Tuesday, June 16

Good 60s Films: The Misfits

1961 Drama
From United Artists
Directed by John Huston

Clark Gable
Marilyn Monroe
Montgomery Clift
Thelma Ritter
Eli Wallach

It was the story of misfits for sure.  The mustangs they're trying to catch are misfits, horses that are too small to be of much use, except for dog food.  The four principal characters are misfits...  people who don't quite fit into society.  And the actors themselves... they qualify as misfits as well.  We shall see just how.  Suffice it to say that the story behind the making of this film and its aftermath far exceeds the drama on the screen.  But let's start with that story because it's a good one.

A lost and lonely woman, Roslyn (Monroe), is in Reno to get a divorce.  She has been staying at Isabelle's (Ritter) boardinghouse for weeks to make the residence requirement.  Roslyn's dreary existence is enlivened by Isabelle who, even with her broken arm, is just what the doctor ordered... irreverent, funny, loving, savvy.

After the court hearing the two go to a bar where they meet new friends.  Gay (Gable) is an aging cowboy, no longer in demand, and damned if he'll work for wages.  Bumming around, catching work on the fly and tossing back the sauce is his idea of living.  His buddy, Guido (Wallach), called Pilot by some, is a WWII veteran fighter pilot who suffers from his war experiences but delights in owning a small plane.

The four of them leave the bar and arrive at Pilot's unfinished home out in the desert where we learn more about the characters and what misfits they really are.  Both Gay and Pilot are falling for Roslyn and both ask her to stay in Reno and bum around with them.  We learn that Gay is tough and hardened in some ways but is responsive to others' feelings.  He sees the pain in the eyes of his pals.

Roslyn, a former dancer, is emotionally wounded.  Combining that with her beauty makes men want to rescue her.  Perhaps she is unstable but she is certainly insecure.  She is running away from hurt and makes it clear more than once that she cannot tolerate people being hurt or killed.  This doubles for animals and she is not yet aware of how she'll be spending time with her cowboy pals.

Guido has been widowed and apparently not been quite the same since.  He doesn't mind working for wages and in fact has a knockabout job as a tow truck driver.  He's a bit of a doofus... he thinks he's in line to receive some of Roslyn's charms but couldn't be more mistaken, especially after she returns Gay's attention.  (See clip at end.)

Some of my favorite lines are spoken by Gay and Roslyn in their car which they have stopped alongside the road.  She's sleeping as he quietly admires her.  When she awakens he says you're a real beautiful woman, Roslyn.  It's almost a pleasure sitting next to you.  You just shine in my eyes.

Monroe's face fills the screen at this point and she looks every inch the whitest goddess one could ever behold...  her skin with its porcelain glow, the white-blonde hair, the faraway glances.  He says... what makes you so sad?  I believe you're the saddest girl I've ever met.  That's just what I was thinking.

She coos, men usually tell me what a happy person I am.

That's because of the way you make them feel, he says.

Pilot later comes up with a plan to capture the wild mustangs, having spotted them from his plane.  They will bring in some much-needed money as they have done before.  Realizing they need one more man, the four of them head to a rodeo to find one but come across an old friend, Perce (Clift), in a phone booth.

This scene, delivered while the other four are observing him, demonstrates what a fabulous actor Montgomery Clift was.  Full of pathos and angst, he speaks to his mother, assuring her that he's setting the world on fire as a rodeo performer, while the truth is he's spent his last coins on the call.  At one point the actor says Ma, my face is alright, an obvious allusion to falling off some wild horse or bull.  However, one cannot help but realize Clift himself, only four years earlier, suffered serious facial and other injuries in a horrible car accident that forever altered his life.

After watching Clift get injured at the rodeo, a distraught Roslyn and her troop of merrymakers wash their sorrows down with shots.  This is part of the scene where Roslyn has a sexy go at working a paddleball.  Originally it was not in the film.  While they were waiting for camera setups in the bar, MM got hold of a paddleball and amazed the onlookers with her skills (and her tight dress).  Director Huston was so impressed he had her do it again for the cameras. 

The bar set also included a drunk scene with Gable trying to locate his children, whom he had surprisingly run across, but now they have disappeared.  The actor said that The Misfits was his best acting and that this scene was the best of the best.  I agree.

