October 17, 1917 – Marsha Hunt:
“Be fearless. When injustice occurs, go on with your convictions. Giving in and being silent is what they want you to do.”
Hunt is an actor, model, and activist, with a career that lasted for 75 years. She is the oldest living and one of the last surviving actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood. She worked with everyone from film pioneer Francis X. Bushman to Gregory Peck. She played debutantes and detectives, and starred in Hollywood’s first Holocaust film. She was Hollywood Canteen President Bette Davis‘s favorite hostess for Saturday night dancing and entertaining the troops. At 104 years old, she is also the oldest living member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
When Hunt left New York for Los Angeles from in 1935, she was just 17-years-old and only had modeling credits. Friends warned her to avoid Hollywood altogether. When she arrived, four studios sought to sign her to a contract. She went to Paramount first, home studio of Cary Grant, Mae West, and Carole Lombard. Lucky girl, she was cast in a leading role in The Virginia Judge right away. She starred in 20 films during the 1930s. In big-budget films, Hunt was mostly cast in supporting roles, but in B-movies, she was usually the star.
She could do it all; comedies and dramas, including Westerns and War movies. Filmmakers and studio execs loved to work with her because her radiant scene presence and professional behavior on set.
In her first decade and half in Hollywood, she made 54 films. Sadly, her career fell apart in the late 1940s and early 1950s when her name appeared in Red Channels, a publication that reported on alleged Communists in film, radio and television. Among the names included were Orson Welles, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller, Lena Horne, and Hunt.
The Hollywood Blacklist is a term for a broad entertainment industry blacklist put in effect in the mid-20th century in the USA. The blacklist denied employment to entertainment industry professionals believed to be or to have been Communists or Communist sympathizers. Not just actors, but screenwriters, directors, musicians, and other entertainment professionals were barred from work by the studios. Even during the period of its strictest enforcement, from the late 1940s through to the late 1950s, the blacklist was rarely made explicit or easily verifiable, instead, it was numerous individual decisions by the studios and was not the result of official legal action. Nevertheless, it quickly and directly damaged or ended the careers and income of many artists working in the film industry.
At the time, the Cold War was creating a lot of tension between the USA and the USSR, which is why anyone suspected of being left-wing was open to attack. Hunt described the era as a “time of hysteria,” and those who spoke out against the blacklists were punished.
The House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) put pressure on plenty of people to testify against friends and colleagues, especially those in Hollywood. So, in 1947, ten Hollywood professionals were summoned by HUAC to testify. The Hollywood Blacklist began the day after the ten writers and directors were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before HUAC. The contempt citation included a criminal charge, which led to a highly publicized trial and an eventual conviction with one year in jail.
A group of studio execs, working with the Association of Motion Picture Producers, effectively ostracizing those named from the industry. These producers instituted compulsory oaths of loyalty from their employees with the threat of a blacklist.
Red Channels identified 151 entertainment industry professionals as “Reds and their sympathizers”. Soon, most of those named, along with a host of other artists, were barred from employment in most of the entertainment field.
The Hollywood Blacklist lasted until 1960, when Dalton Trumbo, a member of the Hollywood Ten, was credited as the screenwriter of the film Exodus (1960), and publicly acknowledged by Kirk Douglas for writing the screenplay for Spartacus (1960). Many of the blacklisted were still barred from working in their professions for years afterward.
“If you were liberal, that to some people meant communist. And, of course, that was the dirtiest word in that period that could be used about anybody.”
Actor / director / screenwriter Philip Loeb, whose name also appeared in Red Channels, struggled to find work in Hollywood despite denying he was a communist. He became disconsolate and depressed when he could no longer get work, and in 1955, the actor committed suicide at 64 years old.
“I was punished by being denied work by the industry I went to defend, While it killed the momentum of my film career, I was determined to continue acting. Happily, Broadway opened up for me, then television, and eventually movies. But I was never again given film roles as richly challenging, or the same billing or salary.”
Hunt’s problems probably began when she joined the Committee for the First Amendment, which was a group of liberal actors in support the Hollywood 10.
It was founded by Myrna Loy, and filmmakers John Huston and William Wyler. Other members included Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Dandridge, Bette Davis, Melvyn Douglas, Henry Fonda, John Garfield, Judy Garland, Ira Gershwin, June Havoc, Katharine Hepburn, Lena Horne, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, Evelyn Keyes, Burt Lancaster, Groucho Marx, Burgess Meredith, Vincente Minnelli, Edward G. Robinson, Robert Ryan, Frank Sinatra, Kay Thompson, Billy Wilder, and Jane Wyatt.
“I have no idea why I was listed as a Communist. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. I really do not remember much about these accusations that were launched at me. I just thought it was stupid.”
Hunt even created a radio show called Hollywood Fights Back, designed to shed light on the truth of the accused people and to ensure its listeners understood how reprehensible, and illegal, all of it was. Immediately following Hollywood Fights Back’s broadcast, Bogart, Bacall, Danny Kaye, Hunt and her husband Robert Presnell Jr., and others flew from Los Angeles to Washington DC to protest HUAC and support the Hollywood Ten. When they returned three days later, Hunt and Presnell were already blacklisted. They could have snitched, but their principles would not allow them to denounce their friends.
Hunt turned the professional negative into a personal positive; she used her blacklisting experience to become an activist. She acted on her conscience and paid a price. Hunt felt that she needed to speak out:
“It was needed. Otherwise, the accusers would be right. And I did know it was a risk. A few roles were missed because producers were afraid.”
Hunt gave strong performances in Born To The West (1937), Pride And Prejudice (1940), Kid Glove Killer (1942), Cry Havoc (1943), The Human Comedy (1943), Raw Deal (1948), The Happy Time (1950). Other films include the war drama Flight Command (1940) and the comedy Bride By Mistake (1944).
On loan to Columbia, Hunt appeared in the only wartime Hollywood film to acknowledge the Holocaust, None Shall Escape (1944). Hunt:
“So many of our most gifted studio heads and directors were Jewish, but they were shy about showing or telling about what was happening to Jews in Europe. And so, the film was truly socially important. I grew up in New York City where most of my classmates and friends were Jewish. This subject mattered to me.”
In Johnny Got His Gun (1971), an anti-war film written and directed by Dalton Trumbo with an uncredited writing collaboration by Luis Buñuel, the film stars Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland, and Hunt.
She was a scene-stealer, especially as “the other woman” in Smash-up: The Story Of A Woman (1947).
After the blacklist era, Hunt became even more of an activist, working to end world hunger, and supporting homeless shelters. In the new century, she spoke out in support of LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage, plus she raises awareness of climate change.
In 2013, Hunt debuted a song she wrote 40 years earlier, Here’s To All Who Love about love and same-sex marriage It is featured in the documentary film Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity (2018), now streaming on Amazon Prime, Tubi and YouTube TV.
Today, when politically active, articulate women are still punished for speaking out in the USA, Hunt remains a role model, a hero with commitment to liberal ideals. Never a major star, she still left a mark, appearing in some of the most important women-centric films of the 1930s and 1940, with a gift for comedy and drama. There was plenty of drama for her to survive offscreen.
Hunt is still living in the same Sherman Oaks house that she has lived in since 1946.
“I’ve had an interesting life.”