1957’s Peyton Place was the precursor to the modern soap opera. A sanitized version of Grace Metalious’ controversial novel of the same name, Peyton Place exposed the seamy underside of small town life. The film addresses heavy subject matter that was particularly taboo in 1950s America, including teenage love, sexual repression, rape, and abortion.
But what makes Peyton Place even more interesting is that by the time of the film’s release, the real life of its star, Lana Turner, was perhaps even more sensational than what unfolded on screen.
You can rent or purchase Petyon Place here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s go through the plot of the film, then we’ll delve into Lana Turner’s life behind the scenes, and her dangerous romance with gangster Johnny Stompanato that ended in homicide.
Peyton Place: The Plot
It’s 1941, and Allison MacKenzie (Diane Varsi) is a good girl about to begin her final year of high school in Peyton Place, a small New England town. Allison dreams of moving to New York to become a writer after she graduates. But she’s only shared her stories—based heavily on the small town life of gossip and intrigue she sees in Peyton Place—with her friend Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn).
Allison’s mother, Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner), is a beautiful single mother and career woman. Constance, or Connie, runs a dress shop in town, and has all but sworn off men since the passing of her husband. Connie’s own sexual repression makes her very fidgety about the subject of sex, which Allison has innocently started questioning her about.
Connie’s avoidance of the topic is indicative of the whole town’s attitude towards sex and romance. It seems the residents of Peyton Place live in constant fear of becoming the subject of their own gossip mill.
The New Principal in Peyton Place
The arrival in town of Michael Rossi (Lee Phillips), the new principal at Allison’s school, shakes up Connie’s love life. There’s an obvious mutual attraction between Connie and Michael, but Connie will not allow herself to fall for him. Connie tells Michael she’s not interested after a few dates. Michael knows this isn’t true, but respects Connie’s wishes, and the two pine for each other from afar.
The Biggest Creep in Petyton Place
The biggest creep in Peyton Place is Lucas Cross (Arthur Kennedy), the stepfather of Allison’s best friend, Selena Cross (Hope Lange).
Lucas is an alcoholic, and one night, in a drunken rage, he rapes Selena. Selena is ashamed of the incident, and doesn’t tell anyone what happened for fear of the gossip that would inevitably result.
But when Selena realizes she’s pregnant, she confides in Dr. Matthew Swain (Lloyd Nolan). Dr. Swain offers his support, but refuses to perform an abortion on the 3 months pregnant Selena.
Selena ultimately miscarries the baby naturally after suffering a major fall in the woods while trying to escape another attack by her stepfather. Dr. Swain, to save Selena from town gossip, puts the care she receives after the miscarriage down in his records as an appendectomy. Dr. Swain does manage to get a signed confession from Lucas Cross, stating that he raped Selena. Then Lucas leaves town.
More Drama in Peyton Place
After high school graduation, some more major drama goes down in Peyton Place.
First, Allison and Norman are accused of skinny-dipping together by a gossipy neighbor. Connie believes the neighbor instead of her daughter’s true version of events—that she and Norman did go for a swim, but they kept their swimsuits on. While arguing over the incident, Connie reveals to Allison that she and Allison’s father were never married. This shakes Allison’s world, and she decides to make good on her threat to leave Peyton Place. Allison heads to New York, and becomes a writer.
Then the US enters World War II. Norman and all the young men of Peyton Place enlist, and go off to battle.
Lucas Cross has also enlisted. On Lucas’ Christmas leave, he decides to come back to Peyton Place, and have at Selena again. But this time Selena is prepared to overpower him: out of fear for her life, Selena strikes the drunken Lucas with fireplace tongs.
And she kills him.
Selena and her eight-year-old brother, a witness to the homicide, bury Lucas’ body and don’t tell a soul: Selena worries that by coming clean to the authorities, she’ll open her life up for questioning, and her secret pregnancy by her stepfather will be revealed, ruining not just her reputation, but the reputation of her long-time love and fiancé, Ted Carter.
Selena's Secret is Discovered
But a year and a half later, the military authorities come looking for Lucas, and the truth is found out. Selena is put on trial for the murder of Lucas Cross.
Allison comes back to Peyton Place to testify, and meets up with Norman on the train home. But she has no desire to mend things with her mother.
The Hero of Peyton Place
Dr. Swain realizes that unless he testifies to Lucas’ despicable abuse and rape of Selena–and shares Lucas’ signed confession–Selena will spend the rest of her life in jail.
Against Selena’s wishes—she’d rather go to prison than risk the judgment of the citizens of Peyton Place—Dr. Swain takes the stand.
