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DVD SAVANT

Peyton Place
Fox Studio Classics


Peyton Place
Fox Studio Classics
1957 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 156 162 min. / Street Date March 2, 2004 / 14.98
Starring Lana Turner, Lee Phillips, Lloyd Nolan, Arthur Kennedy, Russ Tamblyn, Diane Varsi, Hope Lange, Terry Moore
Cinematography William Mellor
Art Direction Jack Martin Smith, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor David Bretherton
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by John Michael Hayes from the book by Grace Metalious
Produced by Jerry Wald
Directed by Mark Robson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Producer Jerry Wald did a magic act with Peyton Place, turning a "book that could not be filmed" (at a time when that statement meant something) into a hit picture that found popular acclaim, even if the critics reviled it. It earned a pile of nominations, including Best Picture.

Now Peyton Place plays like an embarrasing soap opera given a high gloss. It's certainly entertaining, and it's a quality movie by industry standards, yet it's the exact opposite of everything Grace Metalious' scorching novel was meant to be. It's typical for a so-called dangerous book on the way to the screen to be stripped of everything but its hot name, and then be heralded as a courageous effort when it's just trying to make a buck from a scandalous phenomenon. In this case I think the public perceived the original as just a dirty book and therefore didn't mind the whitewash. After all, the movie retained some racy content.

Synopsis:

New school principal Michael Rossi (Lee Phillips) comes to Peyton Place, which would be a nice small town if it weren't for all the gossip, wanton sex and scandal that seem to roost on every doorstep. Bitter Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner) hides the secret of her out-of-wedlock daughter Allison (Diane Varsi), a sweet girl who doesn't understand her mother's repressive measures. Allison's girlfriend Selena Cross (Hope Lange) is a poor girl trying to escape the incestuous advances of her degenerate stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). They're wooed by the shy mama's boy Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn) and local rich boy, Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe), although Rodney also has eyes for the town's fast girl Betty Anderson (Terry Moore). It's a hotbed of intrigue and tragedy in the making. Can the wiser old folks help the new generation avoid the pitfalls of their parents?

Some of the "scandalous" book is here, incestuous rape, mainly. But most of the salacious content of Grace Metalious' barn-burner is conspicuously missing or only given the nod of allusion, as if book-readers were meant to fill in the blanks for themselves. Constance Mackenzie staggers her daughter with the information that she's illegitimate. Young Norman Page appears to be under the unhealthy influence of his own mother. The white-trash Cross family produces a daughter so alien to their environment, she comes off like Marilyn Munster. The young folks are sexually rambunctious, the parents are fanatically suspicious and the old folks are meddling gossipers.

Grace Metalious' bitter novel has a point: underneath the sweet complacency of every little town is a stench of sin and repression that 50s America is loath to acknowledge. The alienation she focuses on is sexual, just as other 'subversive' 50s cultural touchstones like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers are politically-based. Rip the lid from her original Peyton Place, and you'll find ugliness and hatred stamping out the few sparks of joy. Metalious made herself into a pariah by basing her story on real people in her own town - recognizably so. Books were still being banned in the 1950s, and she tapped into a more mainstream vein than did other authors that found fame in scandal, like Henry Miller.

Peyton Place the movie covers the book in a glaze of Hollywood glamour. The township of Peyton Place is too beautiful to be evil. The real trouble is isolated and would be easily rooted out if it weren't for old-fashioned suspicion and ignorant gossip. There's no ugliness in human nature, only tragic misunderstandings.

Obviously the movie couldn't depict the pages that were marked in everyone's copy of the book - the scenes with explicit descriptions of people lusting, having sex, and not being ashamed about it. One by one, the dangerous material is neutered. Two kids don't skinny-dip, the girl just wears a tan-colored bathing suit. An abortion is downgraded into a miscarriage, but a nurse is still scandalized as if it had been an abortion. The town bad girl becomes a misunderstood good girl. The implied incest theme with Norman Page is reduced to a rumor of a rumor.

So we're left with a torpid soap opera where selected sage spokemen like the liberal school principal or the wise old doctor played by Lloyd Nolan do their best to help the kids traumatized by the rest of the town. The implication is not that the place needs to be razed and sewn with salt, but that a little love and understanding will heal all wounds. Mark Robson was Val Lewton's least interesting disciple and his direction here plasters the film with a flat, pictorial neutrality. Here and there it resembles Picnic but it never approaches that picture's feeling of painful romantic hopelessness. Even with a handsome Franz Waxman score, the film drags through much of its two hours and thirty-six minutes.

