Behind the Scenes: “The Misfits” (1961)

Arthur Miller, author of arguably the greatest play of the 20th century,  Death of a Salesman, had gone to Reno to get a divorce so he could marry Marilyn Monroe. While there, he befriended some cowboys who took him with them while they caught horses. He turned the experience into a short story The Mustangs, published in Esquire (October 1957 issue). It provided the basis for the screenplay The Misfits. While the character of Roslyn, played by Monroe, was based on another woman, Miller explained, “I had written it to make Marilyn feel good.”

In July 1958 he sent it off to director John Huston, not just on account of a body of work that included The Big Sleep (1946) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), but because he had nursed Monroe through her debut on The Asphalt Jungle (1952) calming her nerves by telling her “if you’re not nervous you might as well give up.” Miller felt Huston would “present Marilyn with the bracing challenge, her fighting her problems through to a fine performance.”

Huston was enthusiastic – he saw the story as representative of a “dog-eat-horse-society” – and called the writer over to his house in Ireland where they spent two weeks putting the finishing touches to the screenplay, except for the last 15 minutes. Originally, it was a lengthy piece, almost an epic, production executives timing it at two hours 47 minutes, too unwieldy for a standard drama, so inevitably compromise would be required.

For tax reasons, Huston wanted to film in Mexico but relented and agreed to shooting it in Nevada. Talent agency MCA, which represented Huston, effectively put the film together as a package. Although Robert Mitchum was initial first choice, when he didn’t respond the screenplay went to Clark Gable, another MCA client, who accepted immediately. Eli Wallach was next on board. At this point, with only six films under his belt and better known for his work on Broadway, Wallach would not have expected to see his name above the title. But he was told that his name would be second to appear on the credits, after Gable.

But as the weeks went by and first Monroe then Montgomery Clift – both MCA clients – signed up his name slipped further down the credits. He consoled himself that his name would be “first position under the title” as that billing position was technically known. That proved an illusion. Thelma Ritter, apparently, boasted greater box office wattage so in the final credit rankings he placed fifth.

Although Monroe was viewed as the most mentally fragile, Clift and Gable also had issues to overcome. Due to the injuries suffered in a car crash and his well-known dependency on drugs, nobody would insure Clift but eventually an agreement was reached. Gable failed the medical, having gained 35lb while filming  It Happened in Naples (1960) in Italy, ballooning his weight to 230lb. But two weeks later he was cleared.

The producer for such a heavyweight production was an industry lightweight. Frank E. Taylor’s main claim to fame was that he had been Miller’s publisher before he achieved fame as a playwright, working for the small company that published the author’s non-fiction work Situation Normal (1944) and the novel Focus (1945). Taylor had some Hollywood experience, but after four years employed there managed only one credit, John Sturges’ film noir Mystery Street (1950).

The original plan to start filming in September 1959 was scuppered by the incompletion of It Happened in Naples so it was shelved until the next spring. The next start date – March 3, 1960 – was an unexpected casualty of the Actors Strike which had delaying shooting on Monroe-starrer Let’s Make Love by five weeks. So when that film finished on July 1, there was little of a break for Monroe what with costume and wig fittings and test photographs before reporting on July 18, 1960, for what was expected to be a 50-day shoot, for The Misfits.

The budget was set at $3.5 million – a substantial amount for a black-and-white picture – with $1.6 million going to the principals. Clark Gable was down for $750,000, Marilyn Monroe and John Huston $300,000 apiece – although a generous profit participation scheme could see the actress earn as much as Gable – and Arthur Miller on $225,000. It was shot mainly on location in Nevada at Reno, Dayton and Pyramid Lake (a misnomer because it was all dried out) with a couple of weeks’ studio work at the end. Unusually, it was being filmed  in chronological order to assist Monroe achieve her characterization.

Taylor had achieved a publicity coup by convincing famed photographic cooperative  Magnum to cover the shoot in depth. Photographers of the calibre of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Inge Morath and Eve Arnold worked in teams of two, each for a 15-day stint. Bresson would say of Monroe’s ethereal beauty: “I was struck as by an apparition in a fairy tale.”

