Blogathons

Arthur Kennedy’s Conquest of the Screen Blogathon — Peyton Place (1957)

NOTE: This article discusses a multitude of sensitive subjects, so please read at your own risk.

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During the golden age of cinema, Hollywood boasted more stars than there were in the sky. Still, for every actor whose name made its way above the title, there were dozens whose names remained on the tip of audience’s tongues and those who never quite received the recognition that they deserved. Arthur Kennedy comes to mind as one of these actors, but what I’ve always found unique about him is that he was too good-looking to make it as a character actor, yet at the same time too imperfect in his onscreen persona to get by as a leading man. So Arthur Kennedy found himself somewhere in between stardom and obscurity for decades, receiving five Academy Award nominations yet not winning a single one. That’s why it makes me truly glad that my friend Virginie of The Wonderful World of Cinema realized Kennedy’s underutilized potential enough to honor him with Arthur Kennedy’s Conquest of the Screen Blogathon on what would have marked his 105th birthday! Choosing an Arthur Kennedy movie to review for the blogathon was seemingly as simple as it could be. I looked up his filmography and discovered that he was in Petyon Place (1957), a film which I own on DVD yet still hadn’t seen, and instantly made it my choice without reading too much more into it. I’ll admit that going into this blogathon, I knew the bare minimum about the plot of the movie and absolutely nothing about Arthur Kennedy’s role in it. Needless to say, I was in for quite a shock.

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Original theatrical poster for Peyton Place (1957).

If you aren’t already aware, the setting of Peyton Place (1957) is an idyllic New England town during the early 1940s that shares a name with the picture. On the surface it might seem perfect, like nothing at all could happen to you there, but in reality that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The film’s nearly three hour screen time is divided amongst its assortment of residents, but all of the separate plotlines share one theme: that idle gossip and opinions can have a hurtful and lasting impact on others, and ultimately threaten their livelihood. I would argue that our main progtagonist is Allison MacKenzie (Diane Varsi), an aspiring writer and high school student who hopes to learn about the facts of life and leave the town, particularly to get away from her denunciatory mother Constance (Lana Turner). While most of her peers are exploring themselves and others sexually, like rich boy Rodney Harrington (Richard Coe) who’s in the process of fighting his urges for the local “good time” girl Betty Anderson (Terry Moore), Allison is on the cusp of a healthy and intriguing relationship with Norman (Russ Tamblyn), who’s also been left in the dark about sex. They find themselves having to fight accusations, including those from their own mothers, at every turn. At the same time, Allison’s mother is having trouble practicing what she preaches about chastity as she’s pursued by Michael Rossi (Lee Phillips), the new man in town who’s become the local high school principal.

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Hope Lange, Betty Field, and Arthur Kennedy as we first see them in a scene from Peyton Place (1957).

Each person who lives in Peyton Place is struggling with their own personal issues, but none of these conflicts come even close to the burdens that Allison’s best friend Selena Cross (Hope Lange) bears. She lives in a shack on the outskirts of town with her mother Nellie (Betty Field), who works as the MacKenzie’s maid, and her younger brother Joey (Scotty Morrow). Also residing with them is her stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy), the town drunkard who does very little other than drink and abuse his stepdaughter. Selena attempts to make the best of the situation, finding comfort in Allison and her boyfriend Ted Carter (David Nelson), who hopes to become a lawyer, but from the beginning of the film, it’s obvious that Lucas is too close for comfort to Selena, and eventually he rapes her. Weeks later, Selena discovers that she’s pregnant with his child, which she reveals to the trusted Dr. Swain (Lloyd Nolan). An attempted second attack from Lucas causes her to miscarry, and Selena forces Dr. Swain to keep her pregnancy a secret out of fear of her own reputation in town along with her boyfriend’s, but the doctor still threatens to kill Lucas unless he leaves Peyton Place. Lucas obliges and joins the navy, but his lack of explanation to his family causes Nellie to commit suicide. He doesn’t stay away for long either, and as Selena manages to pick up the pieces of her life and turn the shack into a real home, Lucas returns with a desire to make the place, and her, his own. Finally Selena has had enough and beats Lucas to death, but will she be able to explain her crime without revealing the full extent her stepfather’s abuse, or will she serve a life sentence for a case of self defense?

Hope Lange And Arthur Kennedy In 'Peyton Place'
Hope Lange and Arthur Kennedy in a scene from Peyton Place (1957).

