“Peyton Place is more complicated than you think.”
By Paul Mavis
Sensational news for fans of vintage television drama: Shout! Factory has announced plans to resume DVD releases of ABC’s 1960s soap opera, Peyton Place— the first multi-night dramatic serial made especially for prime time network airing—based on the scandalous best-selling novel by Grace Metalious. Peyton Place was unique—and I believe still holds the record—for being the only prime-time television drama to run continuously throughout its calendar years without any reruns and without a summer break (exactly like its counterparts on the daytime “soap opera” schedules).
This was important in terms of Peyton Place‘s DVD releases, because although the show only ran five seasons, from September of 1964 to June of 1969, it racked up an incredible count of 514 episodes. Way, way back in 2009, Shout! had released a handsomely-designed five-disc, 31 B&W episode set, Peyton Place – Part One, that began with the September 15th, 1964 premiere and concluded with the December 31st, 1964 episode. At 30-odd episodes a set, Shout! Factory was theoretically committing to at least 16 more boxed sets—a precarious position for fans who were on tenterhooks until they were sure Shout! Factory was going to go through with the whole series. A second set of episodes was released in ‘09…but then, for various economic reasons, the DVD series was discontinued.
So Shout!’s decision to resume the DVD releases in the spring of 2018 is fantastic news for lovers of vintage television, because Peyton Place is strangely compelling, superior melodrama, with at times poetic, even lyrical scripting, and sensational performances from the likes of Dorothy Malone, Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal, Paul Langton, Barbara Parkins (I’m feeling faint…), Kasey Rogers, Henry Beckman, Ed Nelson, Patricia Breslin, and Kent Smith.
Differing significantly from its source novel and the subsequent two feature films, 1957’s Peyton Place and 1961’s Return to Peyton Place, Peyton Place the series focuses—at least during these first 31 episodes—on three emotionally complicated romances. The nominal star of the show, Dorothy Malone (the Oscar-winner was certainly the biggest “name” in the cast in 1964), is Constance MacKenzie, the beautiful but emotionally repressed owner of The Book Gallery, a smart little shop in tiny, coastal Peyton Place, Massachusetts (about 90 miles outside Boston). Guarding a terrible secret she fears may get out, Constance has built up a lifetime of walls to guard her and her teenaged daughter, Allison (Mia Farrow) from outside influences. Blonde, willowy Allison, a budding writer and sensitive young woman, has always kept to herself and her books, but after a chance encounter with Peyton Place tomcat, Rodney Harrington (Ryan O’Neal), Allison painfully feels what she’s been writing about for years, but never truly understood until now: the wonderful (and terrible) pangs of young love.
Rodney, the privileged son of Leslie Harrington (Paul Langton), the owner of Peyton Mills, the town’s main employer, has been dating the luscious brunette Betty Anderson (Barbara Parkins), who comes from the “wrong side of the tracks,” according to Les’ criteria. Ironically, that geographical location—and societal prejudice—doesn’t seem to deter Les from pursuing an affair with Betty’s mother, Julie (Kasey Rogers), who just happens to be his secretary. As an added bonus to Les’ ego, he’s taking Julie away from his top salesman, George Anderson (Henry Beckman), a fiercely jealous wife beater, drunk, and pill-popper.
As Rodney moves from Betty to Allison, and Les navigates his affair with Julie, Constance the immoveable object encounters irresistible force Dr. Michael Rossi (Ed Nelson), the dreamy new doctor in Peyton Place who is taking over a deceased colleague’s practice. That doctor’s widow, Laura Brooks (Patricia Breslin), certainly sees something in the new doctor that Constance may not be willing to admit, but it soon becomes apparent that one of them is going to become very close to outwardly cool yet inwardly passionate Dr. Rossi…particularly when it’s revealed that Dr. Rossi has a years-ago connection with… (hahaha—I’m not telling!). These and more stories churn behind the quaint tree-lined streets and Colonial facades of the tiny New England hamlet, Peyton Place.
Watching Peyton Place for the first time (it was never rerun during its original network showing, and I’m not sure if it was ever syndicated), the first thought I had was: how many people are even going to be interested in this subject matter? I love vintage soaps (Retro TV’s reruns of The Doctors are currently required daily viewing in my house…and by the way what the hell is wrong with Dr. Nick Bellini?); I’m a fan of Metalious’ novel and the subsequent films, and after seeing these first 31 episodes, I’m more than enthusiastic about the TV series. However…I have to wonder if anyone under 50 is even going to understand the context of the series. Does anybody even remember that old cultural stereotype of the emotionally chilly, staid New Englander, whose outward reticence masked an inward, slow-burning passion (Dark Shadows was about the last popular show to trade on that one)? Do little New England hamlets and villages like the fictional Peyton Place, insular and inbred in their personal associations and their cultural and societal references, still exist? They cannot, I would imagine.
