The time was when 20th Century Fox, more than any other studio, had a knack for generating sequels and follow-up movies that were not only better movies, but also, occasionally, more interesting movies than their predecessors -- Fritz Lang's The Return of Frank James comes to mind, as a sequel to Henry King's Jesse James, as does Alfred Werker's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as a follow-up to Sidney Lanfield's The Hound of the Baskervilles. Alas, Return to Peyton Place doesn't fit into that group or category; indeed, watching it is more like watching Beneath the Planet of the Apes (ironically, a product of the same studio) -- you're there because of the earlier movie, and wondering what went wrong. Both movies represented significant come-downs from their predecessors, and seemed to take wrong turns in the basic thinking behind their respective scripts, tampering with essential characters, and compressing or deleting elements that made the earlier films work. The cast here is not bad -- Mary Astor had been a fine actress for decades, and Jeff Chandler, Robert Sterling, and Eleanor Parker were good players, even if Carol Lynley and Tuesday Weld were a bit lightweight in their respective roles.
The script, however, is a train wreck compared with the original film's screenplay, which, for all of its soap opera elements, at least had a little depth and complexity. The pieces just don't fit together properly as drama, the holes are obvious, and not even beautiful cinematography by Charles G. Clarke, a lush -- overripe -- score by Franz Waxman (complete with Rosemary Clooney singing the title song), or the presence of José Ferrer as director, doing the best that he could on individual scenes, can help the movie. It's obvious that he responded best to the portions of the script dealing with censorship and suppression, but there's a lot here that feels like it was phoned in, in the writing and the acting. And a lot of it feels like pieces of other, better scripts spliced together, along with some ludicrous moments as well; if Mary Astor's first scene plays well, the scenes between Jeff Chandler and Carol Lynley seem like bad college theater. Indeed, Ferrer's presence in the director's chair only adds to the sense of confusion one gets watching the movie. On the plus side, one does get a last glimpse of one-time movie and vaudeville funny man Emerson Treacy (as Bud Humphries) and Astor in a very late-career starring role, and the film certainly looks very good.