BR: Peyton Place (1957)

May 1, 2017 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: March 14, 2017

Genre:  Melodrama

Synopsis: Deep-rooted secrets of an insular town in Maine are exposed when a young girl is brutally raped, and forbidden love breaks apart already fragile families.

Special Features: Audio Commentary #1 (2017): with filmmaker and historian Willard Carroll / Audio Commentary #2 (2004): with actors Terry Moore and Russ Tamblyn / 2017 featurette (HD): “On Location in Peyton Place” with optional Willard Carroll Audio commentary (7:34) / 2004 AMC Backstory: Peyton Place (25:06) / 2 Fox Movietone Newsreels from 1957 (2:30) / Original Theatrical Trailers / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 


 

Review:

The backstory behind the creation of the source novel for Fox’s hit film version is no less fascinating: after writing her first novel over several years, housewife Grace Metalious’ efforts were published in 1956, sold 60,000 copies in its first 10 days on sale, 100,000 copies within its first month, and 12 million over time – an unheard of blockbuster and literary sensation… and then at 9 years later Metalious, uncomfortable with sudden fame and the backlash from her local townsfolk, was dead at 39 from the ravages of alcoholism.

Critics pretty much deemed the novel sordid and rubbish, and even in an interview she felt her novel wouldn’t have the longevity of a modern classic (she gave it 25 years), and yet the book, its Maine setting, its vast bulk of characters with secrets and in an insular mill town, a murder, and frank sexual practices, taboos, and rape were seemingly exactly what 1950s readers needed – basically a wallop to upset the staid image of obedient housewives in designer dresses, good husbands, squeaky-clean kids, and a white picket fence world where nothing seedy could possibly exist under the deep green grass.

If even a handful of elements sound familiar, then it’s no surprise David Lynch and Mark Frost created their version of Metalious’ world into Twin Peaks (1990-1991), a mill town with rich, poor, sexy, sleazy, weird, exotic, and strange behaviour in perfectly idyllic surroundings like coffee shops, parks, schools, and verdant forests. Even the recurring visual motif of wind-blown trees were snatched from Peyton Place the film, in which director / Montreal-born Mark Robson interspersed footage of billowing foliage during summer and blazing amber fall season.

Fox was no stranger to tackling controversial subjects – former Production bigwig Darryl F. Zanuck supervised the gangster films at Warner Bros., then greenlit films on racism (Pinky) and anti-Semitism (Gentleman’s Agreement) – and producing a movie from an supposedly unfilmable novel was the perfect assignment for studio, director Robson, and screenwriter John Michael Hayes, the latter a man who never had issues with small or large character based tales and complex storylines.

Hayes, brilliant with original dialogue, could add little gems of wit to enliven an already bubbly scene, and proof of his genius lies in a quartet of Alfred Hitchcock films, including Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). As Peyton Place historian Willard Carroll notes in his commentary track, pretty much all of the autumnal tree shots are stock images from Harry, one of many small degrees of minor separation between cast & crew within Robson’s film.

Metalious’ drama begins when Michael Rossi (Lee Philips) drives into town and ultimately accepts the position of high school principal, trying to inspire the kids and think more freely just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Rossi has a passion for dress shop owner / widower Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner), who harbours a deep secret from teen daughter / aspiring writer Allison (Diane Varsi); Constance’s maid Nellie Cross (Betty Field) is married to drunk / school janitor Lucas (superb Arthur Kennedy), a sleazybag with eyes for stepdaughter Selena (Hope Lange); momma’s boy Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn) has eyes for Allison; and school harlot Betty Anderson (Terry Moore) wants to marry Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe), the son of the town’s biggest employer (played by ever-snarling, bellowing Leon Ames).

There’s teen sex, skinny dipping, incest, single unwed mothers, tarts, and oodles more, with Dr. Swain (Lloyd Nolan, in one of his best supporting roles) frequently popping up as an unofficial problem-solver when big social taboos percolate. His elephant’s memory ensures he has some goods on every citizen, and Swain becomes a key player in the mounting dramas that ultimately converge in a rape trial featuring Canada’s own Voice of Doom and future Bonanza patriarch (1959-1973), Lorne Greene, as a suave, manipulative prosecuting attorney.

Metalious said she was pleased with the film version in spite of Hayes having to tone down and change more than a few things to keep censors happy, but historian Carroll also notes that Peyton was an important nail in the Production Code’s coffin: wanting to appear more with-it to the changing mores of the era, certain subjects and language long taboo were permitted with specific allowances that set important precedents in weakening the body’s ability to massively alter literary works in later productions.

