‘But I Ain’t Lost’: Values Can Help Us Navigate Change

The Misfits (1961 - BFI

The Misfits (1961 - BFI

'One thing about this town, it's always full of interesting strangers.’

The 1961 movie ‘The Misfits’ is a sad tale of lonely hearts, lost souls and the fading West.

Scripted by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston, it stars Miller’s then wife Marilyn Monroe as a recently divorced woman looking to start a new chapter. In Reno she encounters veteran cowboy Clark Gable and his tow-truck driving sidekick Eli Wallach. For a while they settle in Wallach’s unfinished house on the edge of the Nevada desert.

'That's what I can't get used to. Everything keeps changing.’

Gable has a wistful air. He’s a man out of time. He laments the passing of the old West and struggles to come to terms with modern life. Wallach mourns his wife who died in childbirth a year or so ago. It was for her that he was building the house. Monroe, scarred by previous relationships, seeks emotional truth and independence.

'If I'm going to be alone, I want to be by myself.’

They’re all misfits - trying to deal with the past, to find companionship, to define some relevance and purpose in the midst of progress and change. Having enlisted the help of rodeo rider Montgomery Clift, the men set about rounding up wild horses in the desert - a last taste of freedom and the autonomous life that is fast disappearing.

‘It's better than wages, ain’t it?’
‘Sure, anything's better than wages.’

‘The Misfits’ is a complex movie, a reflection on the rootless and displaced; on people left behind by progress, powerless to control their own lives.

At one stage Gable relates an anecdote which may provide a key to understanding the plot.

'Did you ever hear the story about the city man out in the country? He sees this fella sittin' on his porch. So he says, "Mister, could you tell me how I could get back to town?" The fella says, "No." "Well, could you tell me how to get to the Post Office?" The fella says, "No." "Well, do you know how to get to the Railroad Station?" "No." "Boy," he says, "you sure don't know much, do ya?" The fella says, "No. But I ain't lost.”'

There may be a lesson for us all here.

In times of transformation and upheaval, all around us we see doubts and dilemmas. We chase fads and fashions. We pursue answers - new horizons and fresh certainties. It’s easy to get confused and disorientated.  If we can just retain a robust sense of who we are, an adherence to some core principles, then maybe we’ll not get lost. Values can help us navigate change.

'You know, sometimes when a person don't know what to do, the best thing is to just stand still.’

An air of melancholy hangs over ‘The Misfits’. It was a troubled production. Huston drank and gambled his way through the shoot. Miller had written the screenplay for Monroe, but their relationship deteriorated in the course of filming. He was constantly redrafting the script and her addictions led to delays. Clift too was fragile. Gable, who had clearly been unwell, died of a heart attack a few days after filming ended. He was just short of sixty. Monroe passed away a year and a half later. ‘The Misfits’ was her last film.

Writing about Monroe in his memoir many years later, Miller observed the following:

'Whatever Marilyn was, she was not indifferent; her very pain bespoke life and the wrestling with the angel of death.  She was a living rebuke to anyone who didn’t care.' 

'I watched you suffer a dull aching pain.
Now you've decided to show me the same.
No sweeping exit or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind.
Wild horses couldn't drag me away.
Wild, wild horses couldn't drag me away.'

Wild Horses’, The Rolling Stones (Keith Richards / Mick Jagger)

No. 215

Clark Gable’s Vest: ‘Do Interesting Things and Interesting Things Happen to You.’

Scene from 'It Happened One Night'

Scene from 'It Happened One Night'

‘Do you love my daughter?’
‘Any guy that'd fall in love with your daughter ought to have his head examined.’
‘Now that's an evasion. I asked you a simple question. Do you love her?’
‘Yes! But don't hold that against me, I'm a little screwy myself!’

In 1934’s ‘It Happened One Night’ Claudette Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a society heiress who runs away from her father to rejoin her lover in New York. Chased by dad’s detectives, she travels incognito, cross-country on a bus. She reluctantly accepts help from Peter Warne, an out-of-work reporter, played by Clark Gable. It’s a charming, wisecracking comedy, with a sweet romance at its centre and random discourses at its edges: on dunking biscuits, hitching lifts and how to ride piggy-back.

