Past Meets Present at TCMFF 2018: Conversations with Marsha Hunt and Cora Sue Collins
July 12, 2018
Welcome to part 2 of my series highlighting TCMFF 2018 guests who shared stories from the past that invoked many concerns society is dealing with today, from racial tension to harassment to volatile politics to diversity. Last month I covered Q&As with Claude Jarman Jr. (Intruder in the Dust) and Nancy Kwan (The World of Suzie Wong), who discussed topics of racism and diversity. This piece focuses on two ladies: Marsha Hunt, who briefly spoke at two events about two subjects, the first being None Shall Escape, which is considered the first feature to reveal the horrors committed against the European Jewish population, and the second being a victim of the Blacklist, and Cora Sue Collins, who shared her own story of sexual harassment in Hollywood.
Marsha Hunt with Eddie Muller at the screening of None Shall Escape. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
Marsha Hunt, None Shall Escape (1944)
“There’s actually no other way I can introduce this woman than saying that I am going to share the stage with the most exemplary human being I have ever met in my life.” That’s basically how Eddie Muller introduced Marsha Hunt twice in three days. The first was at the TCMFF screening of None Shall Escape, and the second at an intimate event hosted at Larry Edmunds Bookshop, “An Afternoon with Marsha,” two days later.
During the former, the conversation focused on the picture, a rarity celebrating its world premiere restoration at the festival. None Shall Escape takes place after the war, at a trial in which Nazis are being tried for their wartime crimes. The movie focuses on the story of Nazi officer Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), from his days as a school teacher in Poland, where he was engaged to Marja (Hunt), to his terrifying rise within the Nazi ranks, all told in flashback by people who were there and tried to dissuade him from going down such a path. Even though I’ve had the opportunity to watch this film three times now, it still chills with the same ferocity every time I see it. Considering how blunt and compelling None Shall Escape is regarding its subject, the picture certainly earns its place in the history books and still resonates loudly and unnervingly today.
Columbia chief Harry Cohn, whose reputation for being coarse and abrasive, among other things, sometimes precedes him, was the man who gave None Shall Escape the greenlight. Muller inquired as to Hunt's recollections of Cohn, and naturally, she took the classy route: “I never met him… Harry Cohn, for whatever his social manners might have been, knew good films, and he had a kind of courage, I think, about the films that he chose to make for which he deserves great credit. And Harry Cohn films very often as not stood for something and not just a film, so here’s to Harry Cohn.”
When asked what it meant to her to make a film like this, a picture Muller termed “politically acute,” in Hollywood during wartime, Hunt replied: “It was simply a great privilege that I felt so lucky to be given… We were creating another day and hemisphere, another continent, another everything and it was fascinating to be in such a contrast all at once.” It also must have been a little ballsy. None Shall Escape was produced and released when the outcome of the war was far from certain, yet the movie dares to predict victory and even foreshadows the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. While propaganda pictures were plentiful during this period, None Shall Escape approaches the subject from a different angle, that of the enemy, and digs deep into what makes someone a fascist. “Think how important those formulae are: How to make a villain?” Hunt observed. “We need to pay very great attention to those ‘how to’s.’” Wise words, indeed, especially in today's world.
Two days later at the casual Larry Edmunds event, Hunt, along with Muller and Alan K. Rode, dove into a subject the actress is often asked about: the Blacklist. Muller opened this conversation with another well-deserved heaping of praise, claiming: “This is the closest we will ever come to Eleanor Roosevelt.” Fun fact: The former First Lady was actually one of Hunt’s mentors during her activist and humanitarian days.
Muller, Hunt, and Alan K. Rode showing off that beautiful 100th birthday cake at "An Afternoon with Marsha." (Picture by Kim Luperi)
Hunt’s personal Blacklist began when her name was included in the book Red Channels, a privately published volume that listed arch liberals and, Hunt surmised, some Communists. “Those were very dangerous days… it was a very ugly, ugly time,” she recalled, an era when people made lists, and politics ruled the scene. Hunt was lumped in with the far left because she always spoke freely about subjects she cared deeply about; in fact, she didn’t know, understand, or care about Communism, “except that I gathered that a lot of people who had joined that party were idealists and that couldn’t be so bad, so I didn’t make any so-called Communists my enemies, and that probably won me some enemies.” It certainly did, and it also effectively ended her decade and a half steady film career. Despite the injustice, Hunt fought back and persisted, appearing on stage and TV until turning her attention largely to humanitarian causes, but it wasn’t easy. Rode wisely remarked of the treatment Hunt and all those affected received: “We tend to forget when we read about the Blacklist and everything, the human toll that it took on all of these people.”