Outside the bar, sitting on cushions on the ground, MM and MC have an enormously touching scene.  Though hurting with head injuries, Perce is telling Roslyn about how to operate around their type of cowboys before she might think of moving on.   He murmurs to her that you have such trust in your eyes, like you've just been born.  The words were heartfelt but what was heartbreaking was watching these two drug-addicted, alcoholic, bewildered actors go through their paces.  As it turned out, a 5-minute scene in one location took all day to shoot. 

Isabelle leaves the story when she runs into her ex-husband and his new wife.  It's never good when Thelma Ritter leaves a story.

All hell breaks loose when the four arrive at the salt flats.  What was supposed to be 15 horses turns out to be one stallion, four mares and a colt and the cowboys turn a little sullen.  Roslyn, when she becomes clear on what is about to happen, is apoplectic.  Gay tries to reason with her but she will have none of it.  What I liked most about you, she says through her tears, is that you were kind.  But people aren't kind when they kill

After they round up the horses, roping and securing them, all settle in for the night.  But Perce, the only reluctant cowboy on the outing, joins with Roslyn to untie the horses and allow them to go free.  There were some rough physical scenes involving Gable (and some stunt people in the long shots) being dragged by the horses as he attempts to recapture them.  He comes to his senses when he sees that he may loose Roslyn over this so he lets the animals go.

Guido is irked at the turn of events and Perce goes off with the intention of going home.  The film ends in another front seat of a vehicle when Roslyn, nestled under Gay's arm, asks how do find your way back in the dark.  Indeed.

It's always been said that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller wrote this, his first and for many years only screenplay, as a valentine to his wife, Marilyn Monroe.  It is somewhat true.  Years earlier Miller had been in Nevada and had run into three cowboys and fashioned their story into one he sold to a magazine.  Years later he decided to use the same basic story and include a strong woman's role for his wife.  She was at first flattered but then not so much as she decided that Roslyn was a bit of a nitwit, a lost soul, and she didn't much appreciate being compared to her. 

The truth is by the time the filming began in April, 1960, their marriage was hanging by cobwebs.  Three films earlier, during the London shooting of The Prince and the Showgirl,  MM read Miller's diary and came across things that greatly angered her.  Next up was the brilliant Some Like It Hot, where she was strung out on drugs and behaved badly.  Then came the wretched Let's Make Love where she publicly carried on an affair with her married costar, Yves Montand.  By the time of The Misfits, she and Miller were just going through the motions.  The sadness was it all played out in front of the entire Misfits cast and crew.  They all became involved at some level.  Generally, they were divided into two camps... Miller, Huston, Wallach and producer Frank Taylor on one side and Monroe and her entourage (which included her drama coach, Paula Strasberg) on the other.  Gable and Clift stayed away from the fray although Clift was in her corner and Gable was not.

Gable came to the film with some reluctance.  On the one hand his actor's sense of things told him this would be the best role of his career.  His agent warned him against doing it, saying it was too strenuous for a 59-year old not in the best of shape.  (Once he accepted, he could not pass the studio's usual request for a physical.  Years of drinking and smoking had taken their toll.  But he went to work to get into better shape and passed the exam.)  Gable's other concern, of course, was his leading lady. 

He was leery of working with her because of her widespread reputation as a neurotic, tardy unprofessional whose self-indulgent behavior wrecked most movie sets she worked on.  He ended up liking her but admitted he didn't understand her at all.  He would receive his highest salary ever and had bonuses included as an insurance policy against Monroe's absences. 

And the absences came.  Three of them were for a week or more, deadly to a film set and budget when the leading actress is virtually in every scene.  She usually flew off to L.A. to see her psychiatrist or went to a clinic to take the cure, anything to get her off barbiturates and booze.

Producer Taylor and Huston agreed they must be crazy to take on Clift after hiring Monroe.  Taylor said they were like psychic twins, both in a haze of barbiturates and alcohol who saw in one another a sense of doom but just giggled endlessly about it.  Always like a deer in the headlights, Clift took on another dimension after his accident... more pills, more booze, more outrageous and frequently quite public behavior.  People wondered aloud which of them was the most gone.  While she seemed to win that one, Clift said he couldn't quite believe someone was worse off than he was.

