An In-Depth Interview with Actress Marsha Hunt: The MGM Years, 1939-1945
June 23, 2014
During the 1930s and well into the 1940s, MGM reigned supreme as the most famous studio in Hollywood, well known for their grand, glamorous style and bevy of famous actors and actresses.
MGM famously touted that their talent roster included "More Stars Than There Are in the Heavens." In 1943, the studio gathered several of their featured players together for what is now a well-known 20th anniversary photograph, which appeared in LIFE magazine. Seventy-one years later, of the 64 men and women who surround studio head Louis B. Mayer in the picture, all but one are amongst those heavenly stars.
MGM's 20th Anniversary photo, taken by Clarence Sinclair Bull in 1943.
Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with former MGM contract player Marsha Hunt, sitting 4th from right in the 3rd row in the above photo, about her time at the legendary studio, which she called home from 1939-1945.
Ms. Hunt's career began almost 80 years ago. After graduating high school at 16, she became a model with John Powers in New York City and was only 17 years old when she signed her first studio contract in 1935 with Paramount Pictures. After spending "three very crowded, busy years there playing nothing but romantic leads," Hunt became a freelancer, and one year later, she joined MGM as a contract actress.
Speaking from her home in California, Ms. Hunt graciously shared memories of her MGM days, which she calls the "happiest years" of her career. During our conversation, she discussed a variety of topics, including what it was like working at the famous studio, the types of roles she played while under contract, the one MGM movie she wished she'd been cast in but wasn't, and what crowd she hung out with most on the lot (hint: it wasn't her fellow actors).
MGM publicity photo, credit Virgil Apger, MGM.
Q: MGM is celebrating its 90th Anniversary this year, and your relationship with the studio has also hit another milestone: 75 years ago, in 1939, you signed a contract with MGM. Why did you choose to join MGM at that time?
Marsha Hunt: That is a complementary term, but you see you didn’t choose to sign with a studio; the studio chose to sign you. I think every actor in film dreamed of being under contract because that meant you had a sponsor who was going to keep you occupied and paid. With any luck, they would also build your career as an investment in your talent if they wanted to see it pay off. The more popular they made the contract player, the more profit they would get from that actress or actor.
Q: You worked for MGM in a few freelance roles before signing your contract. What do you recall from your time on the lot before you called it home?
MH: I had been working a film here and there at the poverty row studios [small B-movie studios], and I was wondering what the future held for me when I did a day’s work at MGM in a Hardy family series film called The Hardys Ride High. That was my first exposure at MGM, and I just wanted to be at a major studio again. On the way to work I lectured myself and said, "Now this is the first one day role you have ever taken, and you are doing it because it is MGM, so remember you are a day player and behave accordingly," but the first thing I knew when I reached the set there was a chair with my name on the canvas back, and I had a portable dressing room with my name on the door. For that one day’s work, they went to all that trouble! I thought if they respect people who are just doing a day role, I want to work with such a studio any way I can; if I hadn’t already been impressed with Metro, which is what we called the studio, and in love with its product, I was that day. I had done a number of movies - 6 or more - before they decided it would be cheaper to sign me under contract since they kept having me back, and I wound up doing 25 films more for them.
Q: These were the days of the studio system, and each studio had their own distinctive style and reputation. How did MGM differ from Paramount in your eyes?
MH: That is an interesting question. Paramount was more compact, and you would run into people you knew as you walked from the dressing room to the sound stage and to lunch and back, while MGM was more spread out. In my experience, MGM always represented the top. There were other major studios that were distinctive and distinguished for many reasons, but MGM was just somehow the unspoken best of them; they had the best of everything. People also think of MGM as the King of the Jungle, so they assume it must have been a gorgeous looking studio, but it was a factory, a work place. There was no glamour about the studio; the glamour was in the product.
I was there recently hosting some friends from New York who wanted to see a major studio, and I was impressed with how many updated things I saw. Now it is Sony - it is not even MGM - and it is a very different look. When I was there you just came to work.
MGM Main Street, 1944. Picture from Sony Pictures Entertainment Museum.
Q: After you became a contract player, what was it like going to work at the studio each day?
