Our current Movie of the Month, 1957’s Peyton Place, is a sprawling epic of small-town scandal & melodrama. It’s essentially Douglas Sirk’s “Harper Valley PTA”, an exquisite illustration of lowly gossip & pulp. Since its source-material novel was essentially the Fifty Shades of its time, its major-studio adaptation had to put on an air of arty prestige & high-minded sexual education to justify the indulgence. The sex education aspect is loudly pronounced, advocating for healthy sexual habits to be openly discussed and taught in schools, since the small-town sex shaming of all “dirty talk” is what causes heartbreak & tragedy in its doomed characters’ lives. Prestige is a much trickier quality to signal to the audience, something the film prompts in its sweeping shots of artificial woodland vistas and soaring melodramatic strings. It also signals prestige in the casting of Lana Turner as its biggest-name star, prominently advertising her performance over much meatier roles for the teens-in-crisis beneath her. When Peyton Place hit theaters, Turner was a glamorous movie star that afforded the film an air of legitimacy. A year later, an act of domestic violence in which her daughter stabbed a mobster boyfriend in her family home would make her a magnet for tabloid scandal, dragging Turner down to the movie’s true gossipy nature.
Getting a sense of where Peyton Place fits within the restrictions & subversions of Old Hollywood’s final hours means getting familiar with how Lana Turner was understood & adored as an Old Hollywood movie star. So, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to bask in more of her Studio Era glamour.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Since every other title on this list casts Lana Turner for her star power but doesn’t actually center her as its star, it’s imperative to include her iconic, spotlight-commanding role in this classic studio noir. Turner plays the world’s most pragmatic femme fatale in The Postman Always Rings Twice, using her smoky sexual charisma to inspire a lovelorn drifter to kill her husband so she can run her own roadside diner, to both her and her lover’s eventual peril. Despite a couple mid-film courtroom battles that ice their wayward momentum, it’s a great story about two lost souls who are so rottenly horny for each other that they don’t know what to do except destroy everything. If nothing else, it’s easily 1000x sexier than its 80s erotic thriller remake, a movie that Turner dismissed as “pornographic trash” without ever actually watching it.
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
The only reason the mean little Hollywood tabloid The Bad and the Beautiful can’t claim to be a proper Lana Turner showcase is that she’s outshined by an incredibly unrelenting Kirk Douglas performance that leaves no scenery in his path unchewed. The movie itself is also somewhat outshined by its own overperforming peers in the same way, as it boldly, brashly recalls Citizen Kane & Sunset Boulevard without having any of the necessary virtuosity to back it up. Luckily it’s bitchy & cynical enough to stand on its own as a self-hating Hollywood mythmaker, and it props Turner up as a mildly fictionalized version of herself – a powerhouse Studio System starlet with a troubled life offscreen. She’s unusually vulnerable in the role too, plunging to rock bottom before towering over Douglas’s frantic anti-hero as his romantic foil.
Imitation of Life (1959)
Turner also plays a struggling actress who eventually makes it big in Douglas Sirk’s classic melodrama Imitation of Life, and I’d say she’s also outshined as a secondary attraction there, despite her prominence on the poster. Like in Peyton Place, Turner’s name is used as a box office draw, but the most compelling melodrama in the film is reserved for the teens running circles at her feet. She looks absolutely fabulous in the role as the matriarch Broadway star, though, modeling a million-dollar wardrobe that broke records for Old Hollywood productions at the time.
By pretending to position Turner center stage, Sirk was able to get away with telling a subversive story about racial discrimination, passing, and self-hatred with Juanita Moore’s character in a way that would’ve frightened off studio execs without blinding them with Turner’s gowns & jewels. The boldly political sex education messaging of Peyton Place is hidden behind Turner’s star wattage in a similar way, even if it’s not nearly as tasteful nor exquisitely staged as its Douglas Sirk equivalent. By the time she “starred” in Imitation of Life, the real-life tragedy in Turner’s family had already made tabloid headlines, but she was still useful to Sirk as a signal of class & prestige, which I think says something about the inherent strength & respectability of her screen presence.