It was Wald who commissioned editor Rona Jaffe to write her career-girl classic, “The Best of Everything,” locking up the rights to the subsequent 1959 movie version long before the novel was published.
The producer had scored one of the biggest hits of the decade with the 1957 movie version of the 1956 Grace Metalious blockbuster book “Peyton Place.”
Wald became so determined to make a sequel that he convinced the author to write “Return to Peyton Place” for publication in 1959 despite the trouble the original book had caused her in New Hampshire, where residents were furious about the way small-town life there had been portrayed.
The scale of the success of the first Metalious novel is still staggering. “Peyton Place” sold 20 million copies in hardcover and another 12 million in paperback and stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for 59 weeks.
What makes the 1961 sequel so much fun is that it is a semi-autobiographical account of the trouble Metalious faced when her book came out. The premise is that the sweet Allison MacKenzie character from the original “Peyton Place” went on to write a thinly fictionalized account of the steamy events in her beautiful little hamlet.
Carol Lynley stars as Allison, but it is the veteran actress Mary Astor (below) who steals the show as a powerful old woman who is so appalled by the young woman’s novel that she pushes the school board to ban it from the library and to oust Allison’s stepfather (Robert Sterling) from his job as principal.
Before the book-banning scenes, the widowed Astor character already feels the assault of “modern times” when her beloved only son (Brett Halsey) returns from law school in Boston with a new wife — a “foreign” model (played by the luscious Lucianna Paluzzi, who would turn up a few years later as the female villain in “Thunderball”).
You can see that Astor had a blast playing the old biddy who says over breakfast to her new daughter-in-law, “Can’t you think of anything but sex?,” or when asked by her son what is so wrong with his new bride, replies in a fake-sympathetic tone, “Maybe it’s just the way she dresses.”
There’s an added kick to the Astor performance for those who are familiar with her own history at the center of one of Hollywood’s biggest scandals — a few decades earlier — when her sexual escapade diary was leaked to the press by her husband in the middle of a very messy divorce.
The scandal hurt Astor’s career as a leading lady, but didn’t stop her from becoming one of the best character actresses in Hollywood.
“Return to Peyton Place” was plagued by many delays and last minute cast changes, but one of the late additions — Tuesday Weld (below) as the “fallen woman” Selena Cross — almost matches Astor in the scenery-chewing department (their moments together are fantastic).
“Return to Peyton Place” is dated and full of ridiculous euphemisms for the sex that everyone is so stirred up about, but the wonderful cast and the prudes vs. libertines storyline is still irresistibly entertaining.