Marsha Hunt, one of the last surviving actors from Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age of the 1930s and 1940s, has died. She was 104.
Born in Chicago in 1917, Marsha Hunt went on to have a busy career in Hollywood
Her work suddenly “dried up” after becoming involved with liberal causes, she said in 1996
After the disruption to her film career, she found work in the theater and on TV series
Hunt, who appeared in more than 100 movies and TV shows, died on Wednesday at her home in California, announced Roger Memos, the writer-director of a 2015 documentary about her life.
The actor had a busy film career, during which she worked with performers ranging from Laurence Olivier to Andy Griffith, before it was disrupted by a McCarthy-era blacklist.
A promising career which suddenly ‘dried up’
Born in 1917 in Chicago, Hunt arrived in Hollywood in 1935 and over the next 15 years appeared in dozens of films, from the Preston Sturges comedy Easy Living to the adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that starred Olivier and Greer Garson.
She went on to play demure roles in a series of films for Paramount, including The Accusing Finger and Come on Leathernecks, but, as she told The Associated Press in 2020, she was tired of “sweet young things” and begged for more substantial work .
In the 2015 documentary Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity, she remembered almost getting the part of Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, even being assured by producer David Selznick.
Within days, Olivia de Havilland was announced as the actor who would play Melanie for the 1939 epic.
“That’s the day I grew up,” Hunt said in the documentary.
“That’s the day I knew I could never have my heart broken again by this profession of acting.”
She left Paramount for MGM around the time of Gone with the Wind and had lead or supporting roles in These Glamor Girls, Flight Command and The Human Comedy among other movies.
“MGM was sheer magic,” she recalled in a 2007 Associated Press interview.
She was well under 40 when MGM named her “Hollywood’s Youngest Character Actress”.
And by the early 1950s, she was enough of a star to appear on the cover of Life magazine and seemed set to thrive in the new medium of television.
But just as her career was thriving, suddenly, “the work dried up”, she recalled in 1996.
Work unraveled after embracing liberal causes
The reason, she learned from her agent, was that the communist-hunting Red Channels publication had revealed that she attended a peace conference in Stockholm and other supposedly suspicious gatherings.
“I’d made 54 movies in my first 16 years in Hollywood,” Hunt said in 1996.
“In the last 45 years, I’ve made eight. That shows what a blacklist can do to a career.”
Alongside Hollywood stars Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart and Danny Kaye, Hunt also went to Washington in 1947 to protest the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was conducting a witch-hunt for communists in the film industry.
“I was never a communist or even interested in the communist cause,” she declared in 1996.
“I was a political innocent defending my industry.”
In the early 1950s, shortly after the Cold War began, hundreds of entertainment industry workers were blacklisted in Hollywood on suspicion of being communists.
Hunt concentrated on the theatre, where the blacklist was not observed, until she began occasionally getting film work again in the late 1950s.
She appeared in the touring companies of The Cocktail Party, The Lady’s Not for Burning and The Tunnel of Love, and on Broadway in The Devil’s Disciple, Legend of Sarah and The Paisley Convertible.
With a couple of exceptions, such as producer Stanley Kramer’s 1952 family comedy The Happy Time, she was unseen on the big screen for most of the 1950s.
She later appeared in many TV series, including My Three Sons, Matlock, All in the Family and Murder, She Wrote.
Elegant and active into old age
Hunt’s early marriage to director Jerry Hopper ended in divorce. In 1948 she married film writer Robert Presnell Jr, and they had one daughter, who died soon after her premature birth. They remained married until his death in 1986.
Hunt remained vigorous and elegant in old age. In 1993, she put out The Way We Wore: Styles of the 1930s and ’40s and Our World Since Then, a lavishly illustrated book of the fashions during her Hollywood heyday.
A lifelong political activist, Hunt had a brush with terror in 1962 when she took part in a forum on right-wing extremists and two other participants’ homes were damaged by homemade bombs the very same evening.
“The ashen-faced actress said her home probably escaped the bomb attack only because the terrorists were unable to find out where she lived,” the Los Angeles Times reported. Police were sent to guard her home from her.
More recently, she helped create a refuge for the homeless in Los Angeles’ Sherman Oaks neighborhood, where she lived and was feted with the title of honorary mayor.
Looking back on her activist years, Hunt remarked in 1996: “I never craved an identity as a figure of controversy. But having weathered it and found other interests in the meantime, I can look back with some philosophy.”