Peyton Place is a small town in New England which, at first glance, may seem like the perfect town. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll see cracks in the façade.
Michael Rossi (Lee Philips) is new in town and looking for work. He’s eventually hired by Leslie Harrington (Leon Ames), the town’s big-time mill owner/school board president, to be the new high school principal.
As Michael takes on his new position as principal, the complicated lives of his students come to light:
Studious Allison (Diane Varsi), the valedictorian, seems to have her life planned out but struggles to live up to her very proper mother’s expectations; her best friend, Selena (Hope Lange), is dealing with an abusive step-father (Arthur Kennedy); Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn) is a sensitive young man and a bit of a social outcast who feels trapped under the thumb of his mother, an overprotective widow.
These teens struggle to navigate young adulthood under the watchful eyes of their families and their town, in 1957’s Peyton Place.
Peyton Place was directed by Mark Robson. Alongside the above-credited cast, the film also stars Lana Turner (as Allison’s mother), Lloyd Nolan (as the town doctor), and Betty Field (as Selena’s mother). The screenplay was written by John Michael Hayes from the novel of the same name by Grace Metalious.
There’s a whole lot of drama brewing in this small, picturesque town, and it shows no signs of letting up. The story tracks several years in the lives of its characters, from the late 1930s through World War II.
The performances are fine across the board. Lana Turner is great in her buttoned-up, traditional role. Diane Varsi, playing Turner’s daughter, reminded me a bit of Lee Remick (whose performances I tend to enjoy, so that’s a compliment).
As for the story, Peyton Place is the ultimate soap. It’s not just simple work, family, and romantic dramas: homicide, suicide, job loss, secret marriages, domestic abuse, generational gaps, and assault all play a part in the daily lives of the town’s residents, on top of the usual busybody gossip.
Repression and hypocrisy reign supreme throughout the town, and while melodrama wasn’t exactly unusual to see on screen by the late 1950s, the novel and film were still fairly controversial in their time.
To the modern eye, the film’s treatment of its central issues is frank but not at all shocking, and generally effectively told. There are over-the-top moments and wild plot threads (plus a classic Lana Turner slap), as should be expected from the genre, but also plenty of genuinely emotional scenes.
There’s never a dull moment in this film, which seems much shorter than it is simply because something crazy is happening every five seconds! If you love melodrama and have not yet seen Peyton Place, you’re certainly in for a treat.