Before a foot of film was exposed, the movie was in crisis. The script had been refused approval by the Production Code, the self-censorship system to which all studios subscribed. Code head honcho Geoffrey Shurlock complained that “the illicit relationship involving Roslyn and Gay seems to lack effective compensating moral values…(with the) difficulty that your story readily accepts illicit sex rather than condemning it.”

While there was publicity value to be gained from a tussle with the Production Code, it would not sit well with the distributors. The lack of a rating would inhibit many cinemas from risking a booking, despite the box office appeal of the cast.

Everyone had known going into production that getting Monroe on the set at all never mind in a condition to work would be a considerable achievement. Aware of her inability to rise early, Huston had shifted the daily start time by an hour to 10am. Sometimes shooting was restricted to only a couple of hours per day and since she was in most scenes there was a limit to how much the director could shoot around her.

Among the cast nobody knew her better than Eli Wallach. He had met the actress several years before when she had popped backstage after his performance in Teahouse of the August Moon on Broadway. He recalled: “She looked nothing like the movie star I’d seen onscreen; she wore a simple dress and had short blond hair. She was pale, shy, and wore no lipstick.” They became friends and would go out dancing. He introduced her, gradually, to The Actors Studio where she met Lee Strasberg, husband to Paula who became her acting coach.

“By the time we began to work on The Misfits in 1960,” said Wallach, “she seemed to have become a different Marilyn than the one I had known in New York, and the action that happened off-screen during the making of the film seemed to rival what was happening onscreen.”

Even so, the early part of the shoot went well. Commented Wallach, “Her mood waned and she began to lose her self-confidence.” For one scene where she was to do nothing more difficult than cross the road, she kept stopping halfway through. She had forgotten her motivation. Huston advised, “Your motivation comes from your need to cross the street without getting hit by any of the cars.” The next take was perfect.

But the signs of trouble were there from the outset. The evening before her first scene a nervous Monroe nearly took an overdose of Nembutal. Her unpredictability meant that on some days she only managed an hour or two, other days nothing at all. On August 27 she collapsed and was sent to Westside Hospital in Los Angeles for treatment, where she could be weaned off her addiction to barbiturates under the care of her analyst, not returning until September 6. On September 12, 13 and 19, she was indisposed and didn’t turn up for work.

If this was a case of life imitating art – her marriage to Miller was falling apart – she seemed to react to some lines as if the words were intended for Marilyn and not the character she was playing. In one scene Gable says, “You’re the saddest girl I ever met. What makes you so sad?” Monroe burst into tears. Wallach surmised, “Marilyn seemed to feel that the camera could detect her innermost thoughts.” In another scene, where Monroe and Wallach dance she “seemed upset and unhappy.”

Apart from casting her in The Asphalt Jungle, Huston had “saved her from the casting couch” by prior to that film setting up a proper screen test for her opposite John Garfield, providing her with a calling card that would reduce the requirement for her to jump into bed with a producer to get a part. But even on The Asphalt Jungle, she seemed dependent on her acting coach, at this point Natasha Lytess. “At the end of a take,” recalled Huston, “Marilyn would look to her for approval. The coach would nod her head.”

Monroe was taking pills to go to sleep and pills to wake up in the morning. The doctor on location eventually refused to give her any more, but of course she found them elsewhere. After visiting her in hospital, Huston was convinced the worst was over. But her renewed effervescence didn’t last.

“Marilyn returned to her old ways as though she’d never had a break,” recollected Huston. “One Sunday afternoon I visited her in her suite to get an idea of what to expect in the week ahead. She greeted me euphorically – then went into a kind of trance. She was the worst I’d ever seen her. Her hair was a tangle; her hands and feet were grubby; she was wearing only a short nightgown which wasn’t any cleaner than the rest of her.”

Despite her personal problems, Monroe was an extremely skilled actress. Observed Huston, “She could be marvelously effective. She wasn’t acting – I mean she was not pretending to an emotion. It was the real thing. She would go deep down within herself and find it and bring it up into consciousness.”

