Peyton Place, that puritanical New England hot-bed of sex, scandal, class conflict, repressed emotions, and tasteful suffering, is back!
By Paul Mavis
If you’re a regular visitor to DrunkTV and specifically, my vintage TV reviews (you need to google “dissociative personality with problems of maladaptation”…), then you’ll know we’ve been dying to get our hands on Shout! Factory’s resumed line of Peyton Place DVD sets. Well…the vintage TV gods have answered our prayers (“Oh Cathode Ray Tube God-Head! We submit our minds, our bodies, and our Zenith Space Commander 600 remote control units to You and your Whims!”) and it was worth the groveling, dammit! It was worth it!
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Shout! has just released Peyton Place: Part Three, a 5-disc, 34-episode DVD set—in glorious black and white!—that includes episodes #66 (Tuesday, May 4th, 1965) through #98 (Tuesday, August 3rd, 1965). Now recently, we had a big vintage TV milestone in the news—primetime soap king Dallas’s 40th anniversary—but it’s important to remember that ABC’s Peyton Place, based on Grace Metalious’ shocking best-seller and subsequent smash 1957 movie adaptation, was the first multi-night dramatic serial made especially for prime time network airing, way back in 1964.
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It ran throughout each of its five calendar years without reruns or a summer break (just like the daytime soaps at the time), expanding to three shows a week during this DVD set’s timeframe, while racking up an insane 514 episodes in just five short years. Shout! has already announced that another set of episodes is coming this summer, so it looks like we’re finally going to see the entire series come out on DVD—a big, big win for fans of vintage TV and serial drama.
Reviewer’s note: If you’re not familiar with Peyton Place, I recommend reading my reviews of Parts One and Two, here at Drunk TV, where I wrote extensively about the show’s dreamy, haunting aesthetics, and its place in pop culture history then and now. As well, it’s impossible to discuss Peyton Place in any kind of depth without revealing major plot spoilers, so please be advised of that in the following review.
RELATED | Read all of our Peyton Place reviews
Since I’ve already mounted, in those two previous Peyton Place reviews, a spirited and unassailable pop cultural reclamation of the trials and tribulations of passionate-yet-emotionally-controlled white people (now you’re skipping back to those reviews, aren’t you?!), I’m not going to continue in that vein for this third set of episodes. Let’s just get to the dirt, shall we?
First…the regrets. Gone and not coming back is Betty Anderson’s abusive, mentally ill father, George Anderson, played by familiar (and terrific) character actor Henry Beckman. I was looking forward to what the writers—including pros like Sonya Roberts and Rita Lakin—might do with his possible return from the mental asylum. His character, a sort of flip-side to The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, was complex and compelling (the American Dream gone terribly wrong), and best of all, unpredictable. Unfortunately, though, he’s out of the Peyton Place picture for good.
Also gone after one or two episodes, is Richard Evans’ Paul Hanley. A marvelously sick, twisted character who got off on screwing with people’s heads in the name of existential intellectualism (what else), Hanley could have been one of Peyton Place’s great villains, had the writers kept him around to oversee the seismic societal changes that inevitably would come to an insular little hamlet like Peyton Place in the later 1960s (Paul casually greets Rod in the school hallway with this one, “Even destruction has a purpose, don’t you agree, Rodney?” to which Rod flatly responds, “Not when it’s for kicks,”).
Too bad, then, that he unceremoniously disappears after one good dust-up with Matt Swain (refusing to publish Paul’s suspicions about his sister Elizabeth’s death, Swain sneers, “I try to protect my readers from the conjectures of warped and twisted minds,”) and an anti-climatic meeting with Elliot in his hospital room. Elliot’s proper framing of his imprisonment (“It isn’t even a tragedy, Paul. Tragedy has some dignity. Just a tragic result of a sordid, pathetic mess.”), his mild admonishment to be more forgiving in the future to the weasely little punk who put him in the slammer for eighteen long years is just a little too precious to be believed (much better is Swain’s dismissal of Paul’s idea of mob rule: “Justice will be served, Mr. Hanley…but not on the dog plate, growled over by the pack,”).
But then you’d expect dialogue like that from Peyton Place. In today’s tense culture where absolutes reign—absolute outrage, absolute hatred, absolute positions on every single issue—it’s such a relief to revisit a time when adults—at least on TV—cautioned for prudence, balance, understanding, and forgiveness. When Rodney tells Constance he was never close to his mother and that he can’t forgive his hard-charging, cheating father, Constance reminds him that he should do just that: forgive them, because parents aren’t perfect but they do some good (in today’s TV world, Connie would advise Rod to regain his “voice” and empower himself by publicly shaming his parents on Twitter and Instagram, and then “help others” by recording his feelings on Youtube…before realizing she was talking to an entitled white male and calling Ellen, Oprah, and David Hogg to grovel and apologize).