Most importantly: is our pop culture even remotely interested in the not only proclaimed “outdated,” but now actively despised trials and tribulations of socially poised and reserved but emotionally troubled Whites who live in a small American town, hiding secrets about love and sex and violence from each other while maintaining the niceties of a polite society? If those concerns of this segment of American society do manage to crop up in the pop culture today, almost invariably those matters—as well as the people themselves—are turned into cartoonish lampoons: derided, vilified, and laughed-at for their perceived “hypocrisies” and their “simplistic” moralities, as well as a litany of other offenses made manifest by the very fact of their skin color.
And if mainstream purveyors of today’s pop culture feel the players and their societal context in Peyton Place are no longer viable frameworks for serious and respectful drama, their tribulations here would no doubt also be looked upon as naïve and obsolete. The secrets of Peyton Place, the terrible truths that the characters work so hard to conceal are now the stuff of family sitcoms today—not the envelope-pushing, edgy material of 1964’s prime-time Peyton Place.
Rodney Harrington feels true pain and confusion when he sees his father—with whom he has, at best, a complicated relationship—kissing another woman, a woman who happens to be the mother of the girl he’s sleeping with (when premarital sex was still considered, for form’s sake, in poor taste). He breaks off his relationship with Betty because of this discovery, and that discovered illicit moment sets up a catastrophic series of events that emotionally devastate Rodney. Today, such a triviality would be an innocuous set-up for an in-poor-taste sitcom gag. Dad’s caught making out with his secretary? “Whaaaaaaaa….uh ohhhhhh!” the fake audience cries and cue the laugh track. The inevitable result of Betty’s and Rodney’s premarital sex is her pregnancy, a situation that causes Betty real shame, terror, and heartache, because she truly loves Rod…and he doesn’t love her. Today, however, unwed teen parenthood isn’t regarded as a moral dilemma: it’s a “lifestyle choice” openly encouraged by our so-called role models (usually by celebrities who have enough money to avoid most of the physical obstacles such a “lifestyle choice” entails).
Even more tenuous today is Constance’s grief: Allison is “illegitimate,” a fact that causes Connie enough shame and worry that she invents a deceased father to cover the reality of Allison’s situation. Of course today, with the rate of unmarried pregnancies skyrocketing every year, such considerations of morality no longer even enter into the equations of the modern American “family”…if we believe the movies and books and TV shows that are made for our consumption. With American society so “advanced”…of what possible interest could White Rodney’s and White Betty’s and White Constance’s petty little moral dilemmas pose for us?
Plenty. Of course, that’s the way our deliberately divisive, politically corrupted pop culture would like you to think about the Paleolithic denizens of little hide-away Peyton Place. Our coarse pop culture has stridently demanded that we view such seemingly small-fry moral quandaries as not worthy of serious consideration anymore. Now that it has banished common-sense morality to the backward “dangerous fringe elements” while imposing a slippery-slope “moral equivalency” to almost any traditional value system, the only artistic response our common pop culture seems capable of now is vulgar sensation, self-gratification, and self-congratulation. But if one can block those messages out, and re-connect with the basic, universal themes and emotions of true melodrama as represented in Peyton Place, a viewer can find a beautiful simplicity to the expertly-constructed, emotionally-honest scripts of this mere TV “soap” (my understanding is that Peyton Place‘s producer, Paul Monash, didn’t care for the moniker “soap opera” to be applied to his series; he preferred “television novel.” I see no reason, though, not to call Peyton Place what it is: a superior television drama formatted exactly in the manner of a daytime serial—a “soap opera,” in other words).
