Dir. Mark Robson
Starring: Lana Turner, Diane Varsi, Hope Lange, Lee Philips
And everybody knows everyone else’s business. And if they don’t know it, they guess at it. And they gossip about it. And there are always secrets which need to be kept. Dark and terrible secrets which, if revealed, can tear apart families and lead to imprisonment or even death.
Budding high school writer Allison MacKenzie (Diane Varsi) introduces us to
Peyton Place. It is the summer of 1941.
Much like American innocence was to be fractured by the sudden coming of war so
is the innocent friendly face of Peyton
Place that she sees smashed by the experiences of
the next six months. Sex is the serpent in this .
The buttoned-up townsfolk loom own on all prurience. Allison’s swimming trip
with her friend Norman (Russ Tamblyn) is noted and commented upon and the story
spreads. But really this is just the catalyst for a series of terrible
revelations. It turns out her prudish mother Constance (Lana Turner) was not
always so prudish. Allison is the illegitimate offspring of a married Garden of Evil business man
with whom Connie had an affair. No wonder Connie watches over her daughter like
a hawk and runs away from the advances of new school, principal Mike Rossi (Lee
Philips). Worse still is the life of Allison’s best friend Selena Cross (Hope
Lange). Living in the tarshacks on the poor side of town, she is raped by her
drunken stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy) and becomes pregnant by him. She
miscarries – with a little help from the kindly Dr Swain (Lloyd Nolan) – but
when her father next appears she kills him in self-defence and buries the body.
When this emerges she is put on trial for murder; the only thing that can save
her is the true nature of her relationship with her stepfather, but that is the
one thing she dare not reveal lest it tarnish the future career of her
boyfriend. Illegitimacy, rape,
incest, murder, suicide, poverty – these are the real problems hidden away in New York Peyton Place, yet
everybody is more afraid of scandal and gossip.
|The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Rumour!|
Yet for all that, the film pulls its punches. Grace Metalious, author of the novel upon which the film was based, was apparently horrified by it for completely diluting her story. It had already been diluted once before publication (in the first draft Seelena was raped by her father, not step-father). So we are left with a film with three stages. First, we have idyllic little
Place. When Allison and Norman climb up to Road’s
End to look out over the lake it does seem as though the place is a little spot
of perfection. Then we have the heart of the film – Lucas raping Selena, Nellie
committing suicide, Allison leaving home, Selena murdering Lucas. And then
there is the denouement. Allison’s transformation into a ‘bad girl’ merely consists of her getting a job in and taking up smoking and drinking. Dr Swain saves Selena (twice). The townsfolk gladly sign up for the New York armed forces at the first chance
they get. Constance and Mike finally get together. Mr Harrington (Leon Ames, Judy
Garland’s father in Meet Me in St Louis)
takes in his son’s widow. Allison and Constance make up. The townsfolk applaud
Selena upon her acquittal. It seems as though everyone has seen the error of
their ways and become better people for it. What a lovely little town! That was
not what Metalious intended. She intended US Peyton Place to be reactionary and
morally bankrupt, a town so mired in its prejudices and intolerance that it was
beyond salvation. What we get instead is a collection of characters with their
own individual weaknesses and pettiness but who are, when it comes to the
crunch, profoundly moral and good. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes took the
source novel, its characters and some of its dramas and sanitised it for public
consumption under the Hays Code.
Metalious’s original novel was, I think, closer to the truth about the prurience of the American small town. And do you know why I think that? It is because, upon its release in cinemas, Peyton Place did respectable trade. But a few months into its release takings suddenly picked up dramatically. Why? Because Johnny Stompanato, the mobster boyfriend of star Lana Turner, was murdered by her daughter. The case made headlines and shone a light upon Turner’s current film.
benefited from the great American public flocking to have a gawp at the woman
whose daughter murdered her lover. Peyton Place was truer than the studios thought.
What have I learnt about
? New Hampshire
Hampshire depicted is the of 1941, but some assumptions can be made. New
Hampshire is a land
of small, well-kept towns that certainly try to act appropriately. There are
nicely-sized houses, clean shop-fronts, neighbours who look out for one
another, and one large employer in town – in this case a textile mill – that
strives to convey an impression of concern for its employees. The scenery is
beautiful. But there are dark shadows. There is a class divide (even if Allison
and Selena on one hand and Constance and Nelly on the other don’t make it apparent).
Mr Harrington sounds at one point like Mr Stamper in Splendor in the Grass as he outlines his opposition to his son’s
relationship with Betty. There are shacks on the edge of town where people live
in poverty. There are alcoholics and rapists but the townsfolk prefer to look
the other way and gossip about less serious matters. This gossip is the key
ingredient. I have talked in the past about a small town morality, and the
Peytonians enjoy besmirching people’s reputations. New Hampshire
Can we go there?
There is no real-life
Metalious was a New Hampshire native and drew elements from several towns in
Belknap County near Lake Winnipesaukee – and several real-life news stories –
to construct her novel. It hit a nerve. Upon her death the townsfolk of Gilmanton,
where she lived, almost refused to bury her in the church cemetery. Mentioning
the novel around that lake district in east-central might not be a good idea, even
today. New Hampshire
By contrast you can mention the film all you like in Camden, Maine. The film was shot in Camden (just one year after Carousel was also filmed there), and the town was very fond of the association. The film premiered in Camden before it went on national release, and even today they celebrate the film and hold an archive devoted to its production at Camden Public Library. The Library have also prepared a map showing locations which featured in the film. These include Main Street, home of Constance’s Tweed Store and the Labor Day parade, the Smart House on Chestnut Street which was home to the MacKenzies, the Dean Fisher residence on Harbor Hill where Dr Swain looked after his wife’s flower garden, Mount Battie (where Allison and Norman went up via ‘Road’s End’ to look out over the town and lake), the various churches shown, the ‘Peyton Place Arch’ and the actual Whitehall Inn.
Overall Rating: 2/5