We all know that Peyton Place is a fictional New Hampshire town where all sorts of sins are committed behind whitewashed picket fences. We might know that it began as a hugely popular smutty novel by hard-drinking Grace Metalious, who grew up in New England under the cloud of overextended Puritanism. Today Peyton Place hardly scandalizes, but its sociology is breathtaking.
Peyton Place the book was sanitized for the big screen and released in 1957 in velvety rich De Luxe Color and widescreen CinemaScope. Like its contemporaries Picnic and Rebel Without a Cause, it occupies itself with the growing chasm between parents and children. It was also made at a time when Hollywood was constitutionally unable to cast teenagers as teenagers. The local high school is filled with oversized twentysomethings playing at adolescence, but Peyton Place is a town filled with instantly recognizable, sympathetic characters worthy of 156 minutes of our time. We’re given an emotionally sumptuous affair, involving from the credits as weepy strings play over aerial shots of picture postcard New England. Leading the story is flouncy Lana Turner as Constance MacKenzie, an arcane blond apparition who is frankly terrified of her daughter’s newfound desire to kiss boys. Diane Varsi, she of the short-fused career, is daughter Alison, a romantic type prone to playing classical music full blast and waxing on fantasies of literary glory. Lloyd Nolan is the stolid town doctor, and Lee Philips is the mundanely handsome, morally resolute school principal who sets it upon himself to thaw Turner after her long winter of sexual hibernation. Young Russ Tamblyn plays a nerdy good boy whose notions about sex have been retarded by his gargoylous mother. He is headed for Boys in the Band by way of Tea and Sympathy unless some good girl (enter Varsi) can lead him down the path to righteous heterosexual normalcy. Hope Lange comes quite literally from the wrong side of the tracks, where she fights off the advances of her drunken stepfather (Arthur Kennedy), who is just one more point of misery in the life of her long-suffering, ineffectual mother (Betty Field). Let us not forget the beloved teacher-spinster (Mildred Dunnock), the red-dressed tramp (Terry Moore), or her studly boyfriend (Barry Coe), who learns to stand up against his controlling father (Leon Ames). We’re even treated to teen idol du jour David Nelson as Lange’s boyfriend.
Peyton Place was a box-office bonanza, but there are pleasures in watching it today that were unimagined in 1957. With eerie accuracy, it intimated the upcoming split in American society begat by Vietnam, rock and roll, and a new drug culture. You can hear the future calling in Peyton Place, with “generation gap,” “sexual revolution,” “women’s liberation,” and even “David Lynch” being whispered right around the corner. Indeed, Peyton Place swims in a ‘50s cocktail of repressed desires, incest, suicide, illegitimacy, murder, girls who put out and girls who just tease, rape, skinny dipping (!), and the unspoken small-town conspiracy that keeps everything hidden. It even tackles the question of sex education, with Turner offering an obsolete view while Philips represents the voice of a new liberalism soon to blow through America. Peyton Place is set in the 1940s, before and after the war, yet it is a quintessential 1950s product. Even Turner’s old fashioned acting contrasts with the more naturalistic Varsi, Tamblyn, and Lange. Did any movie capture the uneasy redefinition of America between World War II and Vietnam better than this one?
All this enthusiasm isn’t meant to suggest that Peyton Place belongs on a short list of great movies. It’s too glossy, and too dedicated to pure entertainment, to be taken entirely seriously. Director Mark Robson doesn’t have the command of Douglas Sirk, the man who excelled in the same genre with saturated melodramas such as All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, Turner’s last movie of consequence. Robson was not as exacting with color, light, space, and architecture as was Sirk, so there are fewer visual symbols to contemplate. And let us not forget that Sirk never directed a movie that malfunctioned as badly (or as deliciously) as Robson’s immortal Valley of the Dolls.
Peyton Place benefited immeasurably from Twentieth Century-Fox’s lavish commitment of money and talent. Franz Waxman’s score is full and ripe; at time it sounds like a symphony that happens to be accompanied by a film. Art direction and costumes reflect the story and characters tastefully, and cinematographer William Mellor was deservedly Oscar nominated, but the cast makes the difference. Five actors were nominated for Peyton Place — Lange, Varsi, Kennedy, Tamblyn, and Turner. Kennedy is appropriately repugnant and Tamblyn is like a puppy yearning to be trained. Lange is sweet and lovely, and grows impressively distraught during the high-strung courtroom scenes. Lana Turner gets Honorable Mention as an actress who elevated mediocrity to something wonderful. She works hard, straining like another Kim Novak to reach heights of dramatic greatness that never come. She’s always at least watchable, and even her throwaway moments are endearingly overstated. When she catches her daughter and friends “neckin'” in the living room, she throws on the lightswitch like she’s lifting heavy machinery.
The transfer to DVD is very near perfect, with Tamblyn and Moore providing commentary. As a bonus, American Movie Classics’ Backstory: “Peyton Place” offers historic context for this most sensational of potboilers. There were so many tantalizing subplots and cross-purposes that a sequel was inevitable. 1961’s horrid Return to Peyton Place was saved by Mary Astor as one of the all-time great self-appointed small-town arbiters of public morality. But still we wanted more, so along came a tv series. Peyton Place ran from 1964 to 1969, and gained added fame as the launching pad for Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal. But it is the original movie that endures as a top-flight guilty pleasure — nostalgic, vivid, complex, and unforgettable.