The actress also shared an anecdote from this time period, an episode that occurred when she was entertaining several friends at her home. Well, when one new acquaintance arrived, someone else in the room got up and left. Hunt considered the departure a shame. “I think how you believe politically is your own business, and I think it’s rather healthy for people who disagree to have some chats and conversations,” she declared. Hey 2018, I think we could all learn a thing or 100 from this woman.
For more information on the Blacklist and how it brought Hunt’s career to a halt in the early 1950s, you can read some of my past articles on the centenarian below, which go into more detail about this period:
Cari Beauchamp with Cora Sue Collins after The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Cora Sue Collins, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938)
Cora Sue Collins was discovered walking down Highland Avenue at the age of three a mere three days after she moved to Hollywood with her mother and sister. That was 88 years ago. The actress, whose 47 credits span 13 years, shared lovely memories of working with Greta Garbo (twice!) and strolling down Paris boulevards with the icon decades later, among other stories.
Those were the pleasant remembrances. As dreamlike as her Hollywood discovery was, the story Collins focused on most, aside from the picture, was a nightmare. To be honest, I know very little about Collins’ career, but early on in the conversation she mentioned that she never really watched the movies she appeared in, nor did she have any interest, as she became turned off by the industry when she was a teenager. (I didn’t know it at the time, but she really was repelled by Hollywood: her last credit dates back to 1945. Only recently has she become entranced by her past work, enthusiastically asserting that she’s “having more fun seeing films I worked in when I was 3, 4, 10, 11, whatever – that I’ve never seen before!”)
The actress didn’t expound upon the comment at the time, but not too long later, moderator Cari Beauchamp picked up on it, as she heard the anecdote earlier before they took the stage. Collins agreed to share her #MeToo story, dating back over 70 years ago, and did so in a stark, pragmatic manner that I found both devastating and startling.
Collins with fellow 1930s MGM child stars Freddie Bartholomew, Mickey Rooney, and Jackie Cooper.
Since Collins’ parents separated when she was young, she never really had a father. Enter: Harry Ruskin, an MGM writer who stood in as a father figure, mentor, and “the most important man in her life,” she recalled. Ruskin regularly hosted several of the studio’s younger players in his office for big group lunches. One day, he called her to ask if she’d be coming to lunch the next week, basically insisting she say yes. Collins did. But when the day arrived and she walked in to his office, the teen was startled to find she was the only one there. Ruskin explained that he wrote a synopsis for her and wanted her to read it. Here’s Collins’ shattering account of the episode:
He knew me so well, the synopsis he wrote was the perfect part for me, and I would have given my right arm to play it, but not my virginity. Then came the proposition, which just tore me apart because to me it was incestuous; I was like the battered wife. What have I done to cause this? I thought, ‘Have I dressed provocatively? Have I ever indicated to him…?’ Whatever, I thought it was all my fault. And when I told him I wouldn’t, he said, ‘There are a dozen girls in this town who could play this part – not as well as you – but they would be glad to sleep with me.’ I said, ‘Good, let them.’
On the verge of tears, Collins walked out, ran into the first non-numbered door she could find (a maintenance closet), and cried. After composing herself, she marched upstairs to studio head Louis B. Mayer’s office. To her surprise, Mayer came out and personally took her back to his office, something she never saw him do. He excitedly asked what she thought of Ruskin’s story, adding that they had her favorite director lined up. When he stopped long enough for Collins to pipe in, she inquired whether he knew what Ruskin wanted her to do. At that point, Mayer ambled over and sat on the arm of her chair. “You’ll get used to it,” was his response.
When Mayer realized she wasn’t going to give in, he wagged his finger under her nose and promised she’d never work on a sound stage again, to which Collins affirmed: “Mr. Mayer, that’s my heartfelt desire.” And that was it. Collins calls her declaration “the best single decision of my life”; when you think about it, that’s a courageous confrontation for a teenager to make, but a damn strong one. Though episodes like this – old and new – are pouring out of Hollywood, Collins reminded the audience that this type of behavior occurs everywhere. “Thank God it’s coming out. Thank God women are standing up for themselves,” she applauded. Yes, indeed. And you can be sure that the crowd that day commended Collins for asserting herself back then and sharing her story now.
Thank you for reading my coverage of these timely tales. If you’d like to peruse part 1 of this series featuring Claude Jarman Jr. and Nancy Kwan, please click here.