Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity (2015) gets its title from Act 2, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “Sweet are the uses of adversity, which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in its head.” Executive produced by Linda D. Levitz and directed by Roger C. Memos, who also co-wrote the script with fellow producers Richard Adkins and Joan Cohen for Zelda Can Dance Productions, the film examines the life and career of actress Marsha Hunt, who began her Hollywood career at the age of 17 in 1935, only to fall victim to the notorious Blacklist of the 1950s. When one door closed another one opened, and Hunt turned to activism, creating a new life for herself in the service of others. The film features interviews with friends, co-stars and fellow activists Harry Belafonte, Anne Meara, Patty McCormack, Valerie Harper, Margaret O’Brien and Norman Lloyd.
Marsha Hunt knew what she wanted to be at an early age. “I think I knew I had to be an actress when I was maybe four, possibly five, when my dad took my sister and me to see Gilbert and Sullivan’s’ H.M.S. Pinafore, and I saw magic up there and I came home convinced that that was what I would be doing.” After high school, unable to find a college that would let her major in drama before the third year, she went to drama school instead. Hunt may have grown up in New York, but she wanted to be in films rather than on the Broadway stage. At the age of 16, she became a model for John Robert Powers, and while on a trip to Hollywood the following year, she met up with friends who she’d worked with in modeling. When they learned she wanted to be an actress, they decided to play a trick on the press, letting it be known that “New York’s Number One Model” was in town, but had no interest in a film career. The reverse psychology worked. Four studios pursued Marsha Hunt immediately and at 17, she was signed to Paramount Pictures. She began with the starring role in The Virginia Judge (1935) and her salary was $100 a week. Soon after, her agent, Zeppo Marx, got Paramount to double her salary to $250.
Hunt was living her dream, but she tired of playing the romantic lead. She asked Paramount production chiefs to give her an interesting supporting role, but they called her ungrateful, saying, “You always get the guy in the end, what do you want?” She replied, “I want a challenge. Just let me stretch.” But they never would. Hunt might have been disappointed with her roles but not her personal life. She soon fell in love with Jerry Hopper, the assistant head of the music department at Paramount, who she called “the most beautiful man I have ever seen.” Hopper later transferred to the editing department, a move that damaged their marriage, since it kept him away from home and at film previews nearly every night giving them little time together. Another disappointment was not getting the part of Melanie in Gone With the Wind (1939), for which she tested several times over the course of a year. Producer David O. Selznick finally promised her the role on a Friday and asked her to keep it a secret. By Monday, the trade papers announced that Olivia de Havilland would play Melanie. “That’s the day I grew up. That’s the day I knew I could never have my heart broken again by this profession of acting.”
Disillusioned with Hollywood, Hunt decided to start over on the stage in New York, but once she arrived, she got a call from her agent that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wanted to test her for a film if she would pay her own way back to Hollywood. The film, These Glamour Girls (1939), changed her entire career. “It was my first suicide and my first off-beat role.” Hunt was given a contract at MGM, but she realized that becoming a “star” meant creating a persona she’d have to play over and over again to the point where the public wouldn’t care what role she played; they would want to see the persona. Hunt didn’t want to be a star, she wanted to be “all the other people I could possibly convince the public that I was. […] Metro let me stretch […] and that’s how I achieved the most prized title I have, as ‘Hollywood’s Youngest Character Actress.’ That’s what MGM named me and I wore the badge proudly.
During World War II, Hunt worked for the USO and toured the world, meeting wounded troops, and in Hollywood, volunteered at the Hollywood Canteen, where she danced with soldiers. At the end of the war, her marriage broke up, but they remained cordial and she later worked with Jerry Hopper when he became a director. She remarried writer/director Robert Presnell Jr., who once saw Hunt in a film while on a date with actress Audrey Totter. Presnell turned to Totter and declared that he was going to marry Hunt. The marriage lasted 40 happy years.
Hunt moved into television in the late 1940s after actor Walter Abel warned her that it wasn’t a fad and shouldn’t be ignored. She premiered on television as Viola in Twelfth Night, the first live Shakespeare coast-to-coast broadcast. Soon after, Franchot Tone asked Hunt to join the board of the Screen Actor’s Guild as a term replacement for Laraine Day. This coincided with a strike by the Set Decorators Guild, and the Actor’s Guild were asked to support them. Fights were breaking out, so Hunt went down to the protest at Warner Bros. to see what was really going on and report back to the Guild. Hunt later believed that going to the strike site made the other members politically suspicious of her. It was the time of The House Un-American Activities Committee, which had denied those subpoenaed their Constitutional rights and cost many workers in the industry, including secretaries and technical workers, their jobs if they were accused of being Communists.
In this atmosphere of distrust, Hunt continued in film and theater, but on returning from a European vacation in 1952, she found that the three different offers of work she had been given before her trip, including her own television show, were gone. That’s when she learned that her name was included in a pamphlet called Red Channels, accusing people in the radio and television industry of being dangerous to America. “That ended my career on television, on radio and after a year or two, in movies as well.” Hunt wrote to the three networks proclaiming her innocence, but it didn't work.
As a result of the “Red Scare,” Hunt's film career was damaged by what were perceived as associations with Communists, and she returned to the stage and to television, with only the occasional film appearance. She used her downtime to travel around the world with her husband – an experience that changed her forever. She saw the extremes of both abject poverty and unthinkable splendor and realized that she was ignorant about the world, having lived most of her life on sound stages. In response to this, she researched the United Nations and devoted the next 25 years of her life to it. She spoke before audiences about the UN to raise funds, which she called “very happy work.” Back at home, Marsha Hunt became the president of the San Fernando chapter of The United Nations Association of the United States and was mentored by Eleanor Roosevelt.
The UN needed money and Hunt knew she needed celebrities to spread the word, and so enlisted friends and fellow entertainers like Paul Newman, Harry Belafonte, David Niven and Bing Crosby to appear in her documentary about the 20 million refugees who were still living in camps after World War II, A Call from the Stars (1960). The film aired on television and became the major fundraiser for the United Nations Committee on Refugees. But not all the reaction was positive. The United Nations raised the ire of the radical right-wing in the United States, who turned violent. At a February 1,1962 radio broadcast called “The Radical Right: A Threat to Democracy” from the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, one of the speakers was called from the stage to learn that his and another minister’s homes had been bombed. Hunt’