The Genius of Writer Grace Metalious and Return to Peyton Place (1961) Part Two

*contains spoilers

This year of 1941 and the others are symbolised in Return to Peyton Place with the placement of cars. Selena drives an old 1941 series convertible just when the original movie was set, while the outsider Scandinavian ski instructor played by Gunnar Hellstrom (1917-2006 natural causes) drives a 1960 Renault which is a foreign car but current in terms of when the movie was made, while Mary Astor drives a 1956 Lincoln Premiere, which was the year the original novel was published and a sign of her wealth and prestige. Her soon to be lawyer son played by Brett Halsey meanwhile drives a foreign Mercedes as he comes home with an Italian bride much to Astor’s muted horror and consternation.

Peyton Place (1957) trailer
Real-life couple Luciana Paluzzi and Brett Halsey in Return to Peyton Place (1961)

Astor’s home is almost like the web of a spider when son and daughter-in-law enter to find it drably decorated and the furniture covered in dust rugs – much of it remains unused cold and draughty except for her and her son’s bedroom which are side by side and used by Astor for her motive to strike out at her son and reject his bride. She even listens to them through an air vent in the closet. They are played by then real-life newlyweds Halsey (1933-) and Luciana Paluzzi (1937-). The sense of a spider’s lair is also reflected in Allison’s New York publisher Chandler’s small penthouse above his publishing house offices with its spiral staircase up to the bedroom which reminds us of the story of the spider and the fly. Chandler is married and you get the idea he has a signal system in his open marriage with his wife at social gatherings about when he is about to break in new authors in terms of their writing careers and their soon to be sex life. But Chandler’s penthouse is warmly decorated just like Allison’s home where her mother and step-father reside compared to Astor’s coldly assembled abode.

“We don’t mind, we’ll only use one,” says an overly-confident Paluzzi to mother-in-law Astor when she tells the couple they’ll have to put up with twin beds, in what seems to also be an almost defiant tilt through the power of suggestion at the waning powers of the Production Code in 1961. And by this stage, Astor doesn’t even know her son’s new wife’s Christian name! Oh, so, Christian… and a community chairperson at that!!

The moral dilemma of the permissive society still resonates in the United States. Roe v. Wade (2020) trailer.
The permissive society celebrated briefly in the mid-1960s…
…As the content of cinema was liberated

The word abortion is not used in the first movie and neither is the word rape although I don’t know about the books themselves which had a more accepting code of censorship compared to the movies which still had to adhere to the rules of the Production Code which had been created around 1934. It officially ended in the United States around 1968.

But Return to Peyton Place tends to take on the Production Code and realises or predicts it will soon be discarded, or ignored, with Chandler using the word ‘rape’ and the characters of Halsey and Paluzzi making out on a bed with no sign of one foot on the floor. The movie appears wholesome enough but the climax will be a part of how society’s own white-anting will pre-empt and culminate in the full reign of the permissive society it so feared and decried, but yet still, almost unknowingly, fostered at the time.

What is eventually central to Return to Peyton Place is the fact that Allison’s book, which is called Samuel’s Castle in the movie, will not be allowed to be placed in the school library in the town of Peyton Place. It is another central character in Mike Rossi, who is Allison’s step-father and the school principal, who stands up for his moral principles in saying the book will stay in the library. In fact, Metallious’s husband was a school principal who lost his small-town job in the wake of the original book’s revelations of small-town secrets and Metallious used this as ammunition for her sequel. It didn’t endear her any further.

Metallious hated doing publicity for the book when it first came out and thought herself as not one of the beautiful people – her drinking had her gain weight – and this is reflected by Carol Lynley’s Allison in the sequel saying perhaps gratingly to a Hedda Hopper type gossip: “I think America belongs to its young people” and “What happens in my book could happen in any town large or small”. Metalious/Allison had proved to be a thorn in the side of the older and younger conservatives who didn’t admire her work. It’s enough to drive you to drink… possibly even alone which is perhaps more scandalous!

George and Grace Metalious

The town of Gilmantin in Metalious’s home state of New Hampshire was where the first movie was partially shot and the township held a premiere and didn’t invite her. There was talk that Metalious arranged for the sequel to be screened in her hometown but the townsfolk wouldn’t allow it… along with talk she wasn’t even allowed to be buried in the city limits when she died prematurely which seems almost illegal and far-fetched. In fact, she is buried in Gilmanton at the Greek architectural style The Smith Meeting House, something owing to her husband George’s (1925-2015) Greek ancestry, although he is buried elsewhere due to the fact that they were no longer a couple at the time of her death.

