- Lana Turner as Constance MacKenzie
- Lee Philips as Michael Rossi
- Lloyd Nolan as Dr. Swain
- Diane Varsi as Allison MacKenzie
- Hope Lange as Selena Cross
- Arthur Kennedy as Lucas Cross
- Russ Tamblyn as Norman Page
- Terry Moore as Betty Anderson
- Barry Coe as Rodney Harrington
A melodrama of large proportions centered on exposing the dirty secrets of a small town that prides itself on moral decency, Peyton Place is grand movie making that benefits from tight direction and an A-list cast.
The setting is 1941 in a New England town by the name of Peyton Place. It is a place that looks tranquil and oh so respectable on the surface, but cauldrons of unrestrained passions, horrible deeds and unraveling lives are at play. Into the town comes stranger Michael Rossi, who becomes principal of the school. His feelings and speeches on parents being more open with their children about life stirs up a bit of trouble among the traditional residents. One of these is Constance MacKenzie, who is the rather prim owner of a dress shop; she is prudish and considers quite a lot of things a slight against good and virtue. Michael attempts to be nice and clearly has romantic feelings for Constance, but she just pushes him away every time he gets close. Her daughter Allison is a good girl who is just about to graduate high school and wants to experience something fun in life by becoming a writer, though this idea doesn’t exactly go down well with her mother. Allison, while dealing with her anger towards her mother who she feels doesn’t want to her to enjoy life, strikes up something of a friendship with the insecure Norman. He is a young man, smothered by and afraid of his overbearing mother, who makes him the ridicule of many thanks to meddling and belittling ways. Meanwhile, Allison’s best friend Selena Cross is a sweet girl from the less affluent part of town ,who has to deal with her alcoholic stepfather Lucas, the school janitor with a very nasty temper. Things come to a shocking head when a drunken Lucas rapes Selena, leaving her traumatised as well as pregnant. Doctor Swain is sympathetic to the plight of Selena and although it is against his ethics, he helps her have an abortion while issuing a damning ultimatum to the disgusting Lucas. Yet this is far from the beginning of the troubles for Selena as tragedy lies in wait sooner than anyone things. Also occurring is the relationship between the town floozy Betty Anderson and Rodney Harrington, who experiences the chagrin of his family for dating her. Slowly, the myth and morals of the respectable town fall by the wayside as a light is shone upon all the shocks and skeletons that everyone holds far from prying eyes over the course of a few years.
Mark Robson’s direction is sturdy and taut, keeping most of the stories spinning with enough time given to each of them. Only the Betty and Rodney story is not as arresting as the others, but as the others are well-rendered this minor hiccup can be forgiven. Peyton Place is a sprawling film, but at the same time it is quite enclosed as it rarely leaves the eponymous town, creating the impression that the rules that are supposed to be obeyed are very much from a tight-knit society. Robson has just the right amount of clout and ideas for this movie, that has it deserving of memorable status. The movie only sometimes feels like it is trying a bit too hard to cram every shocking event into the film, but when the source material is practically a cascading waterfall of dark happenings and revelations, can you really blame the film makers? I mean you have murder, suicide, abortion and illegitimacy uncovered within the story, and though some areas don’t have the shock value they once had, a lot of it, particularly the rape and abuse stories are still uncomfortable and surprising for a film of this time. And even though the film runs for a long time, it never feels like a chore to get through. Peyton Place is a melodrama of the highest order so emotions run very high, but sometimes the implications and suggestions of something not being so tranquil are just as good. From the standpoint of visuals, lush colour and beautiful scenery are the order of the day and mounted with all the prestige that Hollywood at its golden could muster. And the emotional crescendos of the score from Franz Waxman are just perfect for the secrets and revelations that spill out of this film.
The drama of the piece is kept high, thanks in no small part to the cast that really go for it with their respective parts and flesh out the happenings and changes in the characters. Lana Turner splendidly leads the already impressive cast as the prim and opinionated Constance. She comes off as a cold and ordered person, but Turner wisely reveals through her eyes a certain sadness and desire that she has long denied herself, because of something secret in her past. Turner is an excellent choice for the part and plays it just perfectly, hitting the right emotions for a woman who is conflicted and clearly masking something. She is complimented well by Lee Philips as the forward thinking principal in love with her and an observant turn from Lloyd Nolan, as the kind but firm doctor who seems to see and hear everything in the small town. Bright spots among the younger members of the cast are the debut of the delightful Diane Varsi and the sweetness of Hope Lange. Varsi, who is heard narrating parts of the film, is in a way the eyes and ears of the audience. She is a bright girl who understands that life in Peyton Place is far from picture perfect and wants to pursue her ambitions. There is a nice maturity to her performance that takes shape very well, particularly when she is at loggerheads with her mother over her hypocrisy and rules. Lange on the other hand, radiates a deep melancholy as the much abused Selena. The character goes through a very difficult time throughout this tale and Lange projects a morose and haunting aura to Selena, even as she tries to pick herself up from the traumas that she experiences. Arthur Kennedy is appropriately cruel and horrible as Selena’s stepfather, while Russ Tamblyn has enough sensitivity for the part of shy Norman. Terry Moore and Barry Coe occupy the least interesting part of the film, but do their best with the material they have.
If you ever need to see one of Hollywood’s best melodramas, Peyton Place is one to seek out for its busting apart with a velvet sledgehammer the facade of niceness and goodness in society, with scarcely a dull moment to be found.