Happy 100th Birthday, Marsha Hunt!
October 17, 2017
Marsha Hunt holds a very special place in my heart. Through the lovely interview I’ve conducted with her, the Q&As I’ve intently listened to, and the few brief chats I’ve shared with her, I feel like I've gotten to appreciate and know her better than any other actor from Hollywood’s Golden Era. (And as of this writing, my personal watch count on the 2015 documentary Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity is four times.) So in honor of her centennial today, below are some of my favorite tales from Marsha’s illustrious first century. The stories, culled from a variety of sources, range from amusing to chilling to rousing, but they all share at least one of two key elements: Marsha’s amiable personality and her fighting spirit. My hope is that those who read this will come away as inspired by her as I am.
Marsha Hunt (4th from the right in the 3rd row) is the last star standing from this 1943 photo celebrating MGM's 20th anniversary. Shot by Clarence Sinclair Bull for LIFE.
The secret to breaking into the movies? Say you don't want to work in the movies
On a trip to California in the mid-1930s, teenage Marsha, then a model for the John Robert Powers agency, ran into two photographer friends from New York who had a hunch that she was talented and a hunch that Hollywood was child-like. So, they experimented with child psychology by announcing that New York's #1 fashion model was in town. A little white lie - Marsha laughs she was far from the top spot - but the press clamored for a story, and as instructed, she denied any interest in the industry. Well, that reaction punched her golden ticket. One publication declared Marsha "Refuses Film Job" and before she knew it, four studios offered her screen tests. Marsha signed with Paramount in June 1935 at the age of 17.
Marsha's mother threw her a surprise 19th birthday in 1936 and invited all her leading men from Paramount, including: Leif Ericson, Kent Taylor, Paul Kelly, John Howard, Johnny Downs, and Buster Crabbe. According to her book The Way We Wore, John Wayne and Robert Cummings were unable to attend.
Movie star? No thank you.
As a teen with limited experience, Marsha was amazed that Paramount continually cast her in starring roles. The problem? Playing the love interest wasn’t her objective - what she craved was the opportunity to learn and expand her range. While she remains grateful to Paramount for giving her a chance, she left in 1938 to freelance; not long after, an offbeat part in MGM’s These Glamour Girls (1939) led to a contract with mighty Metro. During her tenure there, she found herself tackling such diverse roles that she was bestowed the unofficial title of "Hollywood's Youngest Character Actress," a label she cherishes to this day. “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," Marsha affirms. No wonder she counts her time at MGM among her happiest years in the business.
Marsha's plum part in These Glamour Girls was a turning point in her career.
Memories of MGM – and Garbo
With "more stars than there are in the heavens,” MGM certainly took care of their players, small details and all. For instance, Marsha never remembers filling up her car with gasoline. That’s because once she drove on the lot, her vehicle was whisked away and returned to her when she was finished for the day – all gassed up and everything. Speaking of cars, for a while, Marsha would pull up to the front gate around the same time as Greta Garbo. Every day when the legend's limo stopped, her chauffeur scurried to the passenger side to open the door for her - and every day, she beat him to it. As Garbo disappeared down the walk to the dressing rooms, Marsha would hear the drive utter: “I lost again!”
Marsha's buddies on the lot weren't her fellow actors --
-- they were the musicians: the composers, arrangers, and orchestrators, as Marsha considers herself more musical in nature. Frequently, she'd join the rest of the musicians around quitting time at composer-arranger David Snell's bungalow at the far end of the lot for a Coke... or a drink out of Dave's desk drawer. There, they'd dream up impromptu tunes and sometimes even fashion them after various stars; plus, they could play as loud as they liked without having to worry about distracting anyone else!
Marsha had the opportunity to sing in a few pictures, including Unholy Partners (1941).
Love at first entrance, kinda
In 1943, Marsha's future husband Robert Presnell, Jr. took a date to watch The Human Comedy at Radio City Music Hall. Upon laying eyes on Marsha in a garden scene, Robert declared: "I think I'll marry her." As fate would have it, his premonition came true; Robert and Marsha wed in 1946 and remained together until his death in 1986. But Robert never shared this story with his wife. She heard it decades later from his date that evening: Audrey Totter.
