Sunday, February 15, 2015

Behind Closed Doors

Film: Peyton Place
Format: Movies! Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.

If Peyton Place didn’t exist, I think it’s possible that David Lynch may not exist. Many of Lynch’s best films, particularly Blue Velvet but all of them to some extent, touch on some of the same themes. Peyton Place is objectively a lot more about sex and a lot less about weirdness and insanity than Lynch’s work. Both films are about hidden things, though, about the veneer of respectability the lives over the private lives of everyone. Early films like Theodora Goes Wild play with this idea, but Peyton Place takes it seriously. The people we spend our time with spend most of their time trying to hide the reality of their lives from everyone else in town.

Now, Peyton Place was made in 1957, which means that a lot of what is whispered about in the town is innuendo and rumor. In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of the film is that it’s the town’s youth who are constantly suspected of breaking various moral codes when they aren’t and the adults who pretend they aren’t who are. The vintage of the film also means that we won’t be having any nudity despite the high sex content of the conversation. We are still conforming to the Hays Code, after all.

In essence, Peyton Place is the story of three women: Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner), her daughter Allison (Diane Varsi), and Allison’s best friend Selena Cross (Hope Lange). Oh, I suppose we can toss in Selena’s mother Nellie (Betty Field) and drunken step-father Lucas (Arthur Kennedy), Allison’s required but unconsummated crush Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn), and the alleged high school floozy Betty Anderson (Terry Moore) and local rich kid Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe). But really, it’s about the first three mentioned.

According to Constance, her husband died when Allison was just a baby. She has raised her daughter on her own and simultaneously run a successful dress shop in town. Part of her method of raising Allison is to prevent anyone from getting too close to her or too close to her daughter. Her goal is for Allison to be better than the rest of the town, and to this end, she has more or less trapped Allison in something of an ivory tower. Part of that tower is her constant suspicions of exactly what Allison might be getting up to. She has reasons to suspect her daughter that have more to do with genetics than with anything actually happening.

Allison wants nothing more than to get away from Peyton Place, and to do so by any means necessary. She feels stifled in the small town and by her mother, who immediately jumps to the worst possible conclusions on even the barest suspicion of her daughter engaging in anything like sexual activity. And sexual activity is much on Allison’s mind in part because she’s curious about it and there’s evidently no education for it in the local high school.

Selena has her own issues, most of them centering on her step-father, who (naturally) rapes her and impregnates her on the night of Selena’s high school graduation dance. The entire third act of the film revolves around Selena killing the man in an attempt to fight off another rape and the lawsuit (and scandal) that result from it, a scandal intensified by the sudden suicide of Selena’s mother in Constance MacKenzie’s house some time before Lucas Cross's death (by goddam rolling pin!).

And then there’s Michael Rossi (Lee Philips), the new high school principal. Beyond the high school, Rossi’s main goal through the film is to defrost Constance, who reacts to any physical affection as if he’d whipped his cock out. We discover at the end of the second act exactly what Constance’s shame really is and why she seems determined to go through life with as little human contact as possible.

It’s hard not to like Peyton Place on some level. This is a massively long film, clocking in somewhere north of 150 minutes, but it never really feels slow. Better, despite the large cast and number of concurrent stories, it never really gets confusing or confused in its entire running time. For a time, Peyton Place held the ignoble record of the most Oscar nominations (9) without a single win. Of those nominations, a full five of them (Lana Turner, Diane Varsi, Hope Lange, Arthur Kennedy, and Russ Tamblyn) were for acting performances. There are plenty of good performances to go around here, too in addition to those mentioned. I particularly like Lloyd Nolan as the local doctor, and there’s also an appearance by Lorne Greene as the local district attorney during the final 45 minutes or so.

I haven’t read the novel of the same name, but from what I understand, the film is a very much sanitized version of it. It would have to be to contend properly with the Hays Code. Even so, there’s a great deal of prurience here to the point that part of the film’s success almost had to come from scenes where Allison talks frankly about girls wanting sex as much as boys.

In a life imitates art moment, the film was also helped at the box office by a real-life scandal when Lana Turner’s daughter Cheryl killed Turner’s mob-tied boyfriend Johnny Stompanato and was eventually exonerated.

I’d love to see this film remade. It’s daring for its time, but still far too clean and prim for what must really be going on underneath all of the pretense. We get little tastes of the sexual undercurrent of the town, probably racy for the time, but not nearly racy enough to raise an eyebrow for today’s audiences. Peyton Place may not have flung wide the doors of sexual awareness in the way that it should have, but it at least cracked them open a bit. Thank goodness, then, for David Lynch.

Why to watch Peyton Place: It’s a movie that needed to be made.
Why not to watch: It doesn’t go far enough by modern sensibilities.


  1. "’s the town’s youth who are constantly suspected of breaking various moral codes when they aren’t and the adults who pretend they aren’t who are."

    I've heard it said, about our generation and those younger than we are, that we're the first to have to cover our parents' eyes when watching racy things on TV and in movies. Maybe "Peyton Place" is prophetic in that sense: the youth in the movie are perceived to be more morally fallen than the older generation (even if they aren't more fallen in reality)—a subversion of the blithe, old-school presumption of youthful innocence and/or stupidity.

    I can definitely see, based on your description, how this film could be considered something of a creative gateway for David Lynch and the rest of the shiny-surface-rotten-core "American Beauty" types of movies.

    1. I think there's always been that perception. In some sense and at some level, every generation has been appalled by the things their kids do or find acceptable. A generation or two ago, it was wide acceptance of interracial marriage (for instance), while many of the older generation are shocked at how opinions have changed regarding same-sex marriage in the current under-30 generation. The same is true of what is acceptable in music, television, movies, and the lot.

      A couple of generations ago, Midnight Cowboy was rated X. Today it would be barely PG-13.

  2. I've always found that for the most part it's the people most concerned with moral infractions that are the ones overcompensating for their own desires and actions. You know what city had the single highest rate of advance ticket sales for 50 Shades of Grey? The one in Mississippi that is the headquarters of the American Family Association - the ones that keep their names in the news by protesting when people are implied to be doing something that the AFA and its founder Donald Wildmon disapproves of.

    As for Peyton Place I liked it, although you could see the stepfather thing coming a mile away. This was back when rape was a shame for the woman, not the one assaulting her. That was also a part of the plot of Johnny Belinda - not wanting anyone to find out about the rape because of the condemnation that would come the way of the woman.

    1. It's a time-honored trope that the person who is most concerned with everyone's morality is going to end up being the one who is the most morally repellent. And yet how often does that happen in real life? How many "family values" politicians end up embroiled in sex scandals? How many anti-gay politicians have a gay scandal at some point? Utah leads the country in Mormonism and leads the nation in online pornographysubscriptions per capita.

      I agree with you on the stepfather, and the reason Selena hides what happens--it's not his evil, but her shame.