The Filming of a Desert Classic: The Misfits

Marilyn Monroe - Clark Gable

By Joe Zentner

In the production of the motion picture The Misfits, released in 1961, some of the 20th century's most beguiling cinematic talent gathered in the Nevada desert in what, for several of them, would be a final stab at creating art.

The Misfits began life as a short story written by playwright Arthur Miller and published by Esquire Magazine in 1957.  In the tale, Miller spoke of his memories of modern-day cowboys he had met in 1956 in and around Reno, Nevada, where he had come to divorce his first wife, Mary Grace Slattery.  The MisfitsHe had seasoned those memories about the cowboys in his story with his infatuation with his second wife, the legendary actress Marilyn Monroe, whom he married in 1956.  He felt that she was a pure creature intimately connected to the spirit of life.

In search of a project that would allow them to work together, Miller and Monroe pitched a film version of The Misfits to United Artists.  The studio agreed to produce the film and offered John Huston the job as director.  Huston accepted with a one-word response: “Magnificent!”

Miller’s visceral reaction to Reno’s desert landscape had led him to choose the region as the setting for the film, which was not to be a conventional Western.  The “misfits” referred to by the title are physically crippled horses and emotionally crippled people.  The horses fell to a cruel lariat and ended up canned, piece by piece, as dog food. The people struggled to find emotional stability and ended up picked off, one at a time, by fate.

The Plot

Quasi-sophisticated but an emotional basket case, Roslyn Taber, Marilyn Monroe’s character, has come to Nevada to get a quickie divorce from her husband, Raymond Taber (played by Kevin McCarthy).  After her landlady introduces her to aging cowboy Gay Langland (Clark Gable), Roslyn finds herself at last, seemingly, with a person with whom she can communicate.  Meanwhile, Gay and his fellow horsemen, Guido and Perce Howland (played, respectively, by Eli Wallach and Montgomery Clift), scheme to capture a herd of wild mustangs, intending to sell them to a packing company for dog food.

Roslyn accompanies the men on a horse-hunting expedition.  She is horrified by the blatant acts of cruelty to the animals.  Her anguish forces the men to take an introspective look at their own behavior and motivations.

The Tortured Marilyn Monroe

Born Norma Jean Mortenson (though christened Norma Jean Baker) in Los Angeles on June 1, 1926, the woman who would become known to the world as Marilyn Monroe was the daughter of Gladys Baker, an unmarried movie technician.  Her mother’s mental instability led to a childhood of foster homes, neglect and abuse for Norma Jean. 

At age 16, Norma Jean married James Dougherty, a defense worker.  During World War II, she posed for an army photographer, who shot pin-up pictures of her.  Her images caught the attention of many people.  She was soon signed by a modeling agency.  She bleached her light brown hair, turning herself into a classic blond.  In 1946, she divorced Dougherty.  In that same year, she signed a contract with the motion picture studio 20th Century Fox, taking the new name of Marilyn Monroe.  After several movie flops and in desperate need of money, she posed nude for a calendar photo that became the centerfold of the first issue of Playboy and helped propel her to stardom.   

Monroe secured small movie roles, most notably in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), as a crooked lawyer’s niece, and in All About Eve (also 1950), as a “graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art.”  Her rise to movie stardom came rapidly, due primarily to an intensive publicity campaign orchestrated by Fox studios, which realized, belatedly, her box-office potential.

Early in her film career, Marilyn Monroe starred as a ditzy blonde in such movies as How to Marry a Millionaire and The Seven Year Itch.  She later won critical acclaim for her performance in the films Bus Stop and Some Like it Hot.

Always difficult to direct, Monroe, in her thirties, became increasingly unstable.  After trying to take her life several times, she finally succeeded, on the night of August 4, 1962.  It remains unclear whether she really meant to kill herself.  It is also uncertain whether she had a liaison with President John F. Kennedy.  Elton John’s moving tribute to Britain’s Princess Diana, “Candle in the Wind,” was originally written to commemorate Monroe’s life.

The Doomed Clark Gable

Originally, John Huston had wanted Robert Mitchum to star as the washed-up cowboy who becomes involved with a divorcée in Reno.  But Mitchum considered the script incomprehensible.  He dodged Huston’s phone calls.  Finally, Huston cast Clark Gable in the part.  When Mitchum finally spoke to Huston, he warned about Gable’s age and health.  He said, “You get him at the end of a rope, fighting those horses, and that’s going to be the end of him.”  Mitchum would prove to be prophetic.

