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Peyton Place

    C.D. Workman
    Senior Member

  • Peyton Place

    Released by: Twilight Time
    Released on: March 14, 2017
    Directed by: Mark Robson
    Cast: Lana Lang, Diane Varsi, Hope Lang, Lee Philips, Arthur Kennedy, Lloyd Nolan, Russ Tamblyn, Terry Moore, David Nelson, Barrie Coe, Betty Field, Mildred Dunnock, Leon Ames, Lorne Greene
    Year: 1957
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movie:

    The year 1956 was something of a watershed for sleazy bestselling fiction, thanks to Grace Metalious's craptastic Peyton Place, which spent a total of 59 weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers List. Published by then-powerhouse Julian Messner, Inc., it covered some pretty weighty themes—including incest, rape, abortion, and murder—all set in a small New England town based on Metalious's own. Naturally, something this juicy wasn't going to get ignored by Hollywood, and almost immediately, scouts from good ole Tinseltown came a knockin'. The biggest surprise may be that it was class act Fox that won the rights and saw them through. An even bigger surprise may be that Fox stayed relatively close to the novel, meaning that, while they gave their film a glossy, high-class veneer, it remains deliciously trashy. (True, some incidents were left out or changed, but the big stuff is basically there, either spelled out or hinted at, depending on how offensive it might have been to audiences of the time.) And the biggest surprise of all may be that the Hays Code allowed so much to slide past its censors. Not everything, mind you, but enough to ensure that fans of the book would likely be fans of the film as well (just not Metalious, who hated it; regardless, she pocketed $400,000-plus out of the deal).

    In the early 1940s, a small New England community is beset by scandal. Michael Rossi (Lee Philips) comes to the small town of Peyton Place to act as the new principal for the town's high school. He finds himself at odds with the school board, including the board's president, Leslie Harrington (Leon Ames). Meanwhile, the school's alcoholic janitor, Lucas Cross (Arthur Kennedy), terrorizes his wife, Nellie (Betty Field), and his stepchildren; he also rapes his stepdaughter, Selena (Hope Lange), resulting in an unwanted pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage (the latter also brought on by his abusive behavior). Nellie works for Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner), who is afraid of her feelings for Rossi, while Constance's daughter, Allison (Diane Varsi), is best friends with Selena, despite the two coming from such disparate backgrounds (the Crosses are poor trash while the MacKenzies are town pillars).

    Another of Allison's friends, Betty Anderson (Terry Moore), has a reputation as an easy girl, so when she falls for affluent young stud Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe), tempers flare. But Allison has issues of her own: Between juggling a budding romance with Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn) and a rocky relationship with her mother, she also witnesses Selena's abuse at the hands of her father, while Norman's mother, Evelyn (Erin O'Brien-Moore), appears to have incestuous designs on her son. There are parties, dances, and picnics, and then along comes America's involvement in World War II and the boys of Peyton Place head off to war, after which everyone realizes what assholes they've been and do the right thing. There's a murder in self-defense, and despite the fact that it was the town misfits who were involved, the truth comes out at trial and all ends on a happy note.

    True, this is all a little too saccharine, and it should be total shit, but somehow it works. Perhaps it's that Fox pushed the envelope so hard. There's rape, incest, murder, kind-of-an-abortion/miscarriage, fully-clothed “skinny-dipping,” and lots and lots of gossip and meanness. In other words, it's exactly like every small-town in America, including the one you likely grew up in. Adults are rude and backstabbing, and kids fall in love with reckless abandon, believing they're above all the negativity. If you can't identify with these people, you can't identify with anyone because they're all a little too real (at least until the end, when they suddenly turn good and stop being mean and unchristian-like).

    The film proved to be just as successful as the novel. With a budget of around $2 million, it grossed over $25 million at the box office. The film also proved a critical success in at least one area; it garnered nine Academy Award nominations (including one for hyper-controlled-but-highly-overrated drama queen Lana Turner, whose real-life drama was even more exciting than either the book's or the film's). It didn't win any. TV Guide may have summed it best: “This is the kind of hypertensive trash that gives melodrama a bad name, cynically tempering its naughty bits with smug moralizing.” But despite the on-again/off-again display of tasteless small-town secrets, Peyton Place remains a fun affair.


    Twilight Time has placed Peyton Place on Blu-ray with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in glorious 1080p hi-def, retaining the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The most impressive thing about the transfer is the De Lux color, which is bright and beautiful at all times. The film was shot in the small Maine town of Camden and nearby locations. These locations provide the perfect background for Peyton Place, a New England town existing in a nameless fairy-tale land approximating reality but somehow far more colorful. Exteriors feature lush greenery and brightly colored flowers; interiors feature a startling array of furnishings and clothing in neon dyes. Grain is mostly nonexistent, and there's little crush. The only complaint is that detail waxes and wanes; some shots feature a great deal of it while others appear scrubbed clean and soft. This likely won't be a big problem for most viewers, and, in fact, the color is so stunning that it will distract people from any other visual issues. Regardless, the Blu-ray is a considerable upgrade from previous DVD releases.

