one of her own after he came home. No, for Grace Metalious, writing Peyton Place was neither a pastime nor a hobby, but a means to escape this life she knew only too well; also to share her pent-up frustrations with the world. Perhaps, she reasoned, it would help others like herself to know they were not alone.
Sadly, Metalious would soon discover she was very much the outsider – if not to the world at large (who embraced the novel and made her a darling of the publishing world) - than definitely to the ‘good’ people of Gilmanton who took every opportunity to expunge her from their collective memories and ostracize her from their lives. Hence, when Metalious died of acute alcoholism a scant seven years later – just two years after producer, Jerry Wald immortalized her poisoned pen wit with a hit film – Gilmanton had yet to forgive their most infamous authoress for blowing the lid off their seemingly quaint and idyllic community. There was, in fact, a boycott to stop her internment at Smith Meeting House Cemetery, with several more attempts made over the years to have her body exhumed and moved elsewhere, presumably, far away. This never happened, but it did not stymie certain influences in Gilmanton from repeatedly trying; their vitriol knowing no bounds.
In hindsight, Mark Robson’s Peyton Place (1957) is an equally impressive achievement; the novel’s most scandalous vignettes transposed to the larger-than-life Cinemascope screen. Perhaps the book and movie’s popularity were predicated on an even simpler fact: that, to varying degrees, we are all living our own version of this shameful den of iniquity. The notion, that simply by walking down any street in America – or, in the world, for that matter – one could pass within inches of a sadist, a rapist or a murderer is, I’ll grant you, not a very comforting thought, although nevertheless true, and an astute observation for which Grace Metalious was frequently pillared in the press, but made absolutely no apologies.
Sex and violence are as ancient as the existence of mankind. Moreover, they had served as cornerstones in popular literature for centuries. That Peyton Place just happened to come along during a period in America’s cultural evolution when the very thought of sex was considered a wicked indulgence (our then middle-class prudery turning to antiseptic fairy-tales about chaste goodness and virtue being their own reward), just happened to be Metalious’ own dumb luck and bad timing; though perhaps, not entirely.
For Peyton Place fired the intrigues and curiosities of both young and old; the novel’s overwhelming salability, despite being banned in several states, attesting to as much. In Hollywood, the book’s success was not lost on producer, Jerry Wald. Known for his ability to bring forth powerful, provocative and seemingly un-filmable stories to the big screen, Peyton Place was right up Wald’s alley. Still, it wasn’t going to be easy; Hollywood’s censorship jumping all over the project even before a single page of script had been submitted for consideration. To hedge his bets, Wald hired John Michael Hayes to write the screenplay. Hayes knew his way around a double entendre. He also intuitively used the power of ‘inference’ as a master wordsmith to convey much – if not all – of the novel’s incendiary plot points without ruffling too many conservative feathers.
As a work of printed fiction, Metalious’ book explored two abortions, a murder, and family incest as frankly as if she were discussing Emily Post’s mantras for dinner etiquette. It was precisely this impenitent candor that had perturbed the evangelical moral right. On the screen, however, Hayes, Wald and director, Mark Robson would be required to ‘suggest’ rather than show these elements of the plot. Miraculously, they succeeded in keeping the book’s more scandalous revelations in the final cut; a cause célèbre, repeatedly championed by Robson – who went to the matt for Hayes’ screenplay more than once, ironing out the compromises one by one. Gone from the film was Constance MacKenzie’s (Lana Turner) moonlit skinny dip with strapping hunk of a high school principal, Michael Rossi (Lee Philips); the novels most fondly repeated line in hushed giggles “Untie the top of your bathing suit. I want to feel your breasts against me when I kiss you,” never uttered in the movie.
Also absent from the film were the more creepy aspects of Norman Page’s (Russ Tamblyn) incestuous relationship with his possessive mother, Evelyn (Erin O'Brien-Moore). In the novel, Mrs. Page is still giving Norman – who is seventeen – baths and home enemas; stifling his sexual interest in other girls by cuckolding him as something of a surrogate/subordinate man slave for her own gratifications. The biggest sacrifices made on Peyton Place – the movie – concern Norman Page; the censors unwilling to budge an inch; Tamblyn’s performance transforming Norman into a sheepish mama’s boy, unable to express his awkward affections for Constance’s daughter, Allison (Diane Varsi) for fear she might discover his ‘secret’ with mama.