MH: I always felt privileged every time I drove on the lot. I would come to work apparently the same time Garbo did, and when you drove on the lot you waved at the gate man, and he opened the gate for you to drive on to the make-up and hairdressing building, which was right across from the dressing rooms. I didn’t use my dressing room - I would come to work made up - so I went right to hair dressing and had my hair done. For some reason, Garbo's limousine would arrive around the same time as me, and we would pull up side by side outside the same area. She had a very ancient Filipino driver who would jump out of the car and scurry around the back trying to get the back passenger door open for her before she opened it herself, but he never won! She always was too quick for him and would leap outside and stride down the walk before disappearing into the dressing room building, and you would see him saying, "I lost again!"
The cars would then be driven off the lot - they didn’t have room for everybody’s car - but you did get permission to drive on the lot so you didn’t have to walk a distance to come to work. When I was finished shooting, the car would be delivered so when I left the set I could walk a short distance to the car. I never had to go to the gas station - it's funny, I'd forgotten that procedure was so effortless for the player. We were made as comfortable as we could be; there was that attention to detail about MGM that didn’t happen at Paramount, and I don’t know what they did at Warners or 20th or Columbia, but that is what they did at Metro.
Q: What was it like walking around the lot with so many movie stars under contract to MGM at that time? Did you find there was a camaraderie or any competition?
MH: You didn’t really speak or accost each other when you passed a major star on the lot, at least in my case; you didn’t invade their privacy by stopping them and saying, "Hello, my name is..., and I have been wanting to meet you" or "I think you are wonderful." None of that - you respected each other’s privacy. I guess I learned that around Paramount when I would pass legendary figures on the lot every day. I think we all obeyed that unwritten law, at least that is how I behaved, and I didn’t see stars being bothered if they were on foot. Of course, we were driven around MGM quite a lot; there would be studio limousines that would pick you up at the make-up or hair dressing department and drive you to the set, particularly in bad weather.
There was no camaraderie that I was ever aware of. Mind you, there could have been because I was not in the star echelon, but I think for the most part each of us came to work, did our day's chores, and then went home. There was no social life provided for MGM players as such, which I think was one great pity; Louis B. Mayer never thought to make us a company of players who knew and got to know each other, except if we happened to work on a film together, and then of course you spent several days in each other's company.
You did to some degree get acquainted, but there was no attempt made to bring us together until that famous photograph that you spoke of [the 20th Anniversary photo]. Other than that, I do believe that LB, which was our name for Mr. Mayer, gathered us once. I think it was a significant birthday he was having, and we all gathered on the same sound stage, sang "Happy Birthday" and that was that.
Q: Since you mentioned that MGM didn't do much to bring everyone together, were there MGM actors or actresses you got to know better later, after your time under contract?
MH: It was only years after I left MGM that some kind of reunion was held, which I went to with my husband. To my delight they had put together two sound stages, and the art department made a garden. There we all were thrown together again for the first time as a group to have a reunion to remember the good old days. I met a few people that day that I knew had been around but never really spoke to them.
For instance, Myrna Loy, whose work I deeply enjoyed because she was a light comedienne and what I loved most to do was comedy, was someone I got to know years later when she was a delegate representing us at the United Nations. I fell in love with the UN, and I used to see her quite often in the delegates lounge or the delegates dining room chatting in earnest with people. She was a very conscientious diplomat, and we become friends in other regards as well, but I never met her at MGM.
I also made three pictures with Greer Garson - twice we played sisters - but I never knew her socially until years after we both left the studio. She was pleasant, and I can’t quite say formal, but she didn’t strike up conversations when we did scenes together. When I met her later she had been married to Buddy Fogelson for a while, and she was breezy and outgoing. I think being married to a Texan had done wonders for her, and we had a long history later on.
Greer Garson and Marsha Hunt as two of the five Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice (1940).
Again with Garson as sisters Edna and Charlotte in Blossoms in the Dust (1941), also starring Walter Pidgeon.
During your time at MGM, the studio was run by the legendary Louis B. Mayer.
