Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Movie Review: Lana Turner in Peyton Place (1957)

Lana Turner and Lee Philips in Peyton Place, 1957.

David Nelson and Hope Lange looking cute in Peyton Place, 1957.

Hope Lange, looking very beautiful around the time of Peyton Place.
When Grace Metalious’s novel Peyton Place was published in 1956, it became an instant best-seller. The novel shocked America with its portrayal of the dark secrets beneath the seemingly normal surface of a small town in New Hampshire. Hollywood came calling and Peyton Place was filmed the following year and released in December, 1957. The movie was just as successful as the book, becoming one of the biggest box-office hits of the year. IMDB says that Peyton Place grossed $25 million, while Wikipedia says it made $16 million. Either way, it was a big hit, and a fantastic return on a budget of $2.2 million. Metalious wrote a sequel, Return to Peyton Place, published in 1959 and made into a movie in 1961, although none of the cast from the original Peyton Place returned for the second movie. Peyton Place also became a TV show, running from 1964 until 1969. 

The movie of Peyton Place stars Lana Turner as Constance MacKenzie, a widow and the mother of Allison MacKenzie, (Diane Varsi) the narrator and main character. The movie opens in 1941, as Allison is finishing up her senior year of high school. Allison’s best friend is Selena Cross (the lovely Hope Lange) whose mother Nellie (Betty Field) is the MacKenzie’s housekeeper. Selena’s step-father is Lucas Cross (the always excellent Arthur Kennedy) an alcoholic janitor who is abusive to Selena. Selena’s boyfriend is Ted Carter, played by David Nelson, who acted in the film during his summer break from “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” Ted Carter is a really nice guy, just like the version of himself that Nelson played on “Ozzie and Harriet.” Allison is also friends with Norman Page, (Russ Tamblyn) an overly sensitive boy with a domineering mother. Another student at the high school is Betty Anderson (Terry Moore, who I just saw in Come Back, Little Sheba) the “fast” girl whom Constance disapproves of. 

Peyton Place deals with the issues of these teenagers as they prepare to graduate from high school and either go on to college or go to work. There is a new principal at the school, Michael Rossi (Lee Philips) and he is interested in Constance, but she acts coolly towards him. One of Rossi’s best friends in town is Dr. Swain, (Lloyd Nolan) an upstanding citizen who is the conscience of the town. 

All of the performances in Peyton Place are excellent, with Turner in particular turning in very good work. It might have seemed a stretch for the glamorous Turner to play a woman who owned a dress shop and had a teenaged daughter, but she was very believable as a strong single parent, which she was in real life as well. It also might have seemed like a stretch to have a sex symbol like Turner play a woman like Constance, who is uninterested in men. I thought that Constance’s relationship with Michael Rossi was convincingly portrayed. She is reluctant to date or start a relationship, even though they clearly have feelings for each other. I liked Rossi’s lines about love, as he tells Constance that he doesn’t just want to have sex with her, he’s making a commitment to her because he cares about her. Which might sound like a line, but Rossi means it. Constance always wants to be in control, and she never wants anyone to see any of her weaknesses, which means that she doesn’t want to fall in love. But eventually she and Rossi begin a relationship. Lee Philips does a good job playing Michael Rossi. Philips was a veteran of television dramas, but Peyton Place was his first movie. Philips would go on to become a successful TV director, and ironically, he would later direct 7 episodes of the TV show Peyton Place. Philips doesn’t have the magnetism of a movie star, but the part doesn’t need a star in it. It’s such an ensemble movie that casting a bigger star in the part might not have worked well. 

The most shocking plot development of Peyton Place is when Selena Cross is raped by her step-father Lucas. It’s an uncomfortable scene to watch, and even though we don’t see the rape itself, the film makes it perfectly clear what happens. It’s a very good example of a film that was made under the censorship of the Hays Code still being able to show controversial content. Selena becomes pregnant, and she begs Dr. Swain to help her end her pregnancy. He says he cannot do that. Selena miscarries when she falls down a hill after being chased by Lucas. Dr. Swain falsifies the medical records to show that he performed an appendectomy on Selena, thus protecting her privacy and shielding her from the gossip of the town. Swain also makes Lucas confess what he has done and runs him out of town. When Lucas reappears a year and a half later, he has joined the Navy and tries to assault Selena again; she fights him off with a club and kills him. She buries his body and doesn’t tell anyone for six months. When Navy officers come looking for Lucas, Selena tells them she hasn’t seen him, but she breaks down and tells Constance what really happened. Constance phones the police and Selena stands trial. Selena pleads that she only killed Lucas in self-defense, but she refuses to tell anyone that Lucas had raped her, as she doesn’t want everyone in town to know her secret. Even at the trial she refuses to tell the whole story. But then Dr. Swain takes the stand and saves the day, as he produces the paper Lucas signed admitting that he impregnated Selena. The jury finds Selena not guilty, and as she leaves the courtroom with her boyfriend Ted and Dr. Swain the townspeople offer her words of support. 

