The Misfits: A finale for both Gable & Monroe (1961)

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While the “finale” in the original article title refers to the fact that this was Clark Gable’s last movie — he died just 12 days after filming of The Misfits ended — looking back, we can see that the phrasing was oddly (and sadly) prescient: Time would eventually reveal that this was Marilyn Monroe’s final film role, too.

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A famous pair — and a finale

Clark Gable came to The Misfits full of beans. In it he plays a character he loved — Gay Langland, a free-roaming, woman-loving wild horse hunter at war against a society that would tame him. He takes up with Marilyn Monroe’s Roslyn, the most loving and man-wanted woman in town. And the conflict between a vigorous Gable and gentle Marilyn is the essence of Arthur Miller’s screenplay, written especially for his wife Marilyn, and soon to be released by United Artists.

This was a movie that should have gone along easily — so well fitted were the players to the misfits they played. As the fancy-free divorcee who takes up with footloose mustang wrangler, Marilyn plays a role into which are written bits and pieces reminiscent of her own life. The wrangler is all uncomplicated masculinity, virile, violent and, in spirit, the perfect part for Clark Gable. To help the two, there was a top director, John Huston, and fine supporting actors — Thelma Ritter, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach.

But as always, there were troubles: forest fires and dust storms delayed the shooting, and Marilyn collapsed with heat fatigue. This time the troubles went far beyond ordinary bad luck. At film’s end came the unhappy announcement of Arthur and Marilyn’s divorce, and then the final tragic news of Clark’s death.

clark-gable-marilyn-monroe-misfits-jan-1961-life (5)But the movie had been completed. Gable especially was enthusiastic about it. If he judged aright — and he was ever slow to praise his own movies — his last film will be one of his best.

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Photo caption (right): Long look from male to female takes place at a mountain cabin where Clark has taken Marilyn, his latest Reno conquest. Happiness reigns. She has just gotten a divorce and he has broken up with his previous girl, who wanted him to take a steady job.

Revealing talk from an old pro

During the making of The Misfits, James Goode, a former Life reporter, had many long shoptalk sessions with Gable and from them came a picture of the star that will surprise many who thought they knew him. Behind the famous face and he-man personality of the screen star was a thoughtful man with a solid background of stage experience and a thoroughly professional respect for his work. Here are some of the things he told Goode:

“The acting I know — what I know of it — originally came by working with professionals in the theater. Before I made my first movie I played for such directors as Arthur Hopkins, George M Cohan, David Belasco. I played heavies, comedy, a white-haired judge, a Chinaman. I also played Shakespearean roles, understudying Dennis King as Mercutio, Rollo Peters as Romeo and Lewis Hester as Tybalt, memorizing all the parts.”

“Acting has always been and still is with me a profession, not an easy one to learn. I learn something new in every picture. I do not know what they mean by a ‘finished actor.’ As far as I know, finished is when you can’t get a job.”

“Lionel Barrymore persuaded me to try pictures in 1930. Talkies were just coming in and he said ‘You’ll find the picture business has changed. The silent picture people don’t talk so well.’

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“He arranged a screen test for me at his studio MGM as a native boy in The Bird of Paradise. All I wore was a G-string, a hibiscus over one ear and a knife. I was painted brown and they had curled my hair. The studio chief, Irving Thalberg, took one look and said, ‘Never.’ Later he hired me at $650 a week.”

“I would not have taken The Misfits part, even if I liked the man, if the rest of it was weak. But it’s a strong play. One actor never made a picture. The play must have something to say. I’ve never played a part exactly like this fellow. He interested me. As I saw it there’s not many of these fellows who refuse to conform to the group around.”

“If The Misfits inspires youngsters sufficiently even to think about being themselves, it will help.”

“A man my age [59 years young] has no conception of what is happening now. We are left out of society. These atom bombs — that’s another world — one we don’t understand. I grew up with the automobile. Now it is antique as the horse.”

Photo caption (below): His work in danger, Clark races to retrieve the horses which Marilyn has frantically been setting loose. But in the end he frees a wild horse himself, thus surrendering his own freedom to Marilyn.

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