The death of actress-activist Marsha Hunt this week is a historical watershed and a personal loss. Marsha was one of the last living actors who began her movie career during the Great Depression in 1935. She became part of a now vanished Hollywood, initially at Paramount then at MGM, that bound contracted talent to studios with artists having little to no say over their choice of roles and careers. Nevertheless, she thrived in the studio system by becoming somewhat less than a genuine movie star and more of a consummate professional actress.
Marsha’s career was derailed by the Blacklist, a perfidious period of American history that has been endlessly chronicled and misunderstood. Never a Communist or radical, she was a forthright liberal who refused to accept her voice being marginalized by the endemic sexism and politics of the period. Marsha was the final survivor of the Committee of the First Amendment, an action group of film actors, directors and writers founded by screenwriter Philip Dunne, actress Myrna Loy, and directors John Huston and William Wyler. Members of the group flew to Washington D.C. on October 27, 1947 to protest the HUAC hearings investigating so-called subversive Communist influence in the motion picture industry. From a public relations perspective, the group’s involvement backfired and many people in the group subsequently had to seek political cover. After the pamphlet “Red Channels” was published in June 1950, naming Marsha and 150 other artists, journalists and writers by falsely portraying them as subversives who were manipulating the entertainment system, she had a great deal of trouble finding work in Hollywood.
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Marsha told me she was presented with a loyalty oath that she was requested to sign in order to appear in “The Happy Time” in 1952, but was never was one to dwell on personal misfortune — Marsha was the original “using lemons to make lemonade” optimist about life. Instead, she preferred to recollect her husband in the film, the debonair Charles Boyer. “Every woman should have the opportunity to be married to Boyer even if it’s just in a movie,” she remembered with a smile.
There is a story about Marsha and the Blacklist I experienced first-hand. In 2007, my wife and I took Marsha to see “Trumbo,” a documentary about the great screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, written by his son Christopher, whom I knew. Of course, Marsha knew Dalton before and after he was blacklisted as one of the original Hollywood Ten who would be jailed for contempt of Congress. She also appeared in Trumbo’s movie adaptation of “Johnny Got His Gun” in 1971. Watching the movie and having Marsha point out where she was sitting and what she was thinking about at the time, as a newsreel clip of the HUAC hearing in the film showed her at the hearing in 1947, was akin to reliving history.
At one point, one of Trumbo’s letters was read about the fate of producer Adrian Scott. Scott had been married to actress Anne Shirley, who was one of Marsha’s best friends. The letter described Scott’s downfall due to being blacklisted: he was fired as a top producer at RKO, his marriage to Anne Shirley ended and he was now living alone in a small house in the Valley, grinding out TV scripts for “The Adventures of Robin Hood” under a pseudonym while sitting in a chair with his typewriter balanced on a milk crate and only a photo of Franklin Roosevelt adorning the bare walls of his house. Marsha moaned audibly and put her hand over her heart. When I asked if she was all right, she nodded and said, “You know I wasn’t really politically astute at that time, but I knew Adrian so well and admired him tremendously. I thought he was one of the finest men I ever met, so if he was for something, I knew it was the right thing to do.”
Doing the right thing was Marsha’s credo, and there was never anything phony or self-serving about it. Her incredibly long and fulfilling life simply can’t be detailed here — I heartily recommend Roger Memos’ celluloid valentine “Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity” (2015) for a complete overview of Marsha’s life and career. From her work at SAG and the United Nations, to helping the homeless as the ceremonial mayor of Sherman Oaks, to her beautiful table book centered on fashion, “The Way We Wore,” Marsha talked the talk and walked the walk.
On the personal side: Marsha and I met previously several times, but we became close after I invited her to be the special guest at the Noir City Film Festival at San Francisco’s Castro Theater. After being interviewed by Eddie Muller and charming the audience, Marsha could have been elected as mayor of San Francisco, hands down. My wife Jemma and I acted as Marsha’s escort — she was a youthful 89 at the time — and the three of us drew close with meals and screenings and being together talking about everything. Marsha signed a Noir City poster for me with the inscription, “To Alan, my White Knight of Noir City.” I was hooked.
There were so many wonderful memories accrued during parties at Marsha’s house, dinners out, screenings in Hollywood, helping her select her wardrobe for Eddie Muller’s short film “The Grand Inquisitor,” appearances by her at Noir City in Hollywood and my annual film festival in Palm Springs. Marsha was one of the first people we invited over after we settled in our current house. While she sampled some of Jemma’s cuisine, Jake, our energetic cat, climbed up the back of her chair and perched on her shoulder. Marsha, forever composed, looked up calmly and questioned. “Alan dear. Is he supposed to be doing that?”
Being with Marsha was empowering; Her unwavering optimism might have seemed naïve to some, but it was infectious. I remember telling her, half-seriously, that after an evening together at her favorite Indian restaurant in North Hollywood, I was motivated to take on a massive project to do something good, something mildly ambitious like trying to end world hunger — an issue Marsha herself was involved in with her work with the U.N. and with the homeless in Sherman Oaks. Spending time with her enabled me to grow as a person. Marsha met a countless number of people during her life and I believe she had a positive influence on every one of them. Her stories of Hollywood and the great and near-great were legion and often spontaneous. “I’ve told you about the time Orson and I went to see Eartha Kitt do her cabaret act when I was in London, didn’t I?” was a typical opening. Another time while I was sitting at her piano, fingering the keys, she mentioned that her late husband, screenwriter Robert Presnell Jr., had a friend named “Leonard” who played some of the music he was composing for a film on her piano. Further inquiry revealed it was Leonard Bernstein, who was trying out a music cue from his “On the Waterfront” score on Marsha’s piano. I looked at my fingers touching the keys and blithely wondered if I should ever wash my hands again.
One of my most cherished memories of Marsha occurred during an evening when I hosted a Glenn Ford double bill at the Egyptian Theater for the launch of Peter Ford’s biography on his father. The theater was full, and many of the survivors of Old Hollywood were present. I was still getting my feet under me as far as being in front of an audience and was a bit nervous. But the show went well and afterwards Marsha and I were sitting the lobby. Suddenly she looked directly at me and put her hands on my face saying, “Alan, I’m so proud of you. You were really superb. You can do this!” Marsha provided some unsolicited and genuine professional affirmation at a time when I needed it.
While the page has now turned on so much of Marsha’s history — the golden age of Hollywood; the Blacklist; the United Nations when it was universally viewed as an entity for good — what I will always remember is her selflessness and intelligence with the sincerest interest and empathy for others. Most of all, I’ll always cherish our friendship. There is special place in the firmament for Marsha Hunt; she is forever a shining star.
Noted film historian Alan K. Rode is the author of “Michael Curtiz, A Life in Film,” among other books. He is the director-treasurer of the Film Noir Foundation and the host and producer of the annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs.
For interviews with Hunt at Noir City events, watch below:
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