Peyton Place (1957): One of Hollywood’s Best Small Town Melodramas, Starring Lana Turner in Oscar Winning Performance

The quintessential small-town movie of the decade, sort of an ideological summation, was undoubtedly Mark Robson’s Peyton Place, based on Grace Metallius’s best-selling novel.
The commercial appeal of Peyton Place was immense, grossing in domestic rentals over $11 million. The film was nominated for nine Oscars, though won none; most of the awards that year went to David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” its competitor in the Oscar contest.

The success of the first film led to a sequel, “Return to Peyton Place,” in 1961, with Eleanor Parker in the role of Lana Turner, and to a long-running TV series, with the young Mia Farrow in the role that Diane Varsi had made memorable in 1957.

When Americans think of a typical small-town movie, Peyton Place is likely to be their first choice, and with good reasons: This melodrama captured better than other films the narrative conventions and value elements of small-town films.

Peyton Place is arguably one of the best small-town films ever made in Hollywood, blending together the thematic and stylistic elements to form a coherent work. Metallius’s novel was scandalous in its frank revelations about life in a New Hampshire town at the end of the Depression. The secret of the book and film’s success was that it dealt with sexual and social taboos seldom portrayed in a Hollywood film before.

The film went one step further than the 1942 shocker, “Kings Row,” with just about every controversial issue touched upon: illegitimacy, rape, murder, suicide, abortion.

Fortunately, the book was adapted to the screen by John Michael Hayes, a good writer who did some wonderful scripts for Hitchcock (including “Rear Window”).  Hayes actually improved on the book, “laundering” the story and trimming its unnecessary cliches.

Classic Narrative Structure

The narrative opens with the arrival of an outsider, Michael Rossi (Lee Philips), the new school principal. Driving through town, the viewers are introduced to some of the characters and the place itself with its unique landscape.  Peyton Place boasts pictorial beauty–the CinemaScope really captures the special ambience of a town.

The film begins with a young, lovely voice of Alison McKenzie (Diane Varsi), who narrates: “When I was born, time was told not by the clock or the calendar, but by the season. Summer was carefree contentment, autumn was that bittersweet time of regret.   But there was a fifth season, of love. And only the wise or the lucky ones knew where to find it.”

Michael Rossi is taking the job from Mrs. Thornton (Mildred Dunnock), the beloved English teacher everyone hoped would assume the position. A charming, considerate man, he makes sure not to threaten too much the school’s continuity. At the same time, Rossi has new ideas about education. His liberal philosophy, different from the former rigid system, consists of two credos. First, “to tell the truth as far as we know it. I don’t want any teacher making a fairy tale out of it.” And second, “teach a minimum of facts, and a maximum of ideas. Our main job is to teach children how to think, not how to memorize for a few weeks.”

The film centers on the lives and times of four family units: the MacKenzies, the Harringtons, the Crosses, and the Pages. For such a large number of characters, it is a tribute to the writer that they are fleshed out in such a manner that, while they remain types, they also have some individual attributes. Each character either hides a secret about the past (and later will confess about it), or is subjected to some harrowing experience that will transform him or her completely. The MacKenzies are a one-parent family headed by Constance (Lana Turner), a young widow, who has one daughter, Allison (Diane Varsi). If the film has a central character it is Allison as most of the events are told from her point of view.

High-strung, Constance is annoyed by her daughter’s daily habit of kissing the portrait of her dead father. It turns out that Constance is a fallen woman, whose adulterous affair with a married man in New York resulted in birth out of the wedlock. Constance is defined by her repressed sexuality and suppressed guilt; she is a victim of circumstances as well as her own personality and as such needs a savior and redemption. The Harringtons are at the top of the class hierarchy. They are the town’s big business and upper class.

The Crosses are placed at the bottom, living in a shabby shack on the other side of the tracks, surrounded by sheep.  But the town likes Selena Cross (Hope Lange) and her hard-working mother, Nellie (Betty Fields), who is Constance’s maid.

In contrast, Selena’s father, Lucas (Arthur Kennedy) is despised, not so much for his lower class or occupation (the school’s janitor), but because he is a drunk and a brute. Lucas is the only town’s member who does not believe in the values of formal education and democratic rule.

