Marsha Hunt, the bright-eyed starlet who stood out in films such as These glamorous girls, Pride and Prejudice and raw deal before her career was unraveled by the communist witch hunt that hit Hollywood, died. She was 104 years old.
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 alongside Mickey Rooney in Best Oscar nominee The human comedy (1943) during a period when she was known as “Hollywood’s youngest character actress”.
Former model who signed with Paramount Pictures at 17, the Chicago native made her first big break as a suicidal student opposite Lana Turner in MGM’s These glamorous girls (1939).
Playing Walter Brennan’s sweetheart in Joe and Ethel Turp call the president (1939), Hunt aged 16–65 onscreen. She portrayed dull sister Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1940), and in Anthony Mann’s classic film noir raw deal (1948), she was the nice girl opposite Claire Trevor and Dennis O’Keefe.
Years later, in Johnny has his gun (1971) – written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo – Hunt played the mother of quadruple amputee character Timothy Bottoms.
Although she never achieved the stardom of some of her co-stars, Hunt was proud of her career, especially at the start. “Before I turned 30, I had played four aging roles, and I was the youngest character actress in Hollywood…no two roles are the same,” she told the Ms. in the Biz website in 2015.
In 1947, Hunt and her second husband, screenwriter Robert Presnell Jr., joined the Committee for the First Amendment, which questioned the legality of the House Un-American Activities Committee which sought to oust 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 HUAC hearings and support 19 creatives who had been subject to scrutiny.
However, Bogart and others quickly backtracked, claiming they had been duped by the Communists and that their trip to Washington was ill-advised. Although it helped save their careers, Hunt did not repent. In June 1950, she was listed in Red channelsthe right-wing pamphlet that has singled out dozens of actors, directors, screenwriters and others for supporting “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. And so I spoke and protested like everyone else on that flight. But then I was told that once I was blacklisted, you know, I was an eloquent liberal, and that was bad. I was told that in fact it wasn’t really about communism — that was what scared everyone — but about control and power.
“The way you get control is to have everyone agree with what is appropriate at the time, whatever is accepted. Don’t question anything, don’t talk, 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 perfectly legal, you know: the Communist Party was still legal in America, fielding candidates for public office. But you lost your career, your reputation, your savings, probably your marriage, your friends, if you had been a communist. It was appalling, just appalling.
His story was told in Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversityreleased 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, and she graduated from the Horace Mann School for Girls at age 16.
Hunt fell into a modeling career when her high school yearbook photographer used her image as a publicity sample. She was signed by the Powers Agency, becoming a wanted “Powers Girl” and learning how to pose and behave in front of a camera.
A friend of 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 an ingenue and amorous in several films – John Wayne romanticized her in born in the west (1937) – but the studio refused to renew his contract in 1938.
She landed at MGM in The Hardys go high (1939) and continued to appear for the studio in The Trial of Mary Dugan (1941) as a backing vocalist from Brooklyn; in Kid’s Glove Killer (1942), director Fred Zinnemann’s first American feature film; in World War II drama Shout ‘Havoc’ (1943); and as the main character in the romantic comedy Jules Dassin A letter for 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 acting, she was serving hostess at the famous Hollywood Canteen for the American military.
In 1948, Hunt made his stage debut in the Hollywood setting joy to the world, directed by Jules Dassin; two years later she was back on Broadway in George Bernard Shaw The Devil’s Disciple and covers Life magazine.
After Devils Disciple closed, Hunt left for 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 was then invited in shows such as The Ford Television Theater, Climax! and Alfred Hitchcock presentswas a regular on the short-lived 1959 series Peck’s Bad Girl and later appeared on Smoke, The twilight zone, Ben Casey, My three sons, Ironside, The Murder She Wrote and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Hunt was a member of the SAG board and worked on various progressive committees; one advised actress Olivia de Havilland in her groundbreaking lawsuit against the studio system and Warner Bros., and another called on 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, making appearances on behalf of the United Nations and becoming what she called a ” patriotic planet.
In April 2015, she was named the first recipient of the Marsha Hunt for Humanity Award, created by Kat Kramer, the daughter of famed liberal director-producer Stanley Kramer.
Hunt was “one of the first major Hollywood actresses 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 who are using their notoriety as a voice for change.
Hunt can be seen in all her glamor in the 1993 book How We Wear: 1930s and 1940s Styles and Our World Sincewhich features photos of her in many of her own clothes from the era.
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 his 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 has been the most rewarding collaboration of my life. I suspect that will always be the case,” TCM’s Noir Alley host said after raw deal and The Grand Inquisitor aired consecutively on the cable channel last month. “She is quite simply the most exceptional human being I have ever known.”