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Come For a Campy Laugh; Stay Lost in Voluptuous Impatience

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The nominal star of Peyton Place is Dorothy Malone, the show’s big calling card or casting coup. Although not as scandalous as Lana Turner, she won an Oscar for playing a nymphomaniac in Douglas Sirk’s torrid Written on the Wind in the same year Metalious’ novel came out. Here she plays Constance Mackenzie, Allison’s protective mother. She spends the whole series casting distraught looks about her, or else adopting a painted-on smile to pretend everything’s peachy. Now and then, a glint in the eye and a half-smile lets us know she still thinks about the physical aspect of life that she’s been doing without for years now.


She claims to be a widow, but it’s clear she’s “protecting” Allison from knowledge of her real father, a topic touched upon in many a strained, unfinished conversation. Constance gets all ruffled over the arrival of Dr. Rossi, who knew her briefly in New York. With his air of doctorly authority and handsome steel-eyed gaze, he threatens to bulldoze his way into her heart, for all the good it will do him. What is her secret? Will she ever tell him, or rather us? (Yes, in the last episode of the first set, under the grain of an optical zoom, by which time we’ve figured it out a few programs ago).


TV is always ten or 20 years ahead of movies in terms of social values, and the public is always farther along than that, so TV is the big negotiator in pop culture. Soaps are even more revealing in this cultural negotiation than sitcoms, at least prior to the ‘70s.

It’s part of the style for hints to be dropped as hooks or motifs to maintain the viewer’s interest in speculation and mystery, and for the viewer’s suspicions slowly to be confirmed. Another common tactic is that when any subject threatens to manifest itself through sheer inertia, a convenient phone call or visitor delays the matter for another couple of episodes.


Constance runs a bookshop that also sells art objects, and this too lends itself to self-conscious comments. In an early episode, she converses with someone vaguely related to her, the newspaper editor to whom she’s lent an unnamed scandalous novel. “I was hoping it would be banned in Boston”, she says. “You know how I feel about censorship”, he replies before making remarks about blaming the public for its taste rather than writers for catering to it. Then he observes with irony that although he didn’t like the book, he read it cover to cover.


cover art

Peyton Place, Vol. 2

(ABC; US DVD: 14 Jul 2009)

This old duffer, Matthew Swain (Warner Anderson), is the voice of patrician wisdom who opens each episode with a few remarks and often doesn’t appear otherwise because he’s totally uninteresting. For his air of gravitas, he’s one of the top four along with Malone, Farrow, and Nelson.


Seen today, the series sure pulls a lot of taffy and takes forever getting to any point. After Betty’s pregnancy is hinted in the first episode, half of the cast begins discussing it elliptically before she finally says the words out loud in episode 11. Betty visits Dr. Rossi and discusses it in code with discreetly fed-up mom Julie (Kasey Rogers), whom we feel sure is going to snap one day and start running with scissors. Betty avoids the issue with clueless, overworked, alcoholic, tranquilizer-addicted, bi-polar poppa George (Henry Beckman), who sometimes relieves tension by beating his wife. (Everyone in town smirks at the news that she fell down the stairs).


After several episodes during the town’s annual Founder’s Day celebration, Betty finally finds the guts to spell it out to Rodney, and by this time the audience is climbing the walls. Her sudden boldness makes the scene all the more vivid. One narrative strategy for such a show, after all the hints and delays, is to make the viewer want the unspoken to be shouted out at last, and then the story obliges with a punctuating crash. The truth is literalized as a blow, a wipe-out, and two figures squirm beside an overturned machine. So this is what happens when truth comes out, and it’s both frightening and cathartic.


A word or two about the angle on George’s domestic violence. It’s such common knowledge among the citizens that when alerted to a crisis at the Andersons’, the first question blurted out is “Did he hurt her?” George ought to be a monster and he is, but because he’s defined by his numerous relationships and his own history – and this is one of the secrets of soapdom – he’s also a strangely sympathetic and understandable basket case whose personality alters depending on with whom he’s in the room. Beckman’s performance is extremely good at reflecting his shifts from pathetic to brooding to dangerous and back again, sometimes all in one scene.


Not only are soaps addictive as narratives over time, they’re seductive as holistic pictures of entire networks of people whose every facet we understand more completely and intimately than those in our own sphere. Characters discuss the fact that they can’t truly know each other, while we know them better than ourselves. While lost in a soap, we can understand all, forgive all.


