Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Love Stories: Small-Town Secrets Abound in Peyton Place

The saga of the Harrington, MacKenzie, and Anderson families began airing twice weekly on ABC in 1964 and prime-time was never the same. Peyton Place was an instant hit—one of the first “water cooler” shows—with both weekly installments finishing in the Top 10 most-watched TV series for 1964-65. ABC expanded the show to three airings per week in 1965. That decision, along with the departure of key cast members, resulted in a steady ratings decline. Still, Peyton Place lasted for five seasons, introducing controversial subjects to network television, and paving the way for later prime time soaps such as Dallas, Dynasty, and Knots Landing.

The series was loosely based on Grace Metalious’s controversial 1956 bestseller about a small New England town filled with secrets. The author, then 32, took criticism for her frank approach to typically taboo subjects. There were also New Hampshire residents who claimed Metalious’s characters were thinly-disguised versions of real people. In any event, the book was a huge hit and producer Jerry Wald brought it to the big screen in 1957. Lana Turner starred as Constance MacKenzie and Diane Varsi played her illegitimate daughter Allison. Hope Lange took over as Allison in 1961’s Return to Peyton Place, which was also based on a Metalious novel.

In adapting Peyton Place for television, producer Paul Monash made several key changes. He updated the setting from the 1940s to the 1960s. Rodney Harrington’s classmate Norman became his brother. School principal Michael Rossi became a physician. And Allison’s real father, who was dead in the novel, was in prison for the murder of his wife.

The first season of Peyton Place holds up remarkably well today, thanks in large part to an exceptional ensemble cast and strong scripts built around believable characters. The plots are woven around two romances: Michael Rossi’s pursuit of single-mother Constance MacKenzie and the unexpected love that blossoms between bookish Allison MacKenize and the popular, wealthy Rodney Harrington. The latter relationship means bad news for Betty Anderson, Rodney’s former girlfriend who learns that she’s pregnant with Rod’s baby. Even worse, Betty’s father, George, is an alcoholic manic-depressive and her long-suffering mother briefly considers an affair with Rod’s father, Leslie, who runs Peyton Mills.

If it sounds like a soap opera, it is…but it’s also surprisingly gripping drama. In one of the best subplots, Kent Smith plays an aging physician trying to force the newly-arrived Rossi out of town. When he realizes he made a wrong diagnosis on a patient—and that Rossi was right—he apologizes to the younger man…even at the risk of ending his own career. It’s a beautifully written scene, handed with emotional subtlety.

The big cast includes a former Oscar winner (Dorothy Malone as Constance), veteran TV performers (Ed Nelson as Rossi) and several young stars-in-the making. Mia Farrow hits all the right notes as the sensitive Allison, who is wise beyond her years. Ryan O’Neal is charming, but restrained, as Rodney. And Barbara Parkins, whose film career didn’t match her co-stars, makes Betty a sympathetic bad girl (well, she does trick Rod into marriage).

The New England setting, with its lighthouses and snow-covered buildings, gives the series a picture postcard look. It’s a shame that Grace Metalious, who hated the movie version, never got to see the TV series. She died at the age of 39, just months before the first airing.

10 comments:

  1. I was hoping to check this out at Netflix, but they only have available the 2nd part of Season 1. I guess someone there thinks the first part isn't as important.

    Thanks for a great review, Rick. I would love to watch this show, mostly for the pretty ladies, but also, you know, for the drama and what not...

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  2. I'm also becoming concerned, Sark, that Shout Factory will stop the DVDs with season 1. The second part came out last July and there's no mention of season 2. By the way, since I know a Whit Bissell fan might read this post, the every-busy Whit plays the father of the daughter allegedly murdered by Allison's father (that was a fun sentence to write).

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  3. Rick, Awsome review! I love that you call it one of the first “water cooler” shows.

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  4. Rick, yes Whit was on this show, I really liked Norman played by Chris Connelly, In the later seasons their was a"rock band" for the teens do you remember the name of the group?

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  5. Rick, we are enjoying "Peyton Place" at our home. It is surprisingly well written, uses real exterior shots that add enormously to the beautiful New England setting, and has a wonderfully talented cast. We want more and truly hope that they will be forthcoming. I am truly enjoying this show and was most pleasantly surprised by your write-up. I was very saddened to learn that Grace Metalious was so very young when she died. I think she would have liked this TV series or at least taken pleasure in knowing how others felt. I loved your review and all the most excellent photos! Bravo!

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  6. Paul, I haven't seen some of the later seasons (and, like Toto, want to see season 2 released on DVD soon). What was the name of the PP rock band?

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  7. Rick (are you ready for this ) The Pillory. The leader was call Jeff and was played by John Findlater who Doris Day's oldest son in With Six You Get Eggroll.He was also in Airport.

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  8. That's great, Paul! You know, there is a pillory in the middle of the town. Betty looks at it often when she's debating how to tell Rod that she's pregnant.

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  9. Rick , someday I'll tell about being a young teenage boy and seeing Ms. Hartly walking down the hall with Dr. Rossi(Ed Nelson) in a white lab coat. I was never the same after .Wow.

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  10. Rick ,after some thought, maybe not. LOL

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