For more than half a century the name ‘Peyton Place’ has been synonymous with salaciousness and sin, thanks to the runaway best seller by Grace Metalious’ on which director, Mark Robson hand-crafted a rather affecting movie version in 1957; all about the comings and goings of a seemingly button-down conservative enclave of ‘church-going’ folk in Maine, dedicating their lives to hard work and Christian principles…at least…on the surface. Alas, it’s only a façade; the veneer very thin and about to crack and buckle from under with an insidious malaise of dark family secrets and tantalizing bits of tawdry gossip, threatening to crush the faux respectability shored up by all this slum prudery and middle-class morality. If the concoction appears tame by today’s bargain annex standards that have left little to nothing to the imagination, it is really only due to Hollywood’s then starchy and self-governing code of censorship. Metalious’ novel was far more incendiary, chocked full of meaty chapters devoted to illegitimate affairs, murder, unwed pregnancy, abortions, and, even family incest. That Robson could show none of it on the screen, and only hint at the rest in half shadow, yet still come up with a genuine, if at 2 ½ hrs., rather lengthy (though never tedious) barn-burner (with pizzazz, glamor and a killer score by Franz Waxman) is a testament, not only to Robson, but also his star; the legendary Lana Turner – glamour queen deluxe, primarily known for her nightclubbing prowess while still MGM’s sweater girl in the 1940’s; more recently in 1957, and infamously for tom-catting around Tinsel Town with bona fide Mafioso, Johnny Stompanato (a real piece of work…more on this later).
Lovely Lana would go through two trials by fire; one for her art, the other to spare her real-life daughter, Cheryl Crane from spending the rest of her natural life in prison for murder. Turner had lived the hai-hooi sexpot and spicy intrigues of a dime store novel in her youth; the hottest trick in shoe leather with her pick of any number of adoring male suitors from Hollywood’s stellar gene pool of male virility. Now at the age of thirty-six, Lana was hardly right for the part of Constance Mackenzie; ‘mom’ to teenager, Allison (Diane Varsi) and yet, given her circumstances with Cheryl, so right for it too, if only to stand the precepts of such turpitude on end – do as I say, rather than ‘do’ – the maxim of both these ‘unhappily ever afters’. Ten years earlier, Turner might have made a go of the part of Betty Anderson (played by Terry Moore), the girl of easy virtue who lands Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe), the most amiable buck in town, or perhaps even Selena Cross (Hope Lange); the impoverished and put upon, ginger sweet girl-next-door who is raped by her estranged stepfather (Arthur Kennedy), and escapes being branded a murderess when a verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’ is entered into the public record. Now, that’s a Peyton Place I would have killed to see! Alas, somewhere in screenwriter, John Michael Hayes’ meandering, though commendably condensed screenplay, the repeatedly thwarted love affair between Lana’s fiery drama queen and newly appointed high school principal, Michael Rossi (Lee Philips – a real milquetoast) gets lost. That said; Lana proves her every merit as a box office draw herein. There is, after all, a reason they used to call them ‘stars’; the cache of a Lana Turner enough to carry the ballast of any role - even when Turner is not on the screen.
Peyton Place began its gestation in the mind of a disillusioned daydreamer: Grace Metalious: an unassuming 32 year old 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’ overnight celebrity or, indeed, with Metalious herself. Deemed a bawdy and rebellious trailblazer elsewhere, to the narrow-minded living close by, Metalious’ had become an anathema to their hypocrisies; a chain-smoking Judas, no one could trust with their family secrets. In hindsight, Metalious was possessed by her own inner demons; 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 hungry, careworn and depressed and frequently drunk; discovering her hubby, George, had been unfaithful 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 simultaneously escape and expose this life she knew only too well; also to vent her pent-up frustrations to likely compatriots in the world at large, to side not only her set of circumstances, but respect her unvarnished honesty. Sadly, Metalious would soon discover she was very much the outsider – if not to the world at large (having embraced the novel and made her an immediate darling in 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 social circles. Hence, when Metalious died of acute alcoholism a scant seven years later – just two years after producer, Jerry Wald immortalized her poison-penned wit with a smash hit film – Gilmanton had yet to forgive their most infamous citizen for blowing the lid off their 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 far away. This never happened, but it did not stymie certain influences in Gilmanton from repeatedly trying; their vitriol knowing no bounds. Gee-whiz: let the poor girl rest in peace.