Huston, not necessarily known for accommodating actors, turned on the charm, always agreeing to another take if Monroe or Paula Strasberg (paid $3,000 a week) asked for it. Although most people disparaged Paula’s presence on the set or, more correctly, Monroe’s dependence on her, Huston acknowledged that without her his job would have been more difficult and he called a halt to crewmen nicknaming her Black Bart after her choice of clothing, habitually a black sack dress and black hat. So integral was Strasberg to Monroe’s life that the actress later moved from a hotel room shared with her husband to Strasberg’s apartment.

When even Strasberg failed to control her client, her husband Lee, the inventor of the Method School of acting which had revolutionised American drama, was flown in from New York. He had a different take on the situation. The problem wasn’t with Monroe but Huston. The director’s – refusing to deal directly with Paula. Raged Lee:  “I will not tolerate this treatment of her, she is an artist,” threatening remove his wife from the picture.

Miller saw it differently: “Coach (Strasberg) was a little crazy, she was an opportunist I thought and not competent to help.” However, there was a very real issue to be addressed. Monroe had never come to terms with her fame and could not cope with the pressure of being the screen character with whom the world was infatuated.

Monroe’s technique was very individual. “I don’t want to discuss the Method. I don’t believe I have the experience. I try to use Method to the best of my ability. It makes working more possible…The writer has done the words then it’s up to the actor…I can’t work unprepared, I’d shoot myself. I can’t memorize words by themselves. I have to memorize the feeling.”

Clark Gable was on a career high, at least in terms of remuneration, earning $750,000 a picture, on a par with John Wayne and William Holden, the highest-earning stars at the time. Gable had the privilege of being paired with some of the top female stars – But Not For Me (1959) with Carroll Baker, Doris Day in Teacher’s Pet (1958) and Sophia Loren on It Happened in Naples, the title a twist on his star-making picture It Happened One Night (1934), and more than holding his own against Burt Lancaster in war picture Run Silent, Run Deep (1958).

Despite his commercial appeal he held to a particular ethos when choosing a role. “If I hadn’t liked this story I wouldn’t have done it no matter how much money they offered me,” he said. “I have to like the story or I won’t do it…I never select a part for the part itself. I always look at the overall story first.” Of his character, Gable observed: “He’s the same man but the world has changed. Then he was noble. Now he is ignoble.”

The press was salivating over the prospect of The King falling for The Blonde Bombshell. But regardless of her physical attractions, Gable was put off the actress by her untidiness and her lack of personal hygiene. But he was not perturbed by her behavior. “I’m just unhappy about her problems, her fears, her personal life, but if I were to chastise or criticize her it would only deepen her despair,” he said. When, largely thanks to Monroe’s hospitalization, shooting continued past the original completion date he was compensated to the tune of an extra $48,000.

With the male actors, Gable had a tendency to get off on the wrong foot. Initially annoyed with Montgomery Clift for fluffing lines, they became good friends after trading insults. But it took John Huston to end an unexpected rift between Gable and Eli Wallach.

Prior to their first day working together, Eli Wallach was surprised to answer a knock on his hotel room door to find Gable’s assistant Bama Davis who asked him to read to the visitor the scene they would perform the next day. Somewhat puzzled by this behavior and worried this approach was indicative of the actor, Wallach did not speak to Gable when they first met. It fell to Huston to break the ice by handing both actors a shot of Jack Daniels.

Gable was more sensitive to his own performance than you might imagine. He asked Huston to reshoot the scene where he wakens up Monroe because he “didn’t think he showed the love that was necessary.” He refused a stunt double for the scene where Gable, Wallach and Clift try to throw the mustang. In the film the mare dragged Gable and Wallach around the lake floor. In reality, in long shot it was stunt double Tom Palen being dragged by an actual horse. For close-ups of Gable while there were no horses in sight, the star was still dragged at 35mph for 400ft behind a truck. It took 28 cuts of Gable for the stallion fight to be matched with second unit footage.

