Marsha Hunt, movie star blacklisted for HUAC protest, dies at 104

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Marsha Hunt, a Hollywood actress who played American girlfriends, wives and mothers during the 1940s war and saw her career wither after protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee witch hunt against the Communist activity in the Film Colony, died September 7 at her home in Sherman Oaks, California. She was 104 years old and had spent the past six decades as a formidable humanitarian activist.

Roger Memos, the writer-director of the documentary film “Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity” (2015), confirmed the death but did not know the immediate cause.

Few performers have had a more auspicious start. After a brief modeling career in Manhattan, Ms Hunt headed to Hollywood aged 17 at the suggestion of an admiring photographer who divined her future in film and orchestrated a ruse to pique the interest of movie studios .

A photo of her was sent to every Los Angeles newspaper with a caption about how the beaming cover girl turned down numerous studio offers. Of films, she was quoted: “No pictures for me.”

The plot worked, landing him a contract at Paramount Studios and the romantic lead in his first film, “The Virginia Judge” (1935), opposite Robert Cummings. With her heart-shaped face and healthy looks, Ms Hunt starred in more than a dozen films in her first two years on screen – some opposite John Wayne and Buster Crabbe. Few people were distinguished enough to catapult her to cinematic heights.

Ms Hunt said she pleaded with studio executives to end her streak of pink-eyed college girls and romantic-minded ingenues and give her a better lineup of parts, even if it meant a drop marquee billing. She said Paramount officials told her she seemed ungrateful, given her stardom. After her contract expired, she became a prodigious freelancer, often at low-budget “poverty hall” studios.

“I was 20 at the time and was a has-been because I had only played pretty young girls,” she told publication Film Talk in 2004. took everything I could, just to keep myself busy,” she added. “I’ve worked in studios that made pictures – and I mean entire feature films – in six days.”

A small role on the popular Andy Hardy series – as the spendthrift wife in “The Hardys Ride High” (1939) – led to a contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the city’s most prestigious studio.

Ms. Hunt has become one of MGM’s most trusted and attractive mainstays when it comes to second-tier features. In “Kid Glove Killer” (1942), a tense thriller with elements of light comedy, she played an attractive assistant to Van Heflin’s medical examiner. She was the warm wife of Robert Young in “Joe Smith, American” (1942) and the darling of the brave pilot Franchot Tone in the wartime propaganda film “Pilot #5” (1943).

She also won supporting roles in major productions, including “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, “The Human Comedy” (1943) with Mickey Rooney, and “The Valley of Decision” ( 1945) with Gregory. Peck and Garson.

“I didn’t care about the billing,” Ms Hunt told Film Talk. “I didn’t care if I was the leader or the celebrity or anything like that. I didn’t want to be a star: I wanted to be the best actress I could become and they let me grow with each role.

In addition to her on-screen work, Ms Hunt also became known for her volunteer activities to boost morale and raise funds for the Allied war effort during World War II. She undertook a USO tour of Canada and Alaska, sold war bonds and became captain of a hostess team at the Hollywood Canteen, which accommodated military personnel on leave. “I think I danced with five thousand men every Saturday night,” she later said.

His career declined after the war. In a small role, she was cast against type—as a vampire—in “Smash-Up: One Woman’s Story” (1947) with Susan Hayward as an alcoholic singer. Mrs. Hunt was also unlucky enough to be the good girl in the crime drama “Raw Deal” (1948).

With success, she turned to television and Broadway to boost her profile and demonstrate what Hollywood failed to fully capture in her lineup. Reviewing his work as a viola in a 1949 NBC production of “Twelfth Night,” New York Times television critic Jack Gould praised his understated charisma and mastery in rendering Shakespeare’s verses effortlessly. conversational.

Her work as a pastor’s wife opposite Maurice Evans in a well-received 1950 revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple” landed her on the cover of Life magazine – a major publicity stunt. His timing was unfortunate. His name also appeared soon after in Red Channels, a pamphlet that stoked anti-Communist paranoia and had a huge influence on television and film studio hiring decisions.

The most serious charge, Red Channels noted, was Ms. Hunt’s membership in the Committee for the First Amendment. This group of about two dozen high-profile artists, including Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, flew to Washington in 1947 to protest the House Un-American Activities Committee’s imprisonment of 10 writers, directors and producers famous people who had refused to reveal their political allegiances.

Decades later, she recalled the HUAC investigation as “an appalling display of the denial of citizens’ rights.” It was a time when livelihoods were destroyed by insinuations of loyalty to Moscow, and although she was never imprisoned or charged with any crime, she found the work drying up. She told the New York Herald Tribune in 1956 that she had twice signed anti-Communist loyalty oaths to secure film and television jobs, but ended an ad in specialized journals.

“I’ve been on my feet for several photos, but it’s a pretty inflexible wall,” she told the Herald Tribune. “The price of work today is guilt and repentance. I’m not guilty so I can’t repent. If only I had been a communist, I could have joined the other prodigal sons and daughters and been welcomed back home.

Marcia Virginia Hunt was born in Chicago on October 17, 1917, to an insurance company executive and singing teacher. She grew up in New York, where she developed an interest in theater in elementary school. After graduating at 16 from Horace Mann High School for Girls, she became a John Powers model to subsidize her acting lessons.

Her first marriage, to Paramount film editor and future director Jerry Hopper, ended in divorce. She was then married to screenwriter Robert Presnell Jr. from 1946 until his death in 1986. Her stepson, Peter Presnell, died in 2020. She had no immediate survivors.

Ms Hunt worked periodically after the blacklist era – including as the mother of a disfigured war veteran in ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ (1971) – but she said the “momentum” of her career at the screen was gone.

She turned to activism, propelled by a two-month trip around the world in the mid-1950s. Being exposed to what she called “the extremes of beauty and splendor and . . . the misery of abject poverty” spurred his involvement with the American Association for the United Nations. (The group supports the global body and is now known as the United Nations Association of the United States of America.)

As President of the San Fernando Valley Chapter, she raised funds and was a passionate voice on food insecurity, refugee crises and other humanitarian issues. After a pipe bomb destroyed the office in 1963 – part of a pattern of similar terror attacks targeting the UN group and interfaith leaders in the region – she spoke out against right-wing extremism . Decades later, she worked on reducing homelessness in the Los Angeles area.

Seldom was she more expressive than when she spoke of a life spent defying authority.

Recalling her blacklist, she told Film Talk: “I was told that actually it wasn’t really about communism – that was what everyone was scared of – but about control and power.

“The way you get control,” she continued, “is to get everyone to agree with what’s appropriate at the time, whatever is accepted. Don’t question anything, don’t talk, don’t have your own ideas, don’t be articulate about it, never be eloquent, and if you’re ever one of those things, you’re controversial. And that’s just as bad, maybe worse, than being a communist.

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