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Peyton Place, Ripping off the Veneer of a Quiet New England Town

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Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.

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Peyton Place

2 hr. 37 mins. Drama, Romance 1957 7.2 stars

Director: Mark Robinson

Cast: Lana Turner - Constance MacKenzie

Lee Phillips - Michael Rossi

Lloyd Nolan - Doc Swain

Arthur Kennedy - Lucas Cross

Russ Tamblyn - Norman Page

Terry Moore - Betty Anderson

Hope Lange - Selena Cross

Diane Varsi - Allison MacKenzie

David Nelson - Ted Carter

Barry Coe - Rodney Harrington

Betty Field - Nellie Cross

Mildred Dunnock - Miss Elsie Thornton

Leon Ames - Leslie Harrington

Lorne Green - Prosecutor

Peg Hillias - Marion Partridge

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Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

The Tar-Paper Shack of the Cross Family

Hope Lange, Betty Field, Arthur Kennedy

Hope Lange, Betty Field, Arthur Kennedy

Synopsis I

The movie opens with a car travelling the New England countryside. Its driver, Michael Rossi, is heading to a job interview in a town called Peyton Place. While waiting at a railroad crossing for a train to pass he witnesses a domestic disturbance at a tar-paper shack off to the side. This is the house of the Cross family. Lucas Cross, the man of the house, is a drunkard and the family is disgusted with him. This is just the first glimpse we see of them.

Michael proceeds into town and interviews for the job of high school principal. He gets the job much to the chagrin of the senior class who wanted the position to go to their beloved retiring teacher, Miss Thornton. They seem to warm up to Michael, however as he quickly gets involved in the kids’ lives and in the life of the town.

Much of the story involves the lives of several of the town’s families and the intricate way in which these families’ kids are interwoven with each other. The town’s unique culture is perhaps the main theme of the movie.

We meet Connie MacKenzie a widow who runs a successful dress shop and her daughter, Allison. Allison keeps company with Norman Page, a shy reserved mamma’s boy. There’s Betty Anderson, the flashy girl who is dating Rodney Harrington the life of the party type who is the son of the richest man in town, Leslie Harrington. And there is Doc Swain who is everybody’s doctor and confidant. He has treated everyone in town and knows them better than they know themselves (or so it seems?).

Allison begs her mother to allow Rodney and Betty to come to her birthday party because they are the popular kids and if they don’t come no one will. Connie reluctantly agrees and makes herself scarce on the night of the party. While out Connie runs into Michael who tries to meet her and get to know her, but she keeps him, and anything that might seem as being too friendly, at a distance. She returns to her house, but things are going just as she feared. She enters her house only to discover the lights off and the teenagers at the party necking. Instantly alarmed she throws everyone out and chastises Allison for allowing such behavior. Thus ensues the first of several mother-daughter conflicts in that home.

On another day at the Cross shack Lucas watches Selena get dressed. He acts sexually aggressively towards her, but Allison comes into the house to take Selena to church averting a potential problem.

On yet another day Allison takes Norman to a beautiful vista overlooking the ocean and town’s waterfront. They are developing a friendship, perhaps a romance. While at the same time Michael comes by to visit Connie who has sworn off romance all together, but Michael seeks to change that.

At about that time Leslie Harrington tells his son, Rodney, to drop Betty as a girlfriend because he is destined for a higher class of people. Reluctantly Rodney calls Betty and disinvites her to the upcoming prom. Instead, Rodney takes Allison, but both feel awkward. Selena is there with her boyfriend, Ted. Simultaneously Michael brings Connie to the dance to act as a chaperone. Most of the characters are there. Lucas Cross the school janitor is home drunk.

When Selena gets home Lucas attacks and rapes her. After an examination Doc Swain tells Selena that she is pregnant. When Selena breaks down and says she was raped by her step-father Doc Swain goes to the house and confronts Lucas. He produces a document for Lucas to sign then tells him to get out of town. Lucas complies, but not before he again tries to catch Selena at the house. This time she runs and stumbles perhaps harming the baby. Doc Swain performs what he calls an “assisted miscarriage” due to the fall and damage. It’s viewed basically as an abortion, but he reports it in the records as an appendectomy. He and Selena agree to keep it a secret.