Back in 1964, the cache and notoriety of Peyton Place‘s original source novel drove a lot of viewer interest in ABC’s experiment in programming, but anyone expecting to find the still-juicy salaciousness of Metalious’ novel in Peyton Place the series will be disappointed by this more reserved examination of small-town life. As a result of this self-censorship, there’s almost a storybook appeal to the show’s dramatics, amplified by the geographic isolation of the setting, and the hundreds-year-old Puritan heritage of the town, that contrasts very nicely against the more modern realities of the characters’ dilemmas. The opening narration of each episode (voiced by Warner Anderson, who plays kindly, wise Peyton Place Clarion newspaper editor, Matthew Swain) further emphasizes that storybook feel; a good example comes from episode three, read in Anderson’s signature smooth, reassuring style: “On a sunny morning almost 300 years ago, a young woman was drummed across this square to do public penance in the pillory. Afterwards, they shaved her head and sent her out of town forever. Well, like every girl in today’s Peyton Place, Betty Anderson has heard this story many times. But knowing it didn’t stop her from giving her love.” The serious notion of an unmarried girl giving up her virginity and becoming pregnant—and possibly suffering public condemnation—is delivered in a deceptively comforting manner. This, combined with the expected structure of the genre (one crisis leads to the next; no episode ends with a complete resolution of a problem) and offset by the serious nature of the characters’ dilemmas (drug addiction, teen pregnancy, murder), creates in Peyton Place an interesting dichotomy of cozy, reliable serial storytelling, and heavy melodramatic elements.
The quality of the writing for Peyton Place is quite surprising, as well…although it shouldn’t be once you see the credits. It’s important to remember that many of the series’ returning writers and directors cut their teeth on the well-regarded live dramatic anthology series of the 1950s. Writers such as Robert J. Shaw, a veteran of numerous television series such as Kraft Television Theatre, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, and Robert Montgomery Presents, Mathilda and Theodore Ferro (Kraft and Montgomery, as well as the beautifully written Leave it to Beaver), and directors like Ted Post (Armstrong Circle Theatre, Schlitz, The Ford Television Theatre, Zane Grey Theater, and Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse), and Walter Doniger (a veteran of numerous excellent TV series, such as Cheyenne, Bat Masterson, Checkmate, and The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor) worked frequently together to give Peyton Place‘s scripts an almost dreamy, poetic cadence that’s quite unlike other prime-time dramatic series from that time. Repeatedly, characters talk around subjects, causing the other characters in the conversation to ask, “What do you mean by that?” before the conversation shifts to another level, making the viewer really listen to and interpret what’s going on (believe it or not, some episodes have a Mamet-like strangeness to their word selection and phrasing, aided by the skill of the performers—can’t wait for the emails on that one!). With the heavy predominance of the two-shot used throughout the episodes, a viewer can concentrate on the up-close faces of the actors while listening to these rather graceful lines and pauses.
Universal themes like obligation versus love (Allison wanting to grow up and away from Peyton Place, but feeling she needs to stay with her lonely mother), the pains of leaving one’s childhood behind for good (both Rod and Allison realize how short that transition is, and how irrevocable its passage is), and the gradual, imperceptible fading away of youthful dreams and hopes as we age, are frequently explored along with the more melodramatic elements of the series. There’s a terrific, thoughtful moment in one episode between Allison and Constance (written by Shaw) that delicately touches on this last theme. Allison, returning from a movie that moved her, discusses it with her mother, Constance: (Allison) “Funny thing. In movies there’s always an ending. A happy one or a tragic one. But in real life, people have to go on living, getting older. They become middle-aged and utterly uninteresting, and still they have to put up with one another.” (Constance) “What you choose when you’re young you have to live with the rest of your life, one way or another. Life isn’t romantic.” (Allison) “Isn’t it sometimes? Sometimes don’t people fall in love and feel romantic? Does that always have to change?” (Constance, after a long pause) “I don’t know.” At times, it’s obvious that the writing has been tempered to satisfy the twitchy censors (George Anderson finding out his daughter isn’t a virgin anymore, by discovering she’s “not his little girl” anymore), but the skill of the screenwriters is such that these imposed limitations only reinforce the lyrical, enigmatic sound of the writing.
This isn’t to say that Peyton Place is only populated by flighty dreamers, mooning about the picturesque town square. The necessary requirements of zippy melodrama are of course honored, and several tense subplots get a good workout here at the start of the series. Certainly, the Betty Anderson pregnancy line is a juicy knockout, with Barbara Parkins (I’m getting the vapors…) showing a terrific range as she goes from enamored yet naïve “bad girl,” to wounded mother who loses her child, to steely opportunist who understands she was used then dropped, and then tolerated because marrying her off was “the right thing to do.” By the end of this first half-season, the transformation of Betty from wounded kid to vengeful gamesplayer (she states she’s been taught by “experts”) indicates much more is in store for this intriguing character.
