I love watching older films and trying to eke out context of the era and the movie culture in which they took place. Though I was always a good student, I can't say I ever took a sustained interest in history and what I commit to memory I largely know from the movies. I'm not proud of that, just putting it out there. So here in Peyton Place a couple of cultural movie things spring right up.
First, you get the late 50s/early 60s movie staples of sex hysteria mixed with dawning awareness of how sexual knowledge (rather than shame) might be a good thing. With that conflict comes cross-generational battles of parents and misunderstood teens. You'll also see this shift in changing mores and a widening general gap captured more brilliantly in two Natalie Wood pictures which bookend Peyton Place; Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Splendor in the Grass (1961).
The other instant movie connection is to the melodrama form. This tale of gossipy neighbors, lives half-lived, and the ever-present fear of social ostracism recalls both Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) and its recent tribute/companion Far From Heaven (2002). As melodrama though Peyton Place never achieves those pinnacles. The grand moments are there. The expressive lighting and weeping women show up, too. (And usually just in time as your attention has begun to wander). But, sadly, they only appear in spurts. This New England town's tale is told too episodically and is all too overpopulated to become a classic of the form. (It's easy to understand the film's transfer to television in the 60s as a serialized soap). What's more its failure to fully embrace the theatricality disqualifies it as a camp masterpiece, albeit an unintentional one. Rather than pinpoint an incredibly passionate romance or doomed decision, as most melodramas do, it wants to tell you the stories of at least a dozen major characters.
The plentiful characters and shocking revelations (surprisingly outre for a 1950s picture, both in content and visual cues) give the actors lots of scenery on which to chew. But, despite the five Oscar nominations for its cast (one of only nine films in the history of cinema to have been so richly rewarded) their various performances are a mixed bag of accents and quality. Thankfully they do all feel cohesive in performance style (unfortunately not a given in ensemble pictures). Best by a considerable margin is cool but not collected Lana Turner. The thaw of the ice queen is, for many legendary blonde movie stars (Deneuve, Pfeiffer, etc...), the most familiar of character arcs. But Turner sideswipes the inherent familiarity of this 'letting down her guard' drama by retaining all the prickly edges of her character. She doesn't so much melt as unwillingly crack. The finest moment in the entire film has to be Constance Mackenzie's complete exasperation when her maid breaks down confessing troubling family secrets. The way she spits out "Oh, Nellie. We all have our problems" is hilarious and also perfectly mean. It lazily tries to meet the social demands of empathy while being entirely devoid of the actual feeling itself. Turner is all loathing (for others and self) and evasion in this scene. Constance McKenzie, Turner bravely shows, is a real pill.
With Turner's well-handled matriarchal drama as focus, Peyton Place could have been a great melodrama. But the movie wants to be a town portrait and a portrait of America. And --oh, but wait. There's more. Its last act unfurls a third aim: it's now a courtroom drama! Peyton Place attempts much but accomplishes too little. It belongs not to melodrama but to the soap opera form, i.e. melodrama's inferior cousin, the one with similar DNA but less imagination and no ability to think in the abstract. Still and all, there are strangely vivid moments to treasure and an intermittently fascinating snapshot of America in the late 50s. You just have to sit through lots of filler to find and embrace them. Or such was my viewing experience. We all have our problems, indeed.