Gable was angry at the way the second unit treated Tom Palen. After the stuntman had already endured two injuries Gable drew the line on hearing that he was called upon to be smashed on the face by hooves.

Gable was immensely proud of his work. “I have two things to be proud of in my career – Gone with the Wind and this one.”  He later amended that to, “This is the best thing I did in my life.”

John Huston and Reno, where the film crew were housed, were a match made in heaven. The director was an inveterate gambler. He lost $25,000 one night but won it back the next and some. Overall, he left with less than when he arrived.

But he had an artist’s instinct when it came to film. He was not one for giving much direction. Huston expected “actors to be themselves, he didn’t interfere very much with their interpretation.” He prided himself on telling an actor as little as possible. “When I have to step in, I feel defeated.”

But he knew what he wanted and how, technically, to get the best out of an actor. At first Wallach played his drunk scene with rage until Huston pointed out that drunks always try to pretend they’re sober. And Huston knew what he didn’t want. Which was unwanted advice from an actor. For one scene with Monroe, Wallach expected a close up and committed the cardinal error of pointing this out to the director. “Never,” growled Huston, “never tell a director where to set up the camera.”

For Montgomery Clift’s first scene where he is seen talking to his mother in a callbox, Huston wrapped it after the first take, ignoring Clift’s pleas for another shot. ‘You’ll never do it better,’ said Huston, ensuring he did not fall prey to Clift’s lack of self-confidence either.

Monroe seemed to instinctively understand – and approve of – Huston’s technique. “He watches for the reality of a situation and he leaves it alone and he waits until he needs more or less before he comes in.”

Monroe wasn’t the only one whose illness shut down the set. Shooting on October 3 was cancelled because Huston came down with a recurrence of bronchitis due to the alkali dust on the dry lake. He was missing again the following day.

But if the actors in general appreciated Huston’s technique, Arthur Miller did not. It was unusual for a screenwriter to be present during the entirety of a shoot. For all that he brought certain extra intensity to scenes he re-wrote and his improvisation resulted in at least one great scene – Monroe’s paddle-boarding was not originally in the script but incorporated after watching her play with the toy between takes – Miller was generally a pain in the butt.

With no experience of moviemaking he clearly regarded himself as something of an authority and failed to recognise the distinction between the production of a play – where the writer was top dog – and a movie, where he was not.

Miller complained to Huston and Taylor about the lack of atmosphere, calling for more long shots “to constantly remind us how isolated these people are.” He had the temerity to criticize Gable’s performance. For one scene he observed that the actor had not “shown sufficient expression in his eyes.” Gable patiently explained that actions had to be minimized because they would be magnified a hundred times on the screen. “He turned out to be right,” conceded Miller, “he had simply intensified an affectionate look that was undetectable a few feet away.”

“I learnt from John,” said Miller, “ that he would pack the lens with material and let the camera choose…he put a lot of elements in front of the camera and let it find its way. So there’s not a lot of cutting from one face to the other ion conversation.” (In fact, this was old-school filmmaking where characters were grouped together rather than filmed apart). But he complained vociferously about the director’s positioning of Monroe fifty yards from the camera for her “Murderers! Murderers!” scene.

Miller thought such distance would ensure she wouldn’t be heard. But when Miller saw the rushes he realised the director was right. Huston wanted to portray Monroe at this point “as if she were a voice lost in the wilderness.”

Miller also wanted one scene which fades to darkness. Huston had to explain the practicalities. “You can only have one light in any given scene. In plays you can dim the light through a scene but not in a motion picture. You’re asking for values that aren’t there.”

His presence certainly wasn’t doing his wife any good. It might have been better if he had been absent, since the marriage appeared to disintegrate under their noses. He was being prophetic when he said of her first scene: “I couldn’t help feeling her disappointment not only in her character’s marriage but in her own…I had sensed something withdrawn in her, not merely in the character she was playing.”

