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Mystique of ‘The Misfits’
by Harry Spencer
Feb 18, 2011 | 2998 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
AP Photo - Cast and principals of “The Misfits”, 1961. Front row, left to right: Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable. Back row, left to right: Eli Wallach, playwright Arthur Miller, and director John Huston.
AP Photo - Cast and principals of “The Misfits”, 1961. Front row, left to right: Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable. Back row, left to right: Eli Wallach, playwright Arthur Miller, and director John Huston.
For a motion picture that was routinely panned when it was released some 50 years ago to still attract followers today is rare indeed.

However, that was the case Sunday afternoon when a special screening of “The Misfits” was held at the University of Nevada, Reno and hosted by Robin Holabird, former film commissioner for the state.

The movie, which was shot primarily in this area during the summer of 1960, starred Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter. It was directed by the iconic John Huston and the screenplay was by playwright Arthur Miller — Monroe’s husband at the time — based on a short story he previously had published in Esquire magazine. Essentially it was about a dying breed of cowboy who still had roots in the Old West and his buddy who was a pilot who enjoyed using his flying skills to assist in rounding up wild horses on the Nevada range.

The cowboy was played by Gable and the flyer by Wallach. The two of them come across a comely young divorcee, played by Monroe, and her boarding house lady, portrayed by Ritter, in a small bar at Harrah’s Club in downtown Reno. Monroe had just obtained her divorce from actor Kevin McCarthy in a brief scene at the Washoe County courthouse.

Wallach, a widower, has the hots for Monroe, but she soon opts to be Gable’s girl and the story progresses from there.

Shortly thereafter the original foursome is on the way to a rodeo in Dayton and along the way they pick up a professional rodeo competitor played by Clift.

The heart of the movie occurs when the three cowboys invite Monroe to accompany them on a wild horse roundup and the nexus of the conflict is that Monroe cannot handle the cruelty to the animals and she converts Gable to her way of thinking.

When the movie was released in 1961 it received poor reviews since most critics said that it was too dramatic to be a Western and too Western to be a drama.

However, over the ensuing five decades the film has developed a cult following and it is now a staple on cable TV. One of the reasons for that might be that it was both Gable’s and Monroe’s last film. Clift only did a little work after “The Misfits” before he died.

This writer’s involvement with “The Misfits” came about because of a late night call from Walter Ramage, who in 1960 was manager of the Mapes Hotel in Reno. Since the Mapes was one of my clients and my offices were located in the hotel, the call was not unusual. When Ramage asked me to meet him in the lobby as soon as I could get there, I knew it had to be important.

Arriving on that chilly late evening I came upon Ramage in hat and topcoat and he quickly ushered me out the front door and we literally trotted down the alley along the river to the nearby Holiday Hotel (now the shuttered Siena). Along the way I asked him, “What’s up?” and he replied I would soon find out.

Reaching the lobby of the Holiday we joined two men and their luggage and Ramage asked me to give them a hand with their bags. I couldn’t figure out the connection and was simply introduced to the tall, bald individual whose name was “Doc” Erickson and the other, shorter and scowling man named Tommy Shaw. It wasn’t until we had gotten them checked into the Mapes and repaired to the Coach Room for a few cocktails that I learned the pair was the advance team for a major motion picture called “The Misfits” that was to be filmed here.

As the conversation wore on I found out that the two had originally struck a deal with Holiday to house the cast and crew for the duration of the local shoot but Ramage had caught wind of this piece of big business and had contacted Erickson and offered a much better deal at the Mapes. In essence, we hijacked a lucrative deal. Management of the Holiday was extremely cool to us for the rest of that year.

Everyone was ensconced at the Mapes except for Gable and his wife, who at the time was pregnant with Gable’s only child. Arrangements were made for them to reside at a rented mansion adjacent to the Washoe County Golf Course.

As it turned out, the location of the shoot kept getting extended mainly due to Monroe’s chronic tardiness and her complete absence on several occasions. What it meant for the hotel was extended business and the opportunity for us to capitalize, publicity-wise, on the many writers and correspondents who came from all over the world to cover the most expensive black-and-white movie ever shot, up until that time.

During one of those lulls in the shooting the Virginia City camel races were born when one of Huston’s buddies, professional jockey Billy Pearson, showed up in town and was challenged by Huston to a camel race there.

While I had many assignments related to the movie company, mostly in handling the world press that came to town, one of the more daunting tasks occurred when I got a call from Wingy Grober, who was the general manager of the Cal-Neva Lodge at North Shore Lake Tahoe. He said Frank Sinatra, who was currently appearing in his showroom, wanted to invite the principals of the movie to be his guests at a Saturday night dinner show. I told him I’d pass on the request and I saved Gable for last since he was the easiest and most affable of the company. Everyone down the line committed to go and I approached Gable, who said, “Sure, if everyone else in the crew can go.” I relayed this info to Grober and the phone almost melted when I told him of Gable’s stipulation. He said he would get back to me about adding another hundred-plus people. Finally, he did and said Frank would accede to Clark’s request if that was the only way to get him to come up.

The full story of that night is worth another column.

Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.
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