Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place was the scandalous and best-selling novel of 1956-57. The title has become synonymous with small-town America, especially its hidden, often odious human substratum. Here, in a story set immediately before and during World War II, patriotic parades, picnics, and proms mask hypocritical, sexually repressed, judgmental, mean-spirited, alcoholic, catty, and even murderous citizens.
In 1957 Peyton Place was made into a big-budget and highly successful film that may be the ultimate quality Hollywood soap opera. (It became a hit primetime TV soap in 1964.) With a running time of 2 hours and 37 minutes, Peyton Place allowed significant time for each of its multitude of characters to make an impression, and of its 9 Academy Award nominations five were for acting: Best Actress (Lana Turner), Supporting Actor (Arthur Kennedy, Russ Tamblyn), Supporting Actress (Diane Varsi, Hope Lange).
The virtually unknown Varsi landed the key role of Allison MacKenzie, the high school senior who doesn’t want to attend college to learn how to write, she wants to write even if her apprenticeship is on the town’s newspaper. It is Allison’s voice periodically narrating the story. Another prominent inhabitant of the town is Dr. Swain, played by ubiquitous character/supporting actor Lloyd Nolan. The climax turns on Swain’s decision to renege on a promise. His voice of reason and compassion is raised to hold the community accountable.
Even now Peyton Place is a surprisingly affecting movie that can bring tears to the eyes. Why? Is it the tree-lined streets, the lake, the Labor Day celebration, the students and teachers holding hands and singing “Auld Lang Syne”? It is perhaps a fantasy, a terrain that never existed, an environment we think or wish or maybe did inhabit as carefree children. (Another example of this yearning is seen in “Walking Distance,” the 1959 Twilight Zone episode in which Gig Young interacts with his younger self and longs to remain in the town of his youth.). One must not neglect another “character” that allows the film to successfully carry all this emotional weight: Franz Waxman’s lovely theme and score. Just before Waxman’s music wraps it up, Allison’s voice provides hope for the future: “We’d finally discovered that season of love. It is only found in someone else’s heart. Right now someone you know is looking everywhere for it, and it’s in you.”
[Thank you, Mike Varano, for identifying potentially significant subtext: characters are constantly opening and closing doors: front, back, classroom, diner, restroom, office, closet, kitchen, pantry, car, bus, train carriage.]