Although set between the mid to late 1940s, Carroll’s correct in citing the film as a stealthy commentary of the 1950s, with its depiction of teen rebellion being natural instead of morally outrageous. The generational contrasts can’t be any clearer: Rossi’s brand of free thinking and expanding young minds runs contrary to the cheap-minded school board who want a loyal moral lieutenant to keep their kids in line.

Moreover, chaste Constance is outmoded in shielding her daughter from a secret she could’ve handled at an early age because truth and honesty are more important to her than social correctness. Additionally, in Hayes’ adaptation, momma’s boy Norman ultimately eschews his mother’s control, returning home a war hero, and a confident stud (which Tamblyn neatly conveys with frank arm and whole body placement in a train scene, signaling to Allison he’s no longer a quiet wallflower, and wants to take her to bed very soon).

Mr. Harrington ultimately accepts tarty Betty for what she is – in Hayes’ redo, an independent, sexual woman who truly loved his son – and Selena’s fiancé Ted Carter (The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet‘s David Nelson) is supportive and defensive when her life is turned upside-down by Lucas, and the town sends silent daggers her way in court.

The importance of Hayes’ script can’t be lessened: it’s a masterwork of structure, pacing, and meticulous organization in which no character is weakened, ignored, forgotten, nor does dumbass things due to loose ends. There isn’t an off-beat line, a reflection that isn’t a clean encapsulation of a character’s state – Allison and Norman’s mountain chat is such a finely dramatize scene of teen angst, hunger, and fear of the adult world to which they’re being attracted – and secondary characters never pop up in oddly paced moments. Even the device of Allison’s narration at the film’s bookends and time-jump after she heads off to NYC feel natural (no doubt aided by the pretty stock footage and Franz Waxman’s extraordinary score and main theme).

Hayes’ script also retains Metalious’ concept of a small town being a microcosm of very real issues happening all over the world, and the rot that sets in when a society becomes too insular and feeds on its own flaws, creating a pecking order and cosmetic mores that mask cruelty and aberrant behaviour. Historian Carroll amusingly notes how Norman in Metalious’ novel was a man-child, bathed by his mother and restrained from depending on anyone except Mother – a toxic relationship that manifested itself in Robert Bloch’s Psycho via Norman Bates, the world’s best known momma’s boy who in turn was based on serial killer Ed Gein.

Former editor Robson eventually moved from tight genre efforts (Isle of the Dead, Bedlam) to bigger and more bloated productions, but certainly in Peyton, his knack for pacing ensured the scenes ran lean, and loose ends and dead ends were trimmed. Carroll cites a few moments where material was shorn from the final release version (namely Selena’s brother, who’s gone after an early brief intro), and provides huge information on the locations which were revisited and lovingly filmed by Carroll in HD in an excellent, strangely moving featurette set to Waxman’s score extracts that’s the product of 7 years of research, and outright fan obsession.

The cinematography by veteran William Mellor (Giant, Wild in the Country, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation) is extraordinary, and it’s perhaps the one area that doesn’t get as much attention from the historians assembled for Twilight Time and the prior Fox-produced extras from 2004. Whether Robson wanted to infer dark subject matter with high contrast lighting, temper sexual heat for the production Code with plenty of shaded faces and silhouetted bodies, or accentuate the withholding of secrets through darkness after explosive pastel coloured scenes, Mellor’s use of light, colour, and shadow is remarkable, and a textbook example of meticulous lighting where darkness is as important to characters and subtext as bright colours.

Fox’s HD transfer is radiant yet retains the original grain of the film stock, and most of the footage is free from CinemaScope ‘mumps’ – only wide angle pans reveal some warping at the edges. Waxman’s score booms in stereo 2.0 and 5.1, and TT’s Blu-ray is the definitive presentation for a franchise that Fox should be plotting to exploit this year once Lynch and Frost’s own Twin Peaks 2017 revisitation debuts.

Julie Kirgo’s fine essay provides a snapshot of the film’s position in Eisenhower America, with nods to director Robson and producer Jerry Wald. Like fellow film historian Carroll, she describes the rush shared by many who read the era’s dirtiest novel in secret with covered jackets, turning taboo-laden pages in ‘bathrooms and basements under flashlight.’

In the commentaries, details on the sequel, Return to Peyton Place (1961) and the TV series are modest. TT’s Carroll commentary and his “On Location in Peyton Place” featurette with optional commentary are new, but atypical from TT’s releases is the lack of an isolated score track – either one wasn’t available in usable condition, or rights and availability prevented the TT team from offering Waxman’s rhapsodic yet tender score.

