I finally saw Return to Peyton Place, the 1961 sequel to the 1957 Peyton Place, one of my all-time favorite movies, and both based on novels by Grace Metalious.
Have you seen Peyton Place? It has everything! Incest, murder, sex, a lack of sex that somehow everyone mistakes for too much sex, bastard children, town gossip raging out of control, dangerously liberal school administrators, suicide! All culminating in a dramatic trial that climaxes with town doctor Lloyd Nolan taking the stand to finger-wag the townspeople! Five of its nine Oscar nominations were for the actors, including Lana Turner's first and only for her role as secretive, untrusting, prudish Constance MacKenzie! Diane Varsi was also nominated for playing her haughty daughter Allison, who fills the interludes with purple voice-over about changing seasons and other metaphors! It was directed by Mark Valley of the Dolls Robson!
|Can't beat the original!|
Well, truthfully, it doesn't. Find out why.....after the jump.
To its credit, it doesn't seem worried about trying, either. A more scaled-down sequel, Return reduces the central cast from around 156 to a group of about ten, recasting all the roles. Most of the Crosses are dead, anyway; only Selena, who spent the last movie either being raped or on trial for murdering her rapist, remains, still treated as a social pariah and played by Tuesday Weld. The roles of Ted Carter (Brett Halsey) and his mother have been beefed up, with momma Roberta serving as this film's Big Bad Biddy - a role previously filled by Marion Partridge, gone from this adaptation. And at the center, of course, it's still the MacKenzies...or should I say the MacKenzie-Rossis, as Constance has married the controversial and dashing principal.
There are three new characters, two of whom are foreign, which I found interesting: Lucianna Paluzzi plays Raffaella, the new Italian wife of Ted; Gunnar Hellström plays ski instructor Nils, who falls in love with Selena. The third new character is book publisher Lewis Jackman, played by Jeff Chandler. He's the most important one, you see, because he's the one who sets in motion the chain of events that will once again culminate in Peyton Placers gathering so they can be scolded one more time for their small town small-mindedness.
|Shame shame shame!|
But I get ahead of myself. Plotwise, it goes like this: Allison MacKenzie has written a book that Lewis Jackman wants to publish. While she's off in New York drumming up publicity and making a name for herself on the literary circuit, life goes on in Peyton Place. Eventually, the book comes out, and surprise! - it's just Peyton Place, with Allison just barely changing names (her stand-in is called Alice!!), and the older folks in town are outraged at seeing themselves exposed to the world - and boy do they react!
Most of that happens in the second hour - before that is a lot of meandering, setting up storylines that are barely followed through on, re-introducing characters that are but pale shadows of their former selves. Eleanor Parker takes over for Lana, and while I like Parker, the poor woman is saddled with a character that's just a repeat of Act One Lana from the last one. Where's the growth, the attempts at understanding? She's right back to wrongly suspecting her daughter of being a lying slut - and even worse, it's not for lack of trying on Allison's part! She has a flirtation, even a passionate embrace (!) with her older, married publisher...but just one! After that, nothing. Not even a conversation about what happened! Where's the spark, where's the scandal? I know the original was a more sanitized version of Metalious's novel - but this is a sanitized version of life, a self-professed defense of open-mindedness that dare not even cross its eyes! The only gray areas in this movie are in Mary Astor's hair!
But let's talk about Mary Astor. She walks away with the whole movie. As Roberta Carter, school board president, momma of Ted, and protector of the realm, she makes you believe that she runs the whole damn town just by the way she removes her gloves. She's watchful, deliberate in her word choice, clever in her attacks. Astor's line readings are just as deadly as her quiet looks, and it all culminates in a final "I learned nothing!" monologue that equal parts obstinance and quiet unraveling. She stands proud and firm, but she's short circuiting under the surface. It's a chilling, breathtaking moment. If you see the movie at all, see it for Mary Astor!
(Apparently the original novel has a whole murder subplot involving this character - how do you not include that?! In fact, they shot an ending that sees her house burning to the ground, presumably with her in it, but that was cut from the final release, a great example of the way director José Ferrer - yes, that one - and 20th Century Fox really shortchanged the audience.)
Overall, Return to Peyton Place is a delicious diversion, but if you want genuine, gay-gasp thrills, just watch and re-watch Peyton Place. Or a supercut of Mary Astor's scenes.
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