Small-town America is the home of hypocrisy in this ridiculously silly soap opera that spawned…a long-running TV soap opera
Director: Mark Robson
Cast: Lana Turner (Constance MacKenzie), Diane Varsi (Allison MacKenzie), Hope Lange (Selana 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), Betty Field (Nellie Cross), Mildred Dunnock (Elsie Thornton), Leon Ames (Leslie Harrington)
Small-town America: what mysteries lie behind those white picket fences? If the small New England town of Peyton Place is a guide, all sorts of terrible things. Why is Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner) so afraid of sex and romance? Could her fear that the slightest kiss could turn her would-be-writer teenage daughter Allison (Diane Varsi) into a slut, be rooted in her own mysterious past? Why does Allison’s friend Selena (Hope Lange) fear her drunken and lecherous step-father Lucas (Arthur Kennedy) so much? Why is Mommas-boy Norman (Russ Tamblyn) so shy?
If that all sounds like the set-up for a great-big TV soap… well that’s because it essentially is. Peyton Place was a huge box-office success in 1957, but you can argue it found its natural home when it later mutated into a long-running TV soap. It’s one long onslaught of high-flung, ridiculously OTT events, all filtered through the sort of dialogue punctured by swelling music to hammer home the feelings. Peyton Place is completely disposable – but also strangely enjoyable, rollicking along like all the best soaps do, so full of events that you don’t have time to stop and realise how silly it is.
Adapted from a doorstop popular novel, screenwriter John Michael Hayes faced quite a task. The original was crammed with sex, foul language and everything from murder to teenage pregnancy, illegal abortions, rape and incest. That’s not exactly the sort of stuff the Hays Code dreamed of. Peyton Place: The Movie is almost a triumph in how much of this stuff it manages to cover, all in a very cunning, under-the-radar way. Sure, the rough edges are shaved off (and, of course, not the hint of a cuss word makes it to the screen) but it still manages to tick a lot of those boxes.
It’s all to hammer home the hypocrisy of small-town America. Curtain-twitching busybodies watch every moment, leaping for their phones at the merest hint of scandal: from kisses out of school to teenage kids skinny dipping (bet they can’t believe their luck when an actual murder happens). Peyton Place follows in Picnic’s footsteps (to which it is vastly superior, equally shallow but much less pleased with itself and far more entertaining) in exposing the hypocrisy of 50s America, where everybody goes to church and no-one practices the good-will and love it preaches (and yes, I know the film is set in the 1940s, but no one told the costume or production designers).
Peyton Place was littered with acting nominations (in a year where 12 Angry Men got none, for Chrissakes!). It’s a little hard to understand why, considering every part fits neatly into a trope. Lana Turner is the nominal lead as the frigid clothes-store owner who hides a secret shame (all about that long-lost husband) that gets in the way of her flirtation with the newly arrived schoolmaster (played with smug dullness by Lee Philips). But that’s only because she’s the most famous actor in it. Her performance sets a sort of template for mothers that would be repeated countless times.
The real leads (both Oscar nominated for Supporting Actress) are Diane Varsi and Hope Lange as the two teenagers at the heart of Peyton Place’s ocean of hormones (although, it being a 50s film, a smooch at a booze-free party is the furthest anyone goes). Varsi narrates most of the film as a precocious would-be writer, with several grandstanding scenes wailing at her mother for being so unfair. It’s a broad but engaging performance and she manages to make Allison not quite as wet as she could be. She also gets a shy romance with nervous Norman Page (a gentle Russ Tamblyn, also nominated): Norman is clearly closeted, struggling with his sexuality in a small town (“I don’t know how to kiss a girl” he says) but the film does its best to overlook this.
More engaging is Hope Lange, who gets the juiciest material to play. The film is surprisingly daring in staging her rape by her boorish step-father (a slightly too ripe Oscar nominated Arthur Kennedy, although still the most memorable male performance). Robson’s camera pans up from her being pinned down, to her raised hands and then finally cuts outside. Lange plays the trauma of this – including an unwanted pregnancy, removed by the Doctor in an abortion the film bends over backwards to make an accident-induced miscarriage – with a great deal of vulnerability and empathy, her shame and desperation rather moving.
It makes her the target for gossip. Peyton Place smugly ticks off small-town America for its gossipy meanness – while still peddling a message that, if we just followed the warmth of the best of small-town values, the world would be a better place – ending with Lloyd Nolan’s doctor delivering a pompous ticking-off to the town (from the witness box during a murder case no-less). Peyton Place at heart is a fairly conservative film, that ends with most people discovering their inner-goodness (apart from a few irredeemable harridans), and all wickedness resolved.
It’s directed with workmanlike professionalism by Mark Robson, but it didn’t need inspiration. It’s odd to consider this had nine Oscar nominations, since it feels like the sort of disposable mini-series Netflix throws together every week. Its main claim to fame might be that its quaint small-town smugness, masking a bucketload of scandal, served as the main inspiration for Twin Peaks (though dialled up to a whole other level of weird). It’s overlong, overblown and very silly, but because it doesn’t take itself seriously (unlike heavy-duty message film that year Sayonara, a silly soap that thought it was Pulitzer material) it’s actually ridiculously entertaining, in a totally trashy way.