Marsha Hunt, the bright-eyed star who stood out in such films as These glamor girls, Pride and Prejudice and Raw deal before her career was unraveled by the communist witch hunt that hit Hollywood, is dead. She was 104.
She died of natural causes Tuesday night at her home in Sherman Oaks, where she had lived since 1946, Roger C. Memos – writer-director of the documentary Marsha Hunt’s sweet adversity – told The Hollywood Reporter.
Hunt also appeared opposite Mickey Rooney in the Oscar-nominated Best Picture The human comedy (1943) during a period when she was known as “Hollywood’s youngest actress.”
A former model who signed with Paramount Pictures at age 17, the Chicago native made her first big splash as a suicidal co-ed opposite Lana Turner in MGM’s These glamor girls (1939).
Starring Walter Brennan’s girlfriend Joe and Ethel Turp call on the President (1939), Hunting aged 16 to 65 on screen. She portrayed the gloomy sister Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1940), and in Anthony Mann’s film noir classic Raw deal (1948) she was the good girl opposite Claire Trevor and Dennis O’Keefe.
Years later, in Johnny got his gun (1971) – written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo – Hunt played the mother of Timothy Bottoms’ quadruple amputee character.
Although she never achieved the stardom of some of her co-stars, Hunt was proud of her career, especially early on. “Before I was 30, I had played four aging roles, and I was Hollywood’s youngest character actress … no two roles were the same,” she told the website Ms. in the Biz in 2015.
In 1947, Hunt and her second husband, screenwriter Robert Presnell Jr., joined the Committee on the First Amendment, which questioned the legality of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which sought to purge Communists from the entertainment industry.
The committee, which also included Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye, John Huston and other Hollywood liberals, chartered a plane to Washington to attend the HUAC hearings and support 19 creatives who had been under scrutiny.
However, Bogart and others quickly backtracked, saying they were being duped by Communists and that their trip to Washington was poorly planned. Although it helped save their careers, Hunt did not repent. In June 1950 she was listed in Red channelsthe right-wing pamphlet that framed dozens of actors, directors, screenwriters and others for being sympathetic to “subversive” causes.
“You know, I was never interested in communism,” she said in a 2004 interview. “I was very interested in my industry, my country and my government. But I was shocked by the behavior of my government and its mistreatment of my industry . So I spoke up and protested like everyone else on that plane. But then I was told once I got blacklisted, you see, I was an articulate liberal and that was bad. I was told that actually it wasn’t was about communism – that’s what scared everyone – it was about control and about power.
“The way to gain control is to get everyone to agree on whatever is appropriate at the time, whatever is accepted. Don’t question anything, don’t say, 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. Which was still quite legal to be, you know: the Communist Party was still legally in America and ran for public office. But you lost your career, your good name, your savings, probably your marriage, your friends if you had been a Communist. It was appalling, just appalling.”
Her story was told in Marsha Hunt’s sweet adversitypublished in 2015.
She was born Marcia Virginia Hunt in Chicago on October 17, 1917. Her father, Earl, was an insurance executive and her mother, Minabel, a vocal coach. She and her family moved to New York City and she graduated from the Horace Mann School for Girls at the age of 16.
Hunt fell into a career as a model when her high school photographer used her photo as an ad copy. Signed by the Powers Agency, she became a coveted “Powers Girl” and learned how to pose and act in front of a lens.
Friends with photographers-turned-publicists Robert and Sarah Mack, Hunt moved to Hollywood at 17, signed with Paramount when her agent, Zeppo Marx, earned her $250 a week and landed the female lead in her first film. The Virginia judge (1935). She appeared as a swashbuckler and love interest in several films – John Wayne romanced her Born in the West (1937)—but the studio declined to renew her contract in 1938.
She landed at MGM in Hardy’s Ride High (1939) and continued to appear in the studio in The trial of Mary Dugan (1941) as a Brooklyn chorus girl; in Kid Glove Killer (1942), director Fred Zinnemann’s first American film; in the drama of World War II save ‘havoc’ (1943); and as the top character in the romantic comedy Jules Dassin A letter to Evie (1946).
An exhibitor poll had placed her among the “Top 10 Stars of Tomorrow”—others on the list included Roddy McDowall, Gloria DeHaven, Sidney Greenstreet, June Allyson and Barry Fitzgerald—and when she wasn’t performing, she served as a hostess at the famed Hollywood Canteen for U.S. soldiers.
In 1948, Hunt made his stage debut on the Hollywood set Joy to the world, directed by Jules Dassin; two years later she was back on Broadway in George Bernard Shaw’s Devil’s Disciple and graced the front page Life magazine.
After The devil’s Disciple closed, Hunt traveled to Europe, but when she returned, Red channels had been released and her career – she had made more than 50 films by then – would never be the same.
She went on to guest-star on such shows as Ford’s TV Theatre, Climax! and Alfred Hitchcock presentswas a regular on the short-lived 1959 series Peck’s bad girl and later appeared Gun smoke, The Twilight Zone, Ben Casey, My three sons, Ironside, Murder, she wrote and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Hunt was a member of the SAG board and served on various progressive committees; one advised actress Olivia de Havilland in her ground-breaking lawsuit against the studio system and Warner Bros., and another petitioned studios to hire minority actors outside of stereotypical roles.
In 1955, a trip around the world opened her eyes to the plight of Third World nations, and she threw herself into humanitarian efforts, appearing on behalf of the United Nations and becoming what she called a “planetary patriot.”
In April 2015, she was named the first recipient of the Marsha Hunt for Humanity Award, created by Kat Kramer, daughter of the famous liberal director-producer Stanley Kramer.
Hunt was “one of the first major actresses in Hollywood to dedicate her life to causes,” noted Kat Kramer, “and she paved the way for Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Patricia Arquette, Sharon Stone, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Tippi Hedren, Ed Begley Jr., Ed Asner and Martin Sheen – celebrities using their fame as a voice for change.”
Hunt can be seen in all her glamor in the 1993 book The Way We Were: Styles of the 1930s and 40s and Our World Since Thenwhich shows pictures of her in many of her own clothes from the time.
Hunt moved to Sherman Oaks in 1946 and served as its honorary mayor for more than two decades. She and Presnell were married for 40 years until his death in 1986 at the age of 71. They had no children.
She is survived by a nephew, actor-director Allan Hunt and other nieces and nephews. Donations in her memory may be made to LA Family Housing.
In 2008, Hunt starred in the 22-minute film The Grand Inquisitorwritten and directed by Eddie Muller.
“Working with her was the most rewarding collaboration of my life. I suppose it always will be,” the host of TCM’s Noir Alley said after Raw deal and The Grand Inquisitor played back-to-back on the cable channel last month. “She is simply the most exceptional human being I have ever known.”