Tinseltown Talks column: A TCM tribute to 103-year-old Marsha Hunt
On Dec. 11, Turner Classic Movies will present a day-long tribute to actress Marsha Hunt who turned 103 in October. Programming includes seven Hunt movies and concludes with the broadcast premiere of the 2015 Roger C. Memos documentary “Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity” at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Born in Chicago and later moving to New York with her family, Hunt’s career got off to a flying start after the 17-year-old teenager made her way to Hollywood in 1935 where she secured a Paramount contract within weeks of arriving on the West Coast. She starred or co-starred in 20 films during the 30s.
Hunt appeared in 30 films during the 1940s working with prominent stars such as Mickey Rooney, Laurence Olivier, Lionel Barrymore and Gene Kelly. More roles followed in the 50s before her movie career was torpedoed by the wave of anti-communism paranoia that swept the nation. When a congressional committee accused a group of writers of communist affiliations, Hunt and others spoke out but found themselves vilified during the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklisting period.
Rather than being hailed champions of free speech, Hunt and the others were banned by the Hollywood studios that cowered to the government’s demands.
“I was punished by being denied work by the industry I went to defend,” Hunt told me in a 2014 interview, after filming the documentary. “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.”
Beyond her acting, Hunt turned the professional negative into a personal positive, using her blacklisting experience to become a champion for social activism.
“Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity,” directed by Roger C. Memos and co-written and co-produced by Memos, Richard Adkins, and Joan Cohen, examines the actress’s entertainment career as well as her off-screen role as a campaigner for humanitarian causes (see YouTube trailer at www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZ6T-qlO7w4).
“Her journey through the blacklist shook me to the core, I couldn’t believe that this could actually happen to someone,” said Memos from Los Angeles. “Marsha acted on her conscience and for this, she paid a price. I was outraged and knew in my heart that I had to tell her story, so I decided to fundraise and take a gamble on producing a feature documentary.”
Memos says Adkins suggested using “sweet adversity” in the film’s title, adapted from the line “sweet are the uses of adversity” in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” which perfectly summed up the peaks and valleys in Hunt’s personal life and career.
The director also felt the best way to present Hunt’s life was in chronological order, giving it a “homespun feel,” and decided not to use a narrator.
“I think it’s a stronger, more emotional film as a result of letting Marsha just tell her story,” he said. “And thank goodness she is a lifelong packrat! We were given access to many wonderful private photos and newspaper clippings from her archives which made the film feel all that more personal.”
Of the Hunt films to air preceding the documentary, Memos is pleased with the network’s choice.
“TCM chose to showcase her as an actor,” he explained. “‘Pride and Prejudice’ was the fourth film she made for MGM and even then, early in her career, she was a scene-stealer. And I love that audiences will get to see Marsha as ‘the other woman’ in the 1947 film ‘Smash-up: The Story of a Woman.’”
Other films to be broadcast include the war drama “Flight Command” (1940) and the comedy “Bride by Mistake” (1944).
So will Ms. Hunt tune in to the tribute?
“She’ll be front and center watching the documentary on her new large screen television,” said Memos. “Marsha is still living in the same (Sherman Oaks) house that she has lived in since 1946. She is in excellent health and has loving caregivers that watch over her.”
“I’ve had an interesting life,” Hunt told me when I asked about the documentary in our earlier interview. “I’m touched they wanted to tell my story.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 850 newspapers and magazines. See www.getnickt.org.