Dame in the Game: Marsha Hunt

1

This month’s “Dame in the Game” will probably only be a familiar name to the most devoted classic film aficionados, but Marsha Hunt should be a household name—not only for her well-deserved moniker as “Hollywood’s youngest character actress,” but also for her fifty-plus years of work as a social activist.

For this very special “Dame in the Game,” I had the opportunity to sit down with Marsha Hunt in the same house in Sherman Oaks she’s lived in since the late 1940s. There, we chatted about her acting career, being blacklisted, and everything in between.

Hunt_Photo1

Hunt’s home is exactly what you would expect from a denizen of old Hollywood—frozen in time, much of the furnishings and decoration look as if they’ve remained the same since the 1950s. Symbols of her past are scattered amongst the tasteful mid-century furnishings. Photographs of her with her late husband, screenwriter Robert Presnell, line the mantel; a china doll in Hunt’s likeness sits below a framed movie still of Hunt in her acting heyday.

Nestled in among these memories, Hunt, now 97, tells me about her obsession with movies growing up and how she always wanted to be an actress, but not necessarily a movie star: “I just wanted to be as many different people as they would let me undertake and to be as convincing to the public as I possibly could be as all those different kinds of people. That, to me, was acting.”

Hunt graduated from the Horace Mann School for Girls in New York City in 1934 at sixteen. Despite hailing from a well-educated family, she had no interest in going to college where you couldn’t “learn drama before your third year.” When a photographer used her senior yearbook photo as an advertising sample, it led another commercial photographer to suggest she pursue modeling.

It wasn’t a career path she’d considered, but then she thought, “I’d learn about lighting, cameras, whether or not I photograph, make-up, grooming…” Modeling offered the education in techniques for film acting she couldn’t find at a university.

Hunt opposite John Wayne in Born to the West (1937)

Hunt opposite John Wayne in Born to the West (1937)

Hunt soon signed with the Powers agency, acquiring a widely desired position as a model and “Powers Girl.” Working as a model, she met photographers Robert and Sarah Mack who introduced her to producer Gabriel Pascal, all of whom felt she showed promise as an actress. The Mack’s relocated to Los Angeles, where they opened a public relations office. After getting their feet wet in Hollywood, they brought her out from New York and ran an experiment in reverse psychology.

Informing the studios that Hunt was New York’s Number One Model (a lie in itself), they encouraged her to tell reporters she wanted nothing to do with acting. Hunt became nationwide news under the headline “Model Spurns Hollywood,” and she soon had three studios offering her screen tests. She signed a seven-year contract with Paramount where she would play a string of ingénue and love interest roles. Paramount declined to renew her contract in 1938 and Hunt embarked on freelance acting work, which eventually led to a new contract with MGM.

She took on a supporting role opposite breakout star Lana Turner in MGM’s These Glamour Girls (1939). Hunt portrayed Betty Ainsbridge, a woman who commits suicide on a railway track after a failed elopement.

“My first suicide,” she says, “I was now an actress. It changed my career –I wasn’t a leading lady, I was now an actress. I could play that far-fetched, exaggerated role convincingly and not be accused of over-acting . . . No two roles alike from then on.”

Her role in These Glamour Girls led to a wide variety of parts, including one in which she aged from sixteen to death at sixty opposite Walter Brennan and a comedic turn as the dowdy Bennet sister Mary in MGM’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Hunt as Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice

Hunt as Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice

Hunt proudly states, “Before I was thirty, I had played four aging roles, and I was Hollywood’s youngest character actress.”

In 1943, Hunt took the first position that would send her on a lifelong path of activism. When her recent co-star Franchot Tone was unable to complete his term on the Screen Actors Guild board, Hunt stepped in to take his place.

“I didn’t know how to behave at a meeting,” she says, “I thought, well, I’ll just listen a lot, which I did. And [I] sat with Anne Revere, a wonderful character actress and Academy Award winner, who was friendly to this newcomer and invited me to sit with her. She was an arch liberal, and I suppose sitting next to her, which became a habit, tagged me as a far-out liberal.”

Hunt didn’t sit by quietly for long though. While serving in Tone’s place on the SAG Board, she volunteered for three committees. One was specifically to guide and counsel Olivia de Havilland on her case against Warner Bros. (profiled in a previous column.)

Another committee was focused on efforts to encourage the major studios to hire minority actors outside of cliché, stereotyped roles, so as to broaden the public conception of foreigners and people of color.

