Peyton Place (1957)

Title: Peyton Place (1957)
Director: Mark Robson
Writer/s: John Michael Hayes and Grace Metalious

Peyton Place (1957) is not a film I was intending on writing about, however it came to me one evening and I watched it and then watched it again, and realized that it was definitely worth mentioning. I have done some research on Lana Turner, the film actress recently and came across the scandal in 1958 that involved her teenage daughter and her mobster boyfriend. Cheryl, Lana’s daughter, stabbed the infamous Johnny Stampanato in the stomach when she discovered him physically assaulting her mother. The paramedics were unable to revive him and Cheryl was tried in a juvenile court but acquitted of the murder due to the evidence that backed his abuse. Reading about Lana Turner in these circumstances made me curious as to what she was like on screen. A quick search on the internet and I picked The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Peyton Place as the two films I would watch first. The former was a slow burn but brilliant though I will admit that it did strike me as a rather extended episode of The Twilight Zone (but that may just be because I am currently watching my way through the entire series of Rod Serling’s 150 episodes. Peyton Place on the other hand was a pleasant surprise.

We open on to a countryside village or town that is supposedly hidden away from the world. So hidden in fact that after the narrator [Allison Mackenzie (Diane Varsi)], one of the film’s leads and the town’s resident writer] introduces us to the village and its poetic mastery of the different seasons , a man ploughing a vast field comes into view. For a split second the viewer (or perhaps just I) considers the timeline to be closer to the early 1800’s. There is a distinct feeling of a village being stuck in time. Then just as suddenly a car passes along a road next to the field. The driver stops and hoots and asks for the directions to Peyton Place. The farmer on the plough responds in a barely audible tone that the town is just further down the road…

Michael Rossi (Lee Philips) the new principal of the local high school has just arrived in town and must begin to learn of the town’s oddly conservative ways. He first meets Constance Mackenzie (Turner) the local ‘widow’ who returned to Peyton Place after her so-called husband in New York died. She now lives alone with her teenage daughter Allison. Their housekeeper, Nellie Cross (Betty Field) is also the mother of Allison’s best friend Selena Cross (Hope Lange). Selena lives with her mother and her step father, Lucas Cross (Arthur Kennedy) in a ramshackle house on the edge of town. Allison is having a very innocent courtship of sorts with Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn), whose mother is extremely strict and controlling. Selena is involved with Ted Carter (David Nelson) who is convinced he will one day marry Selena. Other characters include the mayor’s son Rodney (Barry Coe) and his high school girlfriend Betty (Terry Moore) who is referred to as the local ‘tramp’, Dr. Swain (Loyd Nolan) the local doctor and confidante, and the high school’s most senior and beloved  teacher Miss Elsie Thornton (Mildred Dunnock). The rest of the minor characters make up the rather gossipy villagers.

On the outside the village is conservative and rather idyllic in its ‘dullness’. However the scandals that seem to erupt within each and every family makes the overall obsession with impropriety seem rather hypocritical. For instance Constance (Turner) is intent on controlling her teenage daughter’s social life and to keep her from being around boys, yet Constance also has a secret that involves Allison’s real father. The Cross family is probably the most damaged as the horrifying example of Selena  and her step father Lucas who rapes her the night after her graduation dance. She becomes pregnant and only confides in Dr. Swain. He refuses to ‘get rid of it’, but upon hearing of how the conception came about, goes directly to Lucas and forces the man to not only leave Peyton Place, but to also sign a confession of guilt. Selena loses the baby when she falls after attempting to run away from a very drunk and angry Lucas.

Other scandals include the rumours spread by local gossipers pertaining to Allison and Norman who innocently go swimming in the town’s lake. They are mistaken for another couple, Rodney and Betty who swam further away but without any clothes. Allison and Norman’s mothers are affected by the false accusations and believe their children know nothing about sex. In the meantime both teenagers had confessed to each other they had both ordered books about the subject that got delivered through the mail system in plain unmarked wrappers. Allison eludes to the town’s secrets when she states: “everybody in this town hides behind plain wrappers”. Another very clear example of the town’s innocence, and yet also a very poignant metaphor for the way in which the people of Peyton Place live their lives and are always covering up any hint of sex beneath a plain wrapper disguised as something else.

Within this town of secrets and lies Allison is determined to break free and become a writer, something that I can definitely identify with, coming from a small town myself. After graduation Allison writes during the summer months and gives her stories to Michael Rossi to read. He admits that she is a good writer but that the content of her stories would get her into trouble considering they are stories about the town’s inhabitants.

As the seasons pass Selena’s mother commits suicide by hanging in the Mackenzie home after discovering what happened to her daughter, Allison moves to New York to pursue her writing career, the boys are sent to war, Connie and Michael’s relationship ends and Rodney and Betty marry despite his father’s disapproval at Betty’s supposed reputation. Connie and Michael Rossi end their affair as she seems to believe he doesn’t have any true feelings for her and is only after a physical relationship.

After everything tearing the townspeople apart they are brought together by the aftermath of World War Two. Rodney is killed in action, and his father suddenly realizes the only family he has left is his son’s widow Betty whose kindness overwhelms him. Lucas returns from the Navy only to drunkenly attack Selena one day. She is forced to defend herself and ends up killing him, and burying him in the backyard. Selena confesses this to Connie who suggests she tell the police.

Fast forward several months and Selena is on trial for murder. Allison is returning to Peyton Place from her new home in New York, and she meets up with her beau Norman on the train returning home from the war. At the trial Selena is still adamant that no one should find out what Lucas did to her all that time ago, but eventually Dr. Swain feels compelled to tell the story – in turn he exonerates Selena by admitting that a terrible injustice happened to her at the hands of her step father, and his speech at the trial also accuses the town of being entrapped by their own gossip and judgemental ways.

The film ends on a positive note with Allison and Connie making up, Michael Rossi admitting his love for Connie, and the townspeople embracing Selena.

It is worth noting that the author of the novel upon which the film is based, Grace Metalious, wrote Peyton Place (1956) with a lot more impropriety and delved far deeper into the character’s controversy. However the film was censored and rewritten in order to follow the laws of the Hays Code. The Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, ran from 1930 to 1968, and was named after Will H. Hays. He was the president of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPAA) from 1922 to 1945, and enforced moral guidelines upon films produced during that era. Some of the issues/topics portrayed in this film were not considered acceptable according to the code that prohibited nudity, sex, abortion, illegal drug intake and childbirth (to name a few) to not even be discussed never mind portrayed. This sensitized version of her novel did not please the author at the time. However despite this the film did well after the added publicity attached to Lana Turner’s daughter’s trial.

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