MH: There were jokes made about LB, and he earned them! He was in some ways laughable, but you had to respect this man’s nose for talent. He would go in the summer time to Europe, and he would sign writers, composers, artists, designers, actors, singers, and instrumentalists. He had this special knack for sensing extra talent, and he would bring them to his kingdom, MGM, and somehow the Metro product reflected that. Not to put down the talent at the other major studios - they were wonderful - but if you worked at MGM, you really earned your spurs, and you won respect just for wearing that badge.
Q: What was your relationship with him like?
MH: Well, I never saw him or met him until I had been under contract for quite a while. When I started working at MGM before my contract it was arranged by my agent, and I would report for work and meet the director and the cast and the crew, but I never met the head of the studio until quite a while later.
The first time Mr. Mayer sent for me was after shooting Kid Glove Killer. I think he had seen the rushes or maybe a rough cut and sent for me to say he had been familiar with my work from the beginning, and I was an unusually gifted and versatile actress. He spoke with real knowledge of the kind of talent I had and the type of work I'd been given to do, but there was one thing he wasn’t at all clear about: did I have sex appeal? Without sex appeal, there was no great stardom in his mind, but now that he had seen a rough cut of Kid Glove Killer he was convinced that, "Ah!" now I had sex appeal. I remember he marched all around his office repeating, "Sex, sex! You have sex appeal!" I watched this with awe and was pleased to learn that about myself. He said now that he knew that, he could build my career as far as he could go with it, and he just wanted me to know that there would be great things in store for me.
I only met him a few more times. I remember being invited to his home at the beach a time or two, though I believe I stayed away if there was any option because I was so idealistic, and I felt that if I was going to make progress I wanted it based on my work alone and not because I knew the boss or had any kind of pull at the front office. However, I do remember he gave a party one Saturday at his beach home for some servicemen, and he invited a whole bunch of the contract ladies. I think he was honoring a particularly decorated hero, and the photo I have in my book [The Way We Wore] is us getting his autograph for a switch! It was a charming day; I remember it principally because I got acquainted with Mrs. Mayer when I went upstairs to use the restroom or get something maybe from my purse. She was there and wanted to show me an arrangement of floor length mirrors on closet doors and how she had discovered her image could be repeated dozens of times by the way those mirror doors reflected each other. Then, bless her heart, she began doing high kicks and little dance steps to watch her image in the mirror being repeated! We laughed at it together.
With Van Heflin in Kid Glove Killer (1942).
Q: During your time at the studio you performed in costume period pieces (Pride and Prejudice), crime dramas (Kid Glove Killer), war pictures (Cry 'Havoc'), family dramas (The Human Comedy), romantic comedies (The Affairs of Martha), musicals (Music for Millions), and more. What did you think about the types of roles MGM offered you while you were under contract?
MH: This is why those were the happiest years for me. I don’t mean to belittle the years at Paramount, because they gave me an amazing head start at the age of 17, but it was MGM that gave me what I wanted, which was to grow as an actress in every dimension. For that I needed challenge and an enormous range of characters to play instead of the love interest or “good girl," and at Metro they gave me every type of role to play; no two were alike. After my first role, the spendthrift wife in The Hardys Ride High, the very next thing I did at Metro was my first suicide in These Glamour Girls, which was my first real dramatic role. This automatically changed my career, and suddenly I was not a leading lady, I was an actress, which is what I had been trying to prove all along; I was forever thrilled and grateful to MGM for that chance. Metro was the answer to my prayers as an actor, and they made me their utility actress. 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.
These Glamour Girls (1939), clockwise from the top: Lana Turner, Marsha Hunt, Mary Beth Hughes, Jane Bryan, Ann Rutherford, and Anita Louise.
Q: Given the range of your performances and the types of movies you acted in, was there one genre you preferred working in over others?
MH: I loved comedy, but I had very little chance at it. I did far more comedy on stage once I got around to that, after I had done 50 movies.
Q: I know you have an interest in fashion from your book, The Way We Wore, and you modeled before your movie career. Did your fashion background ever come into play during your time at MGM?
MH: I had done so much modeling that when I came into movies that is how they publicized me; every time I had a day off from shooting they would have me in the still gallery doing a fashion layout, because that is what I was comfortable doing. I wouldn’t do leg art or those cheese cake things, because I would look too thin. I was a much better fashion model than a cutie pie.