With vintage TV, it’s easy to fall back into nostalgic reveries about those past times, with the danger that, in your pleasure at seeing some now-abandoned tenets of the “American character,” you may forget that there were other very real issues and concerns that simply weren’t going to show up on a series like Peyton Place in 1965. However, that incompleteness doesn’t negate what is there: a valuable reference point in the pop culture that shows an America—or perhaps better, an idea of a certain America—that has (temporarily we hope) been lost. There’s a marvelous scene between Warner Anderson’s Matt Swain and Frank Ferguson’s Eli Carson, where the boyhood friends discuss how their situations have changed since Elliot came back to Peyton Place. Eli had nothing for twenty years after his son Elliot was sent to jail, while at that same time bachelor Matt occupied a surrogate grandfather role for Allison (as well as being trusted friend and guardian to Constance).
Now…with Elliot back, and married to Constance, Eli is basking in the role of father and grandfather (Ferguson’s scenes with Mia Farrow are warm and tender), while Matt feels left out, even with his friend Eli, who wants to spend time with his “new” family. Matt feels, quite simply, lonely. Eli, sympathetic, counters however, that he knows of one worse emotion for Matt to indulge in: self-pity (a familiar response to those of us who grew up in an America that cautioned self-pity was a shameful state that needed to be fought at all costs). Can you imagine that conversation playing out today, in the America that has elevated self-pity into an accepted and even curried religion, one that constantly feeds everything, from institutionalized victimhood and intellectual fascism, to just plain slothfulness?
Of course, emotional reserve can go too far, as in the case of Leslie Harrington (Paul Langton, he skips out for this group of episodes), who, momentarily ashamed of his own parenting skills, can’t even look his sons in the face as he haltingly stammers, “I wish I knew how to tell you…how much I love you,” (don’t even think about a hug, mister). The level of open, shared intimacy for Peyton Place’s two main couples/storylines—Connie and Elliot and Rod and Allison—varies according to marital status and age. Since there was such a build-up in the previous episodes for Elliot and Connie resuming their lives together, I was a bit disappointed that they were married off so soon after he recovered from his shooting.
Still, the writers do a nice job of conveying several intriguing aspects to their union. Connie may love feeling “married” (i.e.: “respectable”), now that the father of her child is, eighteen years later, finally her husband, but she and Elliot are still aware that people in Peyton Place will…talk. More importantly than that societal chitchat, Connie is shown having difficulties fully opening up to Elliot, a situation he fights with his usual direct honesty. In the first few awkward moments of their honeymoon, he tells her plainly that he wants to know “every nuance” of her—that must have given the female TV viewers back then the whim-whams (the producers aren’t shy about showing uptight Connie finally liberated by her loving—and sexual—relationship with Elliot, as she widely smiles in bed the next morning in her black negligee…and keeps right on smiling throughout the next 30 or so episodes…).
Connie isn’t blind, though, to the problems she knows awaits them both back home—namely, where Elliot stands in his “authority” within the family (the feminists will love that one), and how to integrate Elliot into her small world of just herself and Allison. It’s tricky ground, and the writers manage to keep the viewer on edge, aided naturally by the precision thesping of Dorothy Malone and Tim O’Connor (Oscar-winner Malone we expect to be expert in this kind of melodrama, but character actor O’Connor continues to be a revelation as a sensitive, confident leading man). Connie more than Elliot is aware of the pitfalls of an “instant father,” but that doesn’t make it any easier for Elliot to negotiate with Connie (their tiff over staying longer on their honeymoon) and with an increasingly reluctant Allison, who doesn’t know how to act around a father who is no longer just a romantic dream, but a reality—however nice and understanding and sympathetic a reality—who expects to exert some say over her actions.
Allison is far from rebellious or angry over the situation (as that character would be played today); she genuinely wants Elliot to be a father to her (when she asks to change her last name to “Carson,” Elliot says no, in a wonderful, genuinely caring way: “You’re already ‘you,’”). She’s more upset with Connie, for being lied to all those years about her real father, but she’s cautioned by Dr. Rossi (Ed Nelson) to forgive Connie, who went through a terrible time being pregnant and unmarried (there’s a pretty bold scene for 1964 where Allison wants to know if she was wanted when unmarried Connie discovered she was pregnant, to which Connie answers, “I loved you from the minute you were born,” a painfully honest answer that Allison—the romantic lover of truth—appreciates). Even as relations slowly improve in the Carson household, Allison can’t disguise her unease at her world being changed, which of course is all the more ironic…since it has supposedly changed for the better.
