Friday, May 15, 2020

A Cleaned-Up, Compelling Peyton Place Scores Big in 1957

2oth Century Fox’s shrewdly crafted 1957 film version of Grace Metalious’ eye-popping novel from the previous year, which caught the public’s fancy for juicy, salacious material few would admit to reading while copies flew off shelfs in record numbers, Peyton Place offers engrossing entertainment, with memorable emoting from some well-cast performers at the top of their respective games helping to maintain viewers’ interest throughout a lengthy running time. Although the movie has to sidestep or dilute some of the book’s darker territory, which included incest, rape, abortion, adultery and, for good measure, a severed arm (no wonder citizens of the town Metalious based her no-holds-barred story on were outraged), onscreen Place was still progressive by production codes standards of the day, managing to address many of the book’s adult themes while keeping the movie appealing to the masses- Darryl Zanuck owed screenwriter John Michael Hayes a huge bonus for keeping a fine balance between the ribald and respectable, as the movie was embraced by the public and reaped some of the biggest grosses of the decade (according to Variety, the late-1957 release was second only to The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1958, with Place garnering $12,000,000 in U.S./Canadian rentals). 

For Lana Turner, the role of Constance MacKenzie provided a chance to take on a mature, juicy part in a high-profile project after her time at MGM had passed a couple of years prior. Constance proves an ideal fit for the star; there’s not a lot of novels you’d read and think, “I see Lana Turner in this character,” but the great-lady airs Turner brought to roles as a “big MGM star” (even after she left the studio) perfectly match up with Constance, a woman putting on a classy, aloof front at all times to hide a shady past. Turner properly appears both apprehensive and standoffish, and although there are a few moments she may overdo the dramatics, she also has some impressive emotional scenes, particularly with co-lead Diana Varsi as her independent-minded daughter Allison. Turner has been unfairly knocked during her lifetime and beyond for not being much of an actress; however, in a manner similar to Natalie Wood, Turner can go from giving a perfunctory performance to turning on some riveting emoting when a meaty scene gives her a chance to dive in, and her histrionic skill combined with the baby-doll quality Turner never completely lost, especially during highly emotional scenes, showcases an impressive screen presence and draws the viewer in. In her memoir Turner expressed surprise she won her sole Oscar nomination for Place, as she felt she didn’t do much in the film to warrant recognition, but she’s very well cast and does focused, professional work. Even if she did get the nod as part of the sweep that saw Place end up with nine nominations (if no eventual wins), I think Turner’s work holds up and merits this sole Academy approval she received.

         As Allison, Varsi makes a substantial impact in her first film, managing to convey the character’s poetic, innocent nature while possessing a calm, intelligent, ethereal quality that allows for highly individual work- Varsi is no ordinarily starlet slickly manufactured by the studio system. Her freshness and direct acting style (Varsi does a great job focusing on and naturally reacting to whomever she’s onscreen with) lends a modern element to the melodramatic proceedings. Adeptly handling much of the melodrama as Selena Cross, Allison’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks friend who doesn’t catch one good break during the film, mostly due to her odious stepfather’s unwelcomed advances, Hope Lange provides many riveting moments as she pushes herself to depths of despair not commonly seen onscreen. Although Lange would remain a professional, likeable performer after her breakthrough here (including winning two Emmys for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and winding up in Blue Velvet, which would make an interesting double bill with Place in demonstrating how far a filmmaker could go in depicting controversial material during and after the production code’s rigid censorship ruled Hollywood) she’s possibly most unforgettable depicting Selena’s many travails, mixing a quiet grace with powerhouse emoting and obtaining truckloads of audience empathy as Selena’s plight unfolds and she faces one travesty after another.

         Of the huge cast filled with well-known names, several manage to make a strong impression although with the three female leads. Arthur Kennedy does a great job of mixing relatable and repulsive characteristics into his portrayal of Lucas Cross, Selena’s less-than admirable wayward stepfather responsible for plenty of the drama that goes down. As the venerated schoolteacher, Mildred Dunnock has some good moments with Kennedy and instills a nice touch of bitterness later when she’s passed over as school principal and informs a sympathetic Allison to go get want she wants in life, “Don’t wait for anyone to give it to you.” Lloyd Nolan is wonderful as the town’s moral conscience, Doc Swain, and wisely plays in a down-to-earth, sometimes tough manner that keeps the good doctor (who seems to be a stand-in for the audience at times, in saying and acting as we would if aware of the town’s dirty underbelly) from becoming tiresome.

As she did several years earlier in parts of Come Back, Little Sheba, Terry Moore shows a knack for playing a tease while keeping the audience on her side, in possibly the role most sanitized from the book, as “town tramp” Betty Anderson, who in the film deeply loves her rich conquest, Rodney Harrington (a likeable Barry Coe). Moore has a great scene in a car with Coe wherein she manages to infer quite a bit of sexual energy onscreen, even though limitations prevented Betty from being as misbehaved as what she pulled off in the book. One of the things I love best about classic movies is how creative artists couldn’t overtly show certain mature aspects on film (specifically anything to do with sex) due to the production code, and therefore had to come up with ways to suggest these shenanigans without actually portraying the sins. Leaving things to the imagination ironically can lead an audience to think up situations far beyond what was intended, and I bet filmmakers had fun creating scenes like this fairly racy encounter between wayward lovers Betty and Rodney. 

         Although set in the early 1940’s, Peyton Place aptly captures the mores of the late-1950’s (including the increasingly prevalent generation gap), at least as they might appear on-screen in compellingly melodramatic fashion. Mark Robson’s direction admirably maintains a consistent tone in introducing and detailing the many characters and events without letting the drama move too much into far-fetched territory, as well as frequently showcasing the Camden, Maine locations in all their magnificence, providing an interesting offering of beautiful backdrops to frame all the unsavory story elements. Viewed as an impressive, tasteful rendering of source material deemed inappropriate for the screen (if wildly popular on the printed page) upon its release, Place still holds up as a prime example of how well a studio equipped with A-1 production values across the board could pull off a big-screen adaptation of a controversial bestseller by maintaining the flavor of the novel and offering some of its eye-opening content, while simultaneously classing things up enough for the lauded film to be eagerly consumed by the masses, who could go with their families to this “adult” movie and still appear respectable to their friends and neighbors, many of who probably had a copy of Peyton Place stashed in a closet. 


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