Marsha Hunt: Former MGM actress and social activist turns 95
Note from the editor: “Marsha Hunt: On Making Lemonade When Life Handed Her Lemons” was originally published on Dec. 7, ’07. The five-part Marsha Hunt article is being reposted in honor of Marsha Hunt’s 95th birthday yesterday, Oct. 17.
Producer Roger C. Memos is currently raising funds for the documentary Marsha Hunt: Sweet Adversity, about the former MGM actress’ life, film career, and humanistic social and political activism. You can contribute to Sweet Adversity at indiegogo.com. (Image: Marsha Hunt publicity photo ca. early ’40s.)
Marsha Hunt: On Making Lemonade When Life Handed Her Lemons
This past October 17, my dear friend, actress and social activist Marsha Hunt turned 90 years old. Her past few months have been a constant state of activity as the tributes to her seemed never-ending.
Turner Classic Movies honored Marsha Hunt with a tribute, showing eight of her films on her birthday. In Beverly Hills, the preservation group Hollywood Heritage held a screening of one of her favorite starring films, the 1946 MGM romantic comedy A Letter for Evie, ending with a party.
The following day she received the “Ambassador of Peace” award from the Women’s Federation for World Peace, USA in recognition of her groundbreaking work with the United Nations. And she has just returned from a doll convention in Pittsburgh where a collector’s edition doll created in her image and wearing copies of Marsha’s film costumes was introduced – and where more birthday greetings were lovingly delivered.
Then there are the book signings. She put together a one-of-a-kind coffee-table book called The Way We Wore: Styles of the 1930s and ’40s and Our World Since Then, a collection of movie and modeling stills from her career accompanied by stories of her life and films.
Also, Marsha has added the title “record producer” to her list of credits by producing her first CD. Called “Songs from the Heart” and featuring Tony London with the Page Cavanaugh Trio, it features songs from the American Songbook. A songwriter herself, Marsha wrote two songs that are featured on the CD. (Her good friends, legendary songwriters Ray Evans and Hugh Martin picked songs of theirs for Tony to perform on the CD.)
Marsha Hunt: New movie
But the biggest news of all is that Marsha has a film coming out in January, in which she plays a very dark film noir character.
The Grand Inquisitor is a film noir short set to premiere at the sixth annual Noir City Film Noir Festival in January in San Francisco. Marsha Hunt, the actress, will be gloriously rediscovered when The Grand Inquisitor is shown at film festivals around the world in 2008.
I am currently directing and co-producing, with Richard Adkins, a feature documentary on this ordinary woman who achieved the extraordinary in her life. Of all the projects I’ve worked on in this business, none has meant more to me than this one. Her story must be told. If I may, I’d like to give you the CliffsNotes version of her brilliant career and life achievements.
Marsha Hunt: Life and career
In May 1935, 17-year-old Marsha Hunt was on top of the world. As a John Robert Powers model in New York, she had a dream of becoming an actress that was about to come true. She came to the West Coast and discovered four studios clamoring to sign her to a contract. She decided on Paramount Pictures. (Image: Marsha Hunt in Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal, with John Ireland.)
Dubbed the “youngest character actress in America,” Marsha began her career as a leading lady with a salary of $250 a week, more money than other Paramount hopefuls of the time. In 1939, she switched to MGM, Hollywood’s most successful studio, where she continued to flourish, making 24 pictures on the Culver City lot over a seven-year period.
With her soldier husband overseas, Marsha became more involved in the war effort. In addition to making eight war-related films, she worked every Saturday night at the Hollywood Canteen, dancing and signing autographs for some five thousand soldiers. She raised money on war bond tours, visited and performed for the wounded at military camps and hospitals, and trained as a volunteer ambulance driver. She is most proud of the fact that she sang and danced for soldiers during a six-week USO tour of the Arctic.
Marsha Hunt: The post-war, post-MGM years
Following the end of both the war and her MGM contract, Marsha continued collecting film credits, working in films for United Artists, Universal, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and Columbia. She also added live theater to her repertoire, making her stage debut on Broadway in 1948, playing opposite Alfred Drake in Joy to the World.
She would find success in five more Broadway shows through the years. Life magazine featured her on the cover of its March 6, 1950, issue, doing a “day in the life” story about the young actress’ experience in her second Broadway show, The Devil’s Disciple.
