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"The town -- The people -- Everyone's talking about!"
Tag line for Peyton Place
Everyone was talking about Peyton Place long before Grace Metalious's first novel hit the screen in 1957. The scandalous tale of small-town secrets had transformed the world of publishing while also creating an uproar in more conservative quarters with its tale of rape, seduction, abortion, sadomasochism and illegitimacy. A Rhode Island shop owner had even been arrested for selling it to minors. On film, however, it emerged as a paean to small-town America and a touching tale of young love threatened by small minds, thanks to the clever maneuvering of producer Jerry Wald.
Peyton Place was hardly the first literary work to lay bare the scandals and hypocrisies of small-town life. It had its roots in 19th-century melodramas like East Lynne and Henry Bellamann's popular novel King's Row, filmed by Warner Bros. in 1942. But Metalious's book was the most successful written to that time. Its sales -- over three million copies, mostly in paperback -- changed the way publishers released books. They also wreaked havoc on Metalious's life. Before she sold the book, she had been living in near-poverty in New England. Suddenly she was rich, with a new group of friends determined to party away every cent the book was making. She also never matched the book's success or built on the promise some critics found in her writing. For that matter, she was also haunted by suggestions that the book was largely autobiographical.
Producer Jerry Wald was no stranger to transforming scandalous texts into culturally acceptable movies. As a producer at Warner Bros., he had maintained a file of stories blocked by the censors, some of which -- including Mildred Pierce (1945) and Johnny Belinda (1948) -- he actually managed to get on screen. With Peyton Place, he started by stripping the book of its foul language and some of the more sensationalistic subject matter. Young Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn) remained a mama's boy, but with no suggestion that he reveled in being whipped by his mother. Selena Cross (Hope Lange), pregnant after being raped by her stepfather, lost the child through a miscarriage rather than an abortion. And icy blonde Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner) thawed to the advances of manly school principal Mike Rossi (Lee Philips) without the benefit of the novel's nude swim. In this, Wald was greatly helped by screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who had learned the fine art of subtlety writing scripts for such classic Hitchcock films as Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955).
Wald was also highly adept at getting the casting choices he wanted. Although Turner's last few films had been flops, she balked at the prospect of playing a woman with an 18-year-old daughter until Wald convinced her that the role could revive her career just as Mildred Pierce revitalized Joan Crawford's career in a similar role. When 20th Century-Fox demanded an actress with some marquee value be cast as Turner's daughter, Allison MacKenzie, he convinced them to go with his gut choice, Diane Varsi, even though she'd never made a movie.
He wasn't a good enough salesman, however, to win permission to shoot the film in Metalious's hometown of Gilmanton, New Hampshire. Stung by speculation that their town was the inspiration for the book's fictional setting, they turned down offers to film exteriors there. The production company then stated the area was too ugly for the film and moved production to the seaside community of Camden, Maine. More than half the town's 3,000 inhabitants ended up doing extra work in the film, though on-lookers and extras alike were disappointed to learn that Turner would be filming all of her scenes in Hollywood.
With so much advanced build-up, Peyton Place had to be a hit. Indeed, its $8 million box office gross made it one of the top films of its year. More surprising, however, was its critical success. Wald and director Mark Robson were credited with finding the solid storytelling at the base of the scandalous novel and using it to pay tribute to small-town American life. In addition, his casting gambles paid off when the film won unparalleled praise for newcomer Varsi, the more experienced Lange and Tamblyn and veterans Arthur Kennedy, Betty Field, Mildred Dunnock and Lloyd Nolan. It also brought Turner the best notices of her career. At Oscar® time, the film scored nine nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Turner's only Best Actress nod and four supporting nominations (Varsi, Lange, Kennedy and Tamblyn) -- a record only matched by The Godfather, Part II (1974). Although the film didn't win any awards, its success set Turner on a new career as a star of romantic melodramas.
Off-screen scandal actually added to the box office take. Like her character in Peyton Place, Turner was a single mother trying desperately to shield daughter Cheryl Crane from the harsh realities of life and her own romantic misadventures. Less than two weeks after the Academy Awards® ceremonies, Turner and her daughter made headlines when Crane fatally stabbed her mother's abusive lover, gangster Johnny Stomponato, in an attempt to save Turner from a disfiguring beating. In earlier times, the shocking revelations of Turner's relationship with Stomponato would have ended her career. In the late '50s, however, fans hung on each shocking new revelation and flocked to see Peyton Place, making it an even bigger hit than expected.
Just as fascinating was the strange career of Turner's on-screen daughter, Diane Varsi. Although she had signed a long-term contract with 20th Century-Fox to win her role in Peyton Place, the rebellious actress soon tired of filmmaking and walked out on Fox and Hollywood after only five films. At the 1959 Academy Awards®, Bob Hope closed the ceremonies with: "Goodnight, Diane Varsi...wherever you are." By then, however, she had settled in Vermont, where she took a few classes at Bennington and raised a young son while trying to find herself. Although she eventually returned to Hollywood and took a few more roles -- most notably as a hippie LSD-crazed congresswoman in the youth film Wild in the Streets (1968) -- she never re-established her career. She died in obscurity in 1992 while only in her fifties, and has remained a figure of mystery in the history of Hollywood and Peyton Place.
The film and its scandal-ridden setting, however, have had a long and successful life. Four years after its release, Fox tried to make lightning strike again with a sequel, Return to Peyton Place (1961). They even asked Varsi to return to play Allison, but she said no, and the role went to Carol Lynley. With only Wald and composer Franz Waxman returning from the original, the sequel flopped. Success returned, however, with the premiere of a television version in 1964, TV's first prime-time soap opera. During its five-year run, the show made stars out of Mia Farrow (Allison), Ryan O'Neal (Rodney) and Barbara Parkins (Betty), while helping Lee Grant make an Emmy-winning comeback after years of blacklisting. The series would then inspire a short-lived daytime soap opera and two television movies. But though viewers have not paid a return visit to the scandalous city since the last TV movie in 1985, the spirit of Peyton Place has lived on in small-screen towns like Twin Peaks and Dawson's Creek and the recent prime-time hit Desperate Housewives.
Producer: Jerry Wald
Director: Mark Robson
Screenplay: John Michael Hayes, based on the novel by Grace Metalious
Cinematography: William Mellor
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Lana Turner (Constance MacKenzie), Hope Lange (Selena Cross), Lee Philips (Michael Rossi), Lloyd Nolan (Dr. Matthew Swain), Diane Varsi (Allison MacKenzie), Arthur Kennedy (Lucas Cross), Russ Tamblyn (Norman Page), Terry Moore (Betty Anderson), Barry Coe (Rodney Harrington), David Nelson (Ted Carter), Betty Field (Nellie Cross), Mildred Dunnock (Mrs. Thornton), Leon Ames (Harrington), Lorne Greene (Prosecutor), Erin O'Brien-Moore (Mrs. Page).
by Frank Miller