To Hunt, it was an obvious request: “That’s what I was doing as an actor—I was going away from what I looked like and sounded like, which was a dear, young thing in my teens, and I was all these other people. So I wanted the minorities to be other than the way they were being thought of.”

The third committee Hunt served on was one that tried to unite SAG with the writers and directors guilds to stand as a united front in negotiating their new contract terms with the producer’s guild. Hunt served on the committee with Robert Montgomery, a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild. When meeting with the other guilds, Montgomery insisted on a non-communist clause being part of the contract negotiations. The other guilds withdrew their support immediately.

When they returned to the SAG board, Montgomery omitted his insistence on anti-communist clauses from the report. Hunt suffered a week of sleepless nights before her conscience pushed her to report to the Guild Board that Montgomery had omitted the real reason the negotiations fell through.

Hunt felt such a clause and sentiment was absurd, but she did not realize the degree to which anti-communist thought was fermenting in Hollywood at the time. Her actions on the Guild Board, speaking out for what she believed in, were the first chinks in her acting career. Shortly after her time on the board, MGM dropped Hunt from her contract.

“I would say, why are we giving so much of our time to communism? Isn’t that political and aren’t we professional, not political?” she recounts. “And apparently eyes rolled, and they thought she must be one, and that’s apparently why I left MGM.”

Many incorrectly assumed that Hunt’s insistence on keeping someone’s political affiliation out of professional dealings meant she was a communist herself. Hunt learned later that George Murphy, a right-wing actor and a fellow member of the SAG board, had been a political adviser to Louis B. Mayer. She believes that Mayer ended her career at MGM at Murphy’s urgings.

Hunt opposite Susan Hayward in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947)

Hunt opposite Susan Hayward in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947)

“At the time my contract was dropped, I was averaging six films a year for Metro, the fan mail was coming in by the truckload,” she explains. “I was always on time to the set; I always knew my lines. I adored MGM. It was giving me the variety I had dreamed of, and they dropped my option. It was a hurt I can’t describe.”

Hunt was dropped from MGM in 1946, a year before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held trials resulting in the “Hollywood Blacklist.” Yet anti-communist sentiment was starting to reach a fever pitch across America.

“Reds were suddenly becoming the dirtiest word in our lexicon,” Hunt says. “You could be a rapist. Oh well. But don’t be a communist. It was the worst name you could give any American.”

Hunt continued to stand up for her beliefs in the wake of the actions of HUAC. Hunt’s best friend Anne Shirley’s husband Adrian Scott was named one of the Hollywood Nineteen, a list of Hollywood writers, directors, producers, and actors called before HUAC to testify about the communist party in Hollywood.

This denunciation of her friend inspired Hunt to join the Committee for the First Amendment, a group that included Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Danny Kaye.

Hunt at the front of the plane steps on the Committee for the First Amendment’s trip to Washington.

Hunt at the front of the plane steps on the Committee for the First Amendment’s trip to Washington.

As a member of the Committee for the First Amendment, Hunt flew to Washington D.C. to protest HUAC’s actions and be present at the notorious hearings. Hunt says, “We went back to Washington to defend our industry as much as the political rights of the writers.”

The Committee for the First Amendment quickly crumbled under pressure from the studios and was dealt a swift deathblow when the Bogarts immediately recanted their involvement and apologized for the trip to Washington. This would be the turning point in Marsha Hunt’s career.

“I was told the price of working, and it was to apologize for having made that trip, that witness in favor of the freedoms of the writers,” Hunt explains. “And I wouldn’t do it—I said no. That was the right thing to do. We were defending the secret ballot and the rights of fellow artists and of the industry to hire whatever writers they liked whatever their politics were. I wouldn’t apologize.”

Though this prevented Hunt from making many films, she pressed forward with her career, starring in Broadway plays to great critical and public acclaim and even gracing the cover of Life Magazine in 1950. But anti-communist hysteria was about to throw her career for another loop.

When Hunt left for her first ever trip abroad, she was entertaining three offers from television networks to host her own daily talk show. By the time she returned, her name had been published in Red Channels and those offers had dried up. The pamphlet listed 150 names of members of the broadcast community with communist associations and leftist leanings, itemizing petitions they had signed and anti-HUAC gatherings they had attended and more.

