This classic tale of small-town secrets and lusts inspired Judge Bill Treadway to wax eloquent about Lana Turner's lack of sexuality. We are still waiting on the results of the CAT scan.
Our reviews of Fox 75th Anniversary Classic Quad: Set 2 (published May 13th, 2010), Peyton Place: Part One (published May 20th, 2009), and Peyton Place: Part Two (published July 15th, 2009) are also available.
What lies beneath the surface in Peyton Place?
Grace Metallious's novel was the most controversial book of the 1950s. When producer Jerry Wald announced plans to adapt the novel, many wondered how such a notoriously "filthy" book could be successfully transformed into a film. When the finished product arrived on screens in 1957, it was hailed as a triumph by critics and audiences alike. Oscar also paid attention, giving the film nine nominations, including Best Picture. (It lost every single award it was up for.)
Forty-six years later, 20th Century Fox has finally issued Peyton Place on DVD as the sixteenth entry in their Studio Classics series. Does the film retain the power it had in 1957, or is it now too tame?
Facts of the Case
Set during wartime America, the film centers around a small New England town named Peyton Place. Although it seems to be a normal town, a closer look will reveal activities that would make the village priest red with fury. Within this town is Allison MacKenzie (Diane Varsi, Compulsion, Bloody Mama). An aspiring writer, she finds herself under the thumb of her domineering mother, Constance (Lana Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice). Constance doesn't want her daughter to do anything scandalous, yet she sees nothing wrong with having a fling with local high school principal Mike Rossi (Lee Philips, The Hunters). Meanwhile, Allison's best friend, Selena Cross (Hope Lange, Bus Stop), lives with a giant cross to bear. After escaping from Peyton Place, Allison finds herself returning against her wishes when Selena is accused of murdering Lucas Cross. What is revealed afterward will forever scar Peyton Place.
I must admit that I have never read Grace Metallious's novel. Unlike the "trash" novels spewed out by Jacqueline Susann and many others, Peyton Place hasn't been in print for a long time. When most people think of the words "Peyton Place," they remember either this film or the long-running television series. The novel dealt with abortion, pregnancy, rape, murder, and other topics that no doubt would still turn one of those conservative types purple. Despite the toning down of the more controversial elements of the novel, Peyton Place remains a potent film. In a way, the forced censorship made for a stronger film: By leaving the seamier aspects to our imaginations, it provides more impact and resonance.
The main reason Peyton Place works so well is the acting. Lana Turner took on Peyton Place as a potential comeback vehicle. It succeeded. What makes her performance work so well is that it is the complete antithesis of what we expect from a Turner performance. Gone are the smoldering sexuality and passion of The Postman Always Rings Twice and other notable films. Replacing it is a more restrained, introverted performance, befitting the repressed Constance. She earned her first Oscar nomination for the role and deserved it.
Diane Varsi made her film debut here after being signed to a development deal at 20th Century Fox. After giving three more good performances in Fox pictures, she suddenly quit acting via a broken contract. Unfortunately, she picked the wrong time and wrong way to be rebellious. When she decided to make a comeback in 1967, her name was mud in Hollywood. The most work she could scrape up was a string of B pictures for American International Pictures (AIP): Wild in the Streets (1968), Killers Three (1969) and Bloody Mama (1970). After a final appearance in New World Pictures' 1977 release I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, she left acting forever. Her name would surface one last time in 1992, when she died of respiratory failure brought on by Lyme disease. It's a shame her rebellious nature did her career in: She was a very good actress, as evidenced by her passionate work in Peyton Place. She deserved the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this performance. It's often difficult to play a troubled individual on screen without resorting to cliché, and Varsi manages to keep things not only true to her character, but true to the tone of the material.
The sole weak link in the cast is Lee Philips. He is rather stodgy and dry in his role as Mike Rossi. Watching him in this film makes you wonder why Turner's character would ever fall for him. Philips, also a Fox contract player, appeared in a few more films before turning to directing television. The rest of the supporting cast is superb from Russ Tamblyn's neurotic Norman Page (his best dramatic performance; not bad for a guy mainly known for MGM musicals at the time) to Lloyd Nolan's sympathetic doctor to Hope Lange's tortured Selena and Arthur Kennedy's hateful Lucas Cross.
