Peyton Place takes over a year and a half starting in 1941. Director Robson has a really slick way of getting the date into the ground situation. Robson and cinematographer William C. Mellor go a little wild with Peyton Place–there’s a lot of location shooting and Robson tries hard to make the viewer feel enveloped. The film’s a soap opera, not requiring the viewer to situate themselves inside the story, but Robson invites it. The film’s a technical delight; Robson’s proud of its quality.
But the encompassing isn’t required because Peyton Place is a sensational soap opera. From the opening narration, the film declares itself sensational. The film starts with Diane Varsi’s narration then goes to Lee Philips arriving in town. Eventually, after being high school senior Farsi’s new principal, Philips will also romance her mother, played by Lana Turner. Most, if not all, of the drama has something to do with Varsi and Turner’s home or Varsi’s school or Turner’s business. And if it doesn’t have to do with them, then it’s war-related. Varsi starts Peyton Place its protagonist, with Turner sort of waiting in the wings to have her own big story. There’s all sorts of potential juxtaposition and alter ego and it ought to be great.
Only, by the end of the movie, Varsi and Turner are complete strangers to the viewer and each other. The film jumps ship from Varsi’s story two-thirds of the way in and she still narrates, but she’s not part of the action. And when she does return, she doesn’t get to make up any of that time. The film doesn’t even commit to her having an actual love interest in Russ Tamblyn’s troubled teenage boy. It’s a shame because Varsi and Tamblyn are great together, while she and Turner aren’t. Their scenes just aren’t particularly good.
Actually, Peyton Place doesn’t really have anything to do with Lana Turner. Her romance is entirely Philips pursuing her, usually at just the right moment to set off an argument with Varsi. Turner gets through it, but her only pay-off scene is a courtroom breakdown. It’d be more significant if it wasn’t followed by a superior courtroom breakdown, which is setoff in the narrative by Turner’s. So, lots of problems. Luckily the film’s beautifully produced and well-acted (even if in undercooked roles). Robson and screenwriter John Michael Hayes had to clean up the source novel for the censors, which Robson utilizes to give some of his actors more room. They use it well.
Except Philips. Philips is physically fine for the part, but he’s just a bit tepid. He’s supposed to be a sexy progressive dude who cares about education and sex ed and he’s never convincing. He just mopes around Turner until she gives in.
Varsi’s pretty good. She’s got a lot to do in the first half of the movie, it’s all her show. The scenes with Tamblyn are best because it’s her storyline more than anything else in the film. Tamblyn’s just her sweet male friend. His own backstory only exists when Varsi’s around. The film’s failure with it is another of the frustrations.
Anyway, pretty soon Varsi’s just around to support Hope Lange’s story–which is the center of the film as it turns out–or something with Turner, which always affects the high school and that subplot. Hayes’s script is masterful, no doubt, but it’s a masterful soap opera. He’s going for sensationalism, not the characters. Robson’s going for the characters and the visual grandeur of it. While the two approaches end up complimenting each other, there’s only so far Robson could take it.
Lange’s amazing. Sometimes she’s second fiddle in her own scenes, but Robson always makes sure to give her time to act. Seeing Lange’s experience through her expressions is what gives Peyton Place its heart. Robson helps, sure, but he knows Lange’s got to handle a lot of weight and figures out the best way to distribute it.
Also excellent is Arthur Kennedy, who has a similar relationship with the film as Lange.
Tamblyn’s good. Lloyd Nolan’s great as the town doctor who also serves as a guide through the film. Leon Ames is awesome as the mean local rich guy. Lorne Greene is the nasty prosecuting attorney in the third act. I’m not sure he’s good but he’s definitely loathsome, though the courtroom finale isn’t set up well in the narrative. Hayes does fine once he gets into the trial, but its inciting incident is a complete fumble.
Because Peyton Place isn’t a great movie. It’s got a lot of problems. It might even get long in parts, which isn’t a good thing–if you’re going to run two and a half hours, you can’t feel long. But it is a good movie, with some great filmmaking and some great performances. And Franz Waxman’s music is gorgeous.
Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the novel by Grace Metalious; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by David Bretherton; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Jerry Wald; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring Lana Turner (Constance MacKenzie), Diane Varsi (Allison MacKenzie), Hope Lange (Selena Cross), Lee Philips (Michael Rossi), Lloyd Nolan (Dr. Swain), Arthur Kennedy (Lucas Cross), Russ Tamblyn (Norman Page), Leon Ames (Mr. Harrington), Terry Moore (Betty Anderson), David Nelson (Ted Carter), Barry Coe (Rodney Harrington), Betty Field (Nellie Cross), Mildred Dunnock (Miss Elsie Thornton), Lorne Greene (Prosecutor), and Scotty Morrow (Joseph Cross).