In hindsight, Mark Robson’s Peyton Place (1957) is an impressive achievement; the novel’s most scandalous vignettes transposed to the larger-than-life Cinemascope screen with ole-time Hollywood glamour butted against hints and flashes of a tawdrier, more perverse reflection never entirely to materialize. The book and movie’s popularity were predicated on an even simpler premise: that, to varying degrees we are all living through our own version of this shameful den of iniquity. The notion, that simply by walking down any street one was apt to pass within inches of a sadist, rapist or murderer is, I’ll grant you, not a very comforting thought, although nevertheless true, and an astute observation for which Metalious made absolutely no apologies and thus, seemed fair game to be pilloried in the press. Even so, sex and violence are as ancient as the existence of mankind. Moreover, from the Bible to Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Ian Fleming and beyond, they have 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 as wicked an indulgence as partaking in the act itself outside of wedlock (our 50’s movie art turned to antiseptic fairy-tales about chaste goodness and virtue being its own reward), just happened to be Metalious’ 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 its staying power. That the name ‘Peyton Place’ has remained a nom de plume for most any garden variety impiety, conveniently popped into our hushed collective cultural understanding, tells us all we really need to know about the potency and legacy of both Metalious’ novel and Robson’s movie.
In Hollywood, the book’s wildfire in a wheat field 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, Wald’s battles herein proved very hard won indeed; Hollywood’s self-governing censorship jumping all over the project even before a single page of script had been submitted for their consideration. To hedge his bets, Wald hired John Michael Hayes to write the screenplay. Hayes knew his way around double entendre. He also subconsciously used the power of ‘inference’ as a master wordsmith, to convey many – if not all – of the novel’s transgressions, without ruffling too many conservative feathers. Metalious’ book explored two abortions, one murder, and several cases of family incest as frankly as if she were discussing Emily Post’s most recent spate of mantras for dinner etiquette. It was precisely for this impenitent candor the evangelical right had taken umbrage. On the screen, however, Hayes, Wald and Robson would be required to ‘finesse’ and imply, rather than ‘show and tell’. Miraculously, they succeeded in keeping the book’s 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. Regrettably expunged in preproduction was Constance’s moonlit skinny dip with Michael Rossi; also, the novel’s 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 for obvious reasons.
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 normal sexual impulses for other girls, cuckolding him as something of her surrogate lover/subordinate man slave for her own gratification. Indeed, 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 Allison for fear she might discover his ‘secret’ with mama. In hindsight, Jerry Wald’s real victory was in getting Peyton Place made at all, but especially with so much of its taboo subject matter intact; marking the first sincere blow to dismantle the ensconced and governing board of censorship. Today, it is difficult to imagine what all the fuss was about, in part because the pendulum of 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, Wald understood that, as a movie, Peyton Place could easily have turned into a gumbo of B-grade melodrama, particularly without the proper casting. What Wald needed was a star of the first magnitude to commit to the picture.
And thus, enter Lana Turner, newly released from her lucrative MGM contract after a series of high-profile flops and certainly no stranger to sin; either playing it to the hilt on the movie screen or, regrettably, living it large in her many varied private liaisons with dangerous men. By the time Peyton Place went before the cameras Lana’s amour for beefy Johnny Stompanato, thug muscle for California kingpin, Mickey Cohen, had decidedly cooled. If there is such a thing as art imitating life, then Lana Turner’s court room histrionics during the penultimate murder trial of Selina Cross in Peyton Place would prove a dry run for her even more provocative and tear-stained defense of daughter, Cheryl Crane – on trial for Stompanato’s murder a scant three months after the picture’s premiere. For the record, Stompanato was hardly ‘good people’; in fact, a brute who attempted to corner Sean Connery on a movie set in Britain for allegedly ‘showing interest’ in Turner, to which the disarming Connery – a former bodybuilder no less – casually diffused the situation with his own inimitable brand of guts; Stompanato deported from the U.K. shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, it was not brute force that put a period to Stompanato’s intimidation, but rather Cheryl Crane’s naïve confrontation of the man in her mother’s boudoir on the eve of April 4, 1958, after enduring several hours of heated bickering between the couple. Reportedly fearing for her mother’s life, Cheryl ran upstairs and tapped on the bedroom door, Stompanato suddenly appearing and the girl repeatedly stabbed him with a knife retrieved from the butcher block in the kitchen. Stompanato’s family sued to the tune of $7 million, but Crane was exonerated of the crime; spending several years in a reformatory as her recompense.
The part of 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 also 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 depends. 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 2oth Century-Fox’s finest contract players; Lloyd Nolen as the benevolent, Doc Swain, Arthur Kennedy (the unscrupulous drunkard/rapist, 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 time frame. 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 amplified by William C. Mellor’s gloriously rich color cinematography, shot in the trending 50’s mode of presentation: Cinemascope, and Franz Waxman’s superbly soapy 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 D. Roosevelt/Harry Truman era. Does any of this matter? Not really, I suppose, because the story being told is as universal as time itself; youth rebelling against the conventions established and imposed by the generation preceding them.
