Saturday, September 17, 2016

Peyton Place a Scandal of a Story

Living in "Peyton Place" is no picnic!
Peyton Place was forever equated with small town scandal the moment Grace Metalious’ novel was published September 24, 1956. Peyton Place was an instant sensation and huge bestseller, eventually selling 12 million copies. A year later, the film version of Peyton Place was released, and audiences were dying to know if the movie was half as steamy as the book.

An estimated 1 in 29 people had read "Peyton Place"
at the height of its popularity.
In truth, Peyton Place the movie was about half as steamy, but that was still mighty hot for 1957. On a recent re-viewing of Peyton Place, I was amazed at how much did make it onscreen. Particularly, the rape of Selena Cross by her alcoholic stepfather—it is subtle, but still powerful. And the big showdown between uptight mother Constance MacKenzie and angst-ridden daughter Allison doesn’t water down the fact that Connie was not a widow, but a mistress. Though the screenplay toned down or tweaked certain plot points, as when Betty Anderson’s method of cock-blocking Rodney Harrington becomes verbal rather than literal, or how Selena’s abortion becomes a miscarriage—they are diluted, but not deleted. Most audiences already read the book and were movie-wise to censorship substitutions, with the original action burned in their dirty minds. The film version still pushed the envelope, but had its eye on the Oscar envelope, which rewarded “good” films, not trash—at least in theory!

Off-screen, Lana Turner wasn't exactly a wallflower!
Jerry Wald was a pistol of a producer, who gravitated toward material and stars that generated class or cash, preferably both. Wald had created the sizzle in casting Joan Crawford as a mother in her Oscar-winning Mildred Pierce comeback. When he snapped up film rights to Peyton Place over a decade later, he talked another former MGM star into playing a mother with a problem daughter: 36-year-old Lana Turner. 20th Century Fox preferred Olivia de Havilland or Jane Wyman as Constance MacKenzie, the small town shop owner with a secret past. Both actresses were Oscar winners, certainly better actresses than Lana, and a bit closer to the character’s age. At this point, Lana’s public preferred reading about her romances, marriages, and divorces rather than paying to see her perform onscreen. 

Lana Turner as upright and uptight Constance MacKenzie in "Peyton Place."
But Jerry Wald was canny about casting and publicity. First, Wald knew that everyone loves a comeback.  Like Crawford before playing Mildred Pierce, Turner hadn’t had a hit several years, since The Bad and the Beautiful—which was also a comeback! Plus, the public and the press would eat up the scoop that love goddess Lana was playing a mother for the first time. So what if Lana had a teenage daughter in real life, one who would make headlines of her own shortly after Peyton Place’s release. Mother roles were considered the last hurrah for Hollywood glamour girls. But this wasn’t just any maternal role, this was Constance, a hot mama underneath the cool demeanor. Wald figured that audiences, who often equated stars with the character they played, would use movie short-hand in filling in the blanks of what was suggested on-screen with Lana’s own scandalous off-screen behavior.

Welcome to Peyton Place! Lee Phillips as Michael Rossi,
the one uninspired performance in the movie.
Wald also used a popular method of casting in mid-century movies, when audiences young and old were now watching television at home, to attract both audiences. Lana Turner was still very much a star and Wald backed her up with veteran character actors like Lloyd Nolan, Arthur Kennedy, Betty Field, Leon Ames, Lorne Greene, and Mildred Dunnock. But the producer also cast up-and-coming young stars like Hope Lange, Russ Tamblyn, and David Nelson in featured roles. Wald also chose an unknown Diane Varsi to play Constance’s dreamer daughter, Allison. At 18, Varsi was certainly a more forward-thinking choice for the role than Debbie Reynolds, who was considered—and six years older.

Left, Lloyd Nolan as no-nonsense Doc Swain, telling some tough truth to the people of Peyton Place!
As often the case with all-star movies, it’s the old pros who steal the show: Nolan, as plain-spoken Doc Swain; Kennedy as despicable drunk Lucas Cross; Field as rightly depressed Nellie Cross; Leon Ames as the blowhard bigshot; Lorne Greene as the fiery D.A.; and Mildred Dunnock as the passed-over teacher. These veterans are terrific troupers here.