The next scene is the picnic scene. Almost the whole town turns out for festivities. Michael, however, takes Connie on a day trip away from town and they have a wonderful time. Allison and Norman decide to go off to a lake to swim. Rodney and Betty who had gotten back together also decide to go to that same lake to swim, but they’re at a different part of the lake and they decide to go skinny dipping. The town gossip, Marion Partridge is also there fishing and sees them, but from a distance and can’t tell who they are. On her way over to the lake she had seen Norman and Allison riding their bikes there so she assumed that the skinny dipping couple must have been Allison and Norman. True to her reputation she spread that rumor around town.

Allison's Party


Synopsis II

When Connie heard that rumor she confronted Allison and Norman and had Norman’s mother come over. The two mothers made a big mess of everything. After Norman and his mother left Allison and Connie had words and during the shouting Connie let out the fact that Allison’s father was never married to Connie and that in fact he was married to another woman, which made Connie an adulteress and Allison illegitimate. Allison did not take the news well and reacted by running up to her room. Within moments Allison let out a loud scream because Nellie, their maid (and Selena’s mother) had hanged herself in Allison’s closet! Allison was having a very bad day! Allison was in shock. In a few days when she recovered, Allison informed her mother that she was going away and never wanted to see her again.

At around the same time Rodney in defiance of his father married Betty.

Next, the army came to town; all the young men were drafted and went off to fight in World War II. Rodney was killed in action after which, in a touching scene his father welcomed Betty into the family.

At Christmastime Connie stopped in to visit Michael and confided to him about her own past and her estrangement from Allison. Romance between them develops.

At Christmastime, as well, Lucas returned to the shack. He has joined the Navy and was on leave. He showed up back at the house intent on raping Selena again, but she fought back with a 2x4, striking him repeatedly until he was dead. She hid the body. Months later military officers inquired of his whereabouts, but Selena lied and said she hadn’t seen him since he left two years ago. But guilt compelled her to confess the murder to Connie who, correctly, got the police involved.

Allison came back to Peyton Place for Selena’s trial and confronted Connie. Their estrangement continued.

During the trial Connie was questioned on the witness stand, but she broke down when discussing matters that deal with motherhood and mother-daughter relationships. Her pain touched Allison.

The trial was not going well when Doc Swain asked to be a witness. While on the witness stand he explained that the reason for Selena’s fear and subsequent assault on and murder of Lucas was due to the fact that he had raped her. He also produced the signed confession he had earlier obtained from Lucas on the night he sent Lucas out of town. Selena had not wanted the incident of her rape to be known, but it was the only way that the jury would acquit her. Doc Swain acknowledged that the abortion he performed and the breaking of confidence in coming forth would probably cost him his medical license, but he took this opportunity to lecture the whole town on the secrets and gossip that has always plagued them.

Selena in the end was acquitted and her boyfriend Ted did not reject her as she had feared. In fact he was wonderfully supportive.

As Michael was walking Connie back to her house Allison came up to her desiring reconciliation which overjoyed Connie. For them it turned into a happy ending.

Allison Shows Norman a View of the Town

Russ Tamblyn and Diane Varsi

Russ Tamblyn and Diane Varsi

Selena Confesses to Connie that She's Killed her Step-Father

Lana Turner and Hope Lange

Lana Turner and Hope Lange

Analysis I

Peyton Place is a complex movie full of Americana, New England style. The novel is based in New Hampshire, but the movie is based in Maine. It doesn’t mention that fact outright, but the filming was done there and many of the views are distinctly Maine views, scenery that is uniquely Maine.

This complex movie centers on several personal relationships and shows those relationships and how they grow, fall apart and in some cases reconcile. It shows the veneer of a pleasant supportive community full of good ‘salt of the earth citizens’, but then we are taken beyond the veneer and into the darkened underbelly of that pristine picturesque New England town to show us the ugliness that lurks behind such idyllic settings. It shows us the inglorious part of human nature. The movie hits close to home for Peyton Place could easily be Anytown, USA.