Having done radio since the ’30s, Marsha was in demand for radio plays in both New York and Hollywood. She is best known for performing on Edgar Bergen’s The Charlie McCarthy Show. Guest spots on that new medium – television – followed. In 1949, a dramatic Marsha Hunt received a rave review from the New York Times for her portrayal of Viola in the first live, coast-to-coast production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, while a comic Marsha Hunt was the featured guest on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows not once but twice, in 1950 and 1951.
Marsha Hunt: Red Scare and the Hollywood Blacklist
Sixty years ago, on November 25, 1947, the heads of the major studios and several independent producer organizations met at the Waldorf Astoria to address the issue of communist infiltration in motion pictures. In a historic proclamation known as the Waldorf Statement, the studio heads and producers voted unanimously to refuse employment to the Hollywood Ten as well as to any Communist working in the motion picture industry. What was known in Hollywood unofficially became official: the Hollywood Blacklist was now a reality. (Image: Louis Jourdan, Marsha Hunt, Bobby Driscoll, Charles Boyer, Kurt Kasznar in Richard Fleischer’s The Happy Time.)
In his statement to the press, Eric Johnston, president of the Motion Picture Association of America stated that this new policy was not going to be characterized by hysteria or intimidation. He also promised that an atmosphere of fear in Hollywood would not be created and innocent persons would be protected. Johnston, however, did not keep his promise. There is at least one person I know who was innocent and was definitely not protected – Marsha Hunt.
Marsha was among twenty-six members of the entertainment industry who had gone to Washington to support nineteen Hollywood personalities called to testify at the U.S. capital in 1947. She did so because she believed what was happening in Washington was an unfair witch hunt that had to be stopped. But she also went for a more personal reason.
Producer Adrian Scott, one of the Hollywood Ten, was married to Marsha’s best girlfriend, actress Anne Shirley, and was a dear friend of her husband, writer Robert Presnell Jr. Marsha knew Adrian to be a man of honor and a gifted producer. She felt a special sense of outrage at the treatment he was being accorded by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Acting on their conscience, none of those who flew to Washington believed there would be dire consequences for their actions. Instead, they believed that standing up for their fellow artists would hasten the end of the hearings and prevent the possibility of further action to limit free speech in the entertainment industry.
On June 22, 1950, Marsha was one of 151 performers listed in Red Channels, a booklet published by the right-wing journal Counterattack. Marsha was wrongly accused of being a Communist sympathizer for her support of and participation in projects involving persons who were among those called before HUAC. With this publication, her career came to a quiet halt. There were no subpoenas, but after 54 films in 17 years, the job offers stopped coming in.
Anti-Marsha Hunt threats of boycott: The Happy Time
In 1952, while Marsha was filming The Happy Time for Stanley Kramer Productions, publicist George Glass repeatedly sent for her, citing threats from so-called (and nameless) patriot groups threatening to boycott and picket the film because of her. Glass insisted that she place full-page ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter renouncing her liberal positions, denying any Communist Party membership, and swearing undying hatred for Communism. Marsha refused.
As she recalled in Tender Comrades, Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle’s book on the blacklist, “I said to Mr. Glass, ‘I tell you what: If any of these shadowy groups wants to step forward and accuse me of some wrong, I will answer an accusation. Let somebody call me a Communist or charge me with subversive activities. Then I can answer. But I’m not gonna fight shadows.’” She held out. And there was no picketing or boycott of The Happy Time. Even so, she remained blacklisted as if she were a Communist.
Marsha Hunt activist and ‘planet patriot’
The focus of Marsha Hunt’s life changed after she and husband Robert Presnell Jr went on a trip around the world in 1955. For the first time in her life, she witnessed abject poverty in countries like India and Pakistan. Spending most of her adult life on a sound stage, she had no idea that this kind of poverty and despair was going on in the world. She came back to the States, vowing to learn all she could about how she could help to alleviate the pain and suffering she witnessed. Thus began the education of Marsha Hunt, “planet patriot” and citizen of the world. (Image: Marsha Hunt.)
Marsha spent 25 years as a board member of the United Nations Association, dealing with their specialized agencies. She was president of Southern California’s Valley UNA chapter for several years before she co-founded the Pacific UNA chapter on the Los Angeles Westside. Her idea for “Global Gifts,” a gift shop which she opened at the Encino UNA office, served as a successful business model for all UNA offices across the country.