Diane Varsi and Russ Tamblyn as shy kids Allison and Norman.
The young folk of Peyton Place are a mixed bag. Diane Varsi’s awkwardness actually works as Allison, the teen who dreams of writing a novel—about guess what? Russ Tamblyn as Norman Page, her comrade in shyness, gives a genuinely excellent performance. And Hope Lange is heartbreaking as Selena Cross, the sad girl from the wrong side of the tracks. But the others, like David Nelson of Ozzie and Harriet, are bland. And at 28, Terry Moore comes across like an aging starlet than a high school age fast girl, Betty Anderson.

Constance gets her comeuppance from daughter Allison. Turner's best moment.
Last but not least, there’s Lana. For her role as Constance MacKenzie, Turner received her first and only Oscar nomination. Though Lana’s role was not the showcase that Crawford’s Mildred Pierce was, Turner gives it her MGM best, suffering and insinuating, with chin tilted and eyebrows arched to the heavens. It’s easy to laugh at acting styles from another era, but Lana has a number of genuinely effective scenes in Peyton Place. The scene where the new man in town puts the moves on near-frigid Connie, Turner’s reaction of disgust rings surprisingly true, considering the real Lana was quite hotsy-totsy. Another authentic moment is after an argument with Allison, who throws her mother’s past in her face, which ends with Lana leaving the room. Grandly walking down the stairs in despair, Turner crumples on the steps, sobbing in semi-darkness, gasping, “Oh, God!” It is a genuinely great bit of acting by Lana. And of course, Turner turns it on during the courtroom scene, during the trial of Selena Cross.

Turner as Constance, on the witness stand. Lana would appear in a real courtroom
 the following year!
20 Century Fox, with their widescreen Cinemascope, was the first studio to embrace location filming. Peyton Place exteriors were filmed mostly in Camden, Maine and a few other New England locations. The panoramic locales against Franz Waxman’s memorable score rather romanticized Grace Metalious’ seamy small town. This irritated the author, though she liked the performances from the cast.

The greatest task for solid studio director Mark Robson and his screenwriters was to “clean up” the scandalous story for the silver screen. This was Hollywood hypocrisy at its best: Let’s buy a salacious book, turn it into a whitewashed movie, and then promote it as shocking!

28-year-old Terry Moore is less than believable as hot teenager Betty Anderson.
The critics condescendingly praised the “classy” screen version of Peyton Place as a vast improvement over the “dirty” book. Yet a few critics at the time called the adaptation sanitized or antiseptic. The truth falls somewhere in the middle: Peyton Place was run through the Hollywood Hayes Code whitewash cycle, though it managed to keep key events intact. There was no way in 1957 that the movie could have depicted the book’s dirt intact. Metalious may have disliked her book’s adaptation, but then, the depressed author didn’t like much of anything. Peyton Place was one of the year’s top-grossing films and received nine Oscar nominations—though it won none.

Finally, Peyton Place was still playing in theaters when Lana Turner’s latest boyfriend, gangster Johnny Stompanato, was fatally stabbed by her daughter, Cheryl. The details that flowed after the murder made Peyton Place look like a small-town picnic. When Lana was going through her real trial the following year, some audience members were heard to call out their support to Turner as she testified onscreen in Peyton Place.

Blood, sweat, and tears: Lana at the inquest over the stabbing death of gangster boytoy Johnny Stompanato.
After her latest scandal, Lana was forced to, yes, make another comeback! Turner took a small salary against a huge potential share of the profits and starred in a film even soapier than Peyton Place. 1959’s Imitation of Life was one of the biggest hits of Lana’s career, making a fortune, and extending her career as a leading lady for nearly another decade. And that’s about as happy of a Hollywood ending that Lana Turner ever got in her long career.