I believe this is the garden scene in The Human Comedy that caught Robert Presnell Jr.'s eye. Marsha appears opposite James Craig here.
If you watch one movie of Marsha's, make it this one
A film Marsha frequently refers to as her favorite, None Shall Escape (1944) occupies a unique corner of Hollywood history because it not only anticipated the Allied victory but also the Nuremberg Trials - and it did both at a time when the outcome of the war was very much in doubt. Add to that the fact that this was among the earliest movies (I believe it’s the first) to portray actual crimes against Jewish people on screen. The story is exceedingly chilling, incredibly timely, and for a picture released in 1944, I was certainly not prepared for the level of violence, nor how bluntly it was portrayed. None Shall Escape isn’t an easy movie to track down - or to witness - but if it ever crosses your path, it’s well worth a watch.
That bottom tagline reads: "The first shocking story of the trial of the war criminals!"
Marsha - and Hollywood - fights back against the HUAC
Marsha was one of 26 who traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1947 to “defend as best we could the rights and freedoms" of Hollywood colleagues called to testify before the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) during their investigation of Communism in the film industry. (One of my favorite Marsha lines: “They were the un-Americans, the committee.") Unfortunately, instead of securing positive publicity, the journey provoked backlash, and quite famously, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall later deemed it a mistake. But Marsha, horrified at the treatment of her associates and of the hysteria that spread across the industry, continued to take a stand, partaking in the Committee's two Hollywood Fights Back radio programs upon their return.
Participants in the flight to Washington included Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye, and Evelyn Keyes. You can spot Marsha in a middle row on the left.
Fifteen years of steady work screeches to a halt
Marsha juggled not one, not two, but three offers for her own TV show prior to embarking on a European vacation in 1950. Upon her return, however, the networks were quiet. The reason: while she was away, her name appeared in the pamphlet Red Channels, a purported "Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television" that identified alleged Communists, subversives and sympathizers. Explanatory phone calls to the networks failed to change any minds, and the listing effectively ended her work on TV and radio, with her film career following suit a year or two later.
The Happy Time: No, not really
Before starting production on The Happy Time (1952), Columbia asked Marsha to sign a "perfectly fine letter" stating she was ashamed of the activities she engaged in previously that caused concern. Astounded by the request, Marsha declined on the grounds that the statement was "full of repentance" and not entirely true. When Columbia threatened to take her off the picture, Marsha fired back that she'd hold them to their contract. Well, the studio didn’t care about a binding legal document; in fact, Columbia tried to intimidate her, promising she'd never work in Hollywood again if she didn't concede, but Marsha stood her ground: "There was nothing to apologize for. I had done what I felt was needed and was not in the least ashamed of it." Instead of surrendering to the bully, Marsha drafted a memo explaining her actions, beliefs and reasoning - something she would be comfortable swearing to. One stressed-filled day later, Columbia responded: they would accept her statement and she could appear in The Happy Time. (But this was far from the end of her Blacklist-related battles; seek out Marsha Hunt's Sweet Adversity for more powerful tales from this era.)
The Happy Time was far from it for Marsha, at least before the cameras rolled.
Can you imagine Marsha Hunt as Melanie in Gone with the Wind?
Yes, that almost happened. It's always tough to envision other actors in certain roles, but let's try for a moment, shall we? Imagine Marsha in:
Gone with the Wind (1939) - A year after her initial screen test, producer David O. Selznick invited Marsha back to read with him for the part of Melanie. Moments after the test ended, he confided the role was hers. That was a Friday. On Monday, Marsha read the news in the trades: Selznick had found his Melanie, but it wasn’t her; it was Olivia de Havilland. From that day forward, Marsha refused to let Hollywood break her heart.
None But the Lonely Heart (1944) - This is just speculation on Marsha's end, but one evening in the early 1940s, she sat next to Cary Grant at a banquet. While chatting, Grant asked if she could do a Cockney accent, to which Marsha answered no. In hindsight, she had no idea he had ulterior motives: he was thinking about his next project, None But the Lonely Heart, and was probably on the hunt for a co-star.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955) - Marsha officially nabbed the role of James Dean’s mother but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, as she was appearing in a play at the same time.
