Peyton Place: When Discretion Was Partly a Genteel Quality, Partly a Requirement of the Censor

by Michael Barrett

24 Jun 2010

All images courtesy Shout! Factory 

The first scene introduces Dr. Michael Rossi (Ed Nelson) on a train arriving at Peyton Place. As the conductor engages him in conversation, he seems distracted, brooding, secretive. As the series unfolds, there seems no justification for this. He might have been only constipated, but the entire first episode consists of such encounters, and so do most of the episodes in these two box sets of the 1964-69 TV serial. It’s how everyone talks in this show, while music looms behind them.

Here’s how two people converse. Person A stands two feet away from Person B, looking away to the camera while Person B speaks to the back of A’s head. This is so we can see both of them in one shot without having to ping-pong back and forth. Their dialogue goes like this:

cover art

Peyton Place, Vol. I

US DVD: 14 Jul 2009

A: Hello.
B: Do you mean that?
A: I don’t know. It just seemed like the thing to say.
B: We’re always saying the thing to say, aren’t we?
A: Are we?

Repeat for five minutes.

Welcome to the soap opera aesthetic of once upon a time. It hasn’t totally vanished, and music is still there to underline everything, but today’s shows are blunter and more dramatic. Peyton Place reflects a time when discretion was partly a genteel quality, partly a requirement of the censor. Actually, there’s sex on the show but nobody talks about it, and that’s the opposite of the more pseudo-sophisticated movies of the era where everybody talked about it and nobody had it.

In Peyton Place, everything is done or said indirectly, allusively, ambiguously, and yet everyone (including the viewer) knows more or less what’s being implied. To make the above dialogue complete, once an episode someone needs to interject, “That’s how it is in Peyton Place” or “Remember you’re in Peyton Place” or “I’ll tell you something about Peyton Place” or “Oh well, that’s Peyton Place all over”. Otherwise, we might forget the name of the town and think we’d somehow awoken in Mystic Seaport or Medicine Hat.

Although there had been a few prime time serials, Peyton Place was the first successful one. When it debuted as a semi-weekly half hour show amid much fanfare in the fall of 1964, it made stars of Mia Farrow, Ryan O’Neal, and Barbara Parkins. Both weekly broadcasts were in the top 20. The show arrived on the reputation of what would now be called a franchise.

In 1956, Grace Metalious created one of the century’s genuinely scandalous bestsellers with a novel centered on abortion and slightly disguised incest. The following year, it was a hit movie starring Lana Turner. A sequel, Return to Peyton Place, was also filmed in short order. They were still a big deal, and the name had entered the language as a symbol of sordid small-town secrets when Paul Monash developed this series for ABC. The abortion/incest family is dropped entirely from the series and other relationships and events are significantly altered.

Farrow plays gawky 17-year-old virgin Allison Mackenzie. She’s a winsome waif from the start, forever shuffling through the town square with her head lowered, her mouth open, and her library books hugged to her chest. “Allison Wonderland” jokes are made about her as she’s compared with fairy princesses in towers. She’s one of four stars highlighted in the opening credits, although the point of her character is that she never does anything.

Until the last few episodes of the second box, Parkins and O’Neal are listed in the end credits instead of the beginning, yet Parkins is secretly the star of the show. Everything happens to her as she moves so much of the plot along. A few years away from starring in the film Valley of the Dolls (based on another scandalous bestseller), Parkins is already intriguing and beautiful as Betty Anderson, the experienced girl who suffers the most confusion, has the widest character arc, and finally shows the most resolve. Notice that her name is right out of Father Knows Best, which is ironic in light of her character’s troubling father.

It’s ironic also in that this show is a sour antidote to sitcoms. It depicts a world where nobody is ever happy (except accidentally, for two minutes), nothing is ever right or reassuring, and little will ever be resolved happily – not in 30 minutes or 30 years. It’s TV as depression, an endless, picturesque grind. Allison even remarks on the difference between reality (meaning this show) and the movies where everything has an ending. In the world of soaps that threaten to drag on for years, nothing can end except the illusions.

Later, she makes a similar point when discussing a foreign movie with an unhappy ending, and she’s told that American culture demands happy endings. Again, the show seems to be commenting on its own paradoxical role in American prime time TV, because soaps certainly don’t and can’t demand happy endings. If you remain on the show, you must be in crisis in order to be of the slightest use.

The rich boy Betty marries, Rodney Harrington (O’Neal), is more acted upon than acting. He’s the show’s sex object, with several excuses found to take off his shirt. His family owns the mill, and therefore the town. His weary, rheumy-eyed dad Leslie (Paul Langton) married the Peyton daughter, Catherine (Mary Anderson), a difficult, waspish china doll (“She’s not well”) whose hypochondria turns out to be a perforating ulcer and whose death provokes several repercussions eventually swallowed like a stone in a pond. Or so it seems, until alleged wife-murderer Elliot Carson (Tim O’Connor) returns from prison to stir up trouble in the second DVD set, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Rodney’s little brother Norman (Christopher Connelly) is an inward, bookworm counterpart to Allison and makes goo-goo eyes at her. In one scene, they quiz each other with quotations from Dryden and John Ford – the Elizabethan playwright, not the director. A character in a soap doesn’t usually say something like, “Tell us, pray, what devil this melancholy is which can transform men into monsters”, but it should happen more often. Then there’s the pleasure of the scene where Allison discusses Oscar Wilde and Emily Dickinson with the man she doesn’t know is her father. Note the references to existentialism and Eugene O’Neill injected by the show’s anti-Allison, the agonized and destructive Paul Hanley (Richard Evans), an English teacher whose skeletal features are sharper than his sarcasm.

Topics: peyton place
//Mixed media