Peyton Place (1957)

Dir. Mark Robson. Starring Diane Varsi, Lana Turner, Hope Lange

The premise of Peyton Place is based on the shallow belief that many people begin from in their real lives, no matter how many times they learn about books and covers as tots: appearances are reality. The trouble with the fame of Peyton Place is that we all know the appearances are false, and so it’s difficult for us to look only at these blonde women and their well-dressed men, and see something other than time bombs. It’s a struggle that Peyton Place, which is so titled quite knowingly, cannot entirely overcome. That doesn’t fail to make Peyton Place gripping, for this movie is an extremely appealing watch. It does fail to make it serious, and that’s why Peyton Place is a soap opera and not an exposé, why it’s more Pleasantville than Gopher Prairie. I wonder if it’s possible to come to Peyton Place without expectations, and I wonder if the movie would change so very much. After all, within the first few minutes of the picture we’re given multiple reasons to believe that things aren’t what they seem. There’s a little shack on the edge of town a young man is trying to hightail away from; his drunk father has spent eighteen months’ worth of the boy’s hard-earned pay which he was going to turn into a correspondence course. Not much later, a mother interrupts her daughter’s morning ritual of giving a kiss to the portrait of the dead father she never knew, layering over a slightly weird and entirely sweet little bit with sarcasm. At no time is all well in Peyton Place, but given what the movie is about you’d think they’d make us revel in it a little later rather than literally beginning with it. By the time we actually get to a conversation about how two teens ordered a book about sex in “plain wrapper,” that whole book by its cover business has been settled.

What surprises me about the movie is how neatly it’s all resolved. (Without having read the book, because I am not actually a ’50s pop culture junkie, I can certainly imagine ways that Grace Metalious might have been disappointed with the adaptation. Perhaps the neatness of this resolution is one of them.) The Cross family expunges itself little by little. Nellie (Betty Field) hangs herself in a closet, where Allison (Varsi) finds her. Lucas (Arthur Kennedy), her widower, is already gone, chased out of town by Dr. Swain (Lloyd Nolan) after he finds out that Lucas raped his stepdaughter, Selena (Lange). Lucas, alas, comes home from the Navy, and in trying to take up with Selena again is beaten to death. Selena refuses to tell anyone that Lucas raped her, not even her lawyer, and she would be on her way to the penitentiary if Dr. Swain did not intervene during the course of the trial. It ends as well as it could, I suppose, with Selena found not guilty.

(Dr. Swain is the only character who I have a hard time imagining in Peyton Place, not because he doesn’t fit in, necessarily, but because he really should be in New York City playing consigliere for Vito Corleone. After the abortion, he tells the nurse that unofficially, Selena’s in for a miscarriage, but officially, she’s there for an appendectomy, and furthermore should she tell anyone that he’s falsifying the records, he’ll let everyone know about the sordid things in her life. I don’t know that Dr. Swain hires morally compromised nurses for the blackmail, but then again…I don’t know that he doesn’t? He’s almost certainly going to lose his medical license at the end of the movie, but the lost income there is going to be nothing compared to the crime family he’ll be able to put together.)

Meanwhile, during the trial, both Allison and her mother, Connie (Turner) have been called as witnesses, as Allison is Selena’s best friend and can speak to a time when Lucas beat Selena, and Connie employed Selena at her store for some time. Allison left home months before the trial on the worst terms with her mother, and has rebuffed Connie’s attempts to reconnect. Turns out that Allison’s father was never Connie’s husband, and it turns out that most of Allison’s innocent sexual dalliances have been grounds for her mother to overreact based on a fear that daughter will follow in mother’s footsteps and get knocked up by some married man. In any event, Connie breaks down on the stand (thoroughly embarrassing the prosecutor), proving how well she knows she’s wronged her daughter, and this show of contrition convinces Allison her mother knows better now. In short, the Cross family struggles and the McKenzie family struggles are wrapped up through the same event. It signifies that no matter how much time the movie spent on Connie’s fraught romance with new principal Michael Rossi (Lee Philips), or the misadventures of Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe), star-crossed lover, or Norman Page’s (Russ Tamblyn) desperate gropes at adulthood, this was always about the parental relationships in those two families.

