2 Hrs., 37 Mins.
Peyton Place February 6, 2015
The Hollywood melodrama is a magical thing. You could fixate on one for a century, devouring the unrealistic rosiness and torrid, intermingling plot lines. Some directors (like William Wyler and Edmund Goulding) were able to nourish them, managing to turn camp into something classier than overwrought trash. There were others, though (like Billy Wilder and Douglas Sirk), who could see the fun in the fluff, commenting on the usual inauthenticity while still making a top-notch product.
A film that falls strictly in the middle on the opposing ends of art and trash, Peyton Place, is the granddaddy of all Hollywood melodramas. It's not quite self-aware, but it's not quite frivolous, either; it’s just right, being everything Days of Our Lives and The Bold and the Beautiful ever wanted to be.
It has only three moods: romantic, melodramatic, or staunchly moralistic (à Leave It to Beaver or a slice of American cheese). These moods never mix together with continuity; there only seems to be room for the loudest of colors, shades and subtleties burnt to a crisp. But scenes are made indelible by their being designed with the dramatized emphasis of a fashion magazine photoshoot, practically screaming that, yes, the film has a big-budget, and yes, it can afford to be filmed in CinemaScope.
Peyton Place isn’t a smart melodrama cut from the same cloth as Sirk's Written on the Wind, but thanks to shows like the anachronistic Twin Peaks, vintage soap has been given an entirely new edge when viewing as an audience member of the 2010s. Instead of watching one for its unfiltered clutter, there seems to be a satirical acidity at play, even if it isn’t on purpose. Landscape shots have the phony cheerfulness of a tempting postcard. Neighborhoods are decked out with white-picket fences, green grass, sunny skies, and clean-cut youths. Everything is too immaculate. You can sense the potential scandals taking place behind closed doors.
Peyton Place is an amalgam of all this. To explain its piling of storylines would be like patting my head and rubbing my stomach while typing – they bear the same personal complexities found within a family tree of drama-magnetizing socialites. All I'll say is that Lana Turner is named Constance McKenzie (a name which perhaps chosen by a soap opera character generator), and that she, along with her daughter (Diane Varsi), acquaintances, and old-time friends, live in Peyton Place, an idyllic town stationed in rural New England. Gossip travels faster than a speeding bullet; romances begin as often as babies are born. A scandal can destroy a person’s life with the snap of a French-tipped finger.
I may enjoy watching tragedy happen to other people, but is it wrong to say that I wouldn't be much opposed to living in a town this exciting?
In Peyton Place, a blistery kiss or a bitch slap to a well-endowed mug become the equivalents of a fiery explosion. There is plenty to stare at and gasp at and cry at and emote at, however ridiculous. We know that it’s bad for us, but it's impossible not to consume something which wraps us up in a tweed suit and transports us into a parallel universe of cracked perfection. The youths, no matter how flawless their skin and bodies might first appear, are either loose cannons or suppressed lightweights waiting to blow up. The passive-aggressive judgments of Peyton Place eventually sets their path and decides if they will be the talk of the town for the rest of their lives or the neighbors you beam at when you pass them at the grocery store. Those in middle-age perhaps wish they'd left years ago, yet they remain stuck in their unpredictable lives.
Fittingly, the film became a hit not for its merit, not for its acting, not for its artistic capabilities, but because of a jaw-dropping scandal more shocking than anything you'd find in Peyton Place. At the time, the star Lana Turner was dating Mickey Cohen’s right-hand man. One night, he flew into a rage, and, in response, her daughter came to her defense, stabbing him to death. Peyton Place had been out for months, making little money. But once headlines began proliferating, it became the second highest-grossing movie of 1958.
Looking back, the Turner makes for the sort of ordeal America feeds on with the frenzy of radioactive piranhas biting into a gazelle who got too close to the water. No one wants to admit that they enjoy some garbage here and there, but I’m sure the majority of InTouch readers indulge themselves not because they find value in celebrity gossip but because they find all the melodramatic lies to be a hell of a lot more entertaining than the intellect of Vanity Fair. As far as publicity goes, Peyton Place got its sharing served on a silver platter. What better suits faux soap than real soap?
Oddly enough, considering how tumultuous her life was at the time, Turner is magnificent. For most of the 1940s, the decade in which she became a major attraction, she was mostly put in the shoes of the sexy love interest, sometimes a femme fatale and sometimes the sweet girl you couldn't wait to go home to after fighting overseas. In Peyton Place, she is appealingly breathy, always ready with a cocked eyebrow, perpetually pissed off at how her messy past affects her currently dusty one. She blows cigarette smoke as if she were late for an upcoming confrontation with an old mistake. Determined and game, Turner carries the weight of the film on her shoulders, working as its emotional core and its most interesting component. Some could declare her work as pure overacting. But on Peyton Place’s terms, she comes out a champion. (Plus, few can say that murder led to a brief career resurgence, so there's that.)
One could accuse Peyton Place of being too preachy to be completely successful (most of its plot lines carry morality that's very 1957), but its impact is undeniable. It propelled the careers of its talented young actors (Russ Tamblyn, Hope Lange), and led to a popular TV spin-off in the 1960s, setting the standard for modern soap operas. As a standalone film, it works as a well-made, wildly entertaining soaper. The two hours and 37 minutes go by with lightning speed. And still one could say that the film is too short, a good sign if there ever was one. A-