Monday, March 23, 2020

Sex, Sin, Lies And Lana Turner: That's What "Peyton Place" Is Made Of

A massively trashy book becomes a massively trashy movie: The opening credits of our feature presentation.

Hello from far and near, movie lovers.

When you think of your favorite house, what kind of an abode is it? A villa in Capri? A penthouse in Manhattan? A picturesque Colonial in a New England burg?

If that last idea floats your boat, you may want to think twice--or watch "Peyton Place" (1957), the ne plus ultra of trashy movies set in supposedly idyllic small towns.

Based on the scandalous best seller by Grace Metalious, "Peyton Place" is entirely populated by trampy teens, horny cads, drunk folks, abusive parents, repressed spinsters, unfaithful husbands, bullied mama's boys, nurses who have sex with traveling salesmen and prim widows hiding shameful pasts.

Yet unlike other small town exposes, the citizens of Peyton Place don't really feel bad about what they're doing--while they're doing it. It's only later they're desperate to ensure their hanky-panky doesn't become public knowledge. The end result is a community where everybody is pretending to be upright "family values" types when they're anything but. No wonder everybody is off their dot.

The townspeople of Peyton Place maintain a facade Puritan respectability, which hides their steamier activities.

"Sweater Girl' and scandal icon Lana Turner is Constance Mackenzie, a widowed dress shop owner and mom to precocious teen Allison (Diane Varsi), a high school senior anxious for ma to loosen her grip on her budding social life. Case in point: Allison's upcoming birthday party, in which A) Constance has promised not to hang around and B) town tramp Betty Anderson (Terrie Moore) is on the guest list.

Mom doesn't like Betty, especially after she over-hears the floozie telling a group of girls (including Allison) her philosophy of life: "Men can see better than they can think! A low-cut neckline does more for a girl's future than the entire Britannica encyclopedia!"

However, when Constance asks Allison to un-invite Betty, her daughter says no. As Varsi explains, if Betty doesn't come, her cuddlemate Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe) won't come, which means none of the cool kids will come and her party will be the social flop of the year. Reluctantly Turner backs down, but she comes to regret it.

No sooner does rich, rotten, randy Rodney arrive at the party than he whips out the booze, puts on some jazz records and turns down the lights so the gang can make out. Later, Constance comes home and is shocked shocked! to see her daughter kissing a boy!

"We were just playing 'Photography'," smart-ass Rodney tells the fuming Turner. "You turn down the lights and see what develops."

A preening Betty Anderson (Terrie Moore, in the red dress) shows how she landed a rich boyfriend (hint: it's not because of her personality).

Mrs. Mackenzie kicks everybody to the curb and Allison runs to her room in tears. Then mom and daughter have it out.

Smoke literally blowing out her ears, Constance hisses, "I knew this would happen!" However, when Allison tries to point out that "at every party in town they turn down the lights..." mom only gets battier.

"I don't want you to be like everybody else in town!" Turner hollers. "I want you to rise above Peyton Place!"

"I don't want to live in a test tube!" wails Allison."I'd rather be liked than be perfect!"

"By 'liked' you mean pawed over in the dark by some young animal with only one thing on his mind?!" Turner screams.
Overprotective mom Constance Mackenzie doesn't share daughter Alison's ideas for fun.

Stopping to take a breath (and to avoid popping a blood vessel), Lana reassures Allison, "I want you to fall in love. And in the proper time to marry a man who respects you. I want you to have a good name," she continues, "I don't want you to get a reputation..."

Allison promptly cuts mom off: "I already have a reputation! The wrong kind! If any man would seriously ask me, I'd runaway and be his mistress!"

Furious at such lip, Turner slaps Varsi with a loud smack.

Why is Constance so obsessed with Allison having "a good name"? May be it's because back in the day ma moved to NYC and did become some man's mistress--a married man's mistress, to be exact. What's more, she got preggers and then her sugar daddy died, forcing Constance to adopt the guise of a young "widow", complete with her "late husband's" picture on the mantle. Naturally, she doesn't want Allison (or anybody else) to know the sordid truth OR for her daughter to repeat her mistakes.

Coincidentally, Allison isn't the only Peyton Place teen struggling with a demanding and/or controlling parent.

Ultra-rich Mr. Harrington (Leon Ames) insists son Rodney quit seeing town tramp Betty--and save himself to cheat on his future wife.

Rich boy Rodney enjoys frolicking after Betty like a dog in heat, but Mr. Harrington (Leon Ames) has other plans for his heir. Those include attending Harvard in the fall and dumping bawdy Betty. Although Rodney assures his dad he never thought of marrying Betty, Mr. Harrington is taking no chances, screaming, "I wouldn't hear of it even if you wanted to!" He then tells his son, "Do you realize what it would mean if you decided to marry the town tramp? When you marry, you're going to marry someone on your own level!"

Mr. Harrington admits he understands why Rodney would want to date Betty "in private", but he has to think of the family's reputation. Because Rodney enjoys being rich, he knuckles under and dumps Betty, but not before he sarcastically tells his dad, "I'll be as big a Harrington as you: marry a cold fish from Boston, have one child and cheat for the rest of my life!"