I've heard that Marsha only posed for some publicity photos for Rebel Without a Cause before she had to back out, but that looks like director Nicholas Ray on the left and a camera (along with stars Natalie Wood and James Dean). Hmm...
Not many people can claim that Eleanor Roosevelt was their mentor
Marsha's years in Hollywood shielded her from certain problems the rest of the world faced, but a trip around the globe in the mid-1950s opened her eyes, and she returned home a self-proclaimed "planet patriot.” Her first stop: the United Nations. Marsha knew her celebrity could amass audiences to help spread the organization's goodwill, so she got to work and became the President of the San Fernando Valley Chapter of the United Nations Association. Her efforts earned the respect and admiration of many, including the former First Lady of the United States. In fact, Marsha would frequently pay Eleanor Roosevelt a visit to discuss her work with the UN when she was in New York.
Stars including Marsha, Robert Taylor, and Jean Harlow posed for a photo with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during Franklin Roosevelt's 1937 Birthday Ball at the White House. It would be another two decades or so before Marsha became close with the former First Lady.
Fighting for the world: Humanitarian causes and beyond
Marsha's long list of political and social activism astounds. Just take a gander at the achievements below, which only represent a small fraction of her humanitarian efforts:
She came up with the idea for the Global Gift shop to support the United Nations Association and opened one in the San Fernando Valley office. Sadly, the office and shop were both bombed in 1963, most likely by a far-right group that opposed the United Nations.
Marsha spent over 25 years advocating and working on behalf of the United Nations.
Upon learning about the United Nation's Year of the Refugee in 1959, Marsha produced a documentary on World Refugee Year, A Call From the Stars (1960). She procured appearances from 14 prominent celebrities, including Paul Newman, Bing Crosby, and Jean Simmons.
Marsha developed an initiative called "Thankful Giving" in 1970, in which families could raise money and awareness for global hunger and those less fortunate then themselves on Thanksgiving. Seven years later, the resolution passed both Houses of Congress, and President Jimmy Carter even endorsed the program in his 1978 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.
Marsha has fought for world and domestic hunger issues for decades; here she is in 1960 with the Freedom from Hunger campaign.
In honor of UNICEF's International Year of the Child in 1979, Marsha wrote the tune "We're All One,” which UNICEF translated into local languages and distributed worldwide.
As Honorary Mayor of Sherman Oaks (where she's lived since the 1940s) from 1983-2001, Marsha formed the Valley Mayor's Fund for the Homeless. One highlight of this endeavor included the opening of a homeless shelter in a former abandoned motel in 1986.
At the age of 95, she penned "Here's to All Who Love," a love song that has since become an anthem for marriage equality.
This is one of my all-time favorite Marsha photos. What a woman. What a life.
Put simply, Marsha Hunt is one remarkable lady who refuses to be defeated. When she's found herself on the receiving end of hate and ignorance, she hasn't hesitated to battle back, whether personally or on behalf of others. But for every setback, there have been a host of positives, and Marsha prefers to focus on the affirmative. In closing, I'd like to share a few words from one of her appearances in 2015:
"I plan on 100... so far, I've been blessed with the best of lives… I've had nearly all my dreams come true, I've enjoyed good health, I have a wonderful family and friends - oh, the friends - they make it worthwhile. As long as I'm around, I hope they are too, because they fill my life."
The friends, whether she knows them personally or not, are certainly still around, and now there's another accomplishment to add to the ever-growing list. 100: ✔️
If you have a chance, check out the documentary Marsha Hunt's Sweet Adversity for more tales from Marsha's storied life. Big thank you to director Roger Memos for all his assistance with my Marsha-related endeavors over the last few years.
If you'd like to read more about Marsha's time at MGM, you can find my interview with her here, coverage of a 75th anniversary screening of Pride and Prejudice here, and my "What a Character" blog entry on Marsha here.
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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.