Peyton Place (Blu-ray Review)10 Apr, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Lana Turner, Diane Varsi, Lee Phillips, Hope Lange, Arthur Kennedy, Russ Tamblyn.
Twentieth Century-Fox and producer Jerry Wald did such a bang-up getting Peyton Place to the screen so relatively soon after the best-selling publication of Grace Metalious’s New England scandalmonger that I had to look it up to be certain that the book came out in 1956 and not a year earlier. I should have figured this out by myself through simple math because by the time I got around to reading the novel, it was via the then newly published 25th-anniversary edition from 1981 — by which time it had come to be regarded less as a “dirty book” than an ahead-of-its time feminist manifesto and much-needed pummeler of small-town hypocrisy. But still: It was a head-turning achievement to get such a formidable production (157 minutes with a large cast and location shooting) into theaters by Christmas of 1957 — where, using one of my city’s downtown movie palaces as a reference point, it played eight weeks in a single engagement. Which, in those days, very rarely happened.
Everyone of age and many underage had, of course, devoured the novel — which got “passed around” big-time from friend to friend to equalize the effect, perhaps, of certain book stores and even libraries that wouldn’t carry this apparently thinly disguised portrait of the author’s New Hampshire neighbors, emphasis on those with skeletons in the closet. Just the stepfather incest angle alone made Place an unlikely source for ’50s screens (the movie opened almost simultaneously with Disney’s Old Yeller), but screenwriter John Michael Hayes of then concurrent Hitchcock screenplay fame skillfully walked the kind of adapter tightrope that Daniel Taradash did in “cleaning up” James Jones’s From Here to Eternity for even more mass consumption. The reward was monster box office and nine Oscar nominations — though like The Little Foxes, The Turning Point and The Color People it ended a promising awards ceremony without a single win. Then again, 1957 was the year when Paths of Glory, Sweet Smell of Success and A Face in the Crowd weren’t even considered year-end players and nominated 12 Angry Men was such a box office underperformer that it had to fight to get decent bookings.
Set during the prelude to (and then amid) World War II, Place has more of a ’50s than ’40s feel — a mild irritant, maybe, but no deal-breaker. Yet even with this said (and beyond the incest angle), it was an undeniable mainstream groundbreaker: There are mother-daughter conflicts over the latter’s birth history, mom’s almost pathological sexual frigidity and the age-old pleasures of skinny-dipping with the loosest girl in high school — common screen fodder for the past half-century but by no means natural material for a major studio’s “Big One” of the year. The movie’s 18-year-old Norman character (Russ Tamblyn) is spared the book’s maternal indignities perpetrated against him (“Ma, will you cool it on my enemas already”) but still has to join the military in wartime to escape homestead clutches.
My own mother scored an uncommon movie-oriented victory in 1957 when she successfully forbade me to see the picture (I was 10), a situation not rectified until the mid-’60s. But to fill in knowledge gaps at the time, I counted on my favorite cousin (three years older, she meticulously related the entire plot) and the older teen brother of my best friend (who noted that David Nelson’s performance as rape victim Hope Lange’s straight-arrow squeeze “wasn’t anything to write home about”). In truth, the key acting casualty is Lee Philips as the new high school principal/wannabe lover to the frigid mom, whose character is a sanctimonious pain for starters and then further done in by a Phillips voice that registered as badly as early talkies casualty John Gilbert’s reputedly did but actually didn’t. On the other hand — and in addition to Lloyd Nolan’s effortlessly great work as the down doc — there are five Oscar-nominated performances here from Lana Turner, the sadly career-shortened Diane Varsi, Lange, Arthur Kennedy and Tamblyn (with the middle three tough to dispute). Kennedy, who, to my chagrin, never won an Oscar, was nominated five times in his career — four of them, as here, in movies directed by Mark Robson.
Shot substantially in Maine — Metalious’s scandalized New Hampshire practically instituted zoning laws against the filmmakers — this has to be one of the most handsome Blu-rays that Twilight Time has ever released. Wald spent the money and landed William C. Mellor to photograph in an era when the latter’s resumé could additionally claim A Place in the Sun, Bad Day at Black Rock and Giant; meanwhile, Franz Waxman contributed his third memorable score of 1957 atop the ones he did for The Spirit of St. Louis and Sayonara (which opened near-simultaneously with Fox’s anti-Yuletide blockbuster and also cleaned up). Both voiceover commentaries here are worth it and the first fabulously so. It’s by filmmaker/historian Willard Carroll, whose bonus then-and-now video of the Maine locales is a treat I didn’t expect.
There’s also a spotty but valuable carryover track by Tamblyn and supporting player Terry Moore in which Tamblyn comes off as one of the great guys ever, at least if we’re talking actors. At worst, Moore’s contribution is borderline insipid, though she’s very good (this probably sounds patronizing, but I mean it sincerely) when talking about costuming, hair and the imposing way superstars like Turner would be lit and photographed back in the day. Moore is a vocal adherent of old-style Hollywood where even adult movies dealt antiseptically with adult issues (I doubt that she’s seen Pasolini’s Salo too many times). It might be a more defensible position if the movie she made just before Peyton Place was Bernardine opposite Pat Boone, which was more representative of her career.