Saturday, October 4, 2008

All the soap opera, none of the Sirk

Last night TCM showed Peyton Place, the well-known exposé of what life in those picturesque New England towns was really like. (Indeed, director Mark Robson insists on showing us how picturesque these towns are supposed to be by having the opening credits over a montage of stock footage of stereotypically beautiful small-town New England images. Don't let it be said that Peyton Place is a subtle movie.) Set on both sides (temporally) of the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, it's based on a novel by Grace Metalious, who was believed to be writing about her hometown of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, and the novel was notorious for having scandalized the residents of Gilmanton.

However, the movie isn't nearly as steamy as the reputation that precedes it would lead viewers to believe. The nominal star of the movie is Lana Turner, playing Constance MacKenzie, a single mother who, it turns out, has a dark secret of her own. Of course, as we soon discover, everybody in this town has a secret, most notably the film's real star, Hope Lange, playing Selena Cross. Selena is the poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks -- literally: we're introduced to her as the school's new principal-to-be is driving into town, and has to stop for the train that goes right by the Cross' shack. Cross' stepfather Lucas, played by Arthur Kennedy, is the school's janitor, and has a penchant for drinking, as well as lusting after his stepdaughter. Eventually he rapes her, at which time she gets knocked up. Not that Hollywood could use the phrase "knocked up" at the time, or even "pregnant". Still, Selena and the town doctor cover up the miscarriage that he induces, until it's needed for the Melodramatic Climactic Court Scene. The doctor forces Lucas to leave town, which he does, but eventually returns on leave from the navy, and tries to seduce Selena again, at which point she kills him in self-defense. The truth will out at that trial....

Cross is liked, but it's not as though the good people of Peyton Place are good character references for her defense. In addition to the aforementioned Turner, there's her daughter, played by Diana Varsi (who also serves as narrator), who causes a mini-scandal when she's allegedly seen skinny dipping with her boyfriend, played by Russ Tamblyn, who has his own secret -- his mother seems to be doing everything she can to make him sexless, in a relationship that seems to presage Norman Bates and his mother. There's also "bad girl" Terry Moore, who's in love with the son of the local factory owner, but of course, the big businessman thinks she's no good for him -- until after he gets killed in action in World War II.

There's a lot of story here, and it takes over two and a half hours to tell it all. All the secrets, and melodrama they entail, along with the glossy color and swelling score, make the movie look like the sort of soap opera that Douglas Sirk was famous for making in Hollywood in the 1950s. Indeed, Sirk would later go on to direct Turner in Imitation of Life. However, Peyton Place was not directed by Sirk. Instead, that honor befell Mark Robson (who amazingly started his career directing for Val Lewton). The end result is that Peyton Place is an interesting document of its time, but nothing really groundbreaking. It does, however, show that the more things change, the more they stay the same: the children of 1941 had the same generation gap with their parents that they would in the 60s, and still do today. Peyton Place is available on DVD, so you can revel in its glitzy steam to your heart's content.

No comments: