The received wisdom about the two original movies adapted from the astonishingly popular trash fiction of Grace Metalious is that Peyton Place is a first-class Hollywood soaper, classily directed and acted (it received numerous Oscar nominations, including five for its cast), while the sequel is merely inept and vulgar. What a difference the perspective of three decades makes. As revisionist viewings of these two new video releases will attest, time has altered, if not quite reversed, the old consensus.
The 1957 film seems sanctimonious and sentimental today; the wooden performances are a muddle of accents ranging from stagy New England (the setting is New Hampshire) to phony Deep South. Only Diane Varsi’s debut as the would-be novelist Allison Mackenzie continues to impress. The town’s voice of reason is the good and gray conservative, Dr. Swain (Lloyd Nolan) — a name that occasions no mirth in this humorless movie, though Stanley Kubrick would have a field day with it a few years later in his film of Lolita. Dr. Swain’s most memorable line is, ”Connie, everyone reacts differently to suicide.” When Selena (Hope Lange) kills her rapist stepfather (Arthur Kennedy) on Christmas Eve, lambs hover at her door and ”O Come All Ye Faithful” is blasted on the soundtrack.
The admittedly tacky sequel is virtually a critique of the original’s empty-headed sermonizing. Inspired by the treatment accorded Metalious in her hometown as the result of Peyton Place (her husband was fired as school principal, which is what happens to Allison’s stepfather in the novel and movie), it was also an attempt to ennoble herself as the Thomas Wolfe of her generation. This movie is as chaste as the first, but it has surprisingly reverberating edges, such as Carol Lynley’s smartly independent Allison, holding her own against publisher Jeff Chandler, who modeled himself after Wolfe’s legendary editor, Maxwell Perkins. They actually debate at length whether Perkins was an egomaniac or a loving craftsman. There’s also an unexpected parody of the talk show circuit, including a hysterically funny routine with Max Showalter and Bob Crane (who aren’t listed in the credits).
Still, the main reason to see Return to Peyton Place is an absolutely stunning performance by the great Mary Astor, as the town’s most malignant old scold, Mrs. Carter. From the moment she first appears, you can hear the hiss rising from your throat. Astor’s repartee and her consistently canny line readings are sharper than anything in the original movie. And they haven’t dated. She’s a McCarthy-era nightmare — the word truth curdles in her mouth. Yet even when the town turns against her, she’s allowed to retain a weird dignity. Instead of slinking into the darkness, she warns against the changing times. Though they were made only four years apart, Peyton Place and Return to Peyton Place define a generational leap. The first is a well-stuffed museum of platitudes; the second has the stirrings of life. Peyton Place: C- Return to Peyton Place: B+