The 1961 movie, The Misfits, is notable for its critical acclaim, its star-studded cast and its fame as the final film appearance for Marilyn Monroe and co-star Clark Gable. I retraced Marilyn Monroe’s experience filming The Misfits in Western Nevada in order to uncover some of the mystique surrounding the actress and the Levi’s® jeans she famously wore in the movie.
Directed by acclaimed film-maker John Huston, The Misfits features Monroe as a divorcée who falls for an over-the-hill cowboy (Gable). Gable plays a stubbornly independent cowboy who is known to occasionally drink too much. His rodeo-riding sidekick, Montgomery Clift, also appears in the film.
The black and white film showcases rugged Nevada landscapes near the Comstock — the site of one of the world’s richest ore discoveries that sparked a silver rush in the 1850s. Mining camps and commercial centers, like Virginia City and Gold Hill, flourished for decades around the Comstock Lode. Tailor Jacob Davis even operated a business in Virginia City before partnering with Levi Strauss & Co. on the patent for the first riveted pants, today’s blue jeans.
I started my journey in the Comstock at Virginia City’s Edith Palmer’s Country Inn, the place where Marilyn stayed while filming The Misfits.
“She didn’t want to stay with the rest of the crew,” said inn owner Leisa Findley. “Marilyn’s chauffeur picked her up and dropped her off here every day.” Theorizing about Monroe’s motivation for separate living quarters (her room pictured below) Leisa explained, “It was during the time that she was leaving her husband.” Her spouse? Playwright Arthur Miller. Renowned for writing the American tragedy, Death of a Salesman, Miller also wrote The Misfits featuring his wife in what became a real-life tragedy — Monroe’s final film before her untimely death one year later. Monroe stayed in Virginia City while Miller and the rest of the crew stayed at the Mapes Hotel in nearby Reno.
I interviewed the inn owner about her memories of The Misfits. Leisa was only ten years old during the filming and recalled the memorable scene when Monroe makes a ruckus beating a paddle ball in a cowboy bar. “I could hear them,” Leisa said, “The entire crew would count aloud.” During the scene, Monroe hits the paddle ball repeatedly and the entire bar erupts into counting. While the film makes it looks seamless, it took Monroe multiple takes to capture the continuous paddling.
Although Monroe wore a dress for the bar scene, she donned Lady Levi’s® jeans in other key scenes in the film, a flattering fit for her signature curves. In one scene Monroe wears jeans while gardening, her sexy silhouette prompting admirers to purchase their own Levi’s® jeans.
After Virginia City, I drove to Dayton, the place where The Misfits was filmed. Monroe’s Levi’s® jeans may have been purchased at Braun & Loftus General Merchandise in Dayton. The town remains much the same is it did during the filming. I spotted the Braun & Loftus building, today a restaurant, by its colorful exterior sign. It displayed advertisement for Levi Strauss & Co.’s copper riveted overalls, the original name for blue jeans. Levi’s® overalls were a popular choice for the miners and farmers who worked in Dayton at the turn of the century and in the decades that followed. Braun & Loftus, with its Levi Strauss & Co. advertisement, appears in a 1905 photograph of Main Street that I found at the Dayton Museum.
The Misfits features prominently as a milestone in Dayton’s past. Dayton’s drama troupe, the MISFITS Theater Group, was named for the movie and continues to produce plays in the community. The film also appears on a brochure about the town’s history.
I finished my journey viewing the flat lakebed near Dayton where one of the final film scenes was shot. Wild horses still roam the area and I was fortunate to spot a few in the distance. In the climactic scene, Monroe is distraught as she watches Gable breaking a wild horse. She is dressed in Levi’s® jeans as she runs across the open lakebed and pleads with Gable to stop. Monroe looks at once rugged and practical, cowgirl Western yet stylish and cool.
Despite her death from an overdose one year later, Monroe left an imprint on the places and people she touched in The Misfits. “To Edith Palmer and her oasis in the desert and warm hospitality,” Monroe wrote to the inn owner who made her feel at home during the filming. “May I always be a welcome guest. Marilyn Monroe.” Despite its lack of popular appeal, the film received critical acclaim. More importantly, Monroe’s appearance in Levi’s® jeans helped popularize the denim pants — women wanting to dress as Marilyn bought their own blue jeans.
In the years following the movie, blue jeans became a signature garment for teens, rebels and others. The film’s title also became a prologue to another group of 1960s “misfits” who would feature prominently in San Francisco’s drug and hippie scene also dressed in Levi’s® jeans. By the end of the decade, jeans were the preferred garment of counter culturists, musicians, and even rock fans at mass gatherings like Woodstock in 1969.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tracey Panek is the Historian for Levi Strauss & Co. where she manages the day-to-day workings of the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives as a key corporate asset, answering historical questions, assisting designers, brand managers, executives and other employees whose work requires historical materials in the Archives.
Prior to joining LS&Co., Tracey spent 14 years as Historian and Archivist at AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah where she managed a corporate history program for the 100+ year old company. She began her corporate history career at AirTouch Communications—today Verizon and Vodafone—a San Francisco based company that launched cellular service at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
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