Publicity shot for Music for Millions (1944), designed by Irene. (Research credit: The Way We Wore).
Q: MGM had two particularly great designers under contract while you were there: Adrian and Irene. What was it like working with them?
MH: I never met Adrian [he left the studio in 1941], and the costumes I wore in Pride and Prejudice were the only things he designed for me, but Irene came in right around that time. She designed my Metro career and did some wonderful stuff that kind of helped me when I did The Way We Wore, which is a book of fashion pictures.
At Paramount, I had the chance to work with Edith Head. Everything I did there she designed, because she was not their top designer then - the top designer during my years there was Travis Banton, who designed for the big budget films. The movies I played all those leads in were the B pictures, and Edith designed everything I wore. Then of course, she became the top designer in Oscar history.
Q: You worked at Metro during the war years.
MH: All my time at Metro were war years, yes. MGM and the war years intermingled in my whole experience and of course a lot of our major stars were in uniform: Jimmy Stewart, Robert Taylor, Gable.
Q: Yes, and you made several war movies during that time. How was it working on those films? Was it any different since the war was going on, or was it business as usual?
MH: I don’t think we categorized them as war pictures. They were topical, and we didn't really separate them much in our mind, though Cry 'Havoc' may have been the exception in my case, because we spent twelve weeks shooting it. They put two sound stages together to make a Philippine jungle and kept it moist, humid, and hot; the sweat was honest, just the way it was in the Philippines. I think we sort of felt that we were at war as actresses, because we felt we were at war shooting that movie. It was an all-girl film and all-female cast.
Overall, I think I did eight war related films, quite a lot of them actually. The other ones were just intermingled movies like Pilot #5, which I did with Franchot Tone and Gene Kelly - imagine two such leading men! - and Van Johnson played a supporting role.
Cry 'Havoc' (1943) with, clockwise from top left: Fay Bainter, Marsha Hunt, Margaret Sullvan, Joan Blondell, and Ann Sothern.
Pilot #5 (1943) with Franchot Tone and Gene Kelly. Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull.
Q: I read that you toured with the USO entertaining troops during the war. What was that like?
MH: During that time I was at the Hollywood Canteen every Saturday night of the war, even though we still were filming on Saturdays - we shot a six day week in those days - and I kept wanting to do a tour to entertain our troops out there, but I couldn’t get enough time off. Metro was cranking out films as fast as they could to console the worried local citizens and to cheer our boys at far flung posts around the world, and I went from one film right into another.
They finally gave me four weeks off, and I went to the Arctic with a troop headed by Kay Francis from Warner Brothers, Reginald Gardiner from 20th Century Fox and three other gifted people. We toured Canada and Alaska entertaining both Canadian and American troops. That was a marvelous experience.
Entertaining the troops on the Artcic Camp Tour (Research credit: The Way We Wore).
Q: I've read stories about the MGM publicity department at times having a hand in their star's off-screen lives. Did you notice any of that personally?
MH: Not in my case, no. I was married, and my husband was away at war, so I had no romantic life to publicize. When my husband came home on leave we would pose for pictures together. We met at Paramount when he was the assistant head of the music department, then he was the assistant head of the film editing department, and he was more handsome than a lot of Paramount's leading actors! They had him back in Long Island processing war films and helping to make training films, and he finally went off to combat, wanting action and getting it in the Pacific, but there was no personal life to talk about from me; I never stopped working at MGM.
Q: You have a beautiful singing voice, and you were able to use it in a few of your MGM pictures. Was that a talent they knew about and kept in mind when the studio was casting parts that required singing, or was it ever worked into any of your roles once they found out you could sing?
MH: Yes, yes it was. Thank you for noticing. Nothing much was ever made of it, and I think the reason why the studio didn’t say, "That is her real voice. She's not dubbed," was that I think they felt if they made a point of that, it would raise questions about other actresses who were dubbed.
My first musical was at Paramount; it was College Holiday with Jacky Benny, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Martha Raye, and Mary Boland, who played my mother in Pride and Prejudice. They wrote two songs for me to sing with Leif Erickson, both written by Ralph Freed.