In hindsight, Jerry Wald’s victories in getting Peyton Place made at all, but especially with a potent amount of its taboo subject matter intact, marked the first sincere blow to dismantle the ensconced and governing board of Hollywood censorship. Today, it’s difficult to imagine what all the fuss was about, in part because the pendulum in our present day/laissez faire attitudes toward human sexuality has swung much too far in the other direction. But in its day, Peyton Place – the movie - was fairly shocking; scenes of rape, confessions of adultery, bastard children, and, a suicide all given their moment to…uh…shine… on the screen.
Perhaps, Jerry Wald understood that, as a movie, Peyton Place could easily turn into a cesspool of B-grade melodrama without the proper casting. What Wald needed was a star of the first magnitude to commit to the picture. Enter Lana Turner, newly released from her lucrative MGM contract and, at age thirty-six, no stranger to sin; either playing it to the hilt on the movie screen or, regrettably, living it large in her many and varied private liaisons with dangerous men. At present, Lana’s amour was Johnny Stompanato; thug muscle for California kingpin, Mickey Cohen. If there is such a thing as art imitating life, than Lana Turner’s court room histrionics during the penultimate murder trial of Selina Cross (Hope Lange) in Peyton Place would prove a dry run for Turner’s even more provocative and tear-stained defense of her own daughter, Cheryl – on trial a scant three months after Peyton Place’s premiere for Johnny Stompanato’s murder.
Constance McKenzie was a leap for Lana; the first time she acquiesced to playing the mother of a teenage girl. It earned Turner a Best Actress nomination; the only one she would ever receive in her long and prolific career. Interestingly, Wald also cast Russ Tamblyn against type. Tamblyn was another MGM alumnus, known primarily as a ‘tumbler/dancer’ in light and frothy musicals. Wald hired David Nelson (of Ozzie and Harriet fame) in a sort of reprise of playing himself, herein as the ever-faithful, Ted Carter; Selina’s betrothed. But perhaps Wald’s most daring appointments to the cast were Terry Moore (as the ‘fast girl’, Betty Anderson) and Barry Coe (as Rodney Harrington), heir apparent to his father’s (Leon Ames) profitable cotton mill on which the whole town’s economic prosperity has been built.
Neither Moore nor Coe were established actors. Indeed, they are somewhat forgettable as the star-crossed lovers, if undeniably good to look at as eye-candy. Wald also rounded out his cast with some of Fox’s finest contract players; Lloyd Nolen as the benevolent, Doc Swain, Arthur Kennedy (the unscrupulous drunkard, Lucas Cross), Betty Field as Selina’s distraught mother, Nellie, Lorne Green (the high-priced prosecutor, determined to see her hang for murder), and finally, Mildred Dunnock as the sad-eyed schoolmarm, Miss Elsie Thornton.
If Peyton Place has a flaw, it is undoubtedly its rather loose adherence to period. The novel takes place in the early 1940’s with America at the cusp of WWII. Wald also sets the story in this timeframe. Alas, no one could confuse Jack Martin Smith and Lyle R. Wheeler’s art direction for being anything except a send-up to the chichi styles of the 1950’s; ditto for Adele Palmer’s costuming and hair. The effect is even further hampered by William C. Mellor’s gloriously rich color cinematography, shot in expansive Cinemascope, and Franz Waxman’s superbly soap-opera-ish main theme and underscore. None of the aforementioned is complimentary to the wartime milieu. In fact, even the rigid morality Peyton Place’s citizenry supposedly adheres to plays more like social commentary on the postwar Eisenhower generation than the Franklin Roosevelt/Harry Truman years in which the story presumably takes place. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose, perhaps, because the story is universal; youth rebelling against the conventions established and imposed by the generation preceding it.
