Peyton Place

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PEYTON PLACE whispered, sighed and moaned its way into the American lexicon as shorthand for furtive sexual conduct and moral hypocrisy.  Feisty author Grace Metalious batted away critics snubs with “If I’m a lousy writer, then an awful lot of people have lousy taste”, which is inarguable, yet decorum deficiency alone can’t account for her 1956 novel selling a gargantuan 32,000,000 copies (hard & soft, as it were, as long as we’re being frank and smutty). Coupling curiosity surged panting hordes to this bowdlerized 1957 adaptation, figuring on some naughtiness, dragging pony tails across crew cuts in anticipation of who would play which characters and how much cinema-sin would they get away with.  A classy chassis, along with publicity, both good and bad, won out and the movie ranked #2 for the year, grossing $25,600,000, and studio-butted its way to nine Oscar nominations, some of them deserved.

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Jacketed by the production code,screenwriter John Michael Hayes had to temper the Metalious boil to a simmer, while director Mark Robson saw to it that the $2,200,000 expended showed up in William C. Mellor’s camera-work on the beautiful Maine and New York locations.  Franz Waxman’s lovely main theme music and its rich violin strains beckon nostalgia, both for the 1940s setting of the story and in instant familiarity to the generations that heard it in this movie and the later TV series. Sections of the soundtrack further into the picture reach too much into Big Moment territory, but that title caress is a classic.

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With a cluster of subplots, the running time stretches to a tiring yet entertaining 157 minutes. Basically a high-gloss, high calorie, nutrition challenged melodramatic goulash, artfully displayed, with some tasty ingredients worth picking out, mixed with others that should have been thrown out before baking.

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While reveling in the money—before blowing it all—Metalious didn’t enjoy producer Jerry Wald and Hollywood (“I regarded the men who made Peyton Place as workers in a gigantic flesh factory”). She hated the script, which sugar-coated the class issues and corruption raised in the novel, and she dumped a drink on screenwriter Hayes during lunch at Romanoff’s.*  Still, her scandal-riven story has enough meat to hold up against cleaving, with the towns citizenry suffering quietly under alcoholism, rape, suicide, implied incest, homicide and the pesky arrival of World War Two (at least the weather is nice, no blizzards).

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If Hayes adaptation doesn’t scorch, it at least keeps an adequate temperature and the best acting—the only good acting—comes from some of the supporting cast, chiefly Lloyd Nolan (steady as the doctor and town conscience), Arthur Kennedy (drunk, vile and unrepentant, asking for it ), Hope Lange (delicate, never so pretty ), Russ Tamblyn (shy and abused, miles away from the cockiness of West Side Story) and the debuting Diane Varsi (still waters running deep).

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That good work vies with the wet wood lugged by the leads, Lana Turner and Lee Philips. Turner, 35, received her only Oscar nomination, but she’s just okay. She was better in The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Three Musketeers and The Bad And The Beautiful, but subtlety wasn’t her forte. Told to pout, pose & smolder and she could manage, but here, as the uptight, sexually repressed shop owner ‘Constance MacKenzie’, she summons more irritation than sympathy. Hollywood must have been laughing over the casting irony, as Lana Turner & Sexually Repressed are in the dictionary under ‘mutually exclusive’.

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She has to act with Philips, though, and that would handicap a Hepburn or Streep. Someone in the Fox hierarchy made the numbskull decision to give this charisma-free fellow his debut launch as the male lead in a big budget release that everyone wanted to see. This is why chairs labeled ‘Vice-President’ are the lightweight folding kind. To be fair to the guy, the scenes written and directed for him are as overwrought as his delivery.  At least he and Turner had competition for Bad that year, won by Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, emoting like it was the last bus out of high school in another book-marker, A Farewell To Arms. Meanwhile, Lana’s personal firestorms would add an estimated 30% to the box office, as we shall discover below in the milling throng at Asterisk Place.

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Along with Turner’s bid for Best Actress, the other Oscar nominations here came for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actors (Kennedy and Tamblyn), Supporting Actresses (Varsi and Lange) and Cinematography. No wins.

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The idyllic postcard locations in Maine were mainly done in Camden, with side jaunts to Belfast and Rockland; a few scenes were shot in New York at Lake Placid. Camden, while managing to look much the same, profited from association with the forbidden fruit of book and Hollywood.  Also in the cast: Terry Moore (awful as ever), Barry Coe, David Nelson, Betty Field, Lorne Greene, Leon Ames, Mildred Dunnock (a small, moving role, well done), Scotty Morrow, Erin O’Brien-Moore and John Doucette.

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* The Tangled Web Zone………Grace Metalious, after outraging the thinly veiled (and thin-skinned) New Hampshire town of Gilmanton with her 372 page backhand (the hamlets of Laconia and Alton, also implicated, didn’t seem to care), and dissing Hollywood, wrote three more hard-breathing novels including “Return To Peyton Place”, filmed in 1961. Free-spirited, free-loving and free-boozing, she died at 39 of cirrhosis in 1964, the same year TV started a five-year run of Peyton Place. While giving 514 episodes of employment to a slew of good actors like Dorothy Malone and Lee Grant, it also bears blame for palming off on us—speaking of dysfunctional families— Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow. Is this  property cursed?

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John Michael Hayes whose credits ranged from superb (Rear Window) to stupid (Harlow), recovered from being anointed by an affronted Metalious, and wrote the script for Where Love Has Gone, off Harold Robbins prodigious trashheap, loosely based on Lana Turner’s notorious 1958 courtroom travail that spurred extra attention to Peyton Place.  Angered that Lana wouldn’t take him to the Oscar ceremony at which she was a nominee, her boyfriend, gangster Johnny Stompanato, attacked her. Turner’s daughter stabbed the hood to death and the resultant trial (acquittal/justifiable homicide/ good riddance) not only didn’t finish Turners’ career (it certainly put Johnny’s on ice), but added millions to this films box-office and the nothing-if-not-resilient actress kept adding steamy melodramas to her resume (and three more husbands to her cache of 7): “I liked the boys and they liked me.”

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Lee Philips movie jobs went nowhere fast; he moved to TV, then switched to the other side of the camera and had a long career as a director in television. Diane Varsi, 18 at the time this was filmed, stumbled in embracing filmlands stresses and had a spotty career that ceased in 1977:she passed away at 54 in 1992. Handsome but bland Barry Coe faded in a few years, after a disastrous performance in The 300 Spartans.  The wake left by Peyton Place—reputations, careers, a punctured hoodlum (“That is Lana Turner“)— has to include the observation that all those re-read passages in those millions of paperbacks and the millions spent on popcorn and Coke’s at drive-ins watching ‘Rodney Harrington’ paw ‘Betty Anderson’ (those who were using the drive-in to watch, that is) came in great part from a generation somehow magically spawned by the greatest communal sex-fest in American history, the Baby Boom. Who was kidding who about being shocked?  Oh, yeah, Lana Turner as a frigid lady…..

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