If the show criticizes and exposes George while comprehending him, we can also read an implicit criticism in how the town handles its communal knowledge. We’re far from the concept of interventions or, heaven help us, the law, as everyone minds their own business while their antennae twitch. Dr. Rossi is the only person who can intervene, and he can be overbearing enough (this newbie is as stiff-necked as any native) but it always takes an emergency to trigger the next step.


It’s recognized that George needs a psychiatrist (oh, the shame) if he’s going to “save his marriage”, and that’s assumed as a praiseworthy goal at the same time as possibly unattainable. As Betty or her mom keeps observing, they don’t know any happy marriages, including their own. Ozzie and Harriet don’t live in Peyton Place, but the viewer knows about Peyton Place. Haven’t you heard about Peyton Place? That’s the way it is in Peyton Place.


Thus, the show navigates the minefields of values and realities in an uncertain world. A book, a movie, a TV show like this could be popular by reinforcing the codes of public morality even while it let off steam, and the main controversy came from openly criticizing those codes. Before poking too much fun at it in our superior manner, remember that most TV shows outside the preserves of soapdom hardly allowed their characters to have sex, much less turn it into a crisis, and the problematic nature of it was the only reason these characters could have it.


TV is always ten or 20 years ahead of movies in terms of social values, and the public is always farther along than that, so TV is the big negotiator in pop culture. As a more immediate and intimate medium than movies (which take longer to make and then overwhelm us), TV negotiates our knowledge of the world with our desire for a safely fabricated world. Planted there in our living rooms and regularly puncturing its own spell with mini-dreams of consumerism (the commercials), not to mention the interruptions we bring to it from our own end, TV (like radio before it) has always been more relevant than cinema. Soaps are even more revealing in this cultural negotiation than sitcoms, at least prior to the ‘70s.


I mention sitcoms again because this show has a curious parallel vibe. Each episode is half an hour long, like a sitcom, and there is a cozy aspect to its self-enclosed mess of a quivering world. One commenter on Amazon compares this series to The Andy Griffith Show, and that’s not far wrong. Another revealing comparison is to the gentle, relatively credible angst of Leave It to Beaver, several episodes of which were written by Mathilde & Theodore Ferro, who also happen to be the primary writers of early Peyton Place, along with Paul Monash, Robert J. Shaw, Richard DeRoy, and Sonya Roberts.


Yes, come to think of it, there’s a touch of Wally and the Beav in the Rodney/Norman brotherhood, although displaced into a world where Mom might have a drinking problem while Eddie Haskell secretly commits murder. The genius of this show is to suggest such associations in TV communities around the tonal corner from each other, reached by a turn of the dial. No single show ever captures the world and all have their artificialities; the key is to see TV as a gestalt.


Once you reconcile yourself with the fact that nothing much is going to happen on any given episode, you can get into the quiet flow. It does in its way resemble what is said of small-town life, without the feel-good parts. There’s constant tension and restlessness, a perpetual threat of unpleasantness scored by Franz Waxman’s lush theme, and then the spasmodic eruptions. In its paradoxical way, it might be considered soothing in comparison with today’s hyperactive soaps, which don’t remain on any one scene for more than a minute (in which nothing will happen).


This show settles down for five-minute scenes (in which nothing will happen), and the whole episode is more or less devoted to a single plotline instead of 50. This was the old school; you can see it also in another ‘60s soap on DVD, Dark Shadows, another show about a coastal New England town with waves crashing against cliffs.


The crises of teen pregnancy and illegitimacy are today fodder for sitcoms, and if everyone seems to be molehill-ing their problems for dramatic effect, we should consider that it largely seemed that way at the time, too. Times haven’t changed as much as everyone likes to think. It’s still a problem in most homes if a teenager gets pregnant, and the Andersons don’t handle it with Puritan hysteria. Neither does anyone else.


In one of the last episodes, Betty herself recognizes that the fear of what others will think is overblown, that it was a matter of her own perceptions. The real issue is that Betty is afraid she’ll be alone without the boy she loves, and that’s a valid problem. (Unlike the book and film, an illegal abortion is never even faintly alluded to in these episodes. However, Betty meets a New York model who’s learned to be “smart” and declares that a girl can go far “on just one little pill”).


