Home Entertainment Marsha Hunt, movie star faced with blacklist, dies at 104

Marsha Hunt, movie star faced with blacklist, dies at 104


Marsha Hunt, a wartime Hollywood actress who played all-American girlfriends, wives and mothers in the 1940s and saw her career wither after protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee’s witch hunt over communist activities in the movie colony, died with her on September 7. at home in Sherman Oaks, California. She was 104 and had spent the past seven decades as a formidable humanitarian activist.

Roger Memos, the writer-director of the documentary “Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity” (2015), confirmed the death, but did not know the direct cause.

Few artists had a more favorable start. After a brief modeling career in Manhattan, Ms. Hunt went to Hollywood at age 17 on the advice of an admiring photographer who sensed her future in film and devised a ruse to pique the interest of film studios.

A photo of her was sent to every newspaper in Los Angeles with text about how the radiant cover girl turned down many studio offers. Of movies, she was quoted as saying, “No pictures for me.”

The intrigue worked, she landed a contract with the Paramount studios and landed the romantic lead in her first film, “The Virginia Judge” (1935), opposite Robert Cummings. With her heart-shaped face and healthy appearance, Ms. Hunt was cast in more than a dozen films in her first two years on screen — some opposite John Wayne and Buster Crabbe. Few were distinguished enough to catapult her to cinematic heights.

Ms. Hunt said she begged studio executives to end her streak of dewy coed and romance-minded ingenues and give her a better set of parts, even if it meant a drop in marquee billing. She said Paramount officials told her she seemed ungrateful given her stardom. After her contract expired, she became a prodigious freelancer, often working in low-budget “poverty” studios.

“I was 20 years old at the time and I was an ash leg because I only played sweet young girls,” she says told the publication Film Talk in 2004. “I took everything I could get, just to keep busy,” she added. “I worked in studios that shot pictures in six days — and I mean entire feature films.”

A small role in the popular Andy Hardy series – as a prodigal woman in “The Hardys Ride High” (1939) – led to a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the most prestigious studio in town.

Ms. Hunt became one of MGM’s most reliable and compelling champions of second-rate jobs. In “Kid Glove Killer” (1942), a tight suspense film with slightly comic elements, she played a retrieval assistant to Van Heflin’s forensic scientist. She was the affectionate wife of Robert Young in “Joe Smith, American” (1942) and the darling of the brave pilot Franchot Tone in the war propaganda film “Pilot #5” (1943).

She also won supporting roles in A-list productions, including “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, “The Human Comedy” (1943) with Mickey Rooneyand “The Valley of Decision” (1945) with Gregory Peck and Garson.

“I didn’t care about billing,” Ms Hunt told Film Talk. “I didn’t care about starring, fame or anything like that. I didn’t want to be a star: I wanted to be the best actress I could be and they made me grow with every role.”

In addition to her screen work, Ms. Hunt also became known for her volunteer efforts to raise morale and funds for the Allied war effort in World War II. She embarked on a USO tour of Canada and Alaska, sold war bonds, and captained a team of hostesses at the Hollywood Canteen that dealt with soldiers on leave. “I think I danced with 5,000 men every Saturday night,” she later said.

After the war her career came to an end. In a small role she was cast against the type – like a vampire — in “Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman” (1947) starring Susan Hayward as an alcoholic singer. Ms Hunt was also unlucky to be the good girl in the crime drama “rough deal” (1948).

She successfully turned to TV and Broadway to boost her profile and showcase what Hollywood hadn’t fully captured from her reach. Reviewing her work as Viola in an NBC production of “Twelfth Night” in 1949, New York Times TV critic Jack Gould praised her understated charisma and mastery for making Shakespeare’s couplets sound effortlessly conversational.

Her work as a vicar opposite Maurice Evans in a well-received 1950 Broadway revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple” brought her to the cover of life magazine — a big publicity grab. Her timing was unfortunate. Her name also appeared shortly after in Red Channels, a pamphlet that sparked anti-communist paranoia and had a huge impact on hiring decisions at TV and movie studios.

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The most serious charge, Red Channels noted, was Ms Hunt’s membership on the First Amendment committee. This group of about two dozen high-profile entertainers, including Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacallflew to Washington in 1947 to protest the imprisonment of 10 Famous Writers, Directors and Producers for contempt of Congress for refusing to reveal their political allegiances to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Decades later, she recalled the HUAC investigation as “a horrendous display of civil rights denial.” It was an era when livelihoods were ruined by allusions of allegiance to Moscow, and although she was never jailed or charged with any crime, she found her work drying up. She told the New York Herald Tribune in 1956 that she had twice signed an anti-Communist oath of loyalty to get jobs in film and TV, but that she drew the line by placing an ad in trade magazines.

“I’ve taken several pictures already, but it’s quite a rigid wall,” she told the Herald Tribune. “The price of work today is guilt and repentance. I’m not guilty, so I can’t repent. If only I had been a communist, I could have joined the other prodigal sons and daughters and would have been welcome back into the fold.”

Marcia Virginia Hunt was born in Chicago on October 17, 1917, to an insurance company executive and a singing teacher. She grew up in New York, where she became interested in acting in elementary school. After graduating from Horace Mann High School for Girls at age 16, she became a John Powers model to subsidize her drama classes.

Her first marriage, to Paramount film editor and future director Jerry Hopper, ended in divorce. She was then married to screenwriter Robert Presnel Jr. from 1946 until his death in 1986. Her stepson, Peter Presnell, died in 2020. She had no immediate survivors.

Ms. Hunt worked periodically after the blacklist era — most notably as the mother of a disfigured war veteran in “Johnny Got His Gun” (1971) — but she said the “momentum” in her film career was over.

She was drawn to activism, propelled by a two-month trip around the world in the mid-1950s. Being exposed to what they call the ‘extremes of beauty and splendor and . . . the misery of abject poverty” fueled her involvement with the American Association for the United Nations. (The group supports the world organization and is now known as the United Nations Association of the United States of America.)

The Hollywood Antifa of the 1940s

As president of the San Fernando Valley branch, she raised funds and was a passionate voice on food insecurity, refugee crises and other humanitarian issues. After a homemade bomb destroyed the office in 1963 — part of a pattern of similar terrorist attacks targeting the UN group and interfaith officials in the area — she spoke out against right-wing extremism. Decades later, she worked to alleviate homelessness in the Los Angeles area.

She was rarely more expressive than when she spoke of a life of defiance of authority.

Recalling her blacklist, she told Film Talk: “I was told it wasn’t really about communism – that was what scared everyone – it was about control and power.

“The way you gain control,” she continued, “is to get everyone to agree with what is right at the time, whatever is accepted. Don’t question, don’t speak out, don’t have ideas of your own, don’t be outspoken about them, never be articulate, and if you’re ever one of those things, you’re controversial. And that is just as bad, if not worse, than being a communist.”

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