Peyton Place was filmed in CinemaScope, the homegrown widescreen format introduced by 20th Century Fox with The Robe in 1953. To faithfully recreate the CinemaScope dimensions, Fox presents the film in 2.35:1 widescreen format. Contrary to what the keep case says, it is anamorphically enhanced. This is a beautiful looking print of Peyton Place. The CinemaScope logo is a shade too dark, but once that passes, the film looks gorgeous. Colors are appropriately vivid, even garish (Technicolor became a selling point with the widescreen revolution; most television sets were black-and-white at the time). There is some light grain in dark scenes, but it's a natural flaw of night filming. Film blemishes are kept to an astonishing low. Best of all, unlike the previous laserdisc edition, the dissolves are left intact. For the laserdisc, to accommodate side breaks, the dissolves were replaced with fade-to-black transitions. This disrupted the flow of the film, so to see it as it was originally intended is a treat. The prints Fox Movie Channel airs just cannot compare to the beauty of the DVD. Do not wait for this to appear on television. Rent it.
Audio is even more impressive. The Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround stereo mix is a major revelation if you've only seen the film on standard television. When widescreen films were introduced, stereophonic sound also became a selling point. Although some light crackling during one scene prevents me from proclaiming this a flawless transfer, Alfred Newman's magnificent score sings out over the multichannel speakers, and dialogue sounds lifelike. If you fool with your sound system enough, you can come close to recreating the original theatrical experience. It's that good.
There are two disappointing aspects of this otherwise first-rate disc. First, the cut offered here is not the original 162-minute version. After premiering at that running time, the film was trimmed to 157 minutes. Reading the press material, I grew excited at the thought of seeing the uncut version. Unfortunately, the disc contains the shorter cut. I have no idea what was cut, but it would have been nice to have here in this Studio Classics edition.
My second problem revolves around the extras. We get a full-length commentary track from costars Russ Tamblyn and Terry Moore. Their comments were recorded separately and edited together into a single track, and therein lies the problem. Tamblyn is far and away the best speaker; his comments are chock-full of information and entertainment. Moore's comments tend to be glowing recollections of the cast ("she was such a wonderful actress," "he was great," etc.) and get to be truly irritating after several minutes. What really annoyed me about the track was when Tamblyn was in the middle of a great story about his friendship with Elvis. They cut his story midway to get an inane comment from Moore. We do get to hear the rest of the story, but we have to sit through irrelevant comments before it finishes!
"Fox Backstory: Peyton Place" is a half-hour documentary about the film's production. This originally aired on American Movie Classics in 2001 as part of their successful Backstory series. It's a good documentary that helps fill the huge gaps left by the semisatisfactory commentary track. The gem is the vintage interview with author Metallious, which is spread throughout. My lone quibble with it is that it should have been longer, with more detail regarding the neglected sequel Return to Peyton Place.
Two Movietone News newsreels are offered here. The first covers the world premiere of Peyton Place, while the second covers the awards Photoplay awarded the film. Both are interesting to see once, but not again.
Last but not least are a variety of trailers. The original theatrical trailer is here, as well as a teaser trailer. All are worth a look, as they hark back to a time when trailers didn't spoil the whole movie for you. (Executives actually trusted the audience's intelligence.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Producer Jerry Wald and 20th Century Fox did team up to make a sequel: Return to Peyton Place. Directed by José Ferrer (I Accuse!, The High Cost of Loving), the 1961 film featured an entirely different cast. Despite its poor reputation, the film is actually a good follow-up to the original film. Yes, the scandalous nature of the novel was toned down for the screen, but Ferrer shows a deft hand at eliciting fine performances from his cast. Besides, the CinemaScope photography is just beautiful to watch.
There have also been a television series and several TV movie sequels, but I cannot vouch for the merit of these projects because I have never seen them.
Fox has issued most of their Studio Classics discs in the $14.95-$19.98 price range. Peyton Place is in the latter price category. Despite the shortcomings, I can easily recommend a purchase if you love this film or are a fan of the CinemaScope melodramas of the era. Others might best leave this disc for the rental circuit.
Hasn't this town been through enough trials already? I'm willing to let the charges slide if the inhabitants promise to behave themselves.
Fox is acquitted for giving Peyton Place a solid DVD treatment, even if the extras aren't all that great.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Actors Russ Tamblyn and Terry Moore
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