Dir.: Mark Robson
Peyton Place is important as a cultural landmark of sorts, with Grace Metalious' scandalous 1954 novel becoming an overnight blockbuster success, as stiffly conservative suburban mores were being shaken by a greater openness about sexuality. The novel was one of a few significant spoons, coming shortly after The Kinsey Report and the launch of Playboy Magazine, stirring the incipient sexual revolution.
Certainly, Mark Robson's film adaptation of Peyton Place was just as bold a stroke to the public consciousness in the way that it presented teenage girls openly considering and confronting sexual realities within the repressed idyll of its titular New England village. However, despite its social significance and box office success, Robson's film is only partially successful as a work of art.
While the big De Luxe and CinemaScope canvas is bold and appealing, it lacks the depth of feeling and purpose that someone like Douglas Sirk might have crafted from the same materials. There's a distinctly sub-Sirkian feeling to most of Peyton Place, with its repressions and prejudices and seasonal colors, that falls appreciably short of the real thing.
What does work wonderfully in Peyton Place is some of the casting, with Diane Varsi looking like a mix between Debbie Reynolds and Lee Remick as the prim-but-curious Allison, and Hope Lange is full of life as her friend who experiences the darker side of small-town sexual provincialism. Varsi can hardly be blamed for her awful, tonally incongruent purple narration which opens, closes, and periodically violates the middle of the film; Morgan Freeman couldn't have turned that into anything listenable. Both Lana Turner and Russ Tamblyn deliver nice but unspectacular performances in supporting roles. Turner would get her chance to nail a full-fledged Sirkian performance two years later, in Sirk's Imitation of Life.
Sadly, for every winning performance there is one that fizzles out disastrously. First of all, David Nelson may have been a teen idol as a TV star on Ozzie and Harriet, but he is an oozing drip of fecklessness in Peyton Place, with his chronic expression of "Someone stepped on my toe! And then force-fed me a Valium!" distracting from every professional actor whenever he's on screen. Even worse is the vacuum of charisma that is Lee Philips, who turns the key character of the progressive new high school principal into a simpering, nannying, baby-voiced good-for-nothing. It's a casting disaster, like if instead of Robin Williams, Gus Van Sant had cast Eddie Deezen in Good Will Hunting. (Well, maybe that would have made Good Will Hunting more tolerable, as kitsch).
While the preachiness near the end of Peyton Place is warranted, and somewhat powerful, it's one final straw of artlessness that buckles the whole construction. It should give any fan of old-school Hollywood melodramas plenty to enjoy, and plenty to grouse about, which can be half of the fun with these types of things, anyway.
I watched Peyton Place as part of a movie exchange, the theme of which was "high school movies." It was recommended as to me an alternate to Taps.
Notable insubstantial coincidence: According to a sign outside the church, the minister of Peyton Place is named Melvin Dorr. No relation, that I know of.
Flickcharted: #3165 (24.61%)