Episode 52: The Misfits (1961)

Film chosen and introduced by Devlin

It’s now 60 years since this film was released. In the ebb and flow of pop culture, especially in cinema, it’s possible this film feels, to a lot of viewers, like a relic of a distant and unknowable past. I mentioned within the episode the strange juncture in movie history in which the film emerged – a few years before the New Hollywood revolution, or the rise of the Movie Brats, or the American New Wave, or whatever your chosen terminology is for the post-Bonnie and Clyde rush of director-controlled, art house-influenced hits that broke out in the late 1960s before succumbing to the dominance of the megablockbuster in the early 1980s. The great thing about creating these sweeping, generalised movements in art and culture is that it helps us create a narrative we can use to navigate history – and history is always written by the winners. In this instance, seemingly as it always is, we turn to the Boomers.

In classic Hollywood, the duration of the Golden Age has itself been difficult to define. Some would say it began with Birth of a Nation in 1915, the notoriously racist first full-length feature which utilised what we would now think of as a traditional narrative, and takes in the great silent movie innovators of the late 1910s and 1920s. Others say it started in earnest with 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the first feature talkie which allowed Warner Bros., previously a mid-sized studio, to purchase its own chain of theatres and ascend to the ranks of the majors, shoring up a monopoly that saw America flooded with picture houses and glamorous movies to an overwhelming saturation. Perhaps the most notable year for our purposes is 1939, which saw huge audience numbers flocking to era-defining classics like The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Of Mice and Men and, most relevantly, the record-breaking Academy Award winner for the year, Gone With The Wind.

Clark Gable was often referred to as The King of Hollywood. His star aligned with a period of extraordinary industry success, with a stream of hits like It Happened One Night and Mutiny on the Bounty preceding his much-vaunted turn in Victor Fleming’s epic historical weepie. Notwithstanding an understandable reevaluation of its racial insensitivity, the film remains a pop cultural titan, albeit one more talked about than actually watched these days, I’d wager. Which sort of encapsulates the invisible line between what we think of as being ‘old’, and what we think of as belonging, in some sense, to the ‘modern’ canon. Gable’s big hits listed above, while well known titles, just aren’t widely viewed any more, at least among my generation, and that includes people who would consider themselves cine-literate. While asking a film student if they’ve seen The Godfather and if they’ve seen Gone With The Wind, the former will win out every time. It’s of course just a simple matter of the passage of time, sure – the cultural signifiers and filmmaking style of a film from 1939 are just more remote to modern viewers than one from 1971. Yet The Godfather itself turns 50 years old this year, but still feels like it belongs to the same continuum of cinematic language and pop culture that we are currently living in. People will reference The Godfather as inspiration for films and TV series; they’ll make video games of it; the studio and director still return to re-edit, remaster, and re-release it. Nobody these days is making their own Gone With The Wind. Why does 1961 feel so old, yet 1971 seems so accessible? How to explain this exceptionally long tail of cinematic reference? Were the movies of the late ’60s and ’70s so undeniably brilliant that their influence refuses to fade? Or could it be that the generation that made them, and made them massive hits, refuse to take their hand off the tiller? Enter 2019’s most obnoxiously omnipresent phrase: OK boomer.

It helps massively, of course, that Gen-X and Millennials alike grew up worshipping at the altar of the Movie Brats and ensured their continued relevance in the process. Scorsese for the edgy dudes; Spielberg for the masses; Lucas for the ‘geeks’; Coppola for the ambitious/pretentious (delete as appropriate); De Palma for the weirdos. Just as there were, and still are, plenty of bands barely in to their 20s who’ll try and ape the jangle of The Beatles, or the swagger of the Stones, or the blissed out harmonies of The Beach Boys. Just as vast swathes of the entire comics medium still has to operate within the boundaries of characters and origin stories laid out 60 years ago, if not more (and, of course, those same characters going on to dominate the majority of the last decade of mainstream cinema, alongside their Disney cohorts over in the ’70s-created Star Wars Extended Multimedia Universe). The baby boomer generation, and their music and movies and TV of choice, looms exceptionally large over our cultural landscape still. But as for our Misfits stars, Marilyn Monroe is a knock-off Athena poster at least 5 people you knew at university had, and Clark Gable is a name magazine feature writers dig down for when trying to summon up a simile for whichever suavely handsome 30-something is currently trying to break out in to the A-list. Their films tend to be thought of as gleaming, shiny objects with big rousing scores and GLORIOUS TECHNICOLOR VISTAS. Clips in a ‘100 Greatest Moments’ segment. Objects to be discussed, not watched as entertainment. They’re not often thought of as films which may be emotionally resonant or captivating in the same way that post-’67 fare is. They can be beautiful, they can be sturdy, they can be glamorous, but because of that, we don’t expect them to be intimate. It’s why stars were stars – they were bright and beautiful and distant.

While the date of the beginning of the Golden Age can vary to some degrees, some consensus exists that it petered out in 1963. A combination of factors coalesced: the continued fallout from the United States vs. Hollywood antitrust lawsuit that effectively killed the studio system; the rise of TV ownership; increased competition from abroad (not least the emergent James Bond franchise from the UK). That situates The Misfits at the very tail end of this era, and as we discuss at length in the podcast, it feels very much like an elegy for it. We unravel the misfortune and tragedy that follows in its wake, but as much as the real-life, behind-the-camera drama bleeds in to and amplifies the on-screen kind, the other reason I wanted to discuss this film with my co-hosts is the way it sits so strangely between the two film movements. It truly is a misfit.

As a film, it’s baggy, and talky, and intensely focussed on characters who are as hopelessly adrift as any that Antonioni or his American acolytes cooked up; as sombre and prone to outbursts of rage and despondence as in any Cassavetes film. It’s about death, a very specific kind of American death – the death of the ‘old ways’, whatever they were. The taming of the West, and the relics who tamed it and now can’t adjust to the pedestrian, sanitised version it became. This kind of stuff was the bread and butter of the New Hollywood output – The Wild Bunch, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, all the way up to Michael Cimino’s infamous era-bookending Heaven’s Gate. It’s a black and white memento of a bygone age, just like The Last Picture Show or Paper Moon. And yet, it delivers all of this through the icons of the Golden Age, men and women who counted, even still at this time, as among the most famous people on the planet. It stripped back their layers of glamour and offered glimpses of the very frail humanity beneath, in the sort of performances that would become commonplace for the subsequent generation of stars who realised they needed to be messier, more relatable, more rough around the edges than the polished studio performers like our cast here. It’s without doubt a grand film, directed by a sturdy old hand and written by an established cultural titan for his megastar wife. The behind the scenes footage shows just how enormous a production this was, considering its tight focus and minimal locations. It belongs in neither camp, yet contains elements of both.

That’s the thing about organising and filing culture in to eras and movements – you get the broad sweep, the easy narrative to digest, but it can be easy to lose sight of the individual films within. Especially films like this: difficult to classify, messy, anomalous. It’s why I wanted to talk about it – to hopefully encourage anyone who, like me, wrote off the Golden Age era in my younger days. I found this remarkable film a vital gateway to stepping across the invisible divide between the ‘modern’ and the ‘old’ to see that, for as many stagey and square films didn’t do anything for me, there were, in every era, films to be discovered which had the capacity to captivate and challenge. It helped me remove another prejudice that I didn’t even realise I had. And more than anything else, it affected me very deeply.

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