Peyton Place opens with Waxman’s towering fanfare preempting the 2oth Century-Fox Cinemascope intro, written by Alfred Newman in the 1930's and expanded to encompass the Cinemascope logo after 1954. Only in a few instances had Fox allowed for such a concession, the absence of their trademarked ‘logo’ theme illustrating the importance already placed on Peyton Place as their ‘prestige’ production for 1957. In short order, we are introduced to Michael Rossi, who drives past some cardboard shanties on route to New England’s city of homes and churches where, curiously, no one desires to discuss the slums. As Metalious’ hometown was decidedly off limits to Wald (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), Robson and company settled on Camden, Maine for the 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; Selina begging her brother not to go, but to no avail. The camera picks up Rossi’s car arriving into town, near 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 in her stead. 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!” The truth stings, but Harrington can admire a man who stands up for his rights. He accepts Rossi’s terms. Taking nothing less than $5000, plus a $500 bonus at the end of the first year, Rossi begins taking 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 – finding considerable favor amongst the faculty. After Rossi has gone home, 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 joins 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: the town’s most amiable bachelor. Not only does Rodney stand to inherit his father’s wealth and the mill, he is 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 too objects to Allison inviting Betty to her birthday party, but gives in when Allison bristles 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, mistletoe 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 a frost in the air. She coolly says her goodbyes. Returning home to find the lights dimmed and all the party attendees paired 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 ‘a reputation’. Constance ought to know. 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 dejected and confused over her mother’s brittleness toward boys showing her 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 barges 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 provisos; namely, 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 is just another 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 is not as easy to get and is not about to let any boy who cannot even tell his own 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 is not 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 an 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. 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. Now, 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 that 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 Allison, their illegitimate love child. Shocked by the news, Allison hurries in tears to her bedroom, only to discover in horror 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 is 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 years. 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’. Genuinely touched by this olive branch, 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 thereafter, 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 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 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. Arguably, this is a flaw in the narrative construction; one leaving a gaping hole in their relationship, but also 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. In lieu of this, the last act of Peyton Place is dedicated to an elaborate trial; catching up the characters within the story to a 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’s love for her. Having come home for the trial, Allison delays Constance’s attempts at a reunion, but takes the witness stand in Selena’s defense.
Acting as Selena’s attorney, Charles Partridge (Staats Cotsworth) 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 office 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 her silent ordeal. After the verdict, Rossi takes Constance home, their arrival interrupted by Allison’s impromptu appearance – finally forgiven her mother’s 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 ever so slightly insincere. Still, the bulk of the film clings together with such moody magnificence, we can almost forgive this tacked on resolution.
Besides, placed in its proper context Peyton Place – both as a novel and a movie – was the divining rod for deconstructing the repressive 1950’s. The picture’s infrequent bouts of awkwardness are more a product of these times and the production code than a flaw in any of the performances given. Consider the scene where Allison and Norman go up to a favorite hiding spot; a barren hillside overlooking the whole of the town with a bird’s eye view. Allison vertically rests against a rather large bolder; Norman pressing against the same rock and just above her as they exchange flirtatious bits of dialogue. Yet censorship was so stringent, Norman and Allison could not even be allowed their moment together on a horizontal plain – even fully clothed; the Hayes Office ridiculously believing such an angle would suggest a prelude to intercourse. Later, when Norman and Allison prepare for their ‘legitimate’ swim, she confides his gaze is making her blush ‘all over’. Yes – exactly what it means. But it is about as close as we get to actual lust. Potentially, there may be a lot of sex taking place in this fictional hamlet; but all of it is kept behind tightly locked doors. Even the more adult ‘romance’ between Constance and Rossi is marred by Lana Turner’s frequently panged expressions; presumably signifiers to hot-blooded lust denied, and Lee Philips’ lengthy pledges of respectful manhood; a sort of subversive mindf_ck to get Constance to admit she pulsates with the same erotic urges he has for her. Sex in the movies: it was a problem then. It’s still a problem now; only today’s filmmakers have resolved to show us everything, thus managing to lay (pun intended) the specters of post-coital shame and regret at our feet on the altar of lowbrow snuff masquerading as pop art. Tragically, neither of these absolutes proves effective on the big screen. Too little, and we are not entirely certain if love is the answer, or merely, a curse. Too much, and love seems to take the proverbial backseat to the mechanics of an act already well known to most anyone having graduated to long pants. 