Marsha Hunt: Fight for the world’s refugees, fight against hunger
In 1960, 15 years after the end of World War II, 25 million uprooted people remained stateless, jobless, and homeless. The United Nations declared 1960 “World Refugee Year.” To bring attention to the plight of those suffering, Marsha and husband Robert researched, wrote, and produced an hour-long documentary named A Call from the Stars. Marsha enlisted 14 of her prominent celebrity friends to appear in the nationally televised special. The special raised awareness and donations for the U.S. Committee for Refugees, on whose board she then served for over 20 years.
In the late ’60s, Marsha sat on the board of the American Freedom from Hunger organization. While on the board, she helped to organize the very first walk-a-thon in the United States. How about this: it was a 33-mile walk to fight hunger – in Fargo, North Dakota.
In the early ’70s, Marsha approached former vice president Hubert Humphrey with an idea she felt would be perfect for raising awareness about world hunger. She called the program “Thankful Giving.” Each Thanksgiving, Marsha proposed that families “pass the hat” and give a donation to a program that would help to stamp out hunger.
Humphrey was all for the idea, but told Marsha that she needed to write up the proposed legislation. Seven years later, the bill passed unanimously through the House and the Senate. Even though President Jimmy Carter mentioned “Thankful Giving” in his 1978 Thanksgiving proclamation, the program was never instituted because of a lack of funds. Marsha still works tirelessly, trying to get this simple program off the ground.
Helping the homeless in the Los Angeles area
From 1983 to 2001, Marsha Hunt was the honorary mayor of Sherman Oaks, over the hills separating the San Fernando Valley from the Los Angeles Westside. As mayor, she focused on helping the homeless in the Valley. She pulled together a committee of other honorary mayors and together they formed the charitable foundation Valley Mayor’s Fund for the Homeless. Marsha and the committee organized blanket drives, giving away thousands of Mylar blankets to the local homeless.
As a founder of the Valley Mayor’s Fund and a board member of the Valley Interfaith Council, she was instrumental in opening a much-needed homeless shelter in North Hollywood and the Woman’s Care Cottage, a center for battered women and children.
Marsha Hunt: Remembering the Committee for the First Amendment
There was one more event this past month in which Marsha Hunt participated. On Oct. 26, the 60th anniversary of the Committee for the First Amendment’s trip to Washington, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and PEN WEST sponsored a celebration of this historic event. Marsha is one of a handful alive today who were on that Washington-bound plane, and who can attest to what really happened. You could hear a pin drop when Marsha spoke about the flight and how she came to be blacklisted. (Image: Marsha Hunt.)
After it was over, I marveled at all the young people who approached her and thanked her for opening their eyes to this tragedy of injustice. On the other hand, the saddest part of the evening was that here we had a witness to history talking about how our civil liberties were being attacked and not a single news outlet showed up at the event. As a matter of fact, even the Los Angeles Times failed to list it in their calendar section. Fortunately for history’s sake, the event was filmed for my upcoming documentary.
Marsha Hunt: Rising above adversity
In Marsha’s case, the irony of the blacklist is that without steady film work she was given the opportunity to see the problems the world was facing. She chose to rise above the adversity she faced over losing her acting career. With quiet dignity and determination, she spent the next 50-plus years making a difference in the world. She still does.
I think the greatest gift we can give to a blacklist survivor is to focus on the contributions that these people left to the world. In Marsha’s case, she was a well-loved actress who lit up the screen in such classics as Pride and Prejudice, None Shall Escape, and Raw Deal during Hollywood’s Golden Age. It doesn’t get any better than that. (If you don’t know her work, you owe it to yourself to rent her movies or buy her book.)
Additionally, her tireless dedication to Americans in uniform during the World War II years should not go unnoticed. And finally, people of all ethnic groups from around the world have been touched by Marsha’s generosity and pioneering work in raising money and awareness to alleviate hunger and oppression.
That is the legacy of Marsha Hunt: actress, social activist, humanitarian, loving wife, aunt, author, songwriter, record producer, great American. For that, she will be remembered.
A postscript to this story: As I was pulling into a parking lot several days ago, reaching over to grab a ticket, I saw a sign on top of the ticket dispenser that caught my eye. On it was a quote from another great American, Art Linkletter. The quote read: “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”
I grabbed a pen and pad and wrote it down. “This,” I thought, “sums up all that Marsha Hunt is about.”
© Roger C. Memos
More information about the documentary Marsha Hunt: Sweet Adversity can be found at the Hollywood & Art website.
Louis Jourdan, Marsha Hunt, Bobby Driscoll, Charles Boyer, Kurt Kasznar The Happy Time image: Columbia Pictures.
John Ireland, Marsha Hunt Raw Deal image: Eagle-Lion Films.