Published in 1956, Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place hit America like a bombshell. If snob reviewers found the surprisingly unsexy novel no more than a homegrown writer telling dirty secrets about a small New England town, most readers experienced it as a microcosm of what was and is still going on in small town America. Think Sarah Palin. By 1966, the unaccidental exposé had sold a then-unprecedented ten million copies (very soon to be overshadowed by Jackie Susann), and has had periodic sales surges ever since and even major universities and colleges have bestowed respectability by offering courses which require its reading and critical discussion. And 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, as thumbnail putdown. (Suggested reading about the author and her impact: David Halberstam’s The Fifties and Kenneth C. Davis’s Two Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America.) When the movie rights were sold, 20th Century Fox, producer Jerry Wald, screenwriter John Michael Hayes and director Mark Robson were smart enough not to fiddle around too much with the tasty morsels, though one major change was required: Lana Turner’s Constance MacKenzie has no lover named Tomas Makris—about whom author Grace seemed to have it real bad—but instead one named Michael Rossi, played by Lee Phillips, who could easily pass as an attractive version of that NBC/MSNBC political gossip Michael Isikoff. The name and sketching of school principal Makris were a little too close to the name and resemblance of an acquaintance of Metalious’ husband—Tomas Makris. When the novel exploded in popularity, Makris sued for libel but later, out of court, settled for $60,000. (We’d later find out Metalious had forged his name on a release form.) Though the paperback editions of the novel and the movie and its sequel and the TV series would change Makris’ name to Michael Rossi, it would be restored years later in subsequent reprintings of the book. (And the scandal of Lana’s disastrous relationship with Johnny Stompanato, which resulted in his stabbing death by Lana’s daughter roughly five months after the movie opened, had an additional if not spectacular impact at the box office.) Sex—budding, illicit, incestuous—remains the panting come-on and it’s given a picturesque soap opera busybodyiness, and audiences even now relish the good time they’re having in whooping it up over the screamers, some verbatim from the novel, the others from Hayes. Turner’s biggest problems aren’t her fears about her daughter Allison, or Rossi’s desire to put sex back into her boring matronly life, or that as the town’s high school principal he wants to put sex education into the classroom, which she strongly objects to, but her hairdos: what alleged man trap-tramp ever lost it to this much Aqua Net? 1957 was a bummer year for good performances, explaining why the following cans of Spam were Oscar-nominated: sticky-haired Turner (who’d give a much more convincing 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. After that guilt trip laid on all of us while testifying at Selena’s trial, how could Lloyd Nolan have been omitted? Why Betty Field didn’t make the cut after making the ultimate sacrifice in one of the MacKenzie closets is still a mystery.
Metalious’ follow up novel Return to Peyton Place is about the consequences of writing the first one; she wants to tell off the moral hypocrites who were in reality rather upset that she dared to expose them. In the movie version of the sequel, which hasn’t one actor from the original, we’re forced to compare the stand-ins with the no-shows. Sexually uptight Lana is played by Eleanor Parker who, when not chopping celery for the Thanksgiving turkey, gets it on with her hubbie; 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 an uproar 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 new novelist Lynley for daring to write the truth, without Jeff Chandler’s gray-headed handsomeness and velvet baritone, Return to Peyton Place would be actionable. Just what the hell is Lynley up to with her unbearable philistine tantrums and smugness? The swack she receives 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. As with Peyton Place the movie, Return to Peyton Place the movie isn’t the novel; changes made don’t make sense, and, much to our disappointment, one of the deserving comeuppances was filmed but edited out: Astor so hates her daughter-in-law that she plots to kill her and ends up killing herself instead. Actor José Ferrer directed.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2009 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.