The central character connecting the whole story together is Michael Rossi an outsider who has moved to town from Pennsylvania to take the position as high school principal. He and Doc Swain are the heroes of the movie.

The story focuses on five key relationships in town to paint a picture for us of life there. It begins just before World War II; that fact will play a role in the story.

The lead actress is Lana Turner and she plays the role of Constance (Connie) MacKenzie. She is involved in two of the key relationships, most important of which is the relationship with her teenaged daughter Allison. It starts out as a typical parent-teenager relationship. Allison wants to assert her independence but Connie is very protective. Is she over protective? Perhaps, but that’s not the real focus here. The real question should be ‘why is she as protective as she is?’ And we learn rather late in the movie about Connie’s indiscretions when she was young, things that she never shared in the puritanical, but gossipy town, things that might hurt her successful business and things that would drive Allison away from her if it ever got out…which it did. When it did finally come out Allison left her and that loss was a constant searing to Connie.

Connie’s other key relationship was a budding romance with newcomer, Michael Rossi. It was a romance she tried strongly to limit, again due to her past experiences which left her with seemingly unrecoverable damage. Michael will be successful at breaking through that wall but it will take time and commitment on his part. And those things alone could be the entire movie, but there is much more as this is very much a multifaceted story.

Allison Tells Connie that She Never Wants to Speak to Her Again

Diane Varsi and Lana Turner

Diane Varsi and Lana Turner

Selena on Trial for the Murder of Her Step-Father

Hope Lange and Lorne Green

Hope Lange and Lorne Green

Analysis II

Another key relationship, a very dark one, is the relationship between Selena Cross and Lucas Cross. To tie this with the issues of the first key relationship we discussed it is good to mention that Selena is best friends with Allison; she works for Connie and her mother, Nellie, is Connie’s maid. Lucas attacked and raped Selena. She conceived and Doc Swain performed an abortion. As a result of the rampant dysfunctionalism in that family Nellie could stand it no longer and hanged herself in Connie’s house where she was the maid. When? Just before Allison learned about Connie’s past and ran to her room in tears. Where did Nellie hang herself? In Allison’s closet. What location, what timing. Allison went into shock, double shock! When Lucas came back on leave having been in the navy during the war he tried for round two with Selena who took a 2X4 and killed him. Self-defense, right? But then she hid the body which doesn’t look good in the eyes of the law. The body is not the only thing that Selena hid from the townsfolk – she also hid the rape because if her boyfriend, Ted, found out he’d leave her, or so she feared. She swore Doc Swain to secrecy.

Key relationship number four is the Harrington family. Leslie Harrington is the richest and most powerful man in town and his son, Rodney, is the big man on campus at the high school. Rodney and Betty Anderson are in love, but she’s from the wrong side of the tracks and is too flashy for the esteemed Mr. Harrington’s taste so he orders Rodney to dump her, which, as a dutiful son, he does. It doesn’t go well and they get back together and elope. But then the war happens and Rodney is drafted. He’s killed in action, but Betty and her father-in-law find solace in reconciliation.

Finally key relationship number five is that between Allison and Norman. Not quite a budding romance, it did blossom into a strong friendship between the liberal minded Allison and the shy and meek Norman. Norman’s mother and Connie saw to it that that friendship would break apart due to a false rumor they heard in this gossipy town.

Doc Swain broke his promise to keep Selena’s past with her step-father a secret and in so doing saved her from a certain guilty verdict in her murder trial. Her boyfriend, Ted, did not leave her, but was very supportive. In similar fashion Connie’s confession of her own past to Michael freed her from her own walled-in existence, again at the risk of losing the man in her life, Michael. He had promised her that he would stick with her through thick and thin (for ‘better or worse’ as is often stated) and he kept that promise. What was the result of Doc Swain’s break of confidence and abortion? The movie never says; perhaps that is something left for a sequel to cover.

This movie has it all: romance, war; yelling, murder suicide, rape, abortion, gossip, rumor and dark secrets (what more could you want?) in a nice quiet New England town. Pull back the well managed veneer of such a town and perhaps you’ll find more than you anticipated.

Allison and Connie Reconcile

Diane Varsi and Lana Turner

Diane Varsi and Lana Turner

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