Peyton Place opens with Waxman’s towering fanfare preempting the 2oth Century-Fox Cinemascope intro written by Alfred Newman. Only in a few instances did Fox allow for such a concession. In short order, we are introduced to Michael Rossi, who drives past some cardboard shanties on route to New England’s Peyton Place; the city of homes and churches where, curiously, no one desires to discuss the slums. As Metalious’ hometown was decidedly off limits to Wald, Robson and their cast (Gilmanton’s city council even went so far as to file an injunction temporarily prohibiting the sale, distribution and/or possession of any photographic equipment to ensure no shots of their hometown could be taken on the fly by a second unit without officially breaking the law) the company settled on Camden, Maine for their principle shoot, with additional interiors and a few rear projection stock shots made back at 2oth Century-Fox. It should be noted that these process screen inserts are generally badly done, and really do take the audience out of the ‘you are there’ location work whenever they appear. Still, as a cost-cutting measure, and as a time-honored way of making movies then, Peyton Place is very much a product of its time – and looks it from beginning to end.
As Rossi’s car passes the shanties, we are introduced to the Cross family; Nellie, her abusive second husband, Lucas, eldest daughter, Selina, eldest son, Paul (William Lundmark) and youngest child, Joey (Scotty Morrow). It seems Lucas has managed to scare Paul off their ramshackle; Selina begging Paul not to go, but to no avail. The camera picks up Rossi’s car arriving in town, at the malt shop run by Cory Hyde (Edwin Jerome), taking his liberties with a shave in Cory’s bathroom before proceeding to the Harrington Mill. There, Mr. Harrington and the school board of trustees are about to appoint a new principal.
Everyone in the graduating class has naturally assumed it would be Miss Elsie Thornton, who has dedicated her entire life to the education of Peyton Place’s children. We segue into the home of single mother, Constance McKenzie and her teenage daughter, Allison who is preparing a speech Rodney Harrington will deliver as a parting gift to Elsie. Nellie, who works part time as the McKenzie’s housemaid, informs Constance of Paul’s departure. And while Constance shares Nellie’s concerns about his future, Allison thinks it quite splendid of Paul to have struck out on his own – something she daydreams about doing herself.
Unhappily, the class presentation of a dictionary and Allison’s speech delivered by Rodney turns sour when Elsie learns of Mike Rossi’s appointment to the position of school principal. Rossi has struck a hard bargain with Mr. Harrington, who initially offered him a mere $3000 a year to accept. “We're all wasting our time,” Rossi insists, “That's only $5 a week more than I was making as a teacher.” When Mr. Harrington suggests the offer comes with the security of a long-term contract, Rossi bluntly admits, “Guaranteed poverty is not security!”
He strikes a hard bargain. But Harrington can admire such a man and accepts Rossi’s terms. Taking nothing less than $5000, plus a $500 bonus at the end of the first year, Rossi begins to take charge of Peyton High almost immediately; his rules – to teach the students how to think for themselves and place their personal honor above curricular studies – finds considerable favor amongst the faculty. After Rossi has left, Lucas, who is the school’s janitor, pokes fun at his ideas, adding insult to injury over Elsie bitter loss of the position.
At the end of the school day, Allison meets up with Selena, her best friend, the two hurrying to Constance’s dress shop where they meet up with several other girls, including resident sexpot, Betty Anderson who gives Allison a bit of sound advice: ‘racy girls get first pickin’ of the most eligible boys in town.’ Case in point: Betty’s lure on Rodney Harrington: Peyton Place’s most amiable bachelor. Not only does Rodney stand to inherit his father’s wealth and the mill, he’s also Harvard-bound and destined to make something more of his life. Betty’s been sweet on Rodney since they were children and vice versa. Alas, Mr. Harrington has a few choice words for his son. ‘Fast girls are okay for a fling…but they have no place in a solid family like the Harringtons in the long run’.
