Thursday, March 10, 2016

Peyton Place: "Everything in this town happens behind brown wrappers"

In a 1956 interview with journalist Hal Boyle, Peyton Place author Grace Metalious said: "To a tourist, these towns look as peaceful as a picture postcard. But if you go underneath that picture, it's like turning over a rock with your foot--all kinds of strange things crawl out. Everybody that lives in town knows what's going on--there are no secrets--but they don't want outsiders to know."

A fictional exposé about a New England town called Peyton Place, her debut novel enthralled readers with its dark small town secrets. It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year and attracted the attention of Hollywood. Producer Jerry Wald convinced 20th Century-Fox to pay $100,000 for the film rights to Peyton Place. Wald was known for making films with strong female characters, such as Mildred PierceFlamingo RoadJohnny Belinda, and Caged. From the outset, he wanted 37-year-old Lana Turner for the lead role of Constance Mackenzie, a single mother who keeps her distance from men. The studio, however, envisioned Jane Wyman or Olivia de Havilland as Constance. In the end, Wald got his way.

Lee Phillips as Mike Rossi and Lana.
The film adaptation, as did the novel, also centers on Constance's bright teenage daughter Allison (Diane Varsi) and her friend, Selena (Hope Lange), who lives in one of the shanties outside of town. Allison develops a fondness for Norman (Russ Tamblyn), a shy young man who lives with his possessive mother. Selena has to cope with her drunken, leering stepfather (Arthur Kennedy), who beats her mother and drives away her older brother. Other characters include: Michael Rossi, the high school's handsome new principal; Allison's wealthy classmate Rodney Harrington and his provocative girlfriend Betty; and the town's physician--and conscience--Dr. Swain.

Reliable Lloyd Nolan as Dr. Swain.
It's easy to label Peyton Place as a big screen soap due to its interwoven dramatic elements. Perhaps, it is, but who says that's a criticism anyway? Even in her novel, Metalious amped up the turmoil by incorporating incidents from three real-life New Hampshire towns. Critics were kind to Peyton Place, with many considering it an improvement on the novel (though I wonder how many of them actually read the book).

The film received nine Academy Award nominations, including: Best Picture, Best Director (Mark Robson); Best Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Actress (Lana Turner); and four supporting performances (Diane Varsi, Hope Lange, Russ Tamblyn, and Arthur Kennedy). Amazingly, Franz Waxman's lovely, bittersweet score was totally ignored. He likely fared better from a commercial standpoint, especially after his title theme was heard two to three times weekly when the Peyton Place TV series aired from 1964 to 1969.

Hope Lange as Selena.
The standouts in the Peyton Place cast are young stars Diane Varsi and Hope Lange. Varsi's poignant narration provides the nostalgic transitions as the plot progresses from 1941 into the World War II years. She also effectively captures Allison's passion for life and later her disillusionment when she learns the truth about her deceased father. Lange has a smaller role, but evolves nicely from an innocent young woman to one harboring dark secrets that weigh heavily.

Diane Varsi as Allison.
Lange went on to a long career in film (The Young Lions) and television (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir). Diane Varsi was not as fortunate. She had hitchhiked to San Franciso in the late 1950s after seeing Rebel Without a Cause. Her first film role was Peyton Place, with 20th Century-Fox signing her to a contract. After high profile parts in Ten North Frederick (as Gary Cooper's daughter), From Hell to Texas, and Compulsion, she had a nervous breakdown. She retired from acting and moved back to Vermont. Her contract with Fox ended in 1964 and she later began acting occasionally in films like Wild in the Streets (1968) and Bloody Mama (1970) with Shelley Winters. She died from respiratory failure in 1992 at age 54; she had suffered from Lyme Disease for several years.

Allison shows her "secret place" to Norman.
Of course, the unsung star in Peyton Place is the town itself. Scenic and quaint from the outside, its secrets have attracted the interests of millions of readers and viewers. Carol Lynley played Allison in the 1961 sequel Return to Peyton Place, also based on a Grace Metalious novel. A popular prime-time TVs series followed in 1964 (click here to read our review of it). There was also a short-lived 1972-74 daytime drama and two made-for-TV movies: Murder in Peyton Place (1977) and Peyton Place: The Next Generation (1985).

Why all the interest in this small New England town? Perhaps, Constance sums it up best when talking to Mike Rossi in the first film: "In Peyton Place, two people talking is a conspiracy. A meeting is an assignation. And getting to know one another is a scandal."


  1. I'm a huge fan of the wardrobe in this film, and most of the performances are powerful. (I agree that Hope Lange is terrific in this film.) I've never thought about the location being an "unsung star", but you're absolutely right. It's a beautiful town – a perfect location for these films.

  2. Rick, you have painted a lyrical portrait of "Peyton Place" and it really does have a life of its own. Solid cast, impeccable setting, unforgettable score. Well done!

  3. The town is Camden, Maine (only used in the original film). Was supposed to have been Rutland, Vermont. But that town decided to withdraw permission to film there. The original town where Grace Metalious lived, and that Peyton Place is based on, is Gilmanton, New Hampshire.

  4. Thanks for your enjoyable review. However, re your header, im pretty sure the wrappers refered to are white paper ones.. The books that Varsi and Tamblyn admit they sent off for are definitely white and when they meet on the train they refer to them again

  5. Rick 29, I enjoy your posts. Do you have any comments about Betty Field who played Selenas mother? She was in Picnic and also Bus Stop which also had Hope Lange.

  6. I’m over 75 years old and this is my favorite film of all. The acting, set design, cinematography, music and monologs. I feel all the incarnation’s after , both TV and movies are not up to the same level of this Motion Picture. Bob Clearwater, Fl. March 20 , 2021