Unintended Consequences

At one stage on their protracted bus journey together Ellie and Peter stop off at a roadside hotel and are obliged to share a room. Peter suspends a blanket between their beds, a ‘Wall of Jericho’ to preserve their decency. Whilst rehearsing for the scene in which they prepare for bed, Gable found it difficult to get through his quick-fire lines and undress at the same time. He determined to shoot the sequence without his undershirt so as to make it flow more easily. This subsequently led to a dramatic decline in undershirt sales across America and Gable was blamed forever after for crippling the underwear industry.

Creative enterprises generate any number of unintended consequences. In another scene of ‘It Happened One Night’ Gable chatted while chewing on a raw carrot. This inspired the characterisation of Bugs Bunny. Despite our best endeavours to make our creative outputs more scientific and predictable, they have an infinite capacity to surprise us - with any number of random repercussions, copycat crazes, and accidental asides.  

Poor Judges of Our Own Work

Clark Gable didn’t originally want to appear in ‘It Happened One Night’. He was loaned to Columbia by MGM as punishment for his affair with Joan Crawford. His first words when he appeared on set were: ‘Let’s get this over with.’

Claudette Colbert didn’t want to appear in the film either. She had not enjoyed working with director Frank Capra on their previous movie together and she only signed up when promised double her normal fee and a short four-week production. On completing the film, Colbert confided to a friend: ‘I’ve just finished the worst picture I’ve ever made.’

So confident was Colbert that her performance wouldn’t win an Oscar that she decided not to attend the ceremony. She had to be summoned back from a train station at the last moment to receive her award.

In the event ‘It Happened One Night’ became the first film to win the Oscar ‘Grand Slam’ of Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay. It was Columbia’s biggest commercial success to-date and kicked off a boom in Screwball Comedies.

To Colbert’s and Gable’s credit, they gave ‘It Happened One Night’ their best performances, despite their complete lack of faith in its qualities.

Scene from 'It Happened One Night'

Scene from 'It Happened One Night'

Creative people are not necessarily good at predicting winners or judging their own work. I recall one team refusing to put their name to a Levi’s ad they had written because it had been adjusted in the final edit. They changed their minds later when the film won bucket-loads of awards.

We all have opinions and perspectives on the Agencies where we will thrive, the accounts that will be fruitful for us, the scripts that will be award winners. But we never really know for sure. My first job was as a Qualitative Market Researcher and the very last project I worked on back in 1989 was an Audi study for BBH. This chance event led to me being hired by BBH and staying there for 25 years.

We can’t be too calculating with our careers, because our careers have a mind of their own. Sometimes we need to set aside our subjective assessments; to familiarise ourselves with Fickle Fate. We need to leave a little space for luck.

Leaving a Little Space for Luck

Frank Capra certainly seems to have been happy to accommodate a certain amount of luck and spontaneity in his creative process, as is evident from his description of his freewheeling approach on ‘It Happened One Night.’

‘We made the picture really quickly - four weeks. We stumbled through it; we laughed our way through it. And this goes to show you how much luck and timing and being in the right place at the right time means in show business; how sometimes no preparation at all is better than all the preparation in the world…You can never out-guess this thing called creativity. It happens in the strangest places and under the strangest of circumstances.’

The legendary screenwriter William Goldman went further still. He was convinced that knowledge and certainty are alien to the creative industry:

‘Nobody knows anything…Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.’

I’m well aware that genius requires 10,000 hours of practice and so forth; that Thomas Jefferson said: ‘I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.’ But I would still maintain that creative enterprises shouldn’t practice away spontaneity; that they should learn to accommodate uncertainty. Without chance we wouldn’t have Pacemakers, Penicillin or Play-Doh; X Rays, microwave ovens or Cadbury’s Flake.

Do Interesting Things…

If luck and good fortune play such an important part in creativity, should we give up on preparation and planning altogether? Should we set aside forecasting and prediction? Should we just abandon ourselves to chance?

That would be taking things too far. It’s the responsibility of leadership to create the conditions for success, and in a creative business those conditions include, amongst other things,  serendipity, spontaneity and happy accident. I think it is possible to pursue a planned course while leaving oneself open to opportunity; alert to possibilities. Sir John Hegarty would often say: ‘Do interesting things and interesting things happen to you.’ I’m sure that’s good advice.

Some fifty years after the release of ‘It Happened One Night’ Hegarty thought it would be interesting to have the hero of his laundrette-set Levi’s ad strip down to his boxer shorts. This rather stunned a culture hitherto wedded to Y-fronts and sparked a huge new craze for boxer shorts. The underwear industry finally had something to be thankful for.

No. 122