All of the supporting performers in Peyton Place turn in superb performances. Hope Lange does an excellent job in the difficult role of Selena. Lange is stunningly beautiful, and she instantly wins the affection of the audience as the kind-hearted Selena. Diane Varsi, a newcomer to films at the time, provides an excellent center for the movie. Russ Tamblyn brings complex shading to the character of Norman Page, and Arthur Kennedy makes you hate Lucas Cross, which means that he did a good job as an actor. Lange and Varsi were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars, and Tamblyn and Kennedy were both nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscars. Arthur Kennedy was riding a decade-long hot streak, as he was nominated for 5 Oscars from 1949 to 1958. Four of his nominations were for Best Supporting Actor, and one was for Best Actor. Kennedy never won an Oscar, but he delivered some fantastic performances. 

Lana Turner was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress, which was her first and only Academy Award nomination. Unbeknownst to the general public, Turner was going through a very difficult time in her personal life. In 1957, Turner divorced her fourth husband, actor Lex Barker, most famous for playing Tarzan in several movies in the early 1950’s. Soon after her divorce, Turner began dating a man named John Steele, who bought her a lot of gifts and was rather obsessive in his pursuit of her. Turner eventually fell in love with Steele, but some of her friends told her that he might be a criminal. Turner found out that John Steele’s real name was Johnny Stompanato, and that he had been a bodyguard for the gangster Mickey Cohen. Fearing a scandal if the news leaked that she was dating a criminal, Turner tried to keep the relationship under wraps as much as possible. Turner tried numerous times to break off the relationship, but Stompanato was jealous, violent, and abusive, threatening both Turner and her teenage daughter Cheryl Crane. 

The 1958 Oscars were held on March 26, 1958. Lana Turner attended with her daughter, rather than with Stompanato. Turner presented the award for Best Supporting Actor, and she recounts the night in her autobiography: 

“As I read the names off the teleprompter in front of me-Sessue Hayakawa for The Bridge on the River Kwai, Red Buttons for Sayonara, and three others, I was almost delirious with excitement. Slowly I opened the envelope-I had been secretly rooting for Red Buttons-and when I saw his name I gasped, then broke into a wide smile. What a pleasure it was to announce his name.” (Lana, by Lana Turner, p.189-90) 

Lana was so delirious with excitement that she neglects to mention that two of the nominees she doesn’t name in her book were her Peyton Place co-stars Russ Tamblyn and Arthur Kennedy! And to add insult to injury, she was rooting against them! It’s an odd anecdote.

Turner did not win the Oscar, losing out to Joanne Woodward, who won for The Three Faces of Eve. When Turner came home to Stompanato that night after the Oscars, he went into a violent rage and brutally beat her, slapping her and punching her repeatedly. Turner wrote in her autobiography, “There were welts all over my face and neck, and the beginnings of what would be terrible bruises.” (Turner, p.194) Just a week later, on April 4th, Turner and Stompanato had another loud argument and he was threatening her again. Cheryl was listening to their argument, and entered the room. Holding a kitchen knife, she stabbed Stompanato in the stomach, killing him. 

Cheryl was arrested, and Turner had to suffer through the indignities of a very public coroner’s inquest at which she provided dramatic testimony, just as Constance MacKenzie had in Selena Cross’s trial in Peyton Place. There are other similarities to the movie, as in both the movie and real life a teenage girl killed an abusive older man in self-defense. And just like Selena Cross, it was ruled that Cheryl Crane had acted in self-defense. Turner worried that the scandal would ruin her career, but it didn’t, as people still flocked to see her in Peyton Place

Peyton Place is an excellent movie, and it’s well worth seeing as a movie that went about as far as you could go under the Hays Code in 1957. The performances are all very good, and they’ve aged well.

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