What a Character!: The Marvelous Marsha Hunt
November 23, 2015
This piece was written for the fourth annual WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon hosted by Kellee (Outspoken and Freckled), Paula (Paula's Cinema Club) and Aurora (Once Upon a Screen). Please feel free to check out any of their sites for links to more pieces on character actors, classic and modern!
When you use the word 'character' in reference to Marsha Hunt, the discussion can veer in two very different directions. On one hand, her film work naturally comes up, for which she was once termed the "youngest character actress in America," a title she stands supremely proud of. On the other hand, Marsha's strong character and integrity, which has shined through her social and political activism from World War II to the present, can't be overlooked either. However, as this is a blogathon focusing on character actors featured on websites devoted to movies, I'll naturally start with the former.
The lovely Marsha Hunt.
In the new documentary Marsha Hunt's Sweet Adversity, the lady herself recalls with a smile the time she earned her (unofficial) character actress title. Many actors probably yearn for the lead, but Marsha actually preferred the character roles to the starring parts. One look at her early career demonstrates this: 17-year old Marsha, then a John Roberts Power model in New York City, visited Hollywood. Though she possessed no real experience besides drama school, multiple studios vied to get her under contract, and she eventually signed with Paramount in May 1935. While she would always remain grateful to Paramount for giving her a start in the industry, she grew dissatisfied with the parts handed her. Yes, she played the lead roles, but her characters consistently fell into the "good girl" or love interest category. See: 1936's Gentle Julia, 1937's Annapolis Salute, and 1937's Born to the West with John Wayne, for starters. Accordingly, Marsha won the guy in the end, but she never had a chance to expand her range and cultivate her obvious talent.
With John Wayne in Born to the West.
Following a year of freelancing after her Paramount deal expired, MGM came calling in 1939, giving Marsha a chance to spread her wings and grow. Case(s) in point: she took on her first - SPOILER ALERT - suicidal woman in one of her early MGM pictures, 1939's These Glamour Girls, which she was very proud of. Two years later, her role in Blossoms in the Dust also - SPOILER ALERT #2 - challenged her in a similar way.
I had the chance to speak to Marsha at length about her MGM career last summer, and she simply gushed that "Metro was the answer to my prayers as an actor" for allowing her to tackle so many diverse roles. Marsha called her time at MGM "the happiest years for me" and praised the studio for giving her "every type of role to play; no two were alike." She went on to declare: "Whenever there was something hard to cast, they'd say, 'Give it to Marsha and see what she will do with it,' which was such a compliment. Stardom was not the idea for me, nor was it my goal."
With Lana Turner in These Glamour Girls, an early MGM role for Marsha with some breadth to the character.
The women Marsha portrayed during her seven year stint at the studio transcended multiple genres and backgrounds, confirming Metro's faith in her skill set and talent. From the proud and studious Mary Bennett in 1940's Pride and Prejudice to a lab assistant in 1942's Kid Glover Killer to an Army nurse in 1943's Cry 'Havoc' to the former flame of a convicted Nazi in 1944's None Shall Escape, Marsha was certainly right: MGM undoubtedly provided her the chance to undertake a variety of roles, and she grabbed on for all it was worth.
Whether the part called for drama, suspense, comedy (her favorite genre, though she rarely got the opportunity) or even singing (yes, she possessed - and still has - an excellent voice), Marsha always rose to the occasion and gave it her all. While her characters may have come from diverse environments, held an assortment of jobs, and aimed for an array of goals, Marsha always embodied them with a sense of self and confidence - whether hidden or outright, real or fake - that added welcome depth and a layer of believability to her roles, no matter how many minutes she may have appeared on screen.
Interesting note: None Shall Escape was released before the war ended.
Marsha's MGM contract lapsed in 1945, and she turned again to freelancing as she devoted more time to her marriage to second husband Robert Presnell Jr. Still, the roles she chose during this period ran the gamut, especially in two of my favorites from her post-MGM career: 1947's Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, where she played a slightly scheming secretary and 1948's Raw Deal, in which her good girl gets way more than she bargained for and even resorts to some violent means to save her criminal lover.
With Claire Trevor and Dennis O'Keefe in Raw Deal.
In 1947, Marsha was one of 26 who traveled to Washington DC to support fellow associates of the film community who were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Though some members of the group, famously including Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, later called the trip a mistake, Marsha continued to support her friends, colleagues and free speech. Her actions helped land her name in the 1950 pamphlet Red Channels, which listed alleged Communists, subversives and sympathizers within the industry. This move effectively ended Marsha's career in Hollywood in the early 50s, not just on screen but TV too; offers for her own TV show (apparently, from multiple networks) were rescinded upon her return to America after a European vacation during the early part of the decade. Throughout the rest of the 50s, she only nabbed four or five film roles, including another favorite of mine, 1959's Blue Denim, in which she played the mother of a teenage boy dealing with an unplanned pregnancy.
The famous flight to Washington in 1947 to support those testifying before the HUAC. Marsha is in the 3rd/4th row on the left.
Despite the extremely unfair actions taken against her and everyone else affected by the HUAC and the blacklist, Marsha never backtracked on her beliefs. The documentary highlights an example of this: while shooting The Happy Time in 1952, Marsha continually faced pressure to reject her liberal ideas and avow her disgust for Communism in writing, but she refused to give in to the bullying. To this day, she still speaks out strongly against this dark period in her career and the industry, but notably she does so with grace and dignity. Similar to disappointments in losing potential career changing roles in 1939's Gone with the Wind (producer David O. Selznick told her the role of Melanie was hers when he thought Olivia de Havilland's loan-out wouldn't go through) and 1955's Rebel without a Cause (she was cast as James Dean's mother but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts), Marsha didn't seem to dwell much on the negative, choosing to move forward instead.
With little work in film or television coming her way during the 50s, Marsha turned her focus to the stage and humanitarian causes. By the 60s, though she was 'semi-retired,' she made a resurgence in the TV sphere and appeared regularly in guest starring roles for the next twenty years when she was not pursuing her various social and political causes.
Marsha made the cover of Life in 1950 with her second Broadway play, The Devil's Disciple.
Here's where I'd be amiss not to highlight Marsha Hunt, the humanitarian. Though I've been a fan of her acting for a while, I admittedly didn't know much about the lady until I spoke to her last year and watched Marsha Hunt's Sweet Adversity this past September. The documentary focused heavily on Marsha's fight against the blacklist and her extremely lengthy and admirable list of political and social causes, which includes (just for starters):
- entertaining the troops across the globe during WWII, which involved a trip to the Arctic.
- spending 25 years as a member of the United Nations Association and a stint as the president of Southern California's Valley chapter.
- acting as a member of the board of the American Freedom from Hunger organization. Fun fact: Marsha's fight to acknowledge world hunger was eventually recognized with a "Thankful Giving" bill that passed the House and the Senate in the 70s.
- helping form the Valley Mayor's Fund for the Homeless while she was the honorary mayor of Sherman Oaks, CA in the 80s and 90s. She still lives in Sherman Oaks today.
- writing the music and lyrics to "Here's to All Who Love," a song about marriage equality. Here's a video of Marsha singing it in 2013.
- and many, many more accomplishments.
Marsha delivering an announcement for the UN.
Whether struggling for better roles during her 80 year career or working to improve the world through a variety of initiatives over the past seven decades, Marsha's always been a fighter. In fact, she continues to be one to this day with the signature elegance and humility she's possessed for the past 98 years.
And that is what I call a character.
- Alt Film Guide article by Roger C. Memos.
If you're interested in reading my full interview with Marsha, you can find that here.