Dayton celebrates ‘The Misfits’ 50th anniversary
Toni Westbrook-VanCleave was only 6 at the time, but she still remembers Marilyn Monroe strapping on a toy gun belt and playing cowboys and Indians with her young brother during a break in filming of “The Misfits.”
Like other residents of Dayton, she had no clue of the demons that drove Monroe to be consistently late on the set, causing frustrating delays for director John Huston and co-stars Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.
“She was gorgeous, very sweet, naive,” recalled VanCleave, who was a $10-a-day extra during a rodeo scene. “She wasn’t snobby. She seemed real down to earth and friendly.”
In testimony to the public’s enduring fascination with Monroe, VanCleave and other locals will gather this weekend at Dayton Valley Days to celebrate the 50th anniversary of filming for the last complete movie for both Monroe and Gable.
Residents of Dayton, then an agricultural community of about 250, turned out en masse in 1960 to serve as extras or watch the filming, and those who are still around rave about the cast’s friendliness and accessibility.
“It was a big deal to have these Hollywood legends in town for a month or so. It’s a source of pride for us,” said Laura Tennant of the Historical Society of Dayton Valley, the celebration’s sponsor.
Filmed almost exclusively around Dayton and Reno in July-October 1960, the movie was plagued by almost daily delays caused by Monroe’s pill-popping to fall asleep and wake up, said Curtice Taylor, a New York photographer and son of “Misfits” producer Frank Taylor.
The producer would occasionally send his 12-year-old son to her trailer to check on her readiness, thinking a child would be less threatening than an adult, said Taylor, who witnessed most of the filming with his family.
“Nobody said anything to her about the delays,” Taylor said. “It could have made things worse. She was the star and she was incredibly vulnerable.”
Eli Wallach, 94, the only surviving cast member, said Huston told the actors not to complain about Monroe’s tardiness because it would cause her to cease functioning.
“Huston got us together and said he couldn’t make the movie without Marilyn,” Wallach said. “Marilyn had a lot of problems with time, but I never said anything that would make her unhappy. What could I do? She tried her best.”
Filming also was delayed by Monroe’s growing drug use that prompted her to seek treatment in Los Angeles. At the time, Huston realized the drugs were giving her a vacant look and taking away her ability to “seduce the camera,” Taylor said.
“In one scene while walking down the street on Clift’s arm in Dayton, she had the smile of a stoned person,” he said. “It’s not the 1,000-watt smile she usually had. The wattage wasn’t there.”
Despite an all-star cast and acclaimed director, “The Misfits” didn’t live up to Frank Taylor’s hopes for the “ultimate motion picture,” said former Nevada state Archivist Guy Rocha.
The dark, deep movie about the inner struggles of a group of fictional Nevada misfits was considered odd by the public and many critics, he said.
“It ended up a disappointment,” Rocha said. “It didn’t capture the public’s imagination. So much more was expected from the movie as far as financial return and critical acclaim.”
But the film has developed a cult following since the deaths of its stars, who played characters much like themselves, Rocha said. The movie centers on an insecure, lonely divorcee played by Monroe, an aging but sensitive cowboy (Gable) and a troubled but kind rodeo rider (Clift).
“What happens over time is this movie begins to get a following because of what happened after the filming,” Rocha said. “The movie freezes Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in time, and has a haunting quality.”
Just 12 days after filming ended, Gable died of a heart attack at age 59. Less than 21 months later, Monroe died of a drug overdose at age 36 in what was ruled a suicide. Clift appeared in several other films before he died at age 45 in 1966.