Equally interesting is a terrific performance by that marvelous character actor Henry Beckman, as Betty’s abusive/tortured father, George Anderson. The George character is quite complexly drawn for this kind of seemingly sensationalistic prime-time drama, with Beckman pulling out a multi-faceted character whose addiction and rage is at least understood (but not condoned) within the context of feelings of inadequacy (he was the most popular boy in school…who went nowhere; he went to fight in WWII and killed 15 men, while rich boy Les Harrington skipped out—the very man that now employs him and sleeps with his wife), and anger at the treatment of his daughter by the Harringtons (Beckman’s scenes with Parkins are wonderfully tender and at the same time, pathetic and wrong). It’s a bravura performance by Beckman, and a startling one within the context of this faux-storybook serial (just as an example of the writers’ grasp of the George character, after George trips his wife on the stairs and injures her, he buys her a “funny” book to apologize…a book of cartoons that on the cover, has a caveman dragging a woman around by her hair).
Dr. Rossi’s subplot of being accused of Catherine Harrington’s malpractice death by deceptively courtly but deviously crafty Dr. Morton (Kent Smith was born to play this kind of slimy role) is unadulterated melodrama—and expertly crafted. Not at all unlike a storyline right out of ABC’s once-mighty medical drama, Ben Casey, this multiple-episode plot thread culminates in an arresting operating sequence, shot in menacing shadows and huge, ominous close-ups right out of Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. It’s visually exciting, and thematically correct within the structure of the show (Dr. Rossi’s naiveté about small-town life is given a thorough working-over here).
Although always tastefully handled, there’s also an underlying element of eroticism running through various Peyton Place episodes which plays well off the characters who must always maintain a façade of socially-correct behavior. You have to look quickly, but a surprising moment comes in the first episode when Allison, after encountering Rod for the first time as a potential romantic partner, stands in front of her bedroom mirror, looking at herself as she trails her hand across her chest, her mouth slightly open—a “wow” moment certainly for 1964 television (and one that is immediately countered by Constance interrupting Allison, and telling her that what she thinks Allison desires from Rod—sex—”isn’t love.”). Barbara Parkins has a slightly more open moment of expressing her sexuality, when she dances provocatively in front of Rod at Peyton Place’s Shoreline club (Parkins, a personal favorite of mine from Valley of the Dolls, moves it around real nice…). And of course Dorothy Malone, whose entire career was seemingly based on characters either indulging in or suppressing their erotic impulses (see her Oscar-winning turn in Written on the Wind), fills almost every scene of hers with an understated longing and desire for love (and yes, sex), that are delicately shaded by this fine, underrated actress. Passions do indeed smolder among the outwardly proper, staid, polite citizens of quaint, charming Peyton Place.
And viewers responded immediately to that simmering passion. ABC, which by 1964 still remained in a perpetual last-place showing with the bigger NBC and CBS networks (despite some popular shows, ABC still didn’t have the station clearance those two former radio behemoths had, necessarily impacting the reach of ABC shows to the public), had had a disastrous 1963-1964 season, with not one of its shows even cracking the top 15 slots on the Nielsen charts (The Donna Reed Show was their highest charter, at 16th). Compounding their problems, ABC made a serious error in moving their biggest hit of the 1962-1963 season, the medical drama Ben Casey (it charted 7th that season), against the number one and three rated shows in the country, The Beverly Hillbillies and The Dick Van Dyke Show, both of which decimated Ben Casey‘s ratings (it was knocked out of the Top 30, never to return).
So the 1964-1965 season presented big problems for ABC to rebuild, and using the combined “stunts” of having a promised “lurid” adaptation of the notorious Peyton Place novel appear twice weekly proved irresistible to TV audiences. Airing on Tuesdays and Thursday nights at 9:30 (after the kiddies were in bed), Peyton Place benefited from some strong lead-ins and lead-outs, enabling both parts to crack the Top 20. Tuesday night’s episode was the lower rated (it hit 20th for the year), having heavyweight competition from CBS’s Petticoat Junction (which had been 4th the previous year, but which fell dramatically to 15th against interest in Peyton Place). Peyton Place‘s lead-out on Tuesday, the exploding The Fugitive (5th that year, its highest series rating), encouraged audiences to check out Peyton Place first, and keep the dial on ABC (before remotes and streaming, kids—ask your grandparents). Thursday night’s installment of Peyton Place was even bigger—9th for the year—as its lead-in, brand-new Bewitched, pulled in massive ratings to make it the 2nd most watched show in the country. Peyton Place‘s direct competition on Thursdays was weak (CBS’s notorious flop, The Baileys of Balboa, and NBC’s fading-fast former hit, Hazel), creating a can’t-miss sense of anticipation for viewers who quickly became hooked on the show’s serial format. The ratings were so strong in fact for Peyton Place, that ABC made the bold move of adding a third night later that summer…a move that would prove disastrous for the series.