The Misfits and the End of an Era


By 1961, the Hollywood Studio System had begun a slow rot from the inside out which would, by decade’s end, see to its total collapse thus ending the Golden Age of classical Hollywood. The Misfits, directed by John Huston and penned by Arthur Miller, is a fascinating relic from those years in flux that bewildered its audiences just as much as it bewildered the execs.  On paper, the words Clark Gable (the king), Marilyn Monroe (the queen) and Montgomery Clift (the rebel) looked like box office magic. The result is a mixed bag that would be Gable and Monroe’s final film, and one of Clift’s last.

So if you’ve not seen The Misfits, it is a semi-romantic drama revolving around a curious love quadrangle: Aging cowboy (Gable) falls for a beautiful but damaged divorcee (Monroe) and the two set up, uh, housekeeping in a cottage in the Nevada desert belonging to Gable’s friend (Eli Wallach) who also happens to have the hots for Monroe, but she seems to be more emotionally attached to their punch-drunk friend Perce (Clift). It’s an odd structure, perhaps due to the fact that there isn’t any, as Miller masquerades a deeply intimate, and highly modern, character study as a Western romance.

It was no secret that Miller wrote the screenplay for his wife. The role of Roslyn could have been played by anyone, sure, but perhaps no other performance would have been nearly as truthful. In The Misfits, Marilyn is not acting. She is Marilyn– exposed and naked and shivering in the scalding Nevada sun. There is a moment towards the end of the film when Monroe accompanies Gable, Wallach and Clift to go “mustang’n” as they call it (roping up herds of wild mustang), where Marilyn erupts in a way that is, to this day, unsettling. The emotionally fragile Monroe, who has been horrified by the ferocity required in Gable and Wallach’s trade, finally has a meltdown. She is a white dot in the Nevada desert, screaming “MURDERERS” with blood-curdling tremor. Clift, the one emotional connection she has in the film, senses she’s right and, usurping Gable’s leadership, sets them free.

Monroe hated the moment.” He could have written me anything, and he comes up with this. If that’s what he thinks of me, then I’m not for him and he’s not for me.”

The emotional instability and frustrated relationships on the screen absolutely mirror what was going on behind the scenes.

By the time filming began in the High Sierras, the Miller/Monroe marriage was over. The two weren’t on speaking terms, although for sake of keeping up appearances, they shared a suite on location. But the cast and crew on this hellish shoot found themselves inadvertently herded off like the mustangs, into separate camps: Camp Miller and Camp Monroe.

Monroe, never the easiest actress to work with, had by this time become so addicted to pills that it was almost impossible for her to work. She suffered from acute insomnia, taking up to four Nembutals a night, and still could not sleep. As result of her insomnia, and a drug-induced state of paranoia, Monroe caused extreme delays in shooting, shutting down production entirely on three separate occasions.

Marilyn on set (copyright Magnum photos)

Clift too had reached a crisis point in both his professional and personal life and, being an insomniac like Monroe, was similarly dependent on pills. His alcoholism had earned him a high-risk reputation that made the Misfits crew apprehensive. Producer Frank Taylor was kept on 24-hour call should Monroe or Clift have … an emergency.  “Monroe and Clift were psychic twins,” said Taylor. “They recognized disaster in each other’s faces and giggled about it.”

There in the midst of Monroe’s endless delays, Miller’s frantic rewrites, Huston’s laissez-faire directorial approach (he seemed more interested in the gambling casinos than anything else), and Clift’s drug problem, Clark Gable labored to remain a true professional.

In the film, Gable’s character is a Cowboy forced to face the fact that (to steal from Margaret Mitchell) his civilization is one that has gone with the wind. The same was true of Gable himself, on the Misfits set.

Gable was, after all, The King of Hollywood: a veteran of screen who had weathered personal tragedies and career highs and lows with resounding resilience. Gable was a pro from the Studios System era when actors were, beneath all the glamour, 9-5 blue collar workers: they were up at 5am, were expected to show up on time, know their lines, and the directors were to get the job done on time and on budget. And so, the 59 year old, now looking older than his years, found himself on a set more or less rooted in chaos. The troubled shoot’s endless delays plagued Gable, who would retreat in the off hours to work on his new car and race it around the desert. As Gable became increasingly dissatisfied with the project, he began to drank heavily. (To say that Gable held his liquor better than his costars is quite an understatement.)

Gable was also unnerved by the acting approach of his costars: Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach were all Method actors. Monroe’s close friend and acting coach happened to be Paula Strasberg who was a constant presence on the set. Gable came from a more… square shooting school of acting, perhaps best summed up by Jimmy Cagney: know your mark and know your lines. And still Gable tried his best not to complain, and more importantly, remain sympathetic to everyone, especially Monroe and Clift.

From Warren Harris’ Gable biography:  “Monroe finally tottered out in stiletto heels and a low cut white dress, marched straight over to Gable and apologized for the delay. Gable put his arms around her and said, You’re not late honey,” and took her by the hand and led her to a quiet corner for a private chat. Whatever Gable told her made her giggle and then laugh out loud. From then on they had a cordial working relationship.”