As in “Picnic,” the civilization that defines this town is too repressive and demanding. The place to express one’s biological instincts and true emotions is outdoors, in the open air, free from social pressures and direct observability. Allison experiences her first innocent kiss with Norman in their secret meeting place, high on a hill.

However, not everyone is lucky enough to escape the presence of others. When Rodney and Betty go swimming in the nude, they are seen and reported, which precipitates a big scandal. Norman’s hysterical mother throws a fit, when someone mistakes Norman and Allison for Rodney and Betty.

Nature, as the secret place for adolescents to run away from their parents and to experiment with their sexuality, features prominently in small-town movies about coming of age.  In “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), for example, James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo establish their own nuclear family (with Mineo as their son), acting out adult roles in an isolated and deserted house.

In Peyton Place, the town’s two greatest sins are vicious gossip and hypocrisy. Redemption is thus required not just of its individual residents, but of the town as a collective whole. This is achieved, as in other small-town films, in a collective ritual, a courtroom trial, which brings the membership together. Selena is charged with murdering her stepfather (who had raped her), but it is the town itself, not Selena, who is put on trial and needs to defend itself. It is through awareness and confession that the “Truth” could emerge and have healing power.

The town has to learn its lessons in order to reach a new and better equilibrium and a more pragmatic morality. “We’ve all been prisoners of each other’s gossip,” says Doc Swain (Lloyd Nolan), the town’s moral center. Indeed, the town rejects its previous ways, in which “appearances counted more than feelings.” Peyton Place is one of the last Hollywood films to make the doctor an honorable citizen who embodies the town’s collective conscience.

As Mackinnon (1984) pointed out, Peyton Place the movie deviated significantly from the book. In the film, Rodney Harrington dies as a war hero, but in the book, his father uses his influence to exempt him from military service. Moreover, in the book, Rodney is killed in a car crash, with a woman aboard, after Betty Anderson becomes pregnant. As for Norman, in the picture, he liberates himself from his domineering mother, but in the book, he is discharged from military service because of mental problems. With all its sensationalistic subplots and devices, Peyton Place, like other small-town melodramas, is extremely moralistic and optimistic, expressing firm belief in the possibility of change, particularly for the young generation. Most of the characters transform, demonstrating that they have all learned their lessons. For example, Rodney Harrington, the irresponsible womanizer, redeems himself when he dies as a war hero in combat. And Norman matures into adulthood, freeing himself once and for all from his monstrous domineering mother.

Following Rodney’s death, Betty, a young widow, gains acceptance as a full-fledged member of the Harringtons. Selena Cross is acquitted at the trial and regains her respectability. Allison matures into young womanhood, following a direct confrontation and reconciliation with her mother and a trip to New York. Her commitment to a writing career is now stronger and more realistic.

Comparatively speaking, the adults suffer much more than the youngsters. Selena’s mother commits suicide (hanging herself up at Constance’s house) upon learning about her daughter’s rape by her husband. Rodney’s father accepts Betty as his daughter-in-law. Constance learns how to accept her desires as a woman and express her own sexuality; having exorcised her disreputable past, she is now free to get involved with Rossi.

The movie is set in Grace Metalious’ hometown of Gilmore, New Hamphsire (population 700), but it was shot in Woodstock, Vermont.

Cast:

Lana Turner –Constance MacKenzie

Diane Varsi–Allison MacKenzie

Hope Lange–Selena Cross

Lee Philips–Michael Rossi

Arthur Kennedy–Lucas Cross

Lloyd Nolan–Dr. Matthew Swain

Russ Tamblyn–Norman Page

Terry Moore–Betty Anderson

David Nelson–Ted Carter

Barry Coe–Rodney Harrington

Mildred Dunnock–Ms. Elsie Thornton

Leon Ames–Leslie Harrington

Erin O’Brien-Moore–Ms. Evelyn Page

 

Both Diane Varsi and Lee Philips made their film debuts in Peyton Place.

 

The film also marked the first time that David Nelson had appeared separately from his family, Ozzie, Harriet, Ricky

Erin O’Brien-Moore, who played Mrs. Evelyn Page, would play Nurse Esther Choate in the TV series, Peyton Place.

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