This afternoon I indulged in a few hours of guilty pleasure. I watched the 1957 movie Peyton Place on the classic movie channel. I felt like I was going back in a time capsule to the 1950s, my formative years before I was in high school. Although the story takes place in the late 30’s and goes through WWII, the social mores and fashions were still very much in place in the 1950s when I was growing up in a small Midwestern town.
In 1956 Grace Metalious wrote the novel Peyton Place and it was scandalous because of its subject matter and its thinly veiled characters. I remember my parents talking about it in whispers. [No letting the kids in on this dirty book.] Since scandal sells books, Peyton Place was on The New York Times bestseller list for 59 weeks. The following year it was made into a movie and then spawned a second book, Return to Peyton Place in 1959. That too was made into a film in 1961, and later the books led to two television prime time soap operas by the same names in 1964-1969 (on ABC) and 1972-1974 (on NBC.) The first soap was a springboard for such actors as Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal. In 1985 an original television film called Peyton Place: the Next Generation was the final installment. These films, books, and television shows were proof that scandal, incest, adultery, murder, and illegal abortion sells, especially in the repressive 1950s and the changing 1960s and 1970s.
I watched the original Peyton Place today and read that the film’s producers hired Metalious as a consultant on the film, but in name only. She stated that she hated the film because it was a highly censored version of her scandalous book. In the 1950s the Hays Code (an early set of motion picture censorship guidelines), was in effect and films could not include certain subjects if they wanted to get out of the can and into theatres. That repressive code was in effect from 1930-1968, and it later led to the more lenient film labels we have today [amazingly more lenient.] The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and the ticket sales increased exponentially when one of the film’s actors, Lana Turner, was involved in a real life scandal. Her daughter killed Turner’s abusive mobster lover, Johnny Stompanto.
So what is the story about? It follows the lives of three women in a small New England mill town. Constance McKenzie (Lana Turner) is a sexually repressed “widow” who is trying to keep her daughter Allison (Diane Varsi) from following in her footsteps. Constance is the single woman all suspicious married women keep their eyes on and she owns a dress shop. It later turns out that she had an affair with a married man, resulting in Allison. Her daughter Allison chafes at the constraints on teenage girls at that time and vows to become a New York writer and publish a book about Peyton Place. She hates the small town gossip and atmosphere that suspects all teenagers of having sex outside of marriage. In fact, she has to order a book about sex that is mailed in a brown wrapper in order to find out anything about the subject. The third woman is Selena Cross (Hope Lange) whose stepfather rapes her, an act resulting in an unplanned pregnancy. The kindly Dr. Swain (Lloyd Nolan), who knows most of the town’s secrets, is put in a position of lying about Selena’s miscarriage and calling it an appendectomy. [Believe me, the Hippa code is not in effect at this time!] Most of the scandals come out when Selena goes on trial for killing her stepfather and burying him under the sheep pen. And this is the sanitized version.
My interest in the film was largely in watching the time capsule of my early years. My own children could not begin to understand those repressive times. Women wore dresses, high heels, and white gloves everywhere. They were homemakers and as such were in charge of the children and putting meals on the table. When Allison finds out she is a “bastard” (a word not used because of the Code), she leaves home rather than face the embarrassment. Then there is the elderly spinster teacher who is passed over to be the school principal. Instead the school board, consisting of all business men and one woman [a shock], brought in a “progressive” young man to run the school. He bargained them up to $5,000 from their initial salary offer of $3,000 because he couldn’t support himself on a $3,000 principal’s salary. Kind of makes you wonder about the teachers’ salaries, doesn’t it? Of course the main business of adults in town is to have affairs, go prayerfully to church, present a hypocritical face to their children, and–oh yes–worry that their children might get pregnant out of wedlock.
Another theme of the movie was very much in keeping with the 1950s too. Class divides and privilege are main themes and the mill owner is a benevolent employer who takes care of his workers. But he forces his son to stop dating the senior class’s “loose girl” because she is not acceptable. Selena Cross’ drunken father works as the school janitor and lives with his family in a “shanty town.” Selena’s boyfriend wants to go to college to become a lawyer but college is very expensive and, unlike the mill owner’s son who is going to Harvard, he isn’t sure he can afford to do that.
Watching this film was truly a trip back in time. Since my father managed a drive-in theatre, I saw a lot of these theatrical movies when I was in my teenage years. I still remember Where the Boys Are, A Summer Place, and Parrish. They had common themes with Peyton Place: (a) parents are hypocrites (b) teenagers should not touch each other until safely married (c) a woman’s only goal must be to become a good homemaker (d) white men rule the universe. No. Don’t want to go back to those days anytime soon.