Peyton Place is a movie my mom and I would call a “4:30 movie.” When I was growing up, one of our local television stations would show movies every weekday afternoon at 4:30. Most of them were from the 1950s and early 1960s, and, possibly so they could lure viewers coming off the afternoon soap opera block, most were the “women’s pictures” of the era.
Unfortunately, back then, any movie in a wide-screen format was shown in what was known as “pan and scan.” The ratio was changed to fit most TV screens of the day, cutting off part of the image on either side of the frame. If something important occurred in the cut out section, an editor would adjust the frame to include it, hence the term “panning and scanning.” The quality of the image was also rather grainy.
We didn’t know any better (until my mother started working for a film distribution company and I pursued a degree in film studies in college). We loved movies like Peyton Place. It wasn’t as if it was an epic like Ben-Hur or Spartacus, so it didn’t seem important that we were missing some of the image in the frame.
As showing films in letterbox format became more accepted, it was a revelation to see wide screen films in their original format. I remember feeling as if Spartacus and Ben-Hur were almost completely different movies in their correct format.
But our 4:30 movies? What difference did it make, really? The quality of the image and the format were irrelevant to our enjoyment of them, we thought.
We were totally wrong about that.
When TCM came into existence, movies like Peyton Place changed from my “4:30” movies to my “jammies” movies. That meant when they were shown on a Saturday or Sunday morning, it was unlikely I was going to change out of my jammies that day. (Especially when a bunch of these movies were shown one after the other.)
When I began watching more and more wide screen movies in their original format, I noticed something. The format made a difference even with movies that were intimate dramas, like Peyton Place, and I began enjoying them on a new level.
It is not an overstatement to say that Grace Metalious’ novel Peyton Place was a literary sensation back in its day. In fact, it was so popular it was estimated at one point that 1 in every 37 households in the U.S.A. owned a copy. Basically a mother/daughter tale, it takes place in a small New Hampshire town that is as pretty as a postcard. Underneath the quaint charm and stunning vistas, the town hides a mass of ugliness: poverty, child abuse, crime, apathy, backbiting, and hypocrisy. The book is like a machine gun, determined to take down every assumption about small town American life. It’s also very frank about sexual matters, which is one reason it was both popular and reviled.
The main character Allison MacKenzie is clearly based on Metalious, who like Allison had been an aspiring writer as a teen and had a glamorous mother who she felt didn’t understand her at all.
Not surprisingly, the book could not reach the screen as written. The Hayes Code was still in effect, though by the late 1950s filmmakers were finding ways to get around it more and more. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes (Rear Window) was hired to write the screenplay, and he did an admirable job of keeping most of the main story intact, even some of the more sensational parts, though he was forced to whitewash certain aspects.
The story begins with the arrival in town of new school principal Michael Rossi (Lee Phillips). The students, particularly Allison (Diane Varsi), are upset that their teacher Miss Thornton (Mildred Dunnock) was passed over for the job. Nevertheless, he soon wins over the town, in spite of having “new” ideas, such as teaching sex education in the school. Rossi becomes interested in Allison’s mother Constance (Lana Turner) but she rebuffs him. Constance is terrified that Allison will get the “wrong” reputation, which causes great conflict between mother and daughter.
The son of the richest man in town, Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe), is in love with a girl named Betty (Terry Moore) who is considered too “fast” by his father. He tries to encourage Rodney to date Allison, who isn’t really interested in him. She prefers Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn) a shy boy with an overbearing mother.
Allison’s best friend Selena Cross (Hope Lange) lives on the “wrong side of the tracks” with her mother and stepfather. One night, her drunken stepfather rapes her. She becomes pregnant and begs Doc Swain (Lloyd Nolan) to “give her something.” He refuses, but gets her to admit her stepfather made her pregnant. He forces Cross to write down a confession and leave town for good. Selena miscarries, but Doc Swain falsifies medical records to protect her.
Selena’s mother Nellie, distraught over what has happened to her daughter, hangs herself. During an argument with her mother, where Constance confesses she never married her father, Allison discovers Nellie’s body. After recovering from the shock, Allison leaves Peyton Place. A few months later World War II breaks out. Most of the young men in town are drafted or join up, including Rodney, who is now married to Betty. Rodney is killed in action. Norman becomes a hero in the paratroopers.
Constance, after resisting Michael for a long time, finally tells him the truth about her past. He accepts her unconditionally and the two confess their love for each other.
Selena’s stepfather returns. During a struggle, Selena kills him and buries him in her yard. When he is sought out for desertion from the Navy, Selena confesses to Constance, who calls the police. Allison returns for the trial. At the trial Doc Swain tells the reason why Selena killed her stepfather and gives a speech criticizing the ugliness and pettiness that drives the young people away from their home town. Selena is acquitted. Allison and her mother reconcile.
