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Marsha Hunt: Great American Actress and Activist

Marsha Hunt entertaining American troops

As we recently celebrated our country's 234th birthday, I'd like to tell you about a patriotic American I have come to know and love, Marsha Hunt.

Many people remember Marsha Hunt as an actress at Paramount and MGM in the '30s and '40s. Fewer people remember her tireless activist and humanitarian efforts beginning during World War II. Servicemen in Los Angeles, soon to be shipped to the Pacific spent many a night at the Hollywood Canteen where Marsha volunteered, while her husband Jerry Hopper was away in the army. Every Saturday night, a thousand men an hour came into the Canteen. Marsha signed almost five thousand autographs a night and danced with nearly as many soldiers.

Clark Gable was the chairman of the Hollywood Victory Committee, an organization that was set up to utilize Hollywood celebrities in support of our troops at home and overseas. As a member of this group, Marsha toured veterans' hospitals in California, Texas and Louisiana. The hospitals were so large that she would spend three days at each hospital, performing for and comforting injured soldiers.

In between filming eight war-related films for MGM, Marsha went on U.S. war bond tours across the country, raising thousands of dollars for the war effort. She also gave “morale booster” speeches in weaponry and aircraft plants to weary factory workers.

Marsha hounded MGM to let her go out of the country to entertain the troops. She finally got her wish, joining fellow performers Kay Francis, Reginald Gardiner, Patty Thomas and Teddi Sherman on a six-week USO tour of the Arctic and Canada in 1944. This group performed for soldiers that were on assignment in the most remote parts of western, central and northern Canada and Alaska.

In her autobiographical pictorial book The Way We Wore: Styles of the 1930s and '40s and Our World Since Then, Marsha shares this reflection on why this USO tour meant so much to her:

“I hadn't realized before, how much movies mean to their audiences, and how a player seen often on the screen becomes a kind of friend in common with everyone else. Thus, to meet a familiar actress in person, way up in the Arctic Circle was to find a link with all else that was familiar, a link, in short, with home. Back flooded memories of seeing her movies with one's best girl, buddy or family. That link brought a kind of warmth to the chill surroundings, a kind of reassurance to isolated, lonely men who, more than anything else, longed for home.”

Following the war, Marsha worked steadily in radio, films, TV and Broadway, and it was there that her luck ran out in 1950. She went from being the “toast of the town” to “persona non grata” when her name appeared in the right-wing publication “Red Channels.”

It was a trip she took around the world in 1955 that opened her eyes to her true calling in life. Dismayed by the poverty she saw on this trip, she realized that she'd been on a soundstage for so much of her life and that there was so much to learn about the world. She vowed in that moment to become a “planet patriot.”

One of Hollywood's first celebrity activists, Marsha worked with the United Nations Association when it wasn't popular to do so. Even after her local United Nations gift shop was firebombed, she didn't relent, but went out on the lecture circuit, fighting ignorance and raising awareness. She had limited funds but unlimited passion.

The United Nations Association is only one of many, many non-profits that Marsha Hunt has supported over the last 55 years. For her twenty-five years of service to the United Nations Association, Marsha was awarded with the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award, the organization's highest honor. This award meant even more to Marsha because she knew and admired Mrs. Roosevelt.

In 1983, Marsha was named “honorary mayor” of Sherman Oaks, a position she held for 18 years. As honorary mayor, she was one of the first to recognize a growing homeless community in her neighborhood, so she spearheaded fundraising and opened the first two homeless shelters in the San Fernando Valley, one specifically for women and children.

As “honorary mayor,” she could have rested on her laurels as a “celebrity” but chose to do what she had always done when faced with challenges: she acted on her conscience. Having been a resident of Sherman Oaks since the mid-1940s, there was no way she could sit back and allow people to suffer needlessly. Not in this town she cared so deeply about.

NPR's All Things Considered recently did a piece on Marsha and the 60th anniversary of “Red Channels,” a publication from 1950 that purported to identify Americans of dubious allegiances and that included Marsha in that number.

Here is the link to the five-minute story. Please take the time to listen.

It broke my heart to hear Marsha state her fear that she will be remembered only for being blacklisted rather than for the work she had done as an actor. I have taken on the task of ensuring that this is not so by producing Marsha Hunt's Sweet Adversity, a feature documentary on Marsha's life and achievements.

It is my fervent desire this documentary will serve as a “document of social activism” to inspire a new generation of activists who may be feeling “helpless” in these uncertain times and to let them know that there can be a positive result of their dedication. In telling Marsha's story, we get to show the audience how one act of generosity can have a “ripple effect” from generation to generation.

As much as Marsha was committed to activism, she was equally committed to her acting career. I am proud to tell you about an important acting milestone that Marsha has recently achieved. Seventy five years ago, on May 14, 1935, Marsha Hunt signed a contract with Paramount Pictures. Her story of how she came to sign with this studio is the stuff that dreams are made of.

All she ever wanted to do was act. She's still got the acting bug. In 2008, she gave a “tour de force” performance in the “film noir short” The Grand Inquisitor. If you've never seen this, you owe it to yourself to check it out here.

I am so proud of what Marsha stands for. She is the epitome of overcoming adversity with elegance and grace. She put her country and the town she loves before her own needs and is a role model for what it means to be a patriotic American.

Roger C. Memos is an Emmy-winning TV producer and independent film producer.

For more information on how you can support the documentary with a tax deductible donation to Marsha Hunt's Sweet Adversity, please go to
http://www.documentary.org/community/IDA-resources/fiscal_sponsorship_donate?film_id=3094.

A version of this article was initially posted at http://marshahuntdocumentary.blogspot.com/.

Photo: Roger Memos

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2 Comments to Marsha Hunt: Great American Actress and Activist

  1. Hi Joe:

    I wanted to let you know that I am directing a documentary on Marsha Hunt. We finished filming and are trying to raise funds to edit the film. I hope you can take a look at our website. i share yourlove and respect for Marsha. I'm sorry she doesnt go on the internet but I will let her know your sentiments.. Kind Regards,
    Roger C. Memos

  2. Joe Lilly

    Dear Ms. Hunt,
    I first saw you on a TV showing of of the film “The Human Comedy”. I was a teenager at the time; but it was love at first sight. That was almost 50 years ago. Since then I have tried to catch all of your films on Turner Classic Movies, or wherever I could find them.

    When I discovered you were victimized by the blacklist, I became intellectually “enamored” with you as well. I would like to read more about your latest activities. Please reply.

    Thank you,

    jl