Next is Allison's best friend Selena Cross (Hope Lange). Dirt poor and stuck with an an abusive, alcoholic step-father (Arthur Kennedy), she also has a morose mom named Nellie (Betty Field) who works as a cleaning woman. Nellie resignedly puts up with hubby Lucas' drunken behavior, but has  noticed him eyeing Selena in unhealthy ways. Of course, her worry doesn't motivate her do anything to protect her daughter. Instead, after an epic bender, Lucas assaults Selena and leaves her pregnant.

Also in a bad spot is Allison's would-be cuddlemate, Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn). His mom is also a frigid, neurotic "widow" (actually, dad left because of her hysterical nagging and I don't blame him one bit) who insists her son stay home and not have any friends. Mrs. Page also has ensured that Norman knows nothing about the opposite sex and has the social skills of a dung beetle. Norman and Allison bond over their unhealthy home lives, but does their budding love stand a chance in Peyton Place?

Believe it or not, there are still more subplots to be had! Peyton Place has a new high school principal named Michael Rossi (Lee Philips), a square-jawed "progressive" who meets Constance on the night of Allison's ill-fated birthday party. While waxing about his plans to improve the high school, Philips mentions he's creating a Sex Ed class.

Constance Mackenzie doesn't approve of principal Mike Rossi's (Lee Philips) ideas about "hands on" education.

Constance is horrified, of course, stating, "Isn't that a function of the home?"

Ideally, yes, Rossi counters. But when parents fail to due their duty, their kids suffer: "We teach school children English and math and history and yet we neglect the one subject that gives them the most trouble," he says. Besides, he adds, where do we want kids to learn about sex? In parked cars and back alleys?

"They'll learn (about sex) when they get married!" Turner barks--like that helped her! Oops, I forgot, Turner's character has never been married!

Determined to unfrost the New England widow, Rossi asks Turner out on various dates and she agrees. However, when the educator makes more romantic overtures, she shuts him down: "You're wasting your time, Mike. I had my love a long time ago." Still, he persists, and when Constance and Mike share a big, fat kiss, Turner pulls away yet again.

"We're not kids! We're adults!" the clearly frustrated Rossi exclaims.

"Social Distancing": Constance Mackenzie wants principal Rossi to watch his step.

"And we're going to act like adults!" Turner reminds him.

"I kissed you, you kissed me!" Rossi says. "That's affection, not carnality! That's affection, not lust!"

Then the principal zeroes in on Constance's real problem: "It's not sex you're afraid of! It's love!" he announces.

"And that's what you're offering me!" Constance screams back, "With your hands all over me?!"

Look, if you're getting exhausted wading through all these inter-twined plots and subplots and feel you need a score card to keep everything straight, I will now try and speed things up a bit:

If you're overwhelmed by the plot of today's movie, have no fear! A cheat-sheet is here!

The Selena plot: Selena goes to helpful Doc Swain (Lloyd Nolan) in hopes of seeking an abortion. He won't do it. On the way home, she runs into a vengeful Lucas who chases her in the woods. Selena trips, falls and tumbles down a mountain side. Doc Swain later performs an "appendectomy" on her and to ensure his blabber mouth nurse keeps her yap shut, he blackmails her with info about her affair with a traveling salesman.

Doc Swain runs Lucas out of town, but he returns at Christmas time. When he tries to assault Selena again, she accidentally kills him. Put on trial, Selena defends herself against jerk lawyer Lorne Greene and Doc Swain testifies to Lucas' history of drunken abuse. Selena is cleared of all charges and returns to her job at the dress shop.

The Rodney/Betty plot: On the eve of Rodney going off to Harvard, he and Betty sneak off to the local swimmin' hole, drink booze and decide to go skinny dipping. A prim, prune-faced busy-body (out boating with her husband) sees their nude frolic and thinks it's Allison and Norman--and promptly spreads the tale all over town.

After having some "afternoon delight", Rodney and Betty elope. Mr. Harrington goes nuts, but Rodney stands his ground. The shallow rich boy gets a job at one of his dad's mills and later gets drafted for WW ll. He dies in combat and in their grief, father and daughter-in-law make peace. Oh, it turns out Betty wasn't really a tramp, she was just pretending to be a tramp because Rodney liked tramps. Although, girls, I wouldn't try this out myself.

The Allison plot: On Labor Day, cuddlemates Allison and Norman go to the local swimmin' hole for a dip--with their swimsuits ON. When the kids return at the Mackenzie house later in the evening, they face a furious Constance and the pinch-faced Mrs. Page, who accuse them of swimming in the nude (remember, that was Rodney and Betty). The cuddlemates deny it, but their parents don't believe them.

Norman Page's mom refuses to believe her son kept his swim trunks to himself when he took a dip with Allison at the local swimmin' hole.

Soon after, Allison and Constance have an epic throw down, where Turner yells at Varsi, "You're just like your father about sex!" When Allison yells back, "Then why did you marry him?!", mom shrieks, "I didn't! He already had a wife!"