Constance objects to Allison inviting Betty to her birthday party but gives in when Allison bristles and moans about the yoke in their mother/daughter relationship being too tight. Constance trusts Allison, electing to go to the movies while the house party is in full swing. Alas, Rodney and Betty arrive fashionably late with a bottle of gin to spike the punch bowl, and, some mistletoe that Rodney has brought to get the real petting party started. After her movie, Constance makes a pit stop at Cory’s diner; Doc Swain introducing her to Mike Rossi. The two momentarily hit things off. But Mike’s interest in Connie leaves her feeling frosty rather than frisky. She coolly says her goodbyes.
Returning home to find the lights dimmed and all the party attendees paired in make out sessions two by two, Constance orders everyone out of her house. Allison is humiliated. The two argue and Constance tries to explain to her headstrong daughter how easy it is for any girl to get an unwanted reputation. Constance ought to know. For she was once the mistress of a married man – Allison’s father – who never married her and died before Allison was barely two years old. Allison, of course, knows nothing of this as yet, leaving her feeling dejected and confused over her mother’s brittleness toward boys showing even the slightest affection.
A short while later, Allison goes to collect Selena Cross for Sunday mass, inadvertently witnessing Lucas spying on Selena while she is dressing. When Selena threatens to tell Nellie, Lucas wallops her with his hand, Allison barging in to narrowly avert a catastrophe before the girls hurry off to church. In the meantime, Mr. Harrington has decided to give Rodney a brand new car. The gift comes with certain restrictions, however; namely, that Rodney should give up Betty. Rodney refuses. Nevertheless, Mr. Harrington makes his son break off his commitment to take Betty to the graduation dance. He then commits Rodney as Allison’s date instead.
In the meantime, Rossi pays a social call on Constance to tell her Allison has been named class valedictorian. Actually, it’s just an excuse for Rossi to see Constance again; also to get her to commit to being one of the chaperones at the dance. Betty arrives on the arm of another boy, determined to make Rodney jealous. Knowing he has been coerced into taking her to the dance, Allison encourages Rodney to pursue Betty instead while she attempts to engage Norman Page in a dance. Allison is fond of Norman. Perhaps, the feeling is mutual. Although Norman is unable to dedicate himself to anything beyond an awkward glance and half-crooked smile cast in Allison’s direction.
Rodney manages to sneak off with Betty. The two get comfortable in his new convertible; Betty leading Rodney on into believing he can have his way with her before thrashing him with her beaded handbag. Evidently, she’s not that easy to get and isn’t about to let a boy who cannot even tell his father what’s what take her in the backseat of his car. Rodney is, understandably, shaken and perplexed. Moreover, he has decided one thing. He needs to step up and be a man.
As the dance winds down, Rossi takes Constance home, making his first failed attempt to seduce her with kisses. She equates his affections to cheap maneuvers; all men paw at women simply to get what they want. But Rossi explains his affections quite clearly. Moreover, he isn’t about to let Constance get away with anything. “I kissed you,” he forcefully resolves, “You kissed me. That's affection, not carnality. That's affection, not lust. You ought to know the difference!” Alas, Constance will have none of it and orders Rossi away. He tells her the door to his heart is always open and encourages her to use it when she is ready to let down her hair and be a woman rather than a martinet.
In another part of town, Ted escorts Selena home. The two profess their love for one another and Ted vows to make and honest woman of Selena before the summer is out. Alas, after he has gone Lucas, lecherous and drunk, forces himself on his stepdaughter in a violent act of rape. At graduation, Allison delivers an inspirational benediction that everyone except Selena believes. For Selena has since discovered she is pregnant with Lucas’ child and upon bitterly confessing this truth to Doc Swain, she incurs Lucas’ wrath yet again. Swain makes Lucas sign a written confession, ordering him to leave Peyton Place for good or face being exposed for the sick molester that he is.
*Aside: in the novel, Selena is not eighteen, but rather fourteen when the initial rape occurs. Also, in the book (but not in the movie) Lucas repeatedly molests the girl for some years. The production code forbade even the inference of sex with a ‘child’, hence Selena’s rape takes place at the cusp of what was then considered the age a girl becomes a young woman – eighteen.
