Thursday, December 3, 2009
The Christmas Album: Marsha Hunt
Day Three of our holiday jaunt finds us wondering over the above comment, which was made fairly recently by the lady behind all those Christmas packages that are about to tumble to the ground--actress and author Marsha Hunt, describing her efforts to keep making a contribution to the world, even as she soars through her ninth decade. Posing for one of the myriad publicity shots such as the one shown was designed to keep contract players busy and to make America aware of their presence on the scene. Ms. Hunt, however, stands out from the ranks of that crowded studio scene, beginning in the '30s. One reason that Hunt appeared in so many fashion photographs of the period for the studios where she was hired hand was her refusal to pose for "leg art" or pin-up shots. Even though she was still in her teens when arriving in Hollywood, Hunt had a mind of her own, recognizing that she hadn't studied acting since the age of three for that fate. She was distinguished by some factors that no amount of ballyhoo could mask: a gentle humor blended with elegance, an intelligence, a conscience, and a work ethic that led her to keep developing her talent on film and the stage for years.
Born in Chicago to a father who was a government lawyer and a mother who was a voice coach and accompanist, the future actress showed her theatrical bent from the age of three, and studied acting seriously after the family moved to Manhattan. As a teenager, she sprouted into a swan-like creature early, allowing her to begin working as a John Robert Powers model. As a young woman Hunt's lithe 5'6" frame and natural grace imbued her appearances on film with an approachable beauty. These qualities made her an invaluable utility player in the movies when she first started at Paramount in The Virginia Judge (1935), where she signed her first contract in '34 at the age of 17. While that first film was merely a programmer, the actress brought a diligence and charm to her role, even buttonholing her favorite actress, who hailed from the region where her first film was set for insight into her role. Margaret Sullavan, who was also working at the same studio, coached Ms. Hunt in the proper Virginia accent for the part, encouraging the lass in her efforts to become, as the studio ballyhoo tagged her, the "youngest character actress in America". Marsha Hunt's next fifty-one films for various studios, including a long stint at MGM, where she began working in 1939, included many imaginatively made B movies that allowed her to work with some fine directors.
Some of the best of her Bs include the following sprightly numbers like the intriguing propaganda piece, Joe Smith, American (1942-Richard Thorpe), a fascinating police procedural that introduced fact based ideas about forensic breakthroughs in Kid Glove Killer (1942-Fred Zinnemann), and two very winning charmers, The Affairs of Martha (1942-Jules Dassin) and A Letter for Evie (1945-Jules Dassin), as well as the remarkable classical music compendium Carnegie Hall(1947-Edgar Ulmer) and the still fresh film noir, Raw Deal (1948-Anthony Mann). Hunt also contributed to several memorable A pictures in key supporting roles, including her part as the bespectacled sister who sang off key so exquisitely in an adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1940-Robert Z. Leonard). This film contains my favorite comedic role for this actress. According to Hunt, "The [movie] in which I had the most fun was Pride and Prejudice . I never got a whiff of playing comedy before Pride and Prejudice and I was ready. The darling director Bob Leonard turned me loose and I got to squint and wear nearsighted glasses. I remember Karl Freund was the camera man and he used to say, "Where's Turkeyneck? Bring Turkeyneck in; we're ready for her", making my neck even longer than it was and sausage curls and singing off-key."
Other notable movies made during her years at MGM allowed her to play a rather likable (if slightly spoiled) rich girl in The Human Comedy (1943-Clarence Brown), a nurse facing defeat and capture by the Japanese with her fellow caretakers in Cry Havoc (1943-Richard Thorpe), which gave Hunt a chance to appear opposite her mentor, Margaret Sullavan, as well as a clutch of talented actresses.) Another rather likable (if slightly spoiled) rich girl came Hunt's way in the engrossing family saga in Valley of Decision (1945-Tay Garnett). In many ways, it is puzzling that Hunt did not become a bigger success on screen, since she had talent, looks and might have been particularly effective in certain roles. One part that got away from Marsha was that of Melanie in Gone With the Wind. When producer David O. Selznick was having great difficulty prying Olivia de Havilland from the contracted clutches of the Brothers Warner, he reportedly signed Hunt--only to have that brass ring slip from her grasp the next day when de Havilland's loan out was untangled.
Off-screen, her activities included designing her own clothes, extensive radio work in English and French, appearances on stage and; as with many good-hearted people of her generation, signing many petitions and supporting liberal causes. As Hunt described her political coming of age, when she was serving on committees for the Screen Actors Guild, a realistic Gene Kelly took her aside, advising her to choose her fights carefully and to be wary of some of the elements in their own union telling her "Marsha, save your fire for when it matters. You are beginning to be heard." To the actress, however "Conformity is a dangerous word. It means don't think for yourself, go with the safe ticket, the safe viewpoint, don't ask questions, don't make waves."
Inevitably, Hunt's desire to be an active citizen defending the right to express an opinion openly, (she was never a Communist), led to her being targeted by such scurrilous organizations as Red Channels. During the '50s the repressive political atmosphere helped to make Hunt and her second husband, writer Robert Presnell, Jr., largely unemployable for many years in mainstream Hollywood movies. Despite these setbacks, which destroyed some people's careers and very lives, Hunt flourished on stage, television and eventually even in movies again, while having "more time than [she] knew what to do with" freed her up to pursue other aspects of life, including travel and work that she continued for many years as a United Nations Ambassador for Peace. In a conversation with the filmmaker Eddie Muller (and a key figure in the Film Noir Foundation's activities), the actress, typically, turned the conversation away from her own accomplishments, Marsha Hunt remarked that, "I looked into the U.N. and that's where the next 25 years of my life went. I decided that was maybe our last best hope and gave it all the attention and time and energy I could. It was the most rewarding period for me. I had a remarkable career. I had made 50 movies by the time I did my first Broadway play. I had had such a rewarding time for this acting bug that bit me at any early age that it was quite wonderful that I had a chance to . . . certainly no ego needed more food than I had been given. It was time to give my attention and energy outside myself. Let's face it, acting is a very self-centered pursuit. Yes, you get to play you're a lot of other people but it's you doing it and it's the public who likes you, if they like what you do. So it was kind of a privilege to be able to turn all of my energies outward and try and explain this great idea of all humanity coming together for once to end war."
Eventually Hunt also found time to peruse the hundreds of fashion photos and film stills that she had long ago shoved to the back of her closet. Her wonderful appreciation for the artistry that went into the clothes and the people who made them in Hollywood during her tenure there resulted in The Way We Wore: Styles of the 1930s and ’40s and Our World Since Then, a sublime blend of memoir, design history and a fond look back at a period and way of life that is now a memory.
Of her latter day work on film, one especially memorable project involved one of the most prominent of the jailed writer's, a blacklist veteran, Dalton Trumbo, when she appeared as a young soldier's mother in Johnny Got His Gun (1971), a film that can be seen on TCM on Dec. 13th at 10pm EST. Today, Hunt is still making appearances at film festivals and on screen in two movies made just last year, one of which, The Grand Inquisitor (2008-Eddie Muller), a really creepy little film about a lonely recluse with a lot on her conscience, gave the actress still another chance at another type of character to play. Even at 92 years of age, the actress continues to pursue new creative worlds to conquer--a gentle, warmly funny and strong figure--somehow balancing her way through life, no matter what the obstacle. Not a bad figure to contemplate on a December night.
Please click here for previous entries in The Christmas Album series on this blog.