Realizing she's a an out of wedlock illegitimate bastard, the poor kid runs to her room in floods of tears and then screams, "Nellie!" Selena's mom, the morose cleaning woman, has hung herself in Allison's closet, leaving the teen in shock.

After she recovers, Allison packs her bags for NYC and vows never to talk to Constance again. When  mom wonders what Allison will do if she can't find a job, her daughter coldly replies, "I'll do what you did: I'll live off a man."

Selena's trial brings Allison back to Peyton Place and her BFF's acquittal allows mom and daughter to kiss and make-up. By the way, Allison found a nice job at a publishing house, so rest easy.

The Norman plot: The put-upon mama's boy also leaves Peyton Place, gets drafted for WW ll, grows a pair and completely shucks off the abuse of his batty mother. He and Allison meet on a train, but we aren't told if they resume their romance or decide to just be friends.

Will the love of Norman and Allison survive Peyton Place? Hmmm...

The Constance Mackenzie/Michael Rossi plot: During the holidays, Constance visits the principal in a cheery-red cocktail dress. She admits she was never married to Allison's father (or any other man, for that matter) and that's why her daughter left town and won't speak to her. However, when the "progressive" educator appears horrified by Constance's sordid past, she prepares to leave. Instead, Rossi embraces her and lets her know he doesn't judge her; the sadder, but wiser, girl is fine with him. The couple is back on, but we're never told if Turner still disapproves of his plans to institute a Sex Ed class at the high school.


At two hours and 37 minutes, "Peyton Place" is a densely packed soap opera with every kind of sin vying for screen time: lying, cheating, drinking, blackmail, pre-marital sex, abuse, out of wedlock birth, murder and public nudity. Because of it's success (and nine Oscar nominations), other flicks tried to replicate "Peyton Place"s small town sin-pit vibe ( see list of these movies at end of post), but never quite made it. In fact, even the sequel to "Peyton Place" called--what else?--"Return to Peyton Place" failed to deliver. What's the secret?

I agree with other critics that timing and especially casting were the key.

 Having Lana Turner play a buttoned-up, guilt-ridden "widow" who is mortally afraid of scandal, when the movie-going public knew full well she dated gangsters and burned through husbands, was a stroke of demented genius. In fact, on the night of the Academy Awards, Turner (who was up for Best Actress for this flick) was beaten up by underworld boyfriend Johnny Stompenado because she didn't ask him to be her date for the ceremony. Ten days later, Lana's daughter stabbed Johnny when she heard him threatening her mother (she was acquitted). Seven years later, that scandal would inspire the movie "Where Love Has Gone" (reviewed in this blog). Lana's tumultuous love life was the gift that kept on giving--at least where bad movies were concerned.

Also, no one else was able to blow the lid off small town life like Grace Metalious did. After Peyton Place told what stoic New Englanders were up to in their off hours, nobody ever believed small towns were havens of family values again (although they do have nice B&Bs, I must say).

When the casting is right and the stars align, you can make a masterpiece--or, a messterpiece. That's why "Peyton Place" will always come out leading the pack.

So movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, scandal can lurk anywhere, and help me SAVE THE MOVIES.

A French movie poster for "Peyton Place", proving once again that trash is a universal language.


"By Love Possessed" (1961)--This movie stars Lana Turner as the restless wife of an invalid, who has an affair with hubby's friend and business partner, Efrem Zimbalist, jr. The lightly tanned George Hamilton appears as Efrem's son, who hooks up with bad girl (and future Bat Girl) Yvonne Craig.

"The Chapman Report" (1962)--Effrem Zimbalist, jr. returns as a sex researcher much like Dr. Kinsey, who interviews real housewives about their "preliminary love play experiences." Jane Fonda appears as a frigid widow, Shelly Winters is a neglected spouse who has the hots for a community theater director and Claire Bloom is a sweaty nympho. Hilarious complications ensue when Fonda and Zimbalist, jr. fall in love and he tells the future "Barbarella" star, "You're not the first woman to find the physical act repellent." Nice to know.

"No Down Payment" (1957)--The blooming suburbs of post-WW ll are detailed here, with everybody basically miserable, adulterous or sex-starved. Oscar-winner Joanne Woodward plays the slutty wife of Cameron Mitchell.

"Strangers When We Met" (1960)--PTA parents Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak meet at their kids' bus stop and then begin having an affair. Believe it or not, Novak's mom isn't shocked by the news; she had such an affair herself. "I'm not a tramp," she tells her daughter. "What happened to me could happen to any woman." Thanks, mom!

"Two Moon Junction" (1988)--Sherilyn Fenn (best known for "Twin Peaks") is a Southern deb who falls hard for shady carny Richard Tyson. Their affair begins when Fenn finds Tyson soaping himself up in her shower. Look for "Fantasy Island" star Herve Villechaize as a fellow carny.

"The Bramble Bush" (1960)--Richard Burton strikes again! He's a doctor accused of mercy killing his terminally ill best friend Tom Drake AND having an affair with his devoted wife, Barbara Rush. Actually, the affair with widow-in-waiting is true, because Babs gets pregnant. Burton, ever the caring friend, tells his dying buddy, "It's not your baby, but that doesn't mean she's stopped loving you." Once again, nice to know.