Embracing The Melodrama #13: Peyton Place (dir by Mark Robson)


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“Just remember: men can see much better than they can think. Believe me, a low-cut neckline does more for a girl’s future than the entire Britannica encyclopedia.” — Betty (Terry Moore), speaking the truth in Peyton Place (1957)

Sex!  Sin!  Secrets!  Scandal!  It’s just another day in the life of Peyton Place, the most sordid little town this side of Kings Row!  It’s also the setting of the 1957 best picture nominee, Peyton Place.

Peyton Place is a seemingly idyllic little village in New England.  The town is divided by railroad tracks and how your fellow townspeople views you literally depends on which side of the tracks you live on.  As the film itself shows us, the right side of tracks features pretty houses and primly dressed starlets.  The wrong side of the tracks features shacks and a bunch of people who look like the ancestors of the cast of Winter’s Bone.  The difference in appearance is not particularly subtle (but then again, the same thing could be said for the entire film) but, regardless of which side of the tracks live on, chances are that you’re keeping a few secrets from the rest of the town.

On the right side of the tracks, you can find Constance McKenzie (played by Lana Turner, who is just about as convincing as a New England matron as you would expect a glamorous Hollywood star to be), a dress shop owner who is so prim and proper that she literally flies into a rage when she comes across her daughter kissing a boy.  Could it be the Constance’s repression is the result of her once having been a rich man’s mistress?  And will the new high school principal, the progressive and rather dull Mr. Rossi (Lee Phillips), still love her despite her sordid past?

Constance’s daughter is Allison (Diane Varsi) and poor Allison just can not understand why her mother is so overprotective.  Will Allison ever find true love with the painfully shy Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn) or will she be forced to settle for someone like the rich and irresponsible Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe)?

Rodney, for his part, is in love with Betty (Terry Moore), a girl from the wrong sides of the tracks.  Rodney’s father (Leon Ames) is the richest man in town and makes it clear that he will not allow his son to marry someone with a “reputation.”  Will Rodney get a chance to redeem himself by going off to fight in World War II?

And what will happen when Rodney and Betty go skinny dipping and are spotted by a local town gossip who promptly mistakes them for Norman and Allison?  Reputations are at stake here!

Meanwhile, over on the bad side of the tracks, Lucas Cross (Arthur Kennedy) sits in his shack and drinks and thinks about how the world has failed him.  His long-suffering wife (Betty Field) works as housekeeper for the McKenzie family.  Meanwhile, his abused daughter Selena (Hope Lange, giving the film’s best performance) is Allison’s best friend.  When Lucas’s attempt to rape Selena leads to a violent death, the sins and hypocrisy of Peyton Place are revealed to everyone.

Peyton Place is a big, long  movie, full of overdramatic characters, overheated dialogue, and over-the-top plotting and, for that reason, I absolutely love it!  Apparently, the film was quite controversial in its day and the scenes where Arthur Kennedy attacks Hope Lange still have the power to disturb.  However, the main reason why I enjoy Petyon Place is because anything that could happen in Peyton Place does happen in Peyton Place.

Seriously, how can you not love a film this sordid and melodramatic?

Embracing The Melodrama #12: Giant (dir by George Stevens)


Giant

Let’s continue to embrace the melodrama by taking a look at the 1956 best picture nominee, Giant.

Giant is a film about my home state of Texas.  Texas rancher Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) goes to Maryland to buy a horse and ends up returning to Texas with a bride, socialite Lesley Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor).  At first, Lesley struggles to adapt to the harsh and hot Texas landscape.  Bick’s sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) takes an instant dislike to Lesley and Bick is annoyed by Lesley’s concern over the living conditions of the Mexicans that work on Bick’s ranch.  It sometimes seems like the only person who appreciates Lesley is Jett Rink (James Dean), an ambitious ranch hand who secretly loves her and who is planning on becoming a rich man.  That’s exactly what happens when oil is found on the land around Bick’s ranch.  While Bick stubbornly clings to the past, oilman Jett represents both the future of Texas and the nation.  Meanwhile, Bick and Lesley’s son (played by a very young Dennis Hopper) challenges his father’s casual bigotry when he falls in love with a Mexican girl.

Taylor and Hudson

Giant is appropriately named because it is a huge film.  Clocking in at 201 minutes, Giant tells a story that spans several decades and features a big cast that is full of familiar faces, all struggling for their chance to somehow stand out from everyone else around them.  Even the film’s wonderful panoramic shots of the empty Texas landscape only serve to remind us of how big the entire film is.  To a certain extent, the size of Giant‘s production is to be understood.  In the 1950s, Hollywood was having to compete with television and they did this by trying to make every film into a major event.  You watch a movie like Giant and you practically hear the old Hollywood moguls shouting at America, “See!?  You can’t get that on your precious TV, can you!?”

For those of us watching Giant today, the length is both a blessing and a curse.  It’s a curse because the movie really is too damn long.  The opening scenes drag and many of them really do feel superfluous.  It’s hard not to feel that the real story doesn’t really start until about 90 minutes into the movie.  And once the story really does get started,  there’s still way too much of it for it all to be crammed into one sitting.  Oddly enough, you end up feeling as if this extremely long film is still not telling you everything that you need to know.  If Giant were made today, it would probably be a two-part movie on either HBO or Lifetime and it would definitely feature a lot more sex.