Mary Astor, as the central head of the web within the town against Allison and her step-father is called a “possessive, evil, meddling old woman” by Selena who had also suffered through her private machinations. But it is even Allison’s mother that is repulsed by her daughter’s writing: “It’s cheap and dirty and vulgar” as she adds: “How could she question morality… it’s nothing but a piece of trash from beginning to end!” You get that from some people…

Franz Waxman’s score for Return to Peyton Place (1961)
Japanese poster for Return to Peyton Place (1961)
Asbestos-proof Hollywood gossips Hedda Hopper (left) and Louella Parsons

This may well have been echoing Metallious’s mother if she was still alive, as she and her high school sweetheart George ‘lived in sin’ together before their families would finally allow them to marry. But their healthy sex life is depicted throughout the book Peyton Place and no amount of gossip would put an end to what some would call enjoying the best things in life that are free. It was George who helped foster Grace Metallious’s writing during their marriage and her children said they were brought up in a kind of brothel-like home when she wrote as no housework or cooking would be done. She wrote Peyton Place as a result and it was only her husband admitting to an infidelity during World War Two which saw their marriage disintegrate and Grace in turn having an affair and marrying disastrously a couple more times… relationships which fostered her fatal drinking.

Astor’s head of the school board insists that the book not be placed in the school library … otherwise banned or censored or cut from curriculum… as she seems to want to save the town and also publicly humiliate Allison and her step-father who admires the book’s literary value and candidness. It’s a case of the elders of the town being impotent and repressive about the “lewd” book which contains things “that should not be said”. Gossiped about perhaps by the chosen but not be said… to the outside world.

Rossi makes a stand in terms of literature and censorship and defies Astor’s threat of “consequences of that lurid piece of trash” which told Selena’s story: “I never thought I’d see it get put down in black and white” which was how the colourful gossips viewed those tarnished by their private and apparently holy denunciation. The contrast with Astor’s own private life which was made public in a trial concerning her diaries makes for one of the most fascinating casting choices and one which seems to have a deliberate sting in the tail. The look on Astor’s face during several key moments in the film shows how talented an actress she was both going back to the silent era and then again in 1941 when she peaked.

Mary Astor in Return to Peyton Place kind of takes the stand…
The kind of front page gossip that Astor faced in the mid-1930s. She triumphs in the end…
Despite more headlines… Astor in Return to Peyton Place is the icing on the cake.

“Don’t you think of anything except sex?,” asks Astor, in a deliberately off-handed and worldly way, to her daughter-in-law, and it is that de facto use of the word by the so-called born again puritan that is contrasted once again. Astor’s widowed character once had a sex life but perhaps not the one she probably would have liked… Yet she sees herself as legitimate despite her gossip leading to the creation, and prolonging great hurt and tragedy, among those it is used against. It is a kind of pornography of the mind in terms of hate and loathing and is perhaps even more destructive than Allyson’s/Metallious’s sexually descriptive prose. The fact the book was hidden in its days in drawers or in closets by those who wouldn’t publicly admit to reading it – like acknowledging they also gossiped between church visits – freed those minds starved of human affection and human touch, whether they were teenagers or the elderly in a time in the late 1950s and indeed in 1961 when Return to Peyton Place was made and when sex was not allowed to be expressed freely at all on television and in mainstream movies beyond a lingering kiss or embrace.

The coyness and clipping of the kisses in Return to Peyton Place keeps closed the floodgates which would eventually open a few years later on screen and spell the end of an era in terms of censorship… It was already happening in Europe. And it seems it is all decided at the small-town hall meeting which makes a decision which is more far-reaching than the courtroom climax in the first movie in terms of consequences…

The town meets and even publisher Chandler is there as the opening prayer is read and Mike Rossi’s job is on the line as well as the town’s schoolchildren’s choice to read what they like… despite the fact it’s on sale at the local store.  It is here that Astor gives one the most perfectly mannered performances of her later career.

“How much of it is dirty?,” one of the townsfolk asks Astor about the book as she leads the charge for censorship within Peyton Place.

“All of it,” she curtly responds.

“Then why did you keep reading it?”

Peyton Place says ‘no’ to xenophobia at least on the surface…

It is then that subtext is added with Astor and the Rossi character going head-to-head about Allison’s possible sex life in New York while the book was being completed. Rossi tells her that banning the book could lead to more Fascist consequences like how his children should be taught at the school…. It is then that Chandler – who was in real life Jewish – rises and says that the issue here “somehow seems confused” as it is Rossi on trial and not Allison’s ‘obscene’ book. Or so it would seem…

“We are not interested in the opinion of people outside Peyton Place,” says Astor as a type of Fascist microcosm about the central web she sees herself leading and existing throughout the township.

The fact that Astor and Chandler are the only star faces amid the crowd of small-time character actors in the town hall helps add to the effectiveness of the scene as it emphasises the gulf between closed-minded small-town thinking as opposed to all-encompassing open-minded thinking or intellectualism. It is Astor’s apparent downfall to not accept the change which is happening in the world… including outside events.