    There are two primary audio tracks, one in English DTS-Master Audio 5.1, the other in English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, as well as two commentary tracks, both of which are in English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. While many 'historians' might argue that the 2.0 track is closer to the film's original sound, this is not the case. While 5.1 offers slightly more channels than the original sound could have handled, it's quite lush to the ears, despite the fact that this isn't a sound effects-heavy film. Neither of the primary tracks are bad, however, and both occupy a decent amount of space. Despite the age of the film, there are no age-related defects, and Franz Waxman's score is well balanced with the dialogue, so that neither push out the other. In a rare turn for Twilight Time, there's no track featuring an isolated score. Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are offered.

    The first audio track features filmmaker and historian Willard Carroll. Right from the start, Carroll proves his worth as a commentator, dissecting every aspect of the film beginning with the opening credits. He also doesn't leave much breathing space, making sure to fill his time with one interesting factual tidbit after another. He covers the backgrounds and later careers of the actors and various cast members, the sets and locations, the narration, the differences between the film and the book, and so on. This is a fantastic commentary, one of the best this reviewer has ever listened to from start to finish. The second commentary features actors Terry Moore and Russ Tamblyn, who starred as Betty Anderson and Norman Page respectively. Clearly the two actors recorded their parts separately, with each being spliced together later. Both performers come prepared, and they never sound as if they're talking off the cuff or reading from written material. Moore dominates, though both have interesting insights to reveal. To properly space out the remarks, there are a couple of moments of dead space, but thankfully these don't last too long.

    Twilight Time's Blu-ray release of Peyton Place is a true special edition, with the extra features from the old DVD release, including Moore and Tamblyn's commentary, ported over; Carrol's commentary is new. Given how long the film is and the number of extra features included, Twilight Time has been wise in utilizing a BD50 to hold all the visual and aural information.

    Apart from the commentaries, the best feature may be the episode of AMC Backstory dedicated to Peyton Place. Running just shy of half an hour, it covers all the basics, from the original novel, to its development as a film, to the fireworks that followed. It is absolutely worth a viewing.

    “On Location in Peyton Place” (7:35) takes viewers to some of the places in and around Maine where principle photography for the film took place. It also reveals what those locations look like today, allowing for a comparison between past and present.

    Two Fox Movietone Newsreels are included. The first one runs 1:32 and is red-carpet coverage titled “Celebrity Turnout Marks Premiere of Peyton Place.” It is literally a parade of famous people, mostly actors and newspaper columnists. The other reel runs 0:58 and covers the Photoplay Magazine Awards, of which Jerry Wald won an award for Peyton Place.

    Two original theatrical trailers are also included: a teaser trailer (0:41) and the full trailer (2:35). Both are innocuous enough, touting the film's connection to its literary source, though the full trailer is a who's who of the acting talent that stars.

    Rounding out the extras are liner notes from Julie Kirgo, Twilight Time's resident film historian. Kirgo begins her exquisitely written essay with the line “It's amusing to note that in up-tight Eisenhower-era 1950s America, apparently everyone was reading 'dirty books.'” From there, she writes a short dissertation on the various kinds of dirty books one could read in the 1950s—and how—before moving into an examination of the life of writer Grace Metalious. She details the film adaptation's history, from book to big screen and back to the author, and concludes her notes succinctly, bringing the discrimination aimed at Metalious in her day to modern times: “Like the women of Peyton Place, [Metalious] was the victim of the same hypocrisy that still haunts both our public and private lives today, six long decades down the line.”

    The Final Word:

    Peyton Place is not a great film, but it is great entertainment, a typical soap-operatic mix of melodrama and sleaze from Fox, shot in gorgeous color. Twilight Time's Blu-ray release features beautiful color reproduction and often striking detail, though there are moments that seem a little soft. The sound is good, and the extras are all worth listening to or viewing. All in all, this is a worthy upgrade from DVD; if not for the film itself, then definitely for Willard Carroll's fascinating commentary.

    Peyton Place is limited to 3,000 units.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out later this year.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

    • paul h.
      paul h.
      woly boly
      paul h. commented
      Editing a comment
      Nice review. I thought I had seen this movie, but I had it confused with something else ('A Place in the Sun'). I'll have to check it out.
    Posting comments is disabled.

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