Celebrating Pride and Prejudice's 75th Anniversary with Marsha Hunt
July 26, 2016
My admiration of Marsha Hunt is no secret on this site. I've had the opportunity to talk with her on a few occasions, I've heard her speak at many screenings in and around Los Angeles, I've written about her more than once, and if you ask me about her, I could go on forever (well, maybe just an hour or two).
So, when it was announced that she would participate in a Q&A before a 75th anniversary screening of 1940's Pride and Prejudice at the Laemmle in West LA as part of their "Anniversary Series" screenings, I jumped on the site to purchase a ticket...before they even went on sale. (Marsha played one of the Bennet sisters, Mary, in the film.)
I know what you may be thinking. 1940 + 75 = 2015. Yes, the commemorative event took place last December, which made it tough for me to get this piece done before the year was through. Instead, I decided to share it 76 years to the day of the movie's debut, which happens to be today.
Love this Polish poster for Pride and Prejudice. Marsha's character, Mary Bennet, is easily identifiable as the one in white (hint: glasses).
In addition to Marsha attending the screening, I was also excited to see Pride and Prejudice on the big screen for the first time, because this movie was the first classic film I (intentionally) watched during high school, after I read Jane Austen's book. Wishing to supplement my reading with a film, I was presented with two choices at the local Blockbuster: the 1940 two hour black and white picture or a lengthy BBC adaptation. (I don't recall if this option was the four hour 1980 version or the five and a half hour 1995 miniseries.) Regardless of the actual BBC runtime, due solely to my limited teenage attention span, I chose the 1940 movie, and a classic film fan was born.
Before starting the Q&A, moderator Stephen Farber introduced Marsha with a quick rundown of some of the pictures she's appeared in over the years. You know, movies like These Glamour Girls (1939), Blossoms in the Dust (1941), The Human Comedy (1943), Raw Deal (1948) and more. "Makes me tired just hearing about them!" she joked.
Farber's questions focused on Pride and Prejudice, Marsha's experience with some of the era's biggest stars, her time at MGM and the blacklist. I've covered some of Marsha's MGM stories previously (here and here), so I've focused more on the evening's other highlights in this piece.
Marsha Hunt and Stephen Farber discuss Pride and Prejudice at the Laemmle in West LA last December. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
On making Pride and Prejudice and appearing with stars Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson
"I guess it was just pure delight," Marsha beamed. She had read and studied the book as a child, but to act in a film version was a thrill for her. "And of course, I had already discovered Laurence Olivier all by myself...I got the message in those eyes, and I was never the same again!" Marsha was excited to co-star in a picture with Olivier, but unfortunately they had no scenes together so she never bumped into him on set. In fact, it wasn't until years later that they finally met in London and were able to have a nice chat.
Marsha appeared in three movies with Greer Garson, this one being the first; the other two were 1941's Blossoms in the Dust and 1945's The Valley of Decision. "Greer was so unique; there's nobody quite like her, with that wonderful natural mop of red hair and her own special spirit." Marsha remembered Greer as a private person who opted to retire to her dressing room between takes instead of socializing on set. She respected Greer's privacy, but as a result Marsha never knew her well during their days in Hollywood, though she added that it was a "joy to work with her; she was a beautiful actress."
Years later after they both retired, Marsha had the opportunity to get to know Greer better. By that time, Greer had married a Texan, Buddy Fogelson, and both Fogelson and the change of scenery had a great effect on the star, according to Marsha. She remembered that "it was lovely to meet her later, because she was warm, she was outgoing," and she was "cozier and more informal."
Greer Garson (Elizabeth Bennet) and Marsha (Mary Bennet) in a scene from Pride and Prejudice.
Someone asked what it was like working with Cary Grant...except she never did!
"If only I had!" Marsha exclaimed. The closest she came was sitting next to Cary at a banquet. He was charming and delightful, of course, and she recalled that he inquired whether or not she could speak with a Cockney accent. She replied no. At the time, she didn't know that he was thinking of his next film and wondering if she may be able to co-star with him! The movie in question was 1944's None but the Lonely Heart.
On acting alongside a wide variety of actors, including Mickey Rooney, Susan Hayward, Charles Boyer, Edward G. Robinson and more
“There they are all; I don't have to name them!” Marsha joked as Stephen Farber listed some of her co-stars. She said she was grateful for having worked with so many talented people throughout her career, noting: “We did our thing together and enjoyed it, and that’s all I can really report, honestly.”
Marsha with Charles Boyer and Bobby Driscoll in The Happy Time (1952), which sadly was the start of an unhappy time for her due to the blacklist.
On collaborating with famous costume designer Adrian at MGM
“You know, I was just too late for him!” Marsha divulged. Adrian left MGM in 1941, less than two years after Marsha arrived. (Note: he is listed as the designer of the gowns for Pride and Prejudice.) Marsha got to wear a few of his designs but she never met him, and “it was my loss. I had great admiration for him,” she said.
On her interest in fashion and her book, The Way We Wore
Though Marsha always had an interest in fashion and even designed a number of outfits, including all her costumes for her senior play in high school, she also admitted that: “I knew, I think, from very early childhood that I had to act, and any way I could prepare for that I did.” This preparation included learning how to be photographed and how to dress, which naturally opened the door to modeling. After finishing high school at 16, Marsha decided not to attend college, much to her parent’s dismay (they were both college graduates); instead, she enrolled in dramatic school and became a fashion model. Marsha spent a year as a John Powers model, and before the year was over, she had signed a contract with Paramount.
One of the many photos from Marsha's collection that appeared in The Way We Wore.
On the blacklist and its effect on her career
“Oh, it stopped me dead cold,” she affirmed. Marsha and her husband, screenwriter Robert Presnell Jr., were horrified at the treatment of many of their talented friends and colleagues, some of whom were subpoenaed and forced to defend their lives and careers in front of the HUAC. “They were the un-Americans, the committee,” she declared. So, Marsha joined a group that chartered a plane to fly to Washington D.C. to sit in on some of the hearings and “defend as best we could the rights and freedoms of these people.” Well, that move effectively landed Marsha on the blacklist, as she remembered: “Apparently, I could resume working if I apologized, and there was nothing to apologize for. I had done what I felt was needed and was not in the least ashamed of it.” After working so steadily in the industry since she was 17 years old, the sudden halt of work came as a shock, but it also gave Marsha time to pursue other activities. While she has worked since then in film, TV, and on the stage, her career never really resumed with as much force as it had, but she’s fine with that: “My life has been full and varied, and I’m grateful for all of it.”
Stars on a 1947 flight to Washington to fight back against the HUAC hearings. Marsha is in one of the middle rows, on the left.
On her longevity and life so far, at the age of 98
Marsha ended the Q&A with a touching speech in which she took a brief look back at her life: "Ninety-eight feels very good. I plan on 100; I don't know how far past that. When 100 and I shake hands, then we'll talk about whether it will be much fun after that. But so far, I've been blessed with the best of lives. I'm simply so grateful for my life. 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."