Astor questions those who are “outsiders” and who have Italian, French and Scandinavian heritage or names… “I’m trying to ensure the truth is not done to death by fear and silence” says Chandler about his concerns that Peyton Place will become a place of closed doors and minds and remain unliberated from what was emerging in the outside world of the early 1960s… Astor’s son speaks out about Peyton Place being “one of the last strongholds of bigotry and false morality” to her and he could almost be talking about the future of movies as well as America itself… It’s essentially low-key but powerful.

Mary Astor gives an incredibly subtle and mannered performance in Return to Peyton Place (1961)

“That’s the kind of insolent bad manners you’ve learnt from your foreign wife,” says Astor with the knee-jerk of the xenophobe which only serves to unmask and humiliate her as both a human being and a mother in front of her audience of so-called supporters about all the strangers in town, including those in her own home.

Allison’s book is fiction or at least presented as fiction in a way that the people of Peyton Place can’t really legally sue for damages lest their masks be removed and they admit their secrets – but the town has already been unmasked and Astor confirms it with this comment.

“We won’t be chained to the past and we won’t live by your rules in the future,” is Astor’s son’s rejection of herself and her post-WW2 culture, after she tells those who don’t belong in Peyton Place to leave – and that includes those with bad reputations who are forever cast out and subject to malicious gossip, or so it would seem. It is then that the town sees a snapshot, or has a moment of total insight into itself, thanks to Astor and the book, and upon voting almost unanimously against the banning of the book they accept the outside world – at least on the face of it…

However, in one of the greatest retreats in film history, Astor says to the silent crowd: “By this vote, which only appeals to you emotionally… you are renouncing all the traditions and safeguards of the past… You are permitting influences from outside to change known values which we have lived by all these years… and I warn you, you will regret this action you have taken today.” And she departs.

Return to Peyton Place and the 1960s would have wiped the smile off the face of the late chairman of the Production Code Will Hays (1879-1954). Astor was also a chairman in the movie…
The Pawnbroker (1965) aka The Pornbroker was the first mainstream US movie to show gratuitious nudity
‘Evil’ Astor in Return to Peyton Place (1961) was perhaps smiling on the inside… She retired in 1964.

Perhaps she has a point? Perhaps it was allowances like these that spelt the beginning of the end of a Conservative Judeo-Christian Utopian society in America… and through its very own eschewing of the permissive society saw this society burst forth and which itself was perhaps beheaded and its compass became morally and politically lost through the assassination of John F Kennedy (1917-63 assassin’s bullet) and more effectively splintered forever in to a schism which remains today through the murder of Bobby Kennedy (1925-68 assassin’s bullet) and the void it left behind… I mean heaven forbid that there really was once hope of a unified American Dream!

Look at society now compared to Peyton Place. Has it really improved? Gossip and xenophobia as an issue in the community has certainly never ceased and the media seems to thrive on ever more perverted ways of discussing and promoting the fragmentation of society. The discussion is there but will it lead to any peace or solution? Perhaps if the United States had banned guns instead. The permissive Judeo-Christian society that exists today also in-name-only continues with more on-going hypocrisy… as it tries to exist beside those who still long for a time when small-town values once existed and will ‘return’. Mary Astor as an actress and a human being is victorious as the world teeters on the brink…

Return to Peyton Place (1961) trailer… Complete with missing fire sequence.
Grace Metalious was lost by returning to Peyton Place. She died in 1964.
As this chilly image of Carol Lynley at the end of Return to Peyton Place underscores complete with the irony of the reprise of the song The Wonderful Season of Love…

That Allyson’s return to Peyton Place is a tumultuous one and one in which you may even be rejected by your own mother… This rites of passage for Grace Metalious, has our heroine, in the coda of the movie, dressed in furs looking at the picture postcard view of Peyton Place from what was once her favourite vantage point… It is now wintertime in what the novel’s prose proposed that the sequel would be an Indian summer but an “Indian summer is like a woman, right, hotly passionate but fickle… she comes and she goes as she pleases.” She, or Allison, is now rich but empty because of her experience, free to come and go as she pleases and this reflected the author’s own feelings upon the completion of this novel, I am fairly certain. It all came ingeniously full circle.

The film did not use the possible climax of Mary Astor trying to burn her daughter-in-law to death in her own home but it can be seen in the trailer. This would have been a banal cliché compared to the low-key strength of the scenes used in the final cut.

“I did not like being regarded as a freak because I spent time in front of the typewriter instead of a sink,” said Grace Metalious, in a terse quote about what would be her final rejection of the world of faux morality. Her books and this film ushered in the Kennedy administration, civil rights and the space race… In 2020, one major school district in California removed several books from required reading including To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published the year before Return to Peyton Place was released, due to possible racist overtones… Should it have been banned in the first place? … The genius contained within Grace Metalious and Return to Peyton Place!!

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