On location, Gable was much like the cowboy he played in The Misfits: rugged, handsome and fiercely independent, according to Marilyn Newton, one of the movie’s extras.  “He was down to earth and would go out of his way to be nice to everyone,” Newton once commented.  “He was even warmer off the stage than his Hollywood image led people to believe.”

The casting of Gable in the movie became a problem.  “...while he was intrigued with the script, he didn’t understand it,” Arthur Miller once commented.  Miller advised Gable, “Think of it as an Easterner’s Western.  The preoccupation of the film is not typically that of a Western film.  Instead, it’s about people trying to connect with one another, and yet afraid to do so.” 

Clark Gable and Carol Lombard honeymooned at the Oatman Hotel March 18, 1939. Their honeymoon suite is still one of the major attractions that keeps the Oatman Hotel open. Gable returned here often to play poker with the local miners and enjoy the solitude of the desert.

The Tumult of the Production

Because of Monroe’s prior commitment to make the musical Let’s Make Love, production on The Misfits didn’t begin until July 1960, when the Nevada locations were baked by temperatures climbing to 120 degrees each day.  Filming lasted through the blistering summer and was finally completed on November 4, 1960.  Release came some three months later, on February 1, 1961.

Those blistering days of production sound like a Tennessee Williams-inspired conundrum:  Superstar siren lost and depressed.  Playwright caught between the art of the cinema and the anguish of a failing marriage.  The ailing King of the Movies taking unnecessary risks.  A director addicted to the gambling tables.  And an intense young method actor, Montgomery Clift, who had his own emotional stress but who nevertheless ended up being the most reliable actor on the set.  (Gable’s first reaction to playing a scene with Clift was: “Damn, he’s really good!”)

“It was an anxious set,” one observer recalls.  “There was a tremendous amount of tension.”  By the time everybody showed up for work in those July days of 1960, it was already 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade.  Monroe’s habitual lateness didn’t help.  She was rarely called before 11:00 a.m., and she usually showed up even later than that.  In her defense, she did have to stay up long after midnight trying to learn Miller’s many script changes.  At the same time, she was trying to deal with the effects of numerous pain and sleep medications.  Though he often resented her tardiness, Gable went out of his way to help her through the shooting, enduring retake after retake while she tried to focus on her lines.

Compounding Monroe’s problems was the fact that the film, conceived while she and Miller were still in the flush of first love, was filmed as their marriage was falling apart.  During the shooting, she moved out of their shared hotel room, electing to stay with her acting coach, Paula Strasberg.  Moreover, Monroe was heartbroken that a role she had seen as her chance to prove she could play something other than “Marilyn Monroe” was being rewritten, turning into something different than the original vision.  Miller would decide to include embarrassing elements from her personal life, for example, references to the failure of her marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and to the mental problems of her mother.  Even Gable’s casting contributed autobiographical elements.  Miller knew that his wife idolized “The King” during her childhood, sometimes fantasizing that he was her father.

Strangely, neither director Huston nor anyone else admonished Monroe for her constant tardiness.  Huston was nonconfrontational.  One might have thought he would have insisted that she be on time.  Instead, he was benign.  He felt that he couldn’t push Monroe, “because what would that get me?”  Huston said, “It will only upset her, so let’s just play this thing out.”

Huston, meanwhile, had his own problems during the production.  He was developing emphysema after decades of heavy smoking.  Several days of production were lost when he felt too sick to work.  Location shooting in the only U. S. state that had legal gaming at the time turned into a huge mistake because Huston usually spent most of his nights in the casinos, gambling until around 5:00 a. m.  He would then fall asleep in the director’s chair during filming.

The studio provided Huston with a gambling allowance.  When his losses exceeded the allowance, he stopped production for a week to scrounge more money.  He, in fact, convinced Monroe’s psychiatrist to put her in a Los Angeles hospital for a week to deal with her drug dependency, making the actress bear the blame for lost production that he himself had caused.

With legend John Huston directing a cast of movie icons, in a screenplay written by a famed playwright, The Misfits was one of the most anticipated films ever.  However, difficult shooting locations, an unstable leading lady, an aging leading man, a crumbling marriage and an undisciplined director all combined to make the behind-the-scenes event of the film’s production more dramatic than The Misfits itself. 