With the publication of Red Channels in 1950, the sparse film work Hunt had been offered since the Committee for the First Amendment’s Trip to Washington disappeared. After appearing in fifty-two films between 1935 and 1949, Hunt’s onscreen acting career was virtually over.

Having already carved out a space as an activist and outspoken defender of social justice, Marsha Hunt would now turn all her energy to a life of charitable work and social outreach and activism. Denied a career and motherhood after a string of unsuccessful pregnancies, she quickly threw herself into helping others. She collected blankets for soldiers in Korea. She helped form the Valley Youth Foundation that built a youth center for teens in the valley and began a teenage drama workshop to teach teens about acting and the theatre. She organized and fought tirelessly against homelessness and hunger helping found shelters and the “San Fernando Valley Mayor’s Fund for the Homeless.”

In 1955, she took a trip around the world that changed her life. “That’s when I discovered I’m not just an American, I’m a world citizen,” she says. “And I was never the same again. I came home so entranced with my fellow beings all over the place that I wanted to know more, and I was appalled at my ignorance of the places I had seen and tasted and heard and smelled. And the only thing I came across that represented that was this thing that they called the United Nations.”

Shortly after, Hunt discovered the United Nations Association, which was a citizen’s support organization for the UN. She joined the valley chapter and quickly rose to become its president. Hunt dedicated twenty-five years to spreading information about and promoting the agencies of the UN, such as UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the International Atomic Energy Association.

Hunt says, “I was the happiest I’ve ever been spreading those tidings. And in an odd way, I have the blacklist to thank because I might not have gone to the extreme of knowledge about this to want to understand its importance and to want to allow it to continue and prosper.”

Hunt_Photo6

Her activism did not stop there –she has served on countless committees and national boards since the 1950s, including ten years on the board of Planned Parenthood, which she was a member of when they began providing abortions (something she is strongly in support of).

She even wrote a bill that passed both houses of Congress and was part of President Jimmy Carter’s 1978 Thanksgiving Proclamation, approving and promoting a practice she devised called “Thankful Giving” encouraging Americans to not only give thanks, but to also donate money to the fight against hunger. Hunt still remains dedicated to this cause and says she has to live to 100 to promote it in new ways via the internet.

Humble to a fault, Hunt doesn’t mention the countless awards and recognition she’s received in gratitude for her humanitarian work until I ask about them. She’s had the plaques and certificates boxed away for years. But, when I visit, I’m lucky to find them spread across several tables in her formal living room. Her memorabilia and papers are being carefully archived, and her assistant has unboxed them so they can all be photographed and noted. There are easily more than fifty plaques and certificates recognizing her achievements.

And it doesn’t stop there. She’s written over fifty songs, and Hunt was honorary mayor of Sherman Oaks for over twenty years. She published a book in 1993 entitled The Way We Wore: Styles of the 1930s and ’40s and Our World Since Then, which many designers and costumers consider an essential research tool on 30s and 40s fashion to this day.

Hunt_photo7

In April, she was honored with the inaugural Marsha Hunt for Humanity Award given by Kat Kramer, daughter of Stanley Kramer who fought to end the blacklist in the 1950s. About receiving the award, Hunt says, “I was agog and almost aghast. I didn’t know attention was paid.”

The award, which will continue to bear Marsha Hunt’s name, will remain an annual event honoring individuals for their humanitarian work. Kramer cites Hunt as an actress who paved the way for Hollywood humanitarians and activists like Jane Fonda, Angelina Jolie, and Sean Penn.

Hunt will be further recognized with a documentary about her life entitled Sweet Adversity, which made its world premiere at the Burbank Film Festival on September 13th.

Still nestled away in her home in Sherman Oaks, Hunt remains a Hollywood icon and humanitarian role model – a true “Dame in the Game.”

Maureen Lenker

About Maureen Lenker

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, director, and producer. She has written for Turner Classic Movies, Stage Raw, @ This Stage, LA Weekly, and more. She is also working towards an MA in Arts Journalism at USC, reporting on arts, theatre, and entertainment. When not at USC, she works on theatre productions throughout Los Angeles (primarily as an assistant director). She is a native Angelino who hates driving and cites peacoats and scarves as her favorite clothing items. An Anglophile, she attempted to fulfill her dream of attending Hogwarts by completing her master’s in British History at the University of Oxford. She is a cock-eyed optimist, rom-com aficionado, classic movie buff, musical theatre geek, and general pop culture enthusiast.