At MGM, I sang off key in Pride and Prejudice; it had to be just a little flat, which took training if you have a good musical ear! Then I twice played nightclub singers, first in Unholy Partners. I think I recorded two numbers for that, and "After You've Gone" is the one they used. Michael Feinstein came across the soundtrack of the song they didn’t use in some remote old music store in Brooklyn and sent me the track and asked, "Can this be you?" It was called "The One That I Love Belongs to Somebody Else," a heart wounding ballad with the full MGM orchestra behind it. I was surprised to hear it after all these years!
Then there were two movies featuring Margaret O'Brien that I sang in. Lost Angel was the first, an enchanting story in which I sang "I've Got You Under My Skin" with a full dance band behind me. The other was Music for Millions, which had José Iturbi, Jimmy Durante and June Allyson in it. June and I were the all-girls New York Philharmonic Orchestra; she played the base violin, and I played the harp.
In that movie, there's a short scene that has nothing to do with the plot of this all-girl symphony orchestra riding home on a bus from entertaining a military camp somewhere. We are all leaning back in our seats, and I start noodling "At Sun Down" and singing that quietly. After a couple of bars, from the back of the bus you hear a violin pick up doing an obbligato to it, and then after another couple of bars you hear a clarinet, and we just finished the song. Nothing is made of it, the scene's over, and it is perfectly charming because it's so casual. You don’t even see who is playing the violin or the clarinet; the camera is just on me with my head leaned back singing, and I loved that scene. When we did our pre-recording of it don’t you know the violin was played by Joe Venuti, who was the greatest solo violin jazz player of the day; they got him to record two bars! And the clarinet compliment was done by the man who had been with the Duke Ellington Orchestra when he recorded his classic songs. You never saw them, because they just came in to do the dubbed sound for a few bars, but that's a wonderful example of MGM for you; they did everything in the best way.
Lobby card for Unholy Partners (1941).
Q: Was there any role you wanted to play at MGM but didn't get the chance to?
MH: Yes, actually, exactly one: it was the young girl role in Random Harvest. I had seen the script before it went into production - I don't know how I managed that - but I saw it, and I longed to play that role. I felt I would do it well and that it had somehow belonged to me. Also, Ronald Colman was going to be doing the film, though he was not an MGM star, and I had fallen in love with him as a little girl; I remember having a problem as a child trying to decide if I wanted to marry Ronald Colman or Gary Cooper when I grew up! So it would be a chance to get to know Ronald Colman too, but I didn't get the role, and it broke my heart. The part went to a brand new actress they just signed, Susan Peters, about whom they were excited. She apparently made a first rate screen test, and that's the first thing they gave her to do. Susan was lovely in it of course.
Q: Are there any more memories of your time on the MGM lot that you’d like to share?
MH: I picture certain sections of it thinking about it. For instance, my buddies at MGM were the musicians, never my fellow actors. I think I was possibly more musical than dramatic in my nature, which is why I'm writing songs these days and why I sang in a number of movies. But I got to know the musicians: the composers, arrangers, and orchestrators. Whenever I had free time, particularly if there were scenes I wasn't in but I would be needed on set later on, I would go kill some time at the music bungalow of David Snell, who was the host composer-arranger; at quitting time around 5, the musicians would all troop over there and have a coke or a drink out of Dave's desk drawer, and they would noodle impromptu melodies at the piano. Lennie Hayton, who later married Lena Horne, would compose nonsense lyrics, and we would all make up little ditties to suit the various stars and their personalities. I remember how they had the musician's cottages where they did their composing way over at the far edge of the lot so they could bang their pianos as loudly as they liked and not distract anybody else! I had wonderful times with the musicians.
Many thanks to Roger Memos and Lynne Brighton for their assistance in setting up this interview, and of course Marsha Hunt for being so gracious and open in answering my questions.
For those interested in learning more about Marsha Hunt's remarkable life on and off screen, Roger Memos is in the process of completing a documentary entitled Marsha Hunt's Sweet Adversity. If you'd like to follow his progress, please take a look at their Facebook page.
For more information on the doc and how to donate, check out their documentary.org page.