As for Allison’s and Rod’s romance, it’s developing quite cautiously, with a wary Allison watching and waiting to see where her feelings are going to an increasingly responsible, honest Rod (easier to do now that he’s been knocked down a few pegs on the Peyton Place social order). O’Neal and Farrow have solid chemistry together, and it’s fun watching the series’ most popular couple carefully dance around each other, fearful as much about getting hurt as letting their feelings go (at one point, Rod turns down Allison’s obvious intent to become intimate, before later stating, “You know the closer people are, the easier they hurt,” to which Allison wisely responds, “If you’re really close…you can stand it,”). I can’t say enough about Farrow’s performance in Peyton Place. She’s soft and lovely, of course, even willowy at times…but those incredibly large, expressive eyes are smart and watchful, too. Her facial expression are so subtle, so controlled (as is her perfect diction, for that matter), it’s lucky she came about when square, boxy television was locked in tight on faces—only the earlier silents could have showcased her talents so well.
I can’t work up any enthusiasm, unfortunately, for two new couples in Peyton Place. First up: Dr. Rossi and Dr. Robert Morton’s (Kent Smith) daughter, Dr. Clare Markham (Mariette Hartley). Normally I would enjoy Ed Nelson’s solid, placid character, but he needs something to contrast against, and that’s not Hartley’s equally inconspicuous character. They strike zero sparks together (the only time we get a bit a juice is when Daddy catches them almost getting close back at Rossi’s romantic beach shack…but it’s Kent Smith’s obvious nausea at the prospect, not the couple, that makes the scene memorable).
Criminally, we don’t have nearly enough going on with former Peyton Place “bad girl” Betty Anderson, either. When she’s not marking time in her uniform, getting pissed on by snotty head nurse Esther Choate (Erin O’Brien-Moore), she’s laughably dating dull-as-ditchwater Reverend Jerry “Let Us Now Fall Asleep” Bedford (Ted Hartley), who can’t seem to understand what a potentially ca-razy p.o.a. he’s got there (Betty’s mother Julie wastes her time trying to promote the Reverend, pleading, “Doesn’t gentleness count for something? Does everything have to be exciting and mysterious?” Um…when it comes to sex, Julie, yes. Yes it does…)
It looks like things will pick up for Betty, thankfully, with the arrival of exciting, mysterious Steven Cord, played with lean, angular cynicism by James Douglas. Maintaining author Grace Metalious’ original concerns over class differences, Steven’s character is smarting over having to grow up in the basement of the Peyton mansion (his mother is Martin Peyton’s loyal servant). He’s an Ivy League lawyer now, and he’s itching to stick it to the “two princes” Rod and Norman Harrington. We’ll have to see if the writers turn this hatred into something more than old-timey melodrama, but it’s certainly an encouraging start with Douglas’s enigmatic promise of villainy (he seems to rub well against panting Barbara Parkins, who pops her cherries flambe when she first sees him through the sterno flames at Peyton Place’s finest dining, The Colonial Inn).
Obsession with class consciousness underpins the two most interesting subplots with this set of Peyton Place episodes. With mill manager Leslie Harrington quitting his job in disgrace before swanning off to Europe, his sons Norman (Christopher Connelly) and Rod are free to do as they chose, considering their small allowance from the estate of their deceased mother, Catherine. They decide to stay in town…living above the drug store, a huge come-down for two. Rod takes it in stride (he’s even willing to work in the mill as a common laborer during the upcoming summer), but Norman isn’t buying it. He resents his powerful family getting their comeuppance, and he’s not afraid to let everyone know (at a painting party for the apartment, he screams, “We don’t belong here!” before running out). Add to that the unreality of his beloved mother turning out to be a murderess, and it’s too much for him to handle—his world has been shattered, much like Allison’s (albeit far more violently). It’s an increasingly interesting turn from Connelly, who has a suppressed, controlled craziness (and rage) to him that keeps you wondering how it will pop up and in what form (he’s perfect at Connie’s wedding, when he ruins it by screaming, “You’re all liars!” Amen, Norman).
Matching this Americanized “Angry Young Man” is Patricia Morrow’s heartbreaking turn as wrong-side-of-the-tracks Rita Jacks, daughter of innkeeper Ada Jacks (Evelyn Scott). Her relationship with Norman starts off in familiar territory—he wants to sleep with her—but she’s not having it. She may have been a “party girl” before, but not now, because she loves Norman, and wants to better herself. Morrow is quite touching in her scenes, reading books (with a dictionary for help) to impress him, pleading with Norman to believe she loves him…while also demanding that he respect her. I’m not sure I know her from anything else, but she’s right on the money here in a role that could have easily slipped into the cliched. Connelly and Morrow are terrific together; we really buy that Connelly grows to love her and be grateful for her help in coming out of his rage, while Morrow is convincing as a girl who’s let herself be used as a substitute for being loved, and who won’t let that happen again now that she’s found the real thing (we’ll see where things go, though, now that a genuine punk—Don Quine’s James Dean-like rapist, Joe Chernak, is menacing Rita…).