Yes, it’s a pretty melodramatic story, but it tackles certain issues seriously, such as sexual abuse. It’s interesting that the film doesn’t shy away from this aspect of the original story. Doc Swain performs an abortion in the book, which, not surprisingly, had to be changed for the movie. And Selena is not the sweet little waif-like creature in the book as she is in the movie, an obvious bid to make audience members more sympathetic to her situation. But otherwise, it sticks pretty close to the book.
The relationship between Constance and Mike is markedly different. (The Mike Rossi character is named Tom Makris in the book–it had to be changed because Metalious named the character after a real person, who sued her for defamation. In more recent editions of the book the original name has been restored, presumably because the real-life Makris is now deceased.)
In the book, he is a “sex on a stick” hunk. No offense to Lee Phillips, but he hardly fit that mold. Makris is also obnoxious about “truth-telling,” constantly haranguing Constance and others about the evil of being circumspect, or even just discreet. (He functions as Metalious’ mouthpiece for her criticism of small town hypocrisy.) Mike in the film is more compassionate and patient.
In spite of the mostly honest depiction of sexuality in the book, the first encounter between Constance and Tom (Mike) is very much on the “bodice-ripper-y” side. Something very common in fiction back then, because “nice” women weren’t supposed to say yes, but it’s a bit shocking Metalious resorted to that kind of cliché. In the movie, the (of course, only implied) physical consummation of their relationship is presented as entirely consensual.
The biggest change from book to screen, however, is how the male characters who serve in the war are depicted. In the book, Rodney doesn’t marry Betty (she is bought off by his father) and he never serves in the war because his father pulls a lot of strings to get him a deferment. Instead, Rodney dies in a car accident while sexually distracted by the young woman in his company. Norman serves but has a mental breakdown and gets a medical discharge. His mother covers this up so people will believe he was a war hero. Selena’s boyfriend Ted keeps putting off going into the service, using student deferments, much to Selena’s disgust. Also, unlike in the movie, Ted abandons Selena during her trial.
Except for perfect Tom, Metalious really stuck it to the men in the book, (even Doc Swain in the book has an ugly side–he’s a secret drinker and enjoys making racist jokes). The women don’t come out much better–most are judgmental gossips–though Constance is a very complex character. I read an article once that described her as the “original desperate housewife,” and I think that’s very apt.
Director Mark Robson and cinematographer William C. Mellor took full advantage of the CinemaScope format. The film was shot in and around Camden, Maine, and there are many images of the beautiful countryside during all four seasons. The breathtaking vistas contrast with the smallness and ugliness hiding in the people who live in the town. In the beginning of the film, Mike drives past the Cross home (really a shack) just before he crosses the railroad tracks into town. The beauty is dotted with poverty and despair.
My one complaint is that the vistas are accompanied by some really horrible voice-over narration by Varsi. One assumes that the voice-over is comprised of samples of Allison’s exceptional prose skills, but to me it’s like listening to nails dragged across a chalkboard. In my opinion, it’s the one major misstep by screenwriter Hayes.
Another way Robson used the wide screen was to separate Allison from other characters–in groups of people, she is often shot way over to one side or the other. She is an outsider in her home and her home town, something I think was true of Metalious, who was seen as a non-conformist and even a scandalous woman by her neighbors. There are also scenes between mother and daughter where they stand on opposite sides of the screen, to represent the emotional gulf between them.
The movie had an extended life, in various senses of the term. It was the second-highest grossing film of the year, but mainly because Lana Turner’s real life erupted into scandal when her daughter stabbed Turner’s gangster lover to death during an argument. The way Turner’s life echoed the mother/daughter relationship in the movie drove many more people to see it.
The movie was nominated for nine Academy Awards, though it did not win any. Peyton Place was Lana Turner’s sole Oscar nomination. I do think it was one of her better performances. (Unlike some of the other actors, she refrained from using a thick New England accent.)
There was a sequel a few years later, Return to Peyton Place, which includes a few things from the book left out of the first movie (or instance, Allison’s affair with her married publisher). None of the original actors returned for the sequel. Varsi was attached to star in the film, but it never came about. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Peyton Place and won a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year (which she shared with Sandra Dee and Carolyn Jones), but her rising star quickly plummeted. After making a few movies, she left Hollywood and did not resume her career until the late 1960s.
Then there were the various television incarnations of the novel/movie, which included a prime time soap opera and some one-off television movies. Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal became stars as Allison and Rodney in the TV version (their relationship in the storyline was changed to that of star-crossed lovers).
But most of all I love the original movie, and still enjoy curling up in front of my TV in my jammies to watch it. Now I can appreciate the beauty of the CinemaScope photography along with its heated yet emotional and engrossing story.