Lucas is angered by the prospect of having to leave his home – such as it is. He finds Selena and pursues her through the woods on foot, the intent, presumably, either to rape her again or perhaps even beat and murder her for telling the truth. Instead, Selena manages an escape and Lucas leaves town in the dead of night. Tragically, Selena suffers a tumble down a steep ravine and is forced to have surgery. Officially, Doc Swain writes up the operation as an appendectomy, to spare Selena her reputation. Unofficially, he helps clear out the discharge after she miscarries. In the novel, Doc Swain actually performs an abortion on a healthy fetus; again, something the Production Code would not allow.
Selena gets a job working at Constance’s dress shop. With the money she earns she is able to make modest improvements to the house. Alas, Nellie becomes suspicious of Selena’s operation. During the annual Labor Day picnic, Rodney renews his vow to make an honest woman of Betty. The two elect to run off to a secluded spot near Crystal Lake where they indulge in some heavy petting before going skinny dipping. At the same moment, Allison and Norman are spotted riding their bicycles together near the lake by town busybody, Marion Partridge (Peg Hillias) and her husband, Charles (Staats Cotsworth); also headed up to the lake to do some fishing. From a distance, Charles spies Betty and Rodney emerging from the water in the raw. Unable to make out who they are, he merely tells Marion two young people have gone into the woods naked. Putting two and two together (and coming up with sixteen) Marion sets into motion the rumor Norman and Allison have been up to no good; the incendiary tittle-tattle reaching Constance’s ears before nightfall. Electing to telephone Mrs. Page at once, Constance and Evelyn await the return of their children, confronting Norman and Allison about their whereabouts for the afternoon. While Norman admits to going swimming, he insists both he and Allison were wearing their suits. In point of fact, his story is the truth.
Wounded by her mother’s mistrust, Allison and Constance have it out once and for all; Constance revealing she was another man’s mistress and that Allison is their illegitimate love child. Shocked by the news, Allison hurries in tears to her bedroom, only to discover in horror that Nellie has hanged herself in the closet. Sent into a self-imposed catatonia for several days, Allison’s first words to Constance are she intends to leave Peyton Place at once and pursue a career as a writer in New York. Selena pleads with Allison to remain, but it’s no use. Embittered by her mother’s sordid past, and repelled by the fact she has been led to believe a lie about her father for so many years, Allison departs on the first bus out of town. Several years pass.
Rodney and Betty sneak off together and are married. Mr. Harrington quietly pulls his son aside, assuring him he can get the marriage annulled. Rodney is disgusted by the suggestion. Moreover, he puts his foot down and stands up to his father, informing him he has no intention of attending Harvard. Mr. Harrington decides to make the best of things, offering Rodney steady employment at the mill, which he accepts as a proposal ‘man to man’. The war comes and Norman enlists as a paratrooper. He is followed by Rodney and Ted, along with other men and boys of eligible age. Regrettably, Rodney dies overseas – his name added to the memorial plaque in town. A tear-stained Betty and Mr. Harrington are reunited in their grief, Mr. Harrington remembering a promise he made to his son before he went off to fight; to look after Betty in the event anything should happen to him. Confessing he was mistaken about Betty, Mr. Harrington now extends an unprejudiced hand, ‘to keep what’s left of the family together’. Betty willingly accepts.
With Christmas fast approaching, Constance reconciles with Rossi; revealing the truth about her youthful indiscretions and how it has cost her Allison’s love. Rossi renews his promise to look after Constance if she will let him, and this time she confesses she has loved and wanted him almost from the moment he arrived in town. Alas, the holidays prove perilous for Selena and Joey after Lucas returns. An enlisted sailor on shore leave, Lucas is already drunk by the time he returns to the slum they once shared. He wastes no time in attempting to have his way with Selena once again. Only this time, she is more than ready for him. After a brief struggle, Selena manages to beat Lucas to death with a rather large piece of firewood. Joey and she elect to bury Lucas’ remains in the back yard. Not long after, a pair of M.P.’s come to Constance’s shop to question Selena about her stepfather’s disappearance. She lies to them about not having seen Lucas for more than a year. But shortly after they leave, Selena confesses her ugly secret to Constance, who believes it her duty to telephone the police.