My favorite new additions to Peyton Place, however, are David and Doris Schuster, played to utter perfection by William Smithers and Gail Kobe. Like neurasthenic versions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?’s George and Martha, the arrival of the Schusters to Peyton Place brings a pithy, snarky urbaneness to the narrative that’s more than welcome. Formerly from New York City, David now runs the mill (he’s gonna lay off some people in the name of “efficiency”…) and Doris drinks and puts other people down (on moving day, when Doris belittles someone, David snidely observes, “Congratulations: you established your social superiority,”). They live in Martin Peyton’s mansion, once Rod and Norman move out, and as a harbinger of things to come, David opens a housewarming gift from Martin, and snickers at the needlepoint sentiment: “God’s Will: Some to Walk the Earth, Some to Be Trampled Down” (brilliant).
If that was all to this couple, they’d be at least the most entertaining characters on the show. However, they also have a six-year-old child, Kim (talented little Kimberly Beck), who’s deaf, and their dealings with her, and the uncomfortable truths about their relationship that are revealed, make for Peyton Place’s best drama. And as usual with the writing on this series, it’s the insistence on shading for the characters that keeps the characters from being two-dimensional chestnuts.
David’s efficient, ruthless “company man” has been seen before, but the controlled, cool-yet-deeply empathetic result—clearly aided by Smithers, a genius at that kind of character—is consistently surprising (there’s a great moment, after a night of office politics, where he wearily wonders why in America, everyone has to be viewed as an opponent…to which the hardened Doris matter-of-factly replies, “It’s the custom of the country,”). He wants to succeed at Peyton Mill by his own work, not his wife’s schmoozing. However, there’s more to his resentment of Doris than her political maneuvering, and it has something to do with his first wife (I won’t spoil it).
As for Doris, she comes off at first like an entitled rich bitch, but gradually, her sad, even pathetic character is deepened into one of the more memorable female characters that I can remember from 60s television. A wistful former writer in college (“I wanted to be someone…you want to prove life owes you more than ordinary people,”), she now exists as a peripheral to her busy husband’s work. Unable to communicate or bond with her deaf child (Kobe is brilliant in those scenes, alternating from exasperation to desperate love), she can’t even get satisfaction helping out her husband (in a great line that will resonate today, she laughs at David’s prim disapproval of her machinations: “What is it with you men? You marry intelligent, capable women…and then push them out of your lives,”). Towards the end of this set of episodes, in a great, boozy, Broadway-worthy scene where David and Doris tear each other apart, physically and emotionally, the battle lines are drawn over how to reach Kim, over the resulting guilt from her deafness…and shockingly, over Kim’s nanny, Allison. I can’t wait to see where their story goes next.
As I wrote in my first two Peyton Place reviews, the initial arrival of the series was met with smashing Nielsen ratings. Shown on Tuesday and Thursday nights, the Tuesday episode was the 20th most popular offering of the 1964-1965 season, while Thursday’s episode came in 9th for the year—a remarkable showing for a night time serial. No doubt the notoriety of not only this kind of soap format in prime time (no repeats, ever) but also the original source material, was key to those big numbers. Yet, that interest wouldn’t have lasted two weeks if the writing and performances didn’t deliver, as well.
However, third-place ABC, eager to capitalize on this bigger-than-expected hit, made a huge mistake in programming a third episode to run on Friday nights (the first being June 25th, 1965), which resulted in a disastrous downturn in the ratings, beginning that summer. Now granted, there are danger signs already apparent in the later episodes of this set, including the ridiculous addition of Leslie Nielsen as Clare’s husband—the Dr. Schweitzer of Peru—who incredulously asks his love rival, Dr. Rossi, to join him there…right before the arrival of his twin brother (I probably would have tuned out right then and there).
Then again, since I haven’t seen the upcoming set of episodes, I’ll hold off on blaming the writing. What is apparent is that three nights of Peyton Place was too much for loyal viewers, let alone casual ones who wouldn’t jump in for that kind of obligation. Having to commit to never missing an episode—like the housewives easily did with their daytime soaps routines—was manageable in prime time at two per week, critically in the middle of the week. But add Friday nights in, too, when adults went out on the town and the kids took over the channel selection, and suddenly, seeing Leslie Nielsen’s twin brother chopper in to Peyton Place’s town square, just wasn’t necessary viewing anymore.