In plain fact, two of TV's oddest cult shows – the absurd “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and nightmarish “Twin Peaks” – would never have existed had author Grace Metalious not written her then-scandalous novel about intricately woven secrets that periodically bubble to a small town's surface, with calamitous result. Both on radio and television, soap operas had already created templates of tightwad, picture-perfect white-bread communities, but Metalious' approach was epic and robust; using graphic sex, ugly violence, and sick behaviour made “Peyton Place” a massive best-seller.
By 1957, on-screen drug use (with moral consequences) and the words “virgin” and “pregnant” had left their mark on prudish censors and filmgoers, but perhaps due to the quantity of taboos and weirdness blazing from Metalious' prose, enough juicy bits had to survive the pruning required to make the novel a widely distributed film. Given the resulting scenes of physical abuse, rape, incest, and teenage sex, it's perhaps equally shocking the Academy bestowed nine Oscar nominations; perhaps they recognized it was time to tip the hat to a production with balls, made by an extraordinary team of creative minds.
Though thespians Hope Lange and David Nelson appear with colleagues Russ Tamblyn and Terry Moore in the lively AMC “Backstory” installment, only the latter two contribute to the feature-length commentary track. Recorded separately, a flurry of great anecdotes and vivid impressions of being young contract players under the declining studio system make up the first hour of well-edited comments, with the second hour being almost as consistent, until the final reel suffers from lengthy gaps and all-too brief notations by Terry Moore. Moore's voice is affected by a constant background rumble, but the veteran actress bubbles with some juicy tales of Lana Turner's possessive boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, who was killed two days after the Oscar ceremony by Turner's distraught daughter.
Tamblyn, better-known at the time as a dancer, welcomed the chance to play the film's introverted mama's boy, and describes some of the weirder, Lynchian aspects of his character which were deemed too nutty for the film. Tamblyn's physical performance earned him an Oscar nomination, and the actor describes how he inadvertently turned his plaque into a “work of art” in the mid-Sixties. Not long after a memorable Elvis story, Tamblyn disappears for large periods during the last 50 minutes of commentary time, and it's a shame Fox didn't take advantage of the subsequent gaps and engage a historian to fill spots with some extra bio material.
Nevertheless, the commentators offer a lot of fun facts, and the assembled cast in the AMC documentary also address fellow cast members and director Mark Robson. There's also a separate strand on the meteoric fame that caught Grace Metalious by surprise that led to an unfortunate, rapid decline. (Kinescope clips from an interview with Joyce Davidson reveal the author's no-nonsense/to hell with you persona as high-grade catnip for her strongest critics, and it's amusing, if not bittersweet, to hear her dismiss the book's popularity as a fad to be forgotten after 25 years.)
Fox's source print has two film breaks, and some weakened colour saturation in the final exterior scene, but it's overall a stunning transfer with really rich colours. (A graduation scene glows from red-robed coeds, and several seasonal montages show off the fine Maine locations.) The film's stereo mix has good clarity, and there's a few sweet spots where the stereo atmosphere of carnival scenes and a graduation dance fill the room.
Though made in 1957, “Peyton Place” has slowly aged into a high-class, trashy mix of soapy hysterics; the acting styles of multiple generations just sweeten the mix, and dramatic pauses and interludes are respectively aided by Franz Waxman's volcanic orchestral outbursts, and luxurious love theme. Seen in another light, the film possesses a modernistic examination of seedy small-town behaviour, which makes “Peyton Place” the perfect overture to David Lynch's macabre “Twin Peaks.”
A sequel followed in 1961, as did the popular TV series (from 1964-69).
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan