If Grace Metalious' scandalous 1956 novel "Peyton Place" sent shockwaves through the nation, it wasn't just because of its juicy storylines. The impact was also economic: 60,000 copies of the book flew off the shelves within a week and a half of publication, and the novel then hovered on the bestseller list for more than a year.
The speed with which the novel was adapted into a major motion picture was equally astonishing; "Peyton Place," the Lana Turner-starring, Mark Robson-directed film from producer Jerry Wald hit theaters in December of 1957. The film compressed the story and cleaned up some of the novel's more challenging material -- a miscarriage replaces one abortion, and another abortion is not included; a father's incestuous series of sexual attacks on his fourteen-year-old daughter is replaced by a stepfather's onetime assault of a slightly older girl. But what the film leaves in place was plenty shocking for audiences of the time, including teens talking to each other about sex, love, and relationships while their parents debate the propriety of allowing sex ed into the school (and the possibilities of re-discovering love and sexual pleasure in mid-life).
Though Lana Turner starred as Constance, the widow with a fear of intimacy, the film really belongs to Diane Varsi, who plays Constance's daughter Allison, a bright, inquisitive young woman who's starting to push back against her mother's trepidations and the boundaries she draws around Allison's life. Allison's cohort of friends supply most of the movie's subplots -- a "fast girl," Betty (Terry Moore), counsels Allison to go for what she wants, and do it with all due speed; she's condemned as a "tramp" for such talk, but it's no different in substance from what a hard-working, much beloved, and yet passed-over teacher, Miss Thornton (Mildred Dunnock), tells her youthful students. Betty is involved with Rodney (Barry Coe), but Rodney's father -- who owns the mill that employs much of the town -- forbids the young man to keep seeing Betty. Meantime, shy Norman (Russ Tamblyn) is driven to the point of neurosis by his own single mother, who fears him marrying and leaving her on her own. Allison's friend Selena (Hope Lange) is at the mercy of her drunken stepfather (Arthur Kennedy), whose abuses finally lead to a series of tragedies for which Selena faces severe consequences.
For her part, Constance finds herself being romanced by the school's new principal (Lee Philips). But in a town where vicious gossip serves as a form of social currency, can Constance find the courage to reach for happiness -- and allow Allison the same?
The film is a true potboiler, its storylines wishing and weaving in all sorts of directions. The end result feels a little misshapen, but narrative form isn't the point; indeed, the literary quality of the novel seems to have been beside the point, and that sense extends to the movie, which was a huge success and garnered nine Oscar nominations (though the film received no awards on Oscar night).
This Twilight Time Blu-ray release brings the film to glossy 1080p hi-def life. Terry Moore and Russ Tamblyn appear on one audio commentary track (their comments clearly recorded separately); Tamblyn talks mostly about himself, while Moore chats happily about her castmates. A separate commentary track offers insights from film historian Willard Carroll. A short "on location" featurette by Carroll shows many of the film's locations as they are now (locating and filming the locations was a seven-year labor of love, as Carroll's audio commentary for the featurette reveals). Two short Fox Movietone newsreels -- one for the film's premiere, the other at an awards dinner -- round out the extras to a completist's delight, while the "Peyton Place" episode of "AMC Backstory" fills us in on the real-life drama that Lana Turner was going through during and after the film's production. (Eerily, life imitated art when Turner's daughter went on trial for manslaughter.)
The film spawned a sequel and a TV series -- but this home release is the real deal, a celebration of a truly American original in the cinematic universe. If you haven't seen it in a while, this Blu-ray will spark memories; if you have never seen it, this is the release to look for.