He was prone to rewriting, in part with what he believed were better ideas, but also to emphasize developments he perceived in the characters as their screen personalities unfolded. By October 6 Gable had enough of the constant script changes and refused to film anything that had been written after September 20. Luckily, he relented and agreed to shoot the much-revised final scene. But even Miller received his come-uppance on a personal level. One day on location miles into the desert, Huston came upon a stranded Miller, abandoned by Monroe and her entourage.

Four-time Oscar nominee Montgomery Clift had an extraordinary success rate in pictures. Up till now he had appeared in only thirteen pictures but at least half were gems – Red River (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951), I Confess (1953), From Here to Eternity (1953), Raintree County (1957), The Young Lions (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). But a bad car accident in 1956 exacerbated his drug and sexuality issues and he was considered an unexploded grenade. “He’s the only person I know who’s in worse shape than me,” said Monroe.

In fact, perhaps encumbered with helping nurse Monroe, he was able to put his own problems to one side. Apart from the early tiff with Gable, his most difficult point was when he received rope burns during his part in the mustang chase. He had forgotten to put on gloves at the start of the scene and he couldn’t suddenly appear with them on when he had to haul on the rope.

The longest scene lasting all of five minutes. The longest Huston  had ever shot and one of the longest ever committed to camera was shot “day for night,” the effect achieved by a red lens opening and using red and green filters. The shooting area was covered by a black tarpaulin to kill the direct rays of the sun. Big 10k lights were hauled in to give the effect of moonlight on Monroe and Clift. Second unit director Tom Shaw was on standby with insect spray to keep insects off the actors.

But the long stretches of dialog defeated the actors and finally to save film on wasted takes Huston sent them off to rehearse by themselves. After several takes they completed the scene without missing a line. But there had been a problem with Clift’s bandage so the scene required reshooting. First Clift fluffed a line, then Monroe, then Huston interrupted, objecting to the camera position, “that’s a most unflattering angle.” After Clift fluffed a line once again, it was done.

For another scene at the lake also shot “day for night,” the cowboys did not actually build a camp fire, that was artificial, lit underground using gas, while trees and bushes were planted for the occasion.

If you ever wondered how movie crews get the bashes in bashed cars, the answer is they put them there. Monroe’s new Cadillac was battered by sledgehammers to represent a vehicle dented by admirers wanting to attract Monroe’s character’s attention by bumping into her.

It wasn’t just Monroe who caused problems. Two forest fires on August 20 saw Reno covered in black smoke with 200 firemen attending the blazes. Within a day the fire had consumed 35,000 acres and caused $200 million in damages and cut the power lines to Reno.  However, the crew reacted by bringing a lighting truck and generator from Dayton.

On October 24, the crew was shipped back to Hollywood for scenes and footage requiring back projection. Landscape scenes of Pyramid Lake, for example, were screened behind the aeroplane and for scenes taking place in cars. Huston had commissioned 360-degree stereopticon shots of the lake so that single head shots could be used with rear projection.

Among the reshoots was the dance sequence at the Stix house “to show more joy and abandon” and the scene on the truck bed between Gable and Monroe in which Miller had complained “there was a lack of interaction between the two players.”

The scene where Gable was trampled by the horse was reshot with artificial hooves. Buckets of actual alkali from the lake were spread on a wooden platform, the artificial legs in the end manipulated by Huston. The last scene shot was a retake of Gable and Monroe in the station wagon. “For the first and last time on the picture,” observed journalist James Goode, “Huston didn’t ask for another take.”

Final scene was shot on November 4 – 40 days behind schedule and $500,00 over budget. One week later, Miller and Monroe announced their separation. Twelve days after shooting ended Clark Gable was dead.

Although the general impression given was that Taylor was a competent producer, in fact he saw his role in a different light. “I have this absurd Machiavellian function…the screenplay here has been a vindictive instrument which Arthur and John are using to attack each other.” He noted: “All the energy is going downhill when it should be going up,” adding,  “the writer is blaming the director and the director is blaming the writer.”

Taylor was enthusiastic about the completed film. He told his Max Youngstein of United Artists, “It’s like an express train. It has a pace, a speed you don’t see in the screenplay itself. The script will get an Academy Award and Clark…this is a major-size hero we have on our hands.” But Youngstein was disappointed, concerned it lacked the Huston touch.