John Huston never spent much time criticizing or even doing much thinking about the happenings on his set.  He rarely did.  He, too, was a misfit... certainly he never truly fit into an ordinary world.  He was too big for that.  He, too, liked his booze and he loved gambling.  And weren't they in Reno?  When the trouble started or MM left, he just went gambling.  It was a mess.

Later on Arthur Miller said that making The Misfits was the lowest point in his life.  After being publicly ridiculed and scorned by Monroe on the set, she divorced him soon after.  If there was good news for Miller, it was that he would meet his third and final wife on the set.  Austrian-born Inge Morath was a photographer who was given complete access to everything and everyone on the set for a picture book she was to publish on the production.  They would remain married until her death in 2002.  (For you trivia fans, their daughter, Rebecca, became a good if brief actress and married acting giant, Daniel Day-Lewis.)

Gable, too, wound up saying it was an unhappy experience.  While he certainly did turn in his best performance, he was never exactly thought of as competition to Laurence Olivier.  He was a completely competent actor who was a hugely popular movie star.  For good reason Hollywood referred to him as The King.  Still he was uncomfortable in the presence of three actors from the famed and a bit snooty Actors Studio... Clift, Monroe and Wallach.  He began drinking heavily during all the waiting around, which he couldn't stand.  There were nearly daily rewrites which unnerved him as well.  What in the hell is going on around here, he would say.

The waiting made him anxious because his grueling scenes came at the end.  (To preserve the last bit of MMs sanity, the film was shot in order, a rare occurrence.) Again, while he didn't actually do all of the rugged horse scenes, he had to do some of it.  It took its toll.

By the last day of filming, the movie was 40 days over schedule and a half million over budget.  That last day was November 4, 1960, and 12 days later, the 59-year old Gable was dead.  He wasn't even around when his last and best film opened on February 1, 1961.  Monroe killed Gable was whispered everywhere and made it occasionally into print.  She felt the heat and the guilt.

We all know, of course, that The Misfits was not only Gable's last film but Monroe's last completed film as well.  She died under mysterious circumstances in 1962 at age 36.  Even Monty Clift would only make three more films and he would be dead in 1966 at age 45.

I have always found The Misfits to be a very fine film.  It was part contemporary western, part psychological character study and a moral parable.  It was given birth by a phenomenal writer and doctored along by one of filmland's finest directors.  Furthermore, I thought it contained some very good acting.  I read once that all five of the leads essentially played themselves.  They brought pieces of their own DNA to the parts.

Monroe rarely did dramas and is certainly not most remembered for them.  She wanted to do more but felt she never got the chance.  That's what being a part of the Actors Studio was about... to beef up her qualifications for taking on dramatic roles.  I think she succeeded, despite all we know.  She took on a little black and white flick and second billing, two circumstances that didn't occur in her later career, and she was luminous.

Have a look at a clip:

Robert Preston


  1. Loved your in-depth profile of one of my all-time favorite movies...an unrelentingly downbeat film, but so poetic and beautifully acted by all the principals. As I mentioned in my own blogpost of this film, Mr. Miller was obviously in a deep depression himself as he wrote the final shooting script...but he articulates psychic pain brilliantly.

    Thanks also for the kudos to Thelma Ritter...a secret weapon in every film she appeared in...she received something like 6 or 7 Oscar nominations, but never won it. I adore her!

    Agreed, the phone booth scene is among the best Monty Clift moments in a career full of triumphs...it's so raw and real.

    Gable and Monroe should be proud. Their last was among both of their bests.

    Love your blog!

  2. I remember reading your blog and seeing this was a favorite of yours, too. I was hoping you would like it and would write. Damn I wish I would have called Thelma Ritter a "secret weapon." Nice touch and so right-on. "The Misfits" is a living testimony to how bad the days at work can be and yet turn out so brilliant a film..

  3. I maybe wrong, but I think that all four felt deep inside the sadness contained in their roles. I mean for real. I consider The Misfits a farewell movie even though almost all of them - Gable excluded of course- kept on working. Not for long unfortunately. thanks, as usual, for your wonderful post.

  4. You are not wrong at all. They all dug deep into their own psyches to come up with these exceptional performances. So glad you enjoyed and took the time to write... as always.