The exaggeration comes in the poetically agonized delivery and the way the music threatens to roll over its characters, and this was recognized as artificial at the time. The show emphasizes, somewhat disingenuously, the town’s outwardly Puritan time warp and its 300-year-old pillory in the town square. Unless everyone is buttoned down, there can’t be tension over a loose button. This made the show ripe for parody, and it was parodied everywhere on variety skits, in MAD magazine, etc.


The conventions of soaps are often parodied, however, and those parodies become addictive themselves, whether in Carol Burnett’s sketches of “As the Stomach Turns” or SCTV‘s “The Days of the Week” or real shows like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Soap. We begin by laughing and end up hooked. It’s possible that modern viewers will come to this show looking for a campy outdated laugh and, if they stick with it long enough, find themselves lost in voluptuous impatience for Constance to drop that bombshell on Allison – and when it’s dropped, they’ll feel the impact in their own jaded guts.


The show seems extreme in one way and lethargic in another – at once artificial and dreamlike yet with a cold eye, overwrought and bleak even in its innocence. It’s a consistent vision of a pretty, well-maintained, exasperating and unfulfilling world removed from and commenting upon other types of series and eventually upon middle-class dreams. Perhaps this marks a divide between the daytime world and the escape of prime-time shows for people home from jobs. Prime time wasn’t used to this incursion from the daytime, and this soap had a higher budget, a handsomer look, a higher pedigree than daytime serials.


The direction by Walter Doniger and Ted Post is full of felicitous lateral curves and the occasional majestic overhead shot, with moments of noir-ish chiaroscuro when things are ominous or haywire. The shot when Elliot gets off the bus from prison is especially impressive, going from the cramped headspace of the long interior to the soaring freedom of the great outdoors. We experience liberation, but it trembles like an uncertain bird. The camera later tilts along with George’s sanity, and then there are all those optical zooms in and out, giving the characters headaches.


Twenty-five years later, another soapy series about secrets in a small mill town emerged from the shadowy places: Twin Peaks. After the gaudy bluntness of Dallas, Dynasty and other ‘80s prime-time soaps, Twin Peaks was a partial return to the aesthetics of pregnant pauses and mood music, but now it was a postmodern element of style rather than a dramatic imperative, for the story could say and show things explicitly.


These early episodes of Peyton Place have an annoying habit of only crediting the regulars and not the guests, no matter how important they are. This policy cheats pivotal little players, like the pathologist who falsifies a report, or the attorneys who announce Catherine’s bothersome codicil, or the parole board of veteran character actors who decide Elliot’s fate. It’s weird to see future Monkee Mickey Dolenz as an uncredited local punk. Also left unknown are various townies who drop in for a gossip, not to mention the Harrington’s elderly maid Christine, who looks too frail to be in charge of that old barrack. She’s clearly a family retainer left over from the era when such things existed.

The show peaked early as a ratings phenomenon, eventually wearing out its prime time welcome and transforming itself into a real daytime show, Return to Peyton Place. Farrow had quit in the second year and begun a career in features auspiciously with Rosemary’s Baby, another plot about a domestic dream life that harbors nightmares. The show introduced Lee Grant to the mix (she won an Emmy), and later additions included Gena Rowlands, Dan Duryea, George Macready, and Susan Oliver. Color was introduced in 1966.


During a four-year run of 514 episodes, Peyton Place never broadcast a repeat. It didn’t really have seasons, but roughly what might be called the first season is gathered into two DVD sets by Shout! Factory, and the most scandalous thing about it is the condition of the prints.


These look like syndication prints: unrestored, dark, dirty, and worst of all, sometimes with scenes cut off in the middle of a sentence. Not only is it annoying to come into the middle of a scene, like the one where old Dr. Morton (Kent Smith) is having a heart to heart with his wife or the one where Matt Swain is trying to make a point to Allison by calling her attention to something on the wall that we’ll never hear about, but it matters in our ability to appreciate the difference between black and white atmosphere and faded murk, or to notice Robert B. Hauser’s photography of the outdoors set, or the more quietly effective bits of choreography. This isn’t what TV collectors expect of a major series produced by 20th Century Fox, which almost certainly has negatives or first generation prints in its vaults. We urge better care to be taken with future installments, and we would like to see them.

Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.


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