SPAMTON PLACE

Published in 1956, Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place hit America like a bombshell. If snob reviewers found the surprisingly unsexy novel no more than a homegrown scuttlebutter telling dirty secrets about her small New England town, most readers experienced it as a microcosm of what was and likely still is going on in small town America. (Think Hoopeston, Illinois.) Claims have been made that one out of every 37 households had a copy, and that corner drugstores and train station book outlets, utilizing those rotating racks beckoning compulsive buying, would sell out the very day wholesalers replenished stock. By 1966, the un-accidental exposé had sold a then-unprecedented ten million copies—Jackie Susann would soon dwarf those numbers—and has had periodic sales surges ever since. Bestowing recognition to its cultural significance, major universities and colleges offer courses requiring its reading and critical discussion. Similar to “fatal attraction,” the designation “Peyton Place” would move with the speed of light into our lexicon, the term(s) used as encompassing truism and putdown. (Suggested reading about the author’s extended impact: David Halberstam’s The Fifties and Kenneth C. Davis’s Two Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America.) Obtaining the movie rights, 20th Century Fox, the studio that excelled in glossifying adult themes during the 50s, producer Jerry Wald, screenwriter John Michael Hayes and director Mark Robson were smart not to fiddle around too much with the tasty morsels. One major ingredient was substituted: Lana Turner’s Constance MacKenzie would have no lover named Tomas Makris—about whom the author seemed to have it real bad—and instead have one named Michael Rossi, played by Lee Philips. The name and sketching of school principal Makris were a little too close in name and resemblance to one of Metalious’s husband’s acquaintances—Tomas Makris. When the novel exploded in popularity, Makris sued for libel, settling out of court for $60,000; we’d soon find out Metalious forged his name on a release form. Though subsequent editions of the novel, the sequel and the TV series adhered to the agreement that Makris’s name be changed, at his death it would be restored in reprintings of the initial book. (And the scandal of Lana’s disastrous relationship with sleazebag Johnny Stompanato, resulting in his stabbing death by Lana’s daughter roughly five months after the movie opened, had a revitalizing impact at the box office of drive-ins when re-released.) Having received the CinemaScope treatment to polish the novel’s engrossments with sex—budding, delayed, rumored, illicit, incestuous—Peyton Place remains, sixty years later, a revealing hub of the panting come-on and “moral” busybodies; it continues to resonate with audiences who relish the good time they’re having when hearing the screamers attached to the “dirty,” some verbatim from the novel, the others from Hayes the kitschmeister. Altho expected that Lana’s biggest problems are maintaining her long-held secret, her fears about her daughter’s virginity, her objections not only to the town’s high school principal wanting to put sex education into the classroom but also to his desire to put sex back into her bedroom, they give way to a stickier one—her hair. What alleged man trap ever lost it to this much Aqua Net? Philips, easily passing as attractive father to homely gossip Michael Isikoff, might have worried that his hands could get stuck in the goo. 1957 was a bummer year for worthy performances, explaining why the following cans of Spam were Oscar-nominated: boob-deficient Lana (who’d give her career-topping performance at the Stompanato inquest), Diane Varsi as Allison, Arthur Kennedy’s Lucas, Russ Tamblyn’s Norman and, as Selena, Hope Lange for those eight swacks over Kennedy’s head. The guilt trip Doc Lloyd Nolan lays on us while testifying at Selena’s trial didn’t make the cut, nor housemaid Betty Field despite her ultimate sacrifice in one of the MacKenzie closets.

Metalious’s follow up novel Return to Peyton Place is about the consequences of writing the first one; she wants to tell off the hypocrites who were rather upset that she dared to expose them. In the movie version of the sequel, we spend our time comparing the no-shows with the stand-ins. Sexually uptight Lana is replaced by Eleanor Parker who, when not chopping celery for the Thanksgiving turkey, gets it on with hubbie and likes it; virgin Diane Varsi becomes adulterous Carol Lynley; school head Lee Philips is now Robert Sterling risking his job by insisting the “cheap and dirty and vulgar” book causing upheaval should remain in the school library; raped Hope Lange turns into sexy defiant Tuesday Weld; dull David Nelson morphs into lawyer Brett Halsey. Without Mary Astor as the bitch out to destroy her son Halsey’s marriage to Luciana Paluzzi and punish Lynley for writing a trashy best seller, and without Jeff Chandler’s gray-headed handsomeness and velvet baritone, Return to Peyton Place would be actionable. Lynley probably needs to be sued for her unbearable philistine tantrums and smugness. (The swack she earns from mother Parker isn’t enough satisfaction for the audience; we want a few more for good measure of pleasure.) Sterling and Weld’s lover Gunnar Hellström look so much alike that only the latter’s accent tells them apart. Much to our disappointment one of the deserving comeuppances hit the editing room floor: so hating her daughter-in-law, Astor plots to kill her but ends up being her own victim. Now that’s the way I like Spam served. Actor José Ferrer helms; his then-wife Rosemary Clooney sings the obligatory ballad.

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