The King & Queen of Hollywood

One of the few times Gable did throw something of a fit (and for good reason) occurred only after having been pushed to the limit by Clift, whose scenes often required many retakes. Clift was ad-libbing with Gable in a scene and took to playfully punching Gable in the arm. Gable had arthritis. After repeatedly telling Clift to stop (which only made the at times mischievous Clift do it more) Gable lost it and, in the middle of the take, bellowed “FOR CHRIST’S SAKE, CUT THAT OUT!”

Clift burst into tears.

Shooting stopped.

One can only imagine the look of disbelief on Gable’s face as he turned to the crew and shouted “What in the fuck is the world coming to!”

Only weeks later, on November 6 1960, Gable suffered a massive heart attack and, ten days later, the King of Hollywood was dead.

Gable’s refreshingly honest self effacing personality, manifest from the earliest days of his stardom, proved true even in death with his request of a closed casket. “I don’t want a bunch of strangers staring down at my wrinkles and fat belly when I’m dead.” This straightforward quality mirrors an interview from the glory days of the 1930s: “I don’t believe I’m king of anything. I’m not much of an actor… I’m no Adonis, and I’m as American as the telephone poles I used to climb to make a living. [Men] see me broke, in trouble, scared… they see me making love to Harlow or Colbert and they say if he can do it, I can do it, and figure it’ll be fun to go home and  make love to their wives.”

As is often the habit, Hollywood was eager to point blame on a premature death. Monroe’s behavior was such a stress on Gable it gave him a heart attack. Huston not using a double for Gable gave him a heart attack.

Gable and the end of an era…

Kay Gable’s now famous remarks to Louella Parsons are more or less the reason for this.

“It wasn’t the physical exertion that killed him, it was the horrible tension, that eternal waiting, waiting, waiting. He waited around forever, for everybody. He’d get so angry that he’d just go ahead and do anything to keep occupied. That’s why he did those awful horse scenes where they dragged him on his stomach. He had a stand-in and a stuntman, but he did most of it himself. I told him ‘your’e crazy’ but he wouldn’t listen.”

From John Huston’s autobiography: “One of the myths attached to ‘The Misfits’ was that Clark Gable died of a heart attack because of over-exertion on this film. This is utter nonsense. Toward the end of the picture there was a contest between Clark and the stallion the cowboys had captured. It looked like rough work, and it was, but it was the stunt men who were thrown around, not Clark.”

NOT a stunt double.

There is no denying the fact that The Misfits proved enormous strain on Gable, physically and emotionally. But. Be that as it may, the truth is, The Misfits didn’t directly kill Gable anymore than the Kennedy’s killed Marilyn. The strenuous Misfits shoot did not cause Gable’s premature death– but at the same time, cannot be disqualified as one of its many contributing factors.

Monroe did not attend Gable’s funeral (although Miller did), although it is reported she cried for two days straight after hearing the shocking news.

One year and nine months later, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her Beverly Hills home.

Upon learning of Monroe’s death, which shook Clift greatly, he was noted as having said ‘Hollywood deaths always come in threes. First Gable, now Marilyn… who’s next.’

Clift would make two more films after The Misfits: Huston’s Freud and Raoul Levy’s The Defector: the first a mistake from start to finish ensuring Clift’s inability to work anywhere in Hollywood and leading to the last film, a European spy flick filmed on the Continent. Like Gable, Clift would die of a heart attack before its release.

The eerie lyrcisism of Miller’s words would prove to be hauntingly prophetic: “Honey, nothing can live unless something dies.”

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Film writer and social media marketing professional. 2019 Social Ambassador for the 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Previously: social media associate at Warner Archive and script writer for Turner Classic Movies. Working on a Montgomery Clift biography due late 2020.

7 thoughts on “The Misfits and the End of an Era

  1. Thanks, Carly! Far better late than never!

    Gable’s big scene of drunken hysteria in The Misfits is terribly moving and impressive (if one can tear one’s eyes away from Monroe falling out of her dress). Seeing a big male star break down like that must have been shocking at the time — it’s like an analogue of the collapse of Old Hollywood.

    1. Cheers, mate! Still very embarrassed about my tardiness, but still! Anything for Shadowplay!! And you’re SO right: Gable’s meltdown is actually *difficult* to watch. “An analogue of the collapse of Old Hollywood” Do you know, you just summed up my entire post in 8 short, perfect words. THAT is why I love you!


  3. I worked for a large corporation for many years and unprofessional coworkers and inept executives pushing one beyond one’s limits can most certainly affect a person’s health, both physical and mental. I read Warren G. Harris’s Gable biography too and thought the threesome of Clift, Monroe and Huston all played a big part in making Gable ill. I left my job early and luckily “only suffered” panic attacks.

  4. I loved this post. And “The Misfits.” You may remember awhile back when discussing Monty Clift, I thought that his scene with Marilyn, his head on her lap, an extended one-take, single shot, was incredible. But here you’ve pointed out something important about Monroe, that I think (now looking back) was true — she seems to have been “herself” in The Misfits. It’s a cliche, but I get the feeling that there is more of the “real” Marilyn Monroe here than any other film. BUT . . . it seems to me to be true of both Clift and Gable as well . . . we are getting the essence of them, not simply “characters.” I never really thought about that until you mentioned it. It helps explain why this film, despite its flaws, has always resonated with me on another level. Thank you.

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