Peyton Place shrinks enormously in this last stretch of the picture, and it doesn’t do the movie a whole lot of credit. Dr. Swain throws some grenades into the audience about hypocrisy and gossip, but that doesn’t close off the sordidness of the town, not really. The town as a whole is what’s fascinating here, because what gives the movie its power is not that individuals within Peyton Place are living especially dramatic lives, but that the town as a whole is doing it and wallowing in the consequences. If young people are acting up and their parents are scolding them for doing what they did themselves during the Great War, then that’s the circle of life. Peyton Place is a hive of hypocrisy and turpitude, not a hive of scum and villainy, and the movie makes a mistake in tacitly believing that this bad behavior can be fixed. Lucas Cross is dead! Rodney Harrington is dead! Connie McKenzie told the truth! Dr. Swain told us all off! With those four ingredients, Peyton Place has given up its pound of flesh, and perhaps can begin again to make a town which is as precious in its marrow as it is on its skin. But what a naive thing that is to believe, and I don’t know that the movie gives us a compelling reason to share in its naivete. For me, the most remarkable line in the movie is the life experience that Nellie shares with Allison one afternoon when the girl comes home from school. It’s harder to be a mother than a daughter, she tells Allison, because as a mother you find that you hate yourself for becoming your own parents and doing what they’ve done. Allison, quite logically, asks why can’t it be avoided if one knows that one is doing it? It’s because of feelings, Nellie replies. It’s one of the rare sequences here which really scalds, but there’s no hint of that scalding when Allison’s narration over the now full McKenzie house suggests that Peyton Place has finally entered its season of love.

What Peyton Place does well, though this sounds like a backhanded compliment but I definitely don’t mean it that way, is its presentation of such a homey little place where nothing too bad could happen. If it did not look so tempting, then that aforementioned premise wouldn’t fly; we would judge a book by its cover and assume that something had gone wrong long ago. This is a movie set in 1941 and released in 1957, which means that it’s hard to read serious nostalgia into the production design; it is a modern look they’re going for, as it were, and they get it. The cleanliness and attractiveness of the McKenzie parlor outweighs the simplicity of their kitchen. The classroom where the seniors assemble to give their teacher a gift is rich with dark wood and blackboards. Offices and shops are frequently gray, all to more meaningfully counter a green sofa or the striking New England autumn outside. If it looks like Christmas ornament Americana, that’s because we’ve based our that Hallmark vision on things like Peyton Place, which lives up to those spick and span exteriors perfectly. (It also has to do with the fact that this town is in Maine or, more likely, New Hampshire, which are whiter than the average fantasy novel. There is an awful lot to unpack about how this jewel-bright vision of America is so unfailingly Caucasian, and how I think Peyton Place, without ever having to say something as nasty as “And these shabby folks are Anglo-Saxon, too!” manages to get that criticism across for its presumably Anglo-Saxon viewers.) The greatest compliment I think can be given to this movie by one of its descendants is that Todd Haynes chooses, in Far from Heaven, a very similar blue for Julianne Moore to be swept up in as Lana Turner is swept up in in a moment of woe here.

Peyton Place was a giant box office hit in 1957, and despite going oh-fer at the Oscars still managed to pick up nine nominations along the way in prestige categories. What’s surprising and, of course, not surprising at all, is how the young people in this movie fell off the map. Terry Moore peaked as a young person in Come Back, Little Sheba, made five years before this; David Nelson never really did break out of the whole Ozzie and Harriet thing he’d already been part of; Hope Lange and Barry Coe became much more recognizable via TV than they would be in later movies; Diane Varsi left Hollywood altogether. Only Russ Tamblyn, as far as I can tell, went on to be more famous for what he did in his future movie career. None of these people are James Dean, Natalie Wood, Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper. The clean images they project are all too successful, so successful that they could only ever have transitioned to the television shows that Peyton Place spawned in its wake.

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