However, to be honest, one of the reasons that I did enjoy Giant was because it was as big as it was.  I mean, the film is about Texas so of course it should be a little excessive!  Everything’s bigger in Texas and that includes our movies.  Add to that, Giant may be too long but it uses that length to deals with issues that are still relevant today — oil, immigration, and racial prejudice.  Rock Hudson may not have been a great actor but he is at least convincing as he transitions from bigotry to tolerance.

But really, when it comes to Giant, most people are only interested in James Dean.  And they definitely should be because Dean gives a great and compelling performance here.  Dean brings all of the emotional intensity of the method to material that one would not naturally associate with method acting and the end result is amazing to watch.  Giant was released after Dean had been killed in that infamous car wreck.  I can only imagine what it must have been like to be sitting in a theater in 1956 and to see this compelling and charismatic actor towering above the world on the big screen while aware, all the time, that his life had already been cut short and he would never been seen in another film.

James Dean

Even better, Dean’s new style of acting clashes perfectly with Hudson’s old style of acting, making the conflict between Bick and Jett feel all the more real and intense.  Much as Bick represents old Texas and Jett represents the new Texas, Hudon and Dean represented the two sides of Hollywood: the celebrity and the artist.  Needless to say, Dean wins the battle but, surprisingly, Hudson occasionally manages to hold his own.

I can’t necessarily say that Giant is an essential film.  A lot of people are going to be bored by the excessive length.  But if you’re a fan of James Dean or if you’re from Texas, Giant is a film that you need to see at least once.

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Embracing the Melodrama #11: All About Eve (dir by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)


Bette Davis

“Fasten your seat belts, it’s gonna be a bumpy night!” — Margo Channing (Bette Davis) in All About Eve (1950)

If you’re a lover of classic films or even if you’re just someone who occasionally watches TCM, chances are that you already know All About Eve.  It’s one of those films that is endlessly quoted and it features at least two performances — Bette Davis’s turn as aging Broadway diva Margo Channing and George Sanders’ acidic theater critic Addison DeWitt — that serve as frequent inspiration for professional impersonators.  It’s the film that was named best picture of 1950 and it continues to hold the record for both the most Oscar nominations overall and it’s the only film in Oscar history to receive four female acting nominations.

Even more importantly, it’s a film that everyone already knows it great.

So, that brings up the question that every film blogger dreads: how do you review a classic film that everyone already knows about?  I’ve often said that it’s easier to review a bad film than a great one.  It’s easy to pinpoint why a film fails but when it comes time to explain why a film is great, it’s often difficult to put to words the intangible qualities that elevate it.

Eve and Margo

For instance, I could tell you that the film has a fascinating plot but that barely only begins to scratch the surface of everything that’s going on underneath the glossy and melodramatic surface of All About Eve.  The movie tells the story of how scheming young actress Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) becomes a star with the help of Addison DeWitt and at the expense of the talented but aging Margo Channing.  In telling Eve and Margo’s stories, All About Eve explores issues of female friendship and competition, sexuality, and why older men are celebrated while older women are constantly at risk of being pushed to the side for a newer model.  The complexity and power of All About Eve’s storyline can be summed up by the fact that right now, when I watch the film, I relate to Eve but I imagine that  twenty years from now, I’ll rewatch and I’ll relate to Margo.

I could tell you that this is a film that is full of bigger-than-life characters and iconic performances but that doesn’t even begin to scratch at the surface of how well-acted and perfectly cast this film is.  Even boring old Hugh Marlowe is a perfect choice for playing boring old playwright Lloyd Richards.  (His wife is played by Celeste Holm.  Reportedly Bette Davis hated working with Celeste Holm but onscreen, their friendship feels very real and poignant and leads to some of the best scenes in the entire film.)  Gary Merrill, who later married Bette Davis, is likable as Margo’s boyfriend and Thelma Ritter is great as Margo’s outspoken assistant, largely because she’s Thelma Ritter and she was always great.  Marilyn Monroe famously makes the most of her minor role in All About Eve, playing an aspiring actress who has a very good reason for calling the butler a waiter.  And then there’s Bette Davis and George Sanders, both of whom are simply brilliant.

My favorite scene from All About Eve

My favorite scene from All About Eve

But to me, the best performance in All About Eve comes from Anne Baxter.  Baxter plays Eve as a perpetually smiling schemer and one of the great pleasures of the film is watching as Eve wrecks passive-aggressive havoc through Margo’s circle of friends.  Just watch the scenes where she deftly manipulates Celeste Holm.  All About Eve is usually referred to as being a vehicle for Bette Davis but if you actually watch the film, you see that the title is absolutely appropriate.  The film really is all about Eve.

And I could always tell you about how wonderfully sardonic the dialogue is but you already know that.  There’s a reason why even people who have never seen the film still quote Margo’s suggestion that everyone fasten their seat belts!

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So, in the end, what can I tell you about All About Eve?  Well, all I can really tell you is that it’s a great film and, if you haven’t seen it, you need to make time to learn all about Eve.

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