The film is less an entertaining Western than a cerebral exploration of what happens when discontents fall in love with an insecure woman.  By most standards, Marilyn Monroe’s acting in The Misfits is superb.  Under John Huston’s direction, she transforms her stunning good looks into something more vulnerable than sexuality.  Her characterization of Roslyn Taber is full of haunting depth and subtlety.

The Aftermath

The Misfits, filmed mainly in the Reno area, was the only movie Monroe and Gable appeared in together, and it was the last completed film for both.  Only a few days after filming ended, Gable’s failing health caught up with him.  He died of a heart attack at age 59.  The film may have contributed to the actor’s death.

The most strenuous scenes were those shot near the end of production, when Gable and two other cowboys capture a wild horse herd in the desert and attempt to break the herd’s lead animal.  Rumors suggested that the scenes he played in trying to hold back the lead horse contributed to Gable’s heart attack.  A close analysis of the film, however, reveals that the dramatic action was more attributable to film direction and editing than to actual events.  Gable, in fact, is rarely in the same shot as the lead horse.  He did, however, have to shoot a scene in which the horse drags him mercilessly across the desert floor.  In truth, the actor was actually holding a rope attached to a truck, with a camera in the truck bed.  But even though Gable was heavily padded, he came back from the day’s shooting a bloody mess.  The actor tried to lie to his wife that it had just been an accident, but she knew better, telling him, “You’re out of your mind.”

Production ended with studio work in Hollywood, but Gable was already too sick to attend the celebration party on November 4.  He would suffer a massive heart attack two days later.  He died 10 days after that.  In an interview, Marilyn Monroe wondered mournfully whether she had somehow contributed to his death.  Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper blamed Gable’s death on Huston.  At the time, few persons seemed to consider that Gable’s three-packs-a-day smoking habit or his overwhelming grief over the death of a good friend, Ward Bond, just days earlier, might have been contributing factors.

Since Huston shot the scenes in sequence and edited the film as shooting progressed, Gable had already seen himself on the screen before becoming ill.  He believed it to be his best acting performance ever.  Following his death, the studio tried to get the film completed in time for the 1960 Academy Awards, hoping he would share a posthumous nomination.  However, when composer Alex North protested that he couldn’t possibly get the picture musically scored that quickly, the idea was dropped.

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller divorced on January 20, 1961.  Monroe started filming another movie, Something’s Gotta Give, in 1962.  However, Monroe’s deteriorating physical condition and her emotional instability, exacerbated by drugs and personal turmoil, eventually reached such a degree that she was dropped from the film.  She forgot her lines.  She missed numerous shoots.  Less than 21 months later, Marilyn Monroe died by her own hand.

Some film critics suggest that The Misfits was Monroe’s finest acting performance.  In playing a vulnerable divorcée, she was really playing herself.  The rest of the cast, including Gable and Clift, gave solid performances.  However, The Misfits did not immediately receive wide critical acclaim.  It was not a box-office smash.  Still, its popularity has grown with time.  There is a melancholy tone to this engaging black-and-white movie that hints at the tragedy that would soon consume Gable, Monroe and Clift.

Montgomery Clift’s film career did not end with The Misfits.  In the same year the movie was released, Clift also starred in Judgement at Nuremberg.  The following year he played Sigmund Freud in Freud.  

Clift’s dependency on drugs and alcohol and his shame about his homosexuality affected him profoundly throughout his career.  His life ended on July 23, 1966, when his companion found him lying naked and dead in a New York City hotel room.  According to the autopsy, the cause of death was “occlusive coronary artery disease.”

The fine line that often exists between art and life is remarkable in The Misfits because Monroe, Gable and Clift played characters so much like themselves.  Though greeted coolly by critics and audiences in 1961, it is, undeniably, a film that still lives.  It has that rare element, mystique.

Today, The Misfits holds special interest as an example of the loss of traditional values in the modern Western.  It is one of John Huston’s trademark celebrations of a bunch of charismatic losers.  It was the last film from two of Hollywood’s greatest stars.

Life produces few happy endings, but there are brief moments of hope.  Perhaps the most metaphorically telling thing about The Misfits is that the “stallions” weren’t really stallions.  One must look carefully to observe this anatomical detail, just as one must watch carefully to discern the skill, talent and confusion that went into production of a desert classic.



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