In the meantime, Allison and Norman (who has returned home after serving his country) are reunited on a train bound for Peyton Place. Norman makes it very clear he is interested in pursuing Allison romantically, and Allison reveals that her failed venture as a writer in New York has resulted in her working at a publishing house instead. There is little opportunity for the Allison/Norman romance to blossom, however; particularly after each learns of Selena’s arrest and pending murder trial. It’s a flaw in the film’s narrative construction; one leaving a gaping hole in the relationship, and in the minds of movie-goers, expecting a more conclusive dénouement for these two fairly important characters, more beloved and fleshed out in the book than on the screen.
The last act of Peyton Place is dedicated to a rather laborious trial; catching up the characters within the story to the point where the audience already is – and, in fact, has been for quite some time. We get a rather heavy retread, as the unnamed lead prosecutor (Lorne Green) squeezes Selena on the witness stand, twisting the facts to suggest she is a cold-blooded murderess. Selena is a wreck. Moreover, she refuses to give up the truth about Lucas raping her, believing the truth will destroy Ted and Ted’s love for her. Having come home for the trial, Allison defies Constance’s attempts at a reunion, but takes the witness stand in Selena’s defense.
Charles Partridge, who is acting as Selena’s attorney, does not believe her chances for an acquittal are good. But Selena has sworn Doc Swain to secrecy regarding the rape. However, when Constance breaks down on the witness stand in Selena’s defense, Swain bravely assures her she did what she had to do. Stirred by the hypocrisy in these words; Doc Swain breaks his own pledge of silence to Selena for her sake, revealing Lucas’ signed letter of confession as evidence he has kept locked in his safe these many years. Swain also admonishes the town for their duplicity in forcing a young girl to remain silent for fear of becoming a social outcast. His words cut deep, but they also ring true.
Armed with the facts, the judge (Tom Greenway) reads the jury’s verdict of ‘not guilty’ by reason of self-defense. Ted rushes to Selena’s side and together with Doc Swain they make ready to meet the prejudices of the crowd waiting outside. Instead, Selena discovers the town only too willing to comfort and welcome her back from the silent ordeal she has endured for so long. After the verdict, Rossi takes Constance home, their arrival interrupted by the sudden appearance of Allison – who has finally forgiven her mother her indiscretions – and Norman, who we are led to presume will become Allison’s husband at some later date.
Peyton Place’s finale is a tad too optimistic for all that has transpired before it; Allison’s voice-over epitaph of forgiveness ringing as preachy and insincere. Still, the bulk of the film clings together with such moody magnificence, we can almost forgive this tacked on resolution. In its day, Peyton Place – both as a novel and a movie – was a divining rod for critiquing the repressive 1950’s. Alas, today it plays as far from perfect entertainment. The movie’s desire to suggest what it cannot outright illustrate for the audience seems very strained in spots; particularly Norman and Allison’s burgeoning romance, which is blunted into antiseptic tedium at every possible moment.
Consider the scene where the pair goes up to Allison’s favorite hiding spot; a barren hillside overlooking the whole of the town from a bird’s eye view. Here, Allison vertically rests herself against a rather large bolder; Norman pressing himself against the same rock a moment later and just above her, as they exchange flirtatious bits of dialogue. Censorship was so stringent, Norman and Allison could not even be allowed their moment together on a horizontal plain – fully clothed, no less; the Hayes Office ridiculously believing such an angle would suggest a prelude to sexual intercourse. Later when Norman and Allison prepare for their ‘legitimate’ swim, she confides that his gaze is making her blush ‘all over’. It’s about as close to lust as we get. Indeed, there may be a lot of sex taking place in Peyton Place; but all of it is kept behind locked doors. Even the more adult ‘romance’ between Constance and Rossi is marred by Lana Turner’s frequently panged expressions; presumably meant to signify hot-blooded lust denied, and Lee Philips’ lengthy pledges of respectful manhood; a sort of subversive whimpering to get Constance to admit she feels the same way about him.