I must admit that if I had known the details about Arthur Kennedy’s role in Peyton Place (1957), I probably would not have chosen to analyze it. It’s incredibly difficult for me to lavish praise onto Arthur Kennedy’s performance because I don’t want any positive review to be misconstrued as me condoning the character, who I truly find to be the most despicable human being that I’ve ever seen portrayed onscreen, which is saying a lot because I’ve previously written about Bette Davis in In This Our Life (1942). However, at the same time I think it’s for the best that I have this sort of emotional response to his portrayal, because it seems that it was exactly what he and director Mark Robson intended. It’s fitting that his mannerisms and the way that he puts emotion into the role make the audience believe that he’s the scum of the Earth, because his actions show that that’s exactly what he is. In fact, each film that Arthur Kennedy and Mark Robson completed together went on to become a highlight of his career, as he directed Kennedy in the first four of his five Academy Award nominated features: Champion (1949), Trial (1955), and this film, as well as one of his rare critically acclaimed leading roles in Bright Victory (1951).

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Publicity photo of Arthur Kennedy, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Peyton Place (1957).

I almost feel bad for enjoying Peyton Place (1957) as much as I do because of the harrowing experiences that Selena goes through, but ultimately it’s so well-acted and gripping that it’s impossible for me not to be entertained by it. While the characters are full of faults, you won’t find any in the actors, though I think it was a mistake to cast Lana Turner as Connie MacKenzie. I’m a huge fan of hers, but she doesn’t exude the maternal persona that she would later bring in full force to Imitation of Life (1959), and I think it was misleading for the studio’s promotional department to give her top billing and imply that she had a leading role in the film. I would have loved to see someone more matronly and more believable in the part without stealing too much of the spotlight, like Olivia de Havilland, who was also considered for Connie. Still, each and every star pulls their own weight and then some, lending themselves to an unforgettable ensemble that makes for an expert adaptation of the bestselling novel by Grace Metalious. For every scene that depresses me, there’s one with an actor that I really admire like Russ Tamblyn or the unbelivably captivating Terry Moore to distract me and lift my spirits, and overall I couldn’t recommend this film enough. Clocking in at nearly three hours of pure melodrama, Peyton Place (1957) miraculously held my attention all the way through. While it’s not for everyone, if you’re a fan of soap operas, shows like Twin Peaks (1990), or any of these talented performers, this is a must-see.

12 thoughts on “Arthur Kennedy’s Conquest of the Screen Blogathon — Peyton Place (1957)

    1. I had no idea about the subject matter going into it! 😖 All I knew was that there was a small town with dark secrets, and I implied that someone was murdered, but that’s about it. It was definitely shocking and completely unlike anything else they were doing at the time, but in a great way. Thanks so much for your compliments as always, and do let me know what you think of the movie if you see it!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. I can only agree with Gabriela’s words; you’ve done a tremendous job talking about the she story in a frank and just manner. This certainly must have been a bit shocking to watch having had no warning. I felt the same at a certain point when watching ‘The Story of Esther Costello’, which also involves rape. It hits you hard both emotionally and physically but perhaps that is the intention — to show you just a small fraction of what the real victims incur. These stories need to be told though it’s never an easy thing sitting through them. I commend your effort. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree; I think this might actually be the first time I’ve had no warning about that kind of subject matter in a movie, usually the plot on IMDB leaves me better informed beforehand. But thank you for all of your kind words, and I was definitely captivated by the film for the reasons that you listed!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought the same thing when I watched it! It really is a twisted film, but the cast couldn’t have handled it better, especially Hope Lange. I really believed that she’d gone through everything that Selena did.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As one of Arthur Kennedy’s acclaimed performances, I am glad you chose to bring this movie to the blogathon so we could enjoy your reaction and insights.

    Peyton Place works on so many levels. The engrossing and emotional lives of the characters, the breathtaking scenery, and cinematography, and Franz Waxman’s score. Oh, Franz Waxman’s store always brings tears to my eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I think this was an instance where the plot and everything going on made me forget about the score a little, but it undoubtedly had a subconsious effect on me as I watched it as no movie is complete without a score! Next time I watch this, I’ll pay more attention to Franz Waxman’s great work!

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  3. Excellent review Samantha! Very thoughtful. When you say that Arthur Kennedy is a bit between character actor and leading actor it made me think of Earl Holliman’s situation. He said he kind of felt that way in an interview. Anyway, I watched Peyton recently as I knew you were going to write about it for the blogathon and pretty much felt the same about it as you do. It’s true that Arthur Kennedy’s character is truly bad, but he was excellent at playing it and, luckily, he was a versatile actor and played better persons in his career which can console us! Thanks so much for your contribution to the blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You said it – Arthur Kennedy plays a despicable person. He makes your skin crawl when he’s on the screen, which shows he did his job. Still, this can be a difficult movie for some people to watch, and I’m glad you were sensitive to that when writing your review. Nicely done, you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve watched Peyton Place many years ago, and didn’t realize until now that Kennedy plays the disgusting Lucas here. As you said, it’s weird to praise him, but he manages to cause only anger in the audience. This character is one that leaves a lasting bad impression in us – a reverse highlight of a very good movie.
    Kisses!
    Le

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