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Marsha Hunt obituary | Movies

In the films of the 1930s and 40s, the actor Marsha Hunt, who has died aged 104, usually played sweet, pretty, rather empty-headed young girls. In real life she was articulate, committed, a passionate defender of minority rights and a Screen Actors Guild activist, who became a victim of McCarthyite innuendo and the politics of her own union. She was never subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (Huac), but she became associated with the “wrong” people and causes at the wrong time.

She was talent-spotted in her teens by a Paramount scout and given a contract in 1935. The studio confined her to pallid roles in a number of B-films, often teamed with a fellow contract player, Robert Cummings.

In 1939, she moved to MGM, where she remained for six years, sometimes making six films a year, and where she got better parts. Three of them were in prestige productions starring Greer Garson. The first was as Mary Bennet, the bookworm sister of Garson’s Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice (1940). In the slightly caricatured portrayal, Hunt had to sing off-key, something that she found difficult as she was very musical.

Marsha Hunt and Richard Crane in None Shall Escape, 1944.
Marsha Hunt and Richard Crane in None Shall Escape, 1944. Photograph: Shutterstock

The following year, in Blossoms in the Dust, she was moving as Garson’s adopted sister, rejected by her future in-laws when they hear that she was born to an unmarried mother. In The Valley of Decision (1945), she was the spoiled daughter of a steel mill owner who is persuaded by a former maid (Garson) not to let her brothers sell the mill on their father’s death di lei.

She had a chance to show a little more spunk as a racketeer’s moll in Unholy Partners (1941) and displayed some comic skill as the oldest of seven daughters in Seven Sweethearts (1942). In 1943, she was effective as a kooky rich girl in The Human Comedy and as one of nine army nurses in Bataan in Cry Havoc.

One of Hunt’s best roles was in André de Toth’s None Shall Escape (1944), one of the first Hollywood films to deal with the Nazi threat. She played a Polish teacher who leaves her fiance di lei when he joins the party. The film was written by Lester Cole, who would become one of the Hollywood Ten, convicted of contempt of Congress after refusing to answer questions about their supposed Communist affiliations.

Jules Dassin, later blacklisted, directed Hunt in The Affairs of Martha (1942) and A Letter for Evie (1946), and on Broadway in Joy to the World (1948), a comedy about Hollywood in which an executive producer (Alfred Drake) and a researcher (Hunt) get into hot water for their liberal views.

In 1947 Hunt participated in the much publicized flight to Washington led by Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Huston and other members of the Committee for the First Amendment, a group of Hollywood actors supporting the Hollywood Ten. Hunt said they flew to Washington to ” reassure an alarmed public that movies were not, as charged, filled with subversive red propaganda ”. Bogart, under pressure from Warner Bros, was among several who went on to renounce the flight as “ill-advised”. Hunt made no such public apology.

This came in the year that her career was beginning to give her more satisfaction. In Smash-Up, written by John Howard Lawson, another of the Hollywood Ten, Hunt was third billed as the woman whom Susan Hayward suspects of trying to steal her husband di lei; the pair have a wonderful fight in the powder room of a night-club. In Carnegie Hall, Hunt had to age from her teens to her 60s as a cleaning woman at the famous Manhattan concert hall who rises to become concert organizer, and uses her position di lei to further the career of her son di lei, a pianist.

She had by then become a member of the board of the Screen Actors Guild. At the instigation of the guild president Robert Montgomery, the members were asked to sign non-communist affidavits. Hunt refused.

Marsha Hunt, left, with Fay Bainter in Cry Havoc, 1943.
Marsha Hunt, left, with Fay Bainter in Cry Havoc, 1943. Photograph: Getty

In 1950, while she was appearing on Broadway in The Devil’s Disciple, she was named in a pamphlet called Red Channels, which accused 150 people in the entertainment industry of having communist affiliations. Thus, when she returned to Hollywood, she found herself almost unemployable.

The producer Stanley Kramer cast her in The Happy Time (1952) as the Scots-born mother in a French-Canadian family, worried about her adolescent son’s upbringing. Continually pressurized to disavow political beliefs she never held, Hunt was subsequently offered only a handful of parts, mostly as mothers.

One of them was James Dean’s mother in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), which she had to turn down as she had previously committed to doing three plays for a community theater in Los Angeles at the same time. She played Natalie Wood’s mother in Bombers B-52 (1957), mainly because of her resemblance to the younger star, and Brandon De Wilde’s selfish mother in Blue Denim (1959).

Hunt’s last movie role was as the mother of a first world war veteran in Johnny Got His Gun (1971), the only film directed by Dalton Trumbo, who was jailed for failing to testify before Huac.

Her background gave no hint of her liberal political leanings. Her father di lei, Earl Hunt, was a lawyer of conservative Republican views, and her mother di lei, Minabel (nee Morris), was a former operatic soprano and vocal coach. Marsha was born in Chicago but brought up in New York and attended the Theodore Irving School of Dramatics, becoming a fashion model before being signed up by Paramount.

In 1993, Hunt published The Way We Wore: Styles of the 1930s and 40s, a good reference book for costume designers and social historians. In later years, she decided to speak more about the time of the communist witch-hunts. “It was a shameful period, demanding conformity, stifling dissent. Young people today don’t believe it happened. It’s important for them to know, to understand the grip of hysteria, and paranoia that crippled our society, and to guard against it happening again. “

Hunt’s first marriage, to Jerry Hopper, the writer and director, ended in divorce in 1945. The following year she married the screenwriter Robert Presnell Jr. He died in 1986.

Marsha (Marcia Virginia) Hunt, actor, born 17 October 1917; died 7 September 2022

Ronald Bergan died in 2020

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