Sunday, 22 July 2012

Peyton Place (1957)

Dir. Mark Robson
Starring: Lana Turner, Diane Varsi, Hope Lange, Lee Philips

Peyton Place is one of those picture-perfect New England towns, the sort you have probably always dreamed about. The wooden shopfronts are immaculate, the streets clean and tidy. From the wooded hills you can gaze out over the glittering New Hampshire lakes. The townsfolk are courteous and everybody knows everyone else’s name. 

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 Garden of Evil. 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 New York 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 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 Peyton 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 New York and taking up smoking and drinking. Dr Swain saves Selena (twice). The townsfolk gladly sign up for the US 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 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. Peyton Place 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?
The New Hampshire depicted is the New Hampshire 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. 

Can we go there?
There is no real-life Peyton Place. 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 New Hampshire might not be a good idea, even today. 

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 

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