Ported over from the 2004 Fox disc are the edited commentary with actors Terry Moore and Russ Tamblyn, newsreels, and an episode of AMC Backstory on Metalious, which features a rare no-nonsense / fuck ‘em all interview conducted by Canada’s Joyce Davidson, and clips from screen tests. (In one short snippet, Joan Collins can be seen among her fellow Fox contract starlets. Although Collins didn’t get a role in Peyton, she would appear in a quartet of 1957 releases: Sea Wife, The Wayward Bus, Island in the Sun, and Stopover Tokyo.)

The commentaries ultimately develop their own share of silent gaps – at 156 mins, it’s a long movie to cover – and even Carroll steps back and lets key dialogue scenes ‘play’ to buffer what becomes increasingly sparse comments. In both cases, a mix of editing and chapter jumps would’ve saved the listener from having to shuttle through dead spots, but the information and anecdotes are nevertheless important. (Carroll is especially helpful in citing differences between the films and TV adaptations, and severe changes to characters and taboo subjects and plotlines.)

In 2004, Fox still had a special features team that sought out and recorded rare interviews, and it is amusing to note how Tamblyn himself would appear in Twin Peaks decades later as Dr. Jacoby.

The packed cast includes a mass of veterans, but not everyone benefited from the Peyton magic. Lee Philips, who’s more wooden than enticing as Constance’s sexual liberator, became a massively prolific TV director, even helming 7 episodes of the spin-off TV series; Barry Coe popped up in Fox’s The Bravados (1958), 300 Spartans (1962), and Fantastic Voyage (1966) before ultimately stepping away from TV and film after Jaws 2 (1978); Diane Varsi was reportedly never a fan of high profile productions, and after making her debut in Peyton, she appeared in Fox’s Ten North Frederick (1958), From Hell to Texas (1958), and Compulsion (1959), and after some TV roles and a handful of cult films, she died from complications attributed to Lyme disease in 1992.

Russ Tamblyn had successfully graduated from child actor (Father of the Bride) to musical dancer (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) and earned an Oscar Nomination for Best Support Actor with Peyton, but after West Side Story (1961) and The Haunting (1963), he eased away from studio fodder, a topic he addresses to some degree in the 2004 commentary track.

Prolific Terry Moore may not be as well-known among the female cast, but the former child actor appeared in Son of Lassie (1945) and Mighty Joe Young (1949), and co-starred in two important early ‘Scope productions: Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953) and King of the Khyber Rifles (1953), and later Between Heaven and Hell (1956) and Bernadine (1957). Her comments add some personal details to being a Fox contract star, and both her and Tamblyn recall their impressions of Lana Turner’s boyfriend Johnny Stompanato, who was stabbed to death by her daughter Cheryl Crane the night of Peyton’s premiere party.

Hope Lange’s resilient ingénue persona served her well in The Young Lions (1958), but her standout roles for Fox remain the career woman drama The Best of Everything (1959), and  Elia Kazan’s underrated Wild in the Country (1961).

Director Mark Robson had already become of Fox’s most bankable directors, especially with large casts set in foreign locations. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) was based on another best seller, From the Terrace (1960) smolders with sex (and recasts Leon Ames as a bullying industrialist father), Nine Hours to Rama (1963) was centered around the assassination of Ganhdi, The Prize (1963) was all soap opera, and Von Ryan’s Express (1965) featured Frank Sinatra in another strong WWII caper-styled action-drama.

As Carroll notes, with Valley of the Dolls (1967), Robson may have intended to produce another taboo-bashing drama sourced from the explosive novel by Jacqueline Susann, but its infamy didn’t help the aging director, and although his knack for big productions was never in dispute, Earthquake (1974) was no feather in the cap nor career booster, and he died during production of Avalanche Express (1979).

Grace Metalious published the novels The Tight White Collar (1961) and No Adam in Eden (1963), but it was Fox who paid her to pen a treatment for what became Return to Peyton Place, which Carroll states in 1959 was the first novel inspired by a film treatment. Peyton Place’s legacy resides in the 1957 film, the 1961 sequel, the 1964-1969 TV series starring Dorothy Malone, Mia Farrow, and Ryan O’Neal; and two TV movies inspired by her characters: Murder in Peyton Place (1977) and Peyton Place: The Next Generation (1985), both of which starred Malone.

An excellent chronicle of the novel’s creation, impact, and Metalious’ rather tragic life appears in this Vanity Fair article from 2006.

 

 

© 2017 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

 


 

 


 

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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