Sex in the movies: it was a problem then. It’s still a problem now; only today’s filmmakers have resolved that by showing us everything they’ve somehow managed to lay to rest the specters of post-coital shame and regret. Alas, neither of these absolutes is effective on the screen. Too little, and we’re not entirely certain if love is the answer or merely a curse. Too much, and love seems to take a backseat to the mechanics of an act already well known to most anyone having achieved life beyond their pubescent years. Still, Peyton Place has its moments; enough of them to sustain our renewed interest in these conflicted characters and their sordid lives.
In its initial release, Peyton Place went on to gross $25,600,000 in the U.S. – a sizeable hit, compounded by its nine Academy Award nominations. Alas, Peyton Place holds the dubious distinction, along with 1977’s The Turning Point and 1985’s The Color Purple as being the most nominated movie not to win a single Oscar. Nevertheless, there was enough smoke in this fire to warrant a sequel. And in 1961, Fox attempted just that with Return to Peyton Place; not nearly as successful as its predecessor. Nevertheless, the story was resurrected once more; this time as a soap opera on ABC. It ran from 1964 to 1969 and is credited with giving Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal their starts in showbiz. Still, it’s this original movie that continues to hold a soft spot in so many hearts; a relic from another time, it continues to hold us spellbound in the dark; only now as something of a reminder of how far we’ve come and how much – in the way of discretion, tact, and human dignity – has been lost to us long since.
Fox Home Video’s DVD is pretty lousy. Part of its long-since defunct ‘studio classics’ series, unlike a goodly number of titles in that collection, Peyton Place has not been given the necessary restoration it so desperately requires. We can see the disadvantages of just slapping out any old print master in whatever condition it presently exists, from the first appearance of the 2oth Century-Fox logo; given over to garish pumpkin oranges set against a skyline that ought to have been royal blue, but herein registers a very muddy bluish/black. This is immediately followed by the usually gold ‘Cinemascope’ trademark letters, now having turned a strange muddy copper.
For starters, the DeLuxe color palette throughout this presentation is all over the place; jaundice flesh tones that occasionally snap into piggy pink, faded reds, greens looking a murky brown, and very weak contrast levels depriving us of the moody moonlit summer nights. There’s also a lot of inconsistently rendered color, not even from scene to scene, but from shot to shot. What can look fairly accurate in a close-up suddenly falls apart and becomes overly grainy in an establishing long shot, seemingly overexposed with anemic colors. Basic color timing and color balancing could have corrected eighty percent of these issues. Why was it not even applied? Hmmm…the old ‘time and money’ argument rearing its ugly head again.
Worse, age-related artifacts are everywhere and occasionally present some glaring distractions. Nicks, chips, scratches and the occasional dot crawl interrupt. The reel of the graduation dance has two severe tears. These flash across the screen and create momentary wobble in the image. Just awful! The last reel is excessively grainy and again, has a large tear and several moments where the image is in constant horizontal flux. The audio is listed as ‘English Stereo’ which ought to suggest a basic 2.0 mix. But in listening to this, there’s clearly some of the original six track directionalized sound at work; dialogue following characters from left, to center, to right channels or vice versa. It’s a competent mix, but just that, leaving no great impressions along the way. We get a notable audio commentary from Terry Moore and Russ Tamblyn, but this occasionally meanders off course.
There’s also a forgettable ‘Hollywood Backstory’ on the making of the movie. I’ll just go on record with my general complaint that I never quite understood how ‘Hollywood Backstory’ became a series. Most of the episodes I’ve seen are just a compendium of sound bytes from surviving cast and crew intercut with snippets from the movie itself: no real insight provided by Kevin Burns narration and no wealth of ‘backstory’ either. We also get a pair of Fox Movietone newsreels – very brief.
Bottom line: I’d like to recommend Peyton Place for its content. It is a very fine film. This DVD transfer is, frankly, pathetic. We need a restoration and, judging by the condition of these surviving elements, soon! It would be nice to see Criterion get their hands on this title, or Twilight Time. We’ll see. But we won’t hold our breath either. Not recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)