Friday, August 14, 2009

Peyton Place

NPR has a special book segment on its program All Things Considered called My Guilty Pleasure. On the program famous writers talk about the books they love but are embarrassed to be seen reading. A recent segment highlighted a raucous novel of sex, murder and love in a small New England town, Peyton Place, a classic 1956 novel by Grace Metalious. Selling 60,000 copies within the first ten days of its release, it was publishing's second "blockbuster" (following Gone with the Wind in 1936) and remained on the New York Times best seller list for 59 weeks. The main plot follows the lives of three women—lonely and repressed Constance MacKenzie; her illegitimate daughter Allison; and her employee Selena Cross, a girl from "across the tracks,” or as it is called in the book, "from the shacks." The novel describes how these women come to terms with their identity and is an interesting social commentary on 1950’s sexuality.

Less than a month after its release in 1956, the rights to the book were purchased from Metalious for $250,000 and she was hired as a story consultant on the film. The 1957 film drama, Peyton Place, has it all, small-town scandal, a murder trial, adultery, and, of course, lots of love scenes. The narrator of the film, the main protagonist who runs off to New York City after high school hoping to pursue a writing career, talks much of the seasons changing and their relation to love and the human condition. The acting in the film is superb, with Lana Turner cast in the lead female role of Constance MacKenzie, and the costumes are exquisite.

Peyton Place was the second-highest grossing film of 1958, although in the first few months of its release it did not do well at the box office until a real-life tragedy gave it an unexpected boost. On April 4, 1958, star Lana Turner's daughter Cheryl killed her mother's abusive lover, mobster Johnny Stompanato, and was placed in Juvenile Hall. The press coverage of the subsequent investigation boosted ticket sales by 32%, and the film eventually grossed $25,600,000 in the US. A coroner's inquest ruled the murder justifiable homicide, and the district attorney chose not to charge Cheryl with the crime, although he declared her a ward of the state and placed her in the custody of her grandmother. Turner feared the negative publicity would end her career, but it led producer Ross Hunter to cast her in the 1959 film Imitation of Life.

The film inspired a popular primetime television series that aired from September 1964 until June 1969. Here’s a clip from the program featuring a very young Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal:

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