Why John Huston Gambled On Marilyn

Marilyn films a scene with her Asphalt Jungle co-star Louis Calhern

It’s often said that careers are made by talent, hard work, and a little luck. Marilyn’s breakout role in The Asphalt Jungle required all three, as Michael Boyle writes for Slash Film. Although Boyle states that she auditioned twice for the part, I believe it’s more likely that her screen test and the filming of a key scene have been conflated. (In his autobiography, An Open Book, director John Huston recalled that she won the part ‘because she was damned good.’)

“As hard as it may be to believe in light of her later fame, there was a time when Marilyn Monroe struggled to land even a small role in a major film … It wasn’t until she starred in The Asphalt Jungle, released in June of 1950, that her film career really took off. But depending on who you ask, she nearly didn’t get the part.

The more common story of how she got the part was that Johnny Hyde, the executive vice president at the William Morris Agency, got her an audition, where she won the role immediately despite her nervousness and self-doubt. Thinking she did poorly at first, she asked director John Huston if she could do a second take, but it wasn’t necessary: Huston had already decided to hire her from her first take alone.

The other story of how she got the part is a lot more complicated. As supported by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer archives, another blonde actress, Lola Albright, was originally the favourite for the role … When Albright turned down the role … [MGM’s] talent director, Lucille Ryman Carroll … one of the first people to have faith in Monroe’s potential star power … took full advantage. As explained at Turner Classic Movies:

‘It turned out that Huston, an avid horseman, had a team of Irish stallions boarded and trained at Carroll’s ranch, and he happened to be $18,000 in arrears for payments to the ranch … Carroll informed Huston that if he did not allow Monroe [her] shot at the role, the ranch would sell his stallions and collect the money due. Huston did not refuse the terms, and Monroe got [her] screen test.’

The $18,000 Huston couldn’t afford to pay back to Carroll is typically attributed to the gambling addiction that was known to get him into constant trouble throughout his life. Bad luck for Huston, very good luck for Marilyn.

Marilyn’s performance in the film was praised by critics and her career quickly skyrocketed … Marilyn would get to work together with director John Huston again in 1960 with her final film The Misfits, and always spoke positively about her time working on The Asphalt Jungle. ‘I don’t know what I did,’ she said, ‘but I do know it felt wonderful.'”

Marilyn with director John Huston