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 sizable hit, compounded by its nine Academy Award nominations. For a very brief wrinkle in time, Jerry Wald and Mark Robson likely viewed this as a complete vindication of their hard-won battles along the way to bring this story to the big screen. For her part, Grace Metalious thought the picture unsatisfactory at best. It perhaps amused her to see the more obvious exploits she had written about distilled into precisely the sort of hypocritical ‘wink and nudge’ she so daringly aimed to dismantle with her prose in the first place. Deriding her critics, Metalious observed, “If I'm a lousy writer, then an awful lot of people have lousy taste…even Tom Sawyer had a girlfriend, and to talk about adults without talking about their sex drives is like talking about a window without glass.” Unfortunately, Peyton Place holds the dubious distinction, along with 1977’s The Turning Point and 1985’s The Color Purple for being the most nominated movie never to win a single Oscar. Nevertheless, there was enough smoke in this fire to warrant a sequel. And in 1961, Fox attempted a Return to Peyton Place; not nearly as successful as its predecessor. The plot 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. But it is this original movie, full of glam, guts and gas that continues to hold a soft spot in so many hearts; a charming and mostly effective relic from another time. Tragically, Metalious’ own reputation has not weathered the years as well. Succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 39, she was as wistfully frank as ever, saying “If I had to do it over again it would be easier to be poor. Before I was successful, I was as happy as anyone gets.” Leaving everything to her most recent lover, John Rees, a struggle between surviving family for the rights to her last will and testament revealed an even sadder truth: despite having been heralded as ‘Pandora in Blue Jeans’ and earning a reputable salary for five novels, Metalious’ estate was only worth $41,174; thanks to her high living/drinking, her generosity to ‘friends’ and a devious agent, who managed to syphon off a good deal of her earnings. Hence, at the time of her death, Metalious owed more than $200,000. And I suspect here is a story still waiting to be told; one Metalious would have likely relished exposing, had she lived to tell the tale.
Fox Home Video’s DVD from 2001 was pretty lousy. So, frankly, Peyton Place on Blu-ray really had nowhere to go but up…sort of. Colors are vibrant, sometimes oddly so: blood red graduation gowns that leap off the screen and a blue bias that, at times seems overpowering and artificial. The green foliage is emerald, and briefly featured yellows and oranges also tend to dazzle the eye in ways not entirely indigenous to the source. DeLuxe color was not usually this intense and I have no doubt some serious digital tinkering has been applied to get the palette to pop as it does herein. That said, and with the caveat that Peyton Place in hi-def probably did not look like this when it was originally screened in 1957, the overall spectrum is ‘pleasing’ and will, except for the aforementioned examples, likely not distract from one’s viewing pleasure. Besides, it is light years ahead of the ugly, muddy bluish/black and otherwise seriously faded presentation Fox Home Video afforded Peyton Place on DVD. So, blessings of a sort are in order, I suppose. Grain is perfect, and contrast relatively pleasing. This Blu-ray is sourced from a single strand negative with prints intermittently used to fill in the gaps. Some serious digital manipulations have gone into homogenizing these discrepancies and create a visual consistency to bridge these disparate source materials. Overall, it’s a success with minor fluctuations duly noted. As per the audio: it is 5.1 DTS, presumably mixed from the original magnetic 4-track Cinemascope stereo. I say, ‘presumably’ because there are subtle variances throughout, with dialogue mostly front and center, but with exceptions paid to a few scenes where directionalized microphones follow a character from left to right (or vice versa) across the screen.
Franz Waxman’s score sounds positively lush. But for shame, TT has not furnished us with an isolated score, usually their modus operandi. In lieu of this, we get a newly recorded audio commentary from filmmaker/historian, Willard Carroll; also a puff piece featurette from Carroll – mere addendums to the extras originally featured on Fox’s DVD: a notable audio commentary from Terry Moore and Russ Tamblyn; a badly worn episode from Fox’s forgettable ‘Hollywood Backstory’ on the making of the movie. I will just go on record with a general complaint: that I never quite understood how ‘Hollywood Backstory’ became a series. Most of the episodes I have seen are just a compendium of sound bites 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 – and theatrical trailers. Bottom line: Peyton Place is a cultural touchstone in so many ways, I really cannot applaud Fox for not giving it a broader release with all the bells and whistles it so justly deserves. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is a must have for hardcore movie lovers. But get it while you can. With only 3000 copies afforded, once it’s gone, it’s gone! Buy today. Treasure forever. Or be stuck with Fox’s lackluster DVD (out of print, but still readily available from Amazon sellers).
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)