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With its saga of infidelity, rape, suicide and corruption in a small New England town, By Love Possessed (1961) seemed like a return to Peyton Place. Throw in that film's leading lady, and the connection gets even stronger. And just to stir up the pop culture soup a bit more, the picture also featured one of television's favorite private eyes, a two-time Oscar® winner, Hollywood's most acclaimed tanning artist, the mother of the men behind American Pie, Dallas's Miss Ellie, Scarlett O'Hara's father, Batgirl and Archie Bunker.
It all started as a best-selling and rather lengthy novel by James Gould Cozzens. His tale of intrigue in a small-town law firm had toppled Peyton Place from the top of the best-seller list, then held the position for five months. The book had been acclaimed by conservative critics for using all that sin to reaffirm basic family values, while Cozzens courted infamy when an interviewer cited him for racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic comments.
The same year he won an Oscar® for producing West Side Story (1961), Walter Mirisch picked up the screen rights to By Love Possessed for $250,000 and assigned the script to Charles Schnee, who had scored with the Hollywood soap opera The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Schnee cut the controversy but kept the sin. He also reset the film in New England (most critics thought the novel's setting was Doylestown, Pennsylvania), allowing for some beautiful location shots of Groton and Fitchburg, Massachusetts. But Mirisch wasn't happy with the rest of the screenplay and called in three other writers to improve it. As a result, Schnee sued to have his name taken off the picture, and the credit went to John Dennis, a pseudonym.
For all the problems, director John Sturges, who had just finished the classic western The Magnificent Seven (1960), gave the film a sense of heightened melodrama, helped greatly by Lana Turner's performance as a straying wife who flirts with both her husband's law partner and the partner's son. As described by one critic, "it's a role she does wellthe dame with a surface elegance glossing a wanton brassiness."
As for the cultural soup:
- Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., then the star of TV's 77 Sunset Strip, co-stars as the lawyer who drifts into an affair with Turner until his son is accused of rape;
- Jason Robards, Jr., who won back-to-back Supporting Actor Oscars® for All the President's Men (1976) and Julia (1977), plays Turner's husband, left impotent after an auto accident;
- Perpetually tanned George Hamilton is Zimbalist's son, who turns to the small-town floozy (as if Lana weren't enough for any town) after Turner rejects him;
- Susan Kohnerwho retired from the screen to raise her sons Paul and Chris Weiz, later the director and producer, respectively, of the surprise 1999 hit American Pieplays Hamilton's fiancée;
- Barbara Bel Geddes, future star of Dallas, is Zimbalist's wife, whose hospitalization drives him into Turner's arms (as if any man ever needed an excuse for that);
- Gone With the Wind star Thomas Mitchell, in one of his last performances, plays Bel Geddes' father, the crooked lawyer whose embezzlement sends Zimbalist into a moral tailspin (see, it really wasn't his fault);
- Yvonne Craig of Batman fame is the floozy chased by Hamilton (remember him);
- And at the bottom of the cast list is Carroll O'Connor, who would achieve stardom in All in the Family as a man who would have forbidden his daughter to see or read By Love Possessed while sneaking a peek at both himself.
Director: John Sturges
Producer: Walter Mirisch
Screenplay: John Dennis, from the novel by James Gould Cozzens
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Principle Cast: Lana Turner (Marjorie Penrose), Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (Arthur Winner), Jason Robards, Jr. (Julius Penrose), George Hamilton (Warren Winner), Susan Kohner (Helen Detweiler), Barbara Bel Geddes (Clarissa Winner), Thomas Mitchell (Noah Tuttle),Yvonne Craig (Veronica Kovacs), Carroll O'Connor (Bernie Breck).
By Frank Miller