In post-production the Production Code situation was exacerbated by the fact that the completed film could, conceivably, contain a scene where Marilyn Monroe showed her right breast. This appeared to have come about by accident.

Nudity was certainly not in the script as no mainstream studio at that time would greenlight a film showing naked breasts. For the bedroom scene on September 21, as Monroe rises from the bed to put on her bathrobe, nine takes in all were filmed. In Take 7 she revealed her right breast. That was the one originally printed.

There were arguments that the nude scene should be included at least for the overseas market where censorship was seen to be less onerous. But Frank Taylor argued that Take 7 should be included for the domestic market. Since the movie was on course anyway to be denied the Seal of Approval from the Production Code there seemed little to lose by including the nudity.

Although Arthur Miller was undecided, Marilyn Monroe was happy enough. “Gradually, they’ll let down censorship” and she suggested that nudity was one way of pulling viewers away from television. Max Youngstein of United Artists was enthusiastic. It was Huston who nixed it, commenting, dryly, “I have always known girls have breasts.” And finally Taylor gave ground after realising that the film would be forever remembered as the one where Monroe revealed a breast rather than for its artistic merit.

The distribution approach was risky. Usually, at that time, big films went out slowly, launched in one or two cinemas in the major cities, and held over there for weeks at a time until ready to slip down the food chain. Instead, UA planned to make available 1,000 prints simultaneously, a distribution technique known then as “saturation” – what today we would term “wide release.” But that was traditionally reserved for low-budget offerings of the here-today-gone-tomorrow variety where the movie had vanished before bad word of mouth could spread. UA had precedent for taking this route. It had used saturation for The Magnificent Seven (1960). But that had been a flop. In the end The Misfits did decent enough business, though not at the level you would have expected from the cast.

In writing this article I delved deeply into the James Goode book, which I can highly recommend, on the making of the film, especially as he goes in for the kind of detail normally excluded from “making-of” books.

For example, he provides a complete breakdown of costs. Apart from the $1.6 million already mentioned, other costs include $200,000 for production, $85,000 for sets, $45,000 for lighting, $39,000 for sound, $150,000 for transportation, $32,000 for negative film (200,000 feet at 0.454 cents a foot), and $25,000 for positive prints. There was $750 per week to rent the generator, $225 per week for the small camera dolly, $400 per week for the motorized camera crane, $200 per week for folding chairs and $200 per month for Monroe’s trailer.

Hiring Boots the stunt horse cost $150 a week against a 10-week guarantee. There was a $10,000 bill to build the rodeo ground, $500 to rent the saloon, $15,000 went on renting the Stix house and $1,000 for use of the lake. The production paid for 17,570 lunches at $2.75 a head. There was $6,000 for hotel accommodation and $2,000 for the Dodge truck used in the lake scenes.

As many as 1,500 extras were called up and paid immediately. Stunt doubles, whether on contract or salary, were paid a base sum plus a bonus according to how much work they did on a given day. Sometimes the media was given a daily meal allowance, but other times not, the same being true for accommodation.

The final cost of the picture was $3.995 million. I found that a fascinating figure. Sure, it was nearly $500,000 over budget. But the film shot for 90 days instead of 50. In other words, shooting the extra 40 days cost proportionately little. Yes, Clark Gable accounted for another $48,000 in overtime but did this really mean that contracts were so tight that it effectively ensured that everyone, once signed up, could not leave until the movie was finished and not receive compensation on a pro-rate basis?

SOURCES: James Goode, The Story of The Misfits (Bobbs Merrill, 1963); Arthur Miller, Timebends,  A Life (Grove Press, 1987); Eli Wallach, The Good, the Bad and Me (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005); David Bret, Clark Gable, Tormented Star (JR Books, 2010); Arthur Miller, Serge Toubiana, The Misfits (Phaidon, 1963); John Huston, An Open Book (Macmillan, 1981); Arthur Miller, “Monroe Miller Magnificent Misfits,”  Washington Post, December 13, 1987.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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