Within the two and a half hours of Peyton Place, there is more drama packed in than in two seasons of your typical soap opera. That being said, it’s no surprise that Peyton Place became the basis for a soap opera running between 1964 and 1969. But before you write this film off as a soap springboard, you must realize that the film provides a solid foundation for its series.
Peyton Place is a small town full of little white churches, quaint shops and people that spread gossip like wildfire. Within the town are a large array of characters, it takes a whole town to fuel a soap opera for five years. Allison MacKenzie (Diane Varsi) is the senior class of 1941 valedictorian and aspiring writer. She provides plenty of drama with her eighteenth birthday party with mischievous boys, her friendship with sweet, shy Norman (Russ Tamblyn) and her relationship with an overbearing mother (Lana Turner) hiding a secret from the whole town. Allison’s best friend, Selina (Hope Lange), lives in a shack by the rail road tracks and has an alcoholic and abusive step father. Rich boy Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe) is forbidden by his father to be dating Betty (Terry Moore), the town tramp. And the new guy in town, Michael Rossi (Lee Philips), just got the job as principal over beloved veteran teacher Miss Thorton (Mildred Dunnock). Are you getting all this? Cause come winter WWII will hit home, and all this drama gets thrown into overdrive.
One bit of drama that I found interesting is the issue of sex education. The subject is brought up in multiple ways throughout the film. As new principal, Rossi believes it should be taught in schools, but Mrs. MacKenzie disagrees and believes it should all be learned after marriage. Norman and Allison bring their young curiosity on the subject and confess to ordering books wrapped in plain paper and sent to the post office rather than their houses. In a town where everyone is watching each other, it’s no surprise that this information is so taboo. But sadly, some characters will learn the facts of life in the harshest of ways.
Yes, Peyton Place is full of trite soap opera bits, nearly every type of drama imaginable, and girls tend to run away on the verge of tears to sweeping violin music every twenty minutes or so, but the story is so well written. It all fits together without a hitch. To string together such an array of drama so tightly bound together is quite a feat.
In the 21st century, Peyton Place is a hard film to take very seriously. It’s best enjoyed not trying to see it’s merit. Enjoy it like you would your favorite soap opera, sit back with a snack and find as many places to yell things like, “Oh no she di’n’t!” and make the Full House “Aww” sound bit during all those tender moments that really make you want to puke. If you give Peyton Place a chance, it might just grow on you.
“Everyone in this town hides behind plain wrappers.”