It’s very seldom the title of a movie becomes a catchphrase, universally accepted and understood, which defines a person, place or thing.
By calling some town, business, group or organization a Peyton Place you have leveled a far more sinister moniker on a group then you would by say calling some oddball TV personality Ron Burgundy.
The movie, which is based on a book of the same name, has become so engrained in our societal lexicon its title means volumes even to people who’ve never seen the film or read the book.
The novel, written by Grace Metalious, was based on the author’s hometown and surrounding New England towns. The original text was so scandalous that it had to be tamed for publication and tamed even more for it to become a Hollywood-produced feature film. The title is even derived from the name of a Texas town called Payton, which doesn’t seem to exist anymore.
The film is, as is the book, an indictment of the residents of a small New England town, where all sorts of salacious things happen — scandal, homicide, suicide, incest and moral hypocrisy — which cracks Peyton Place’s tranquil fašade in the years just before and after World War II.
The core of “Peyton Place” is the intertwined lives of three women, Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner) a proper, but sexually repressed woman. Then there is Constance’s daughter, Allison (Diane Varsi), a high school senior, aspiring writer and the product of Constance’s illegitimate affair with a married New York businessman. Finally, there’s Selena Cross (Hope Lange), Allison’s best friend, a good girl living on the wrong side of the tracks. Selena is the object of her drunken, abusive and lascivious stepfather, Lucas (Arthur Kennedy).
Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, killed Turner’s abusive lover Johnny Stompanato, a reputed L.A. mobster. Crane went on trial and Turner gave an emotional testimony in defense of Crane. The courtroom scene mirrored a moment late in “Peyton Place” where Turner’s character testified in a murder trial.
“Peyton Place” was nominated for nine Academy Awards but won none.
“Peyton Place,” directed by Mark Robson, is a classic example of grand Technicolor spectacles Hollywood knew how to make in the 1950s. There is something undeniable wonderful about Hollywood melodramas, like “Imitation of Life” (1959), “All That Heaven Allows” (1955) and “Peyton Place,” with its rich cinematography, slight overacting and dramatic swelling music that makes watch old movie so much fun.
“Peyton Place” isn’t a scandalous or dirty movie anymore. It’s a fun piece of enjoyable movie camp.
The film doesn’t have the scandalous heft of the novel; in the film, most everyone seems pretty nice and understanding. It is still remarkable how the film points a quizzical eye at the judgmental and prudish folk of Peyton Place.
In “Peyton Place,” that is embodied by Marion Partridge (Peg Hillias).
Within the first second of seeing Hillias on screen you know she’s one of those hoity New England biddies. You hate her instantly, even if you really are a Marion Partridge in real life.
Marion is a bitter woman who believes she deserves a better life that the one she has. She takes out her bitterness on the people of Peyton Place she doesn’t like. Hillias packs so much in her disdainful looks. Hillias’ role never rises to the level of a proper melodrama “villain,” but it doesn’t really have to. She’s really good at being a cranky old hag.
It’s true, this is a Peyton Place, isn’t it?
“Lost & Found” is a weekly column and review of films the author Seames O’Grady, self-professed movie expert, has in his DVD collection or on his Netflix queue, but just hasn’t got around to watching until now.