The acting in Peyton Place is quite good. Lana Turner accepted her first "mother" part and got a best actress nomination from it, although the character of Constance MacKenzie is only in her thirties. I guess no stars wanted to play her pragmatic educator boyfriend, because Lee Philips is pretty thick in the role. He was even worse as an alcoholic jet pilot in the next year's The Hunters but eventually found himself in a long and successful career as a television director.

Arthur Kennedy's showoff turn as a degenerate shanty dad got a nomination, but so did Russ Tamblyn's neurotic kid Norman. He straightens out in the military, the Conservative's cure for all teen ills. Tamblyn and Kennedy's vote was split, so say the Oscar experts, guaranteeing that neither would win. Ditto for the bright young actresses Hope Lange and Diane Varsi. Lange already had movie experience and would continue with a varied career; the sensitive Varsi quit acting after a couple more interesting roles and then came back several years later to appear almost exclusively in AIP exploitation pictures. They're what's really worthwhile about seeing Peyton Place (a Lana Turner fan Savant is not). Nobody else stands out, even when each is given an emotional highlight.

The overboiled sexy soap approach was to continue in big-budget Hollywood pictures, with no end of teen-angst and dimestore Freud trotted out to make the exploitative subject acceptable. Delmer Daves practically absorbed the franchise with his 1960 super hit A Summer Place ('place', get it?). It combined Sandra Dee, repressive parents, vacant teen Troy Donohue and an unwanted pregnancy into a stew of confused morals and attractive context. Max Steiner's "let's pet" Theme From A Summer Place and the "innocent" chemistry between the youngsters probably accounted for a baby boom early the following year. Daves tried to repeat the formula in two more Troy Donohue losers (Parrish, Susan Slade) and not long thereafter the unfilmable Peyton Place became a humdrum television serial.


Fox presents Peyton Place in their Studio Classics line in a fine transfer that shows off the picture-postcard CinemaScope views of the photogenic Maine hamlet that stood in for Grace Metalious' home town. The audio track is solid. Either the elements for this picture aged well or have been nicely rejuvenated, because the DVD looks great.

The attractive transfer is matched by an excellent AMC Backstory program showing the arc of the Peyton franchise from scandalous book to oversold TV staple. It's interesting to hear how golden-boy producer Jerry Wald cagily put the movie together with a mix of old timers and new talent. Turner, the "torrid" star of a decade previous, soon became entangled with her daughter in her own scandalous court case. The docu has the right spirit, even if it doesn't quite peg Peyton Place for what it is, a cultural freak show.

The disc extras include a couple of newsreel items and a full-length commentary shared by Russ Tamblyn and second-string actress Terry Moore. Russ is as honest as ever about his career and open about the business and this particular film. He runs out of things to say that are film-specific and after a while is telling tales about loaning his Malibu house out to Elvis Presley for parties, etc. Terry Moore has almost nothing of value to contribute. She merely bounces off images on the screen with lame observations, uniformly praising everyone with superlatives. She reminds us how groundbreaking the film was when new, and how disgustingly literal all the risqué content would be if filmed now. She makes sure we know that she starred in the very first two Cinemascope films, Beneath the Twelve-Mile Reef and King of the Khyber Rifles.  1 Revelations about her character don't go deeper than the clothing she wore. A typical Moore observation: How amazing it is that all the kids we see in the picture, now must be adults, and all the older folks are probably dead. Gee, makes ya think, doesn't it? About twenty minutes after Tamblyn stopped contributing, I gave up on the commentary, so if Moore finished with the wisdom of the ages, I missed it.

Fox's packaging skips the film's latent camp value and aims for quality drama status, sidestepping less refined language by saying that Arthur Kennedy "traumatizes" Hope Lange. Since she's his stepdaughter, I guess it's technically not incest (?). The credit block on the disc includes Grace Metalious' name but the original advertising materials did not, which is very curious.

With the docu to fill us in on just what the fuss was about Peyton Place in 1957, this is a very entertaining and fun disc.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Peyton Place rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by Terry Moore and Russ Tamblyn; AMC Backstory: Peyton Place; Movietone Newsreels of Premiere and Photoplay Magazine awards
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 23, 2004


Footnote:

1. Gee, whatever happened to The Robe, the official first CinemaScope picture? According to the records, How to Marry a Millionaire was the second.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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