Dr. Swain’s testimony saves Selena’s life. The judge and jury now understand the fear Selena had for her stepfather, and why she hid the body.
Peyton Place: A Happy Ending
All ends well, and Selena is acquitted. Her fiancé stands by her, and the town seems to turn over a new leaf as everyone geniunely congratulates Selena on the verdict.
Connie and Michael decide to give their relationship a try, and Allison comes home to work things out with her mother, and possibly begin her own romance with Norman.
And that’s the end of the film.
Lana Turner & a Changing Hollywood
Lana Turner’s successful film career was largely based on her glamorous appearance. A few of Lana’s films showcased her acting talent, including Ziegfeld Girl (1941), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), The Three Musketeers (1948), and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). But for the most part, Lana’s studio, MGM, was content to capitalize on their star’s great beauty and the public’s fascination with her life. Though Lana would have liked meatier roles, she didn’t fight for them, and almost always accepted whatever films MGM assigned her.
But with the end of the studio system, things began to change in Hollywood: even the most popular stars found themselves without a home studio as long term contracts ended and were not renewed.
Lana Turner was not spared this new trend that forced actors and actresses to take more initiative in the film roles they sought and accepted.
But as stressful as her professional situation was, the real tragedy was in Lana’s personal life: Lana discovered that husband number four, Lex Barker, had sexually abused her daughter Cheryl. Lana immediately began divorce proceedings.
Lana Turner Accepts Peyton Place
When producer Jerry Wald offered Lana the role of Constance MacKenzie in Peyton Place, she wasn’t very enthusiastic. Lana knew the film would be a wise career move in the changing times of the studio system. But it took the encouragement of thirteen-year-old Cheryl for Lana to agree to star in this film version of the nation’s most sensational novel. As Cheryl remembered [aff. link],
“I gave her my own professional counsel: ‘Mom, you’ve gotta do this!’ It was a film that was generating excitement far beyond Hollywood. Mother realized she couldn’t afford to say no, so she bit the bullet and told her agent, Paul Kohner, to accept the role. Wald was offering $125,000, but in fact, the part was priceless.”
So at age 36, glamour girl Lana Turner played the mother of a teenager onscreen for the first time. She really was a little too young to be the mother of high school senior, but Lana performed the part flawlessly. The scenes between Lana and Diane Varsi are among the best in the film.
Lana Turner: Talent and Beauty
It speaks to Lana’s lack of ego that she accepted the role. For an actress whose career was founded on youth, glamour, and physical beauty, playing the mother of an almost grown woman was risky indeed.
It’s further commendable that Lana stayed true to herself in the role: though Lana did agree to de-glamourize herself slightly for the film—her outfits are more subdued and her hair color is a couple shades darker than usual—it was important to Lana that she not completely lose her glamorous appeal. She insisted on remaining very attractive onscreen.
It’s common for us to applaud actresses who completely sacrifice their appearance for a role. But it’s also noteworthy when an actress gives an outstanding performance without the help of such props as a prosthetic nose or weight gain.
In Peyton Place, Lana Turner proves an actress can be beautiful while delivering a nuanced performance. Indeed, Lana’s beauty adds to the depth and mystery of her character: why is Constance MacKenzie so sexually repressed and reluctant towards romance? It’s certainly not because she’s a dowdy old maid. We know Constance must have a secret, and Lana’s beauty adds to the conundrum of just what it is.
The Real Life Soap Opera of Lana Turner
While Lana filmed the melodramatic Peyton Place in the summer of 1957, she discovered some even bigger drama in her personal life: Lana’s boyfriend, the man who helped revitalize her after the breakup of her fourth marriage, was, it turned out, a notorious mobster.
When John Steele introduced himself to Lana in April of 1957, he seemed to be a nice, romantic guy. During their courtship, Steel constantly showered Lana with flowers and expensive, thoughtful gifts. According to Lana [aff. link], John sent her flowers almost daily:
“…followed by record albums of exactly the kind of sweet, melodious music I liked. How did he know what kind of music to send me? It seemed that he had managed somehow to reach the young woman in charge of playing my music on the [film] sets. He knew how to get things done. He had mysterious ways of obtaining information and access, as I was to learn to my bitter cost.”
Eventually, John Steele gained Lana’s trust, and they became a couple. In Peyton Place, Lana even wore jewelry John gifted her, a fact that would later haunt Lana whenever she saw the film on television in later years.
The True Identity of John Steele
At one point, a friend recognized John Steele, and told Lana that her new boyfriend was actually John Stompanato, one of mobster Mickey Cohen’s right-hand men.
Lana approached John immediately with this information, and told him that she wanted to end their relationship. But John Stompanato said no way:
“‘Lana darling, just try and get away from me!’ And he laughed in my face.”
The Obsessive Boyfriend
Lana began dating other men, hoping to send the message to John that their relationship was over, whether he wanted it to be or not.
But Stompanato just kept calling. He even broke into Lana’s apartment one night and tried to smother her with a pillow.
John knew Lana’s threats to call the police were shallow, for he’d threatened to harm her mother and Cheryl if she did. The terrible publicity that would result was another card Stompanato could play. It was a frightening time for Lana Turner [aff. link]:
“Most of what I felt at this time was fear. I felt trapped, and John took pains to remind me that he had the power to harm me and my family. His threats were vague in the beginning—that rather than let me go, he would see me dead first.”
Stompanato followed Lana to London where she filmed her next picture with Sean Connery. But not even a belting from Connery–who noticed that Lana didn’t want Stompanato around–could get rid of the mobster permanently.
John next followed Lana to Acapulco, where she’d hoped to get away and plan her next move. Every time Stompanato caught up with Lana, physical abuse followed. Bruises and camouflage by make-up became a part of Lana’s daily existence.
There seemed to be no way out of the vicious abuse cycle until Lana heard she’d been nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for Peyton Place. The ceremony was scheduled for March 26, 1958. Lana wouldn’t miss it for anything.
The 1958 Academy Awards
John Stompanato momentarily stopped abusing Lana, hoping she’d take him as her date to the Oscars. When Lana informed him that she was taking Cheryl, John didn’t take it well, but he accepted the situation.
Or so it seemed.
When Cheryl and Lana came home from the Oscars late that night, Stompanato was waiting for Lana in her room.
The beating he gave her was intense. So much so that Cheryl could hear it through the walls. For the first time in her mother’s year-long relationship with John Stompanato, Cheryl realized exactly what was going on.
Good Friday 1958
When Stompanato began another intense beating of her mother just over a week later on Good Friday, April 4, 1958, Cheryl ran downstairs and grabbed the only means of defense she could find, a kitchen knife [aff. link]:
“The thought of scaring him away flashed into my mind. I went back up the stairs to Mother’s bedroom and stood outside of her door for a few moments as Stompanato continued threatening to disfigure her. Suddenly Mother threw open the door. John came up from behind, his arm raised as if to strike. I took a step forward and he ran on the knife in my hands. Stompanato looked at me and said, ‘My God, Cheryl, what have you done?’ before falling to the floor. He was dead within moments.”
By complete chance, it was a perfectly placed, fatal stab to Stompanato’s aorta.
Lana immediately understood that her young daughter had saved her life. And now, it was time to protect Cheryl [aff. link]:
“I began to grasp the enormity of what Cheryl had done and began to understand why. She had heard John say he was going to destroy my face, and she had brought the knife to protect me. A young girl, a child, against a big man. The thrust of the knife piercing the aorta was fatal by chance. She was trying to protect me. She was now in terrible trouble. Nothing seemed to matter except protecting her.”
And that’s exactly what Lana, her mother Mildred, Stephen Crane, and attorney Jerry Geisler spent the next month doing. There would be no special treatment for Cheryl, who spent the time between the homicide and her eventual acquittal–at the end of April 1958–behind bars at the Beverly Hills Police Station and juvenile hall.
That’s three weeks behind bars for a fourteen-year-old girl.
Life After "The Happening"
Cheryl was acquitted on the grounds of “justifiable homicide.”
But how could such an event not shake even the most well-grounded young woman?
Cheryl’s teenage years that followed “the happening,” as Lana and Cheryl referred to the events of Good Friday 1958, were understandably rough and rebellious.
But as Lana proudly shares in her autobiography, Cheryl matured into a well-adjusted, accomplished young woman [aff. link]:
“…Cheryl began to appreciate her own intelligence and to use her innate abilities…She developed an interest in Stephan’s [Cheryl’s father] restaurant business…so she entered the Cornell University hotel and restaurant management school and graduated with straight A’s. She became one of Stephan’s partners…today [Cheryl is] a highly successful business woman in real estate…whenever I’m with Cheryl I’m impressed at how effectively she’s taken charge of her life. It’s been a long, hard journey for her, but she’s made it—made me proud, too, to be her mother.”
And Lana, ever the survivor, rose from the tragedy of Good Friday 1958 with Imitation of Life (1959), a hit film that catapulted her into yet another successful decade of stardom.
“The happening” will forever be part of the Lana Turner legacy. But thanks to her daughter’s bravery, it wasn’t the end of Lana Turner.
That's it for Peyton Place
That’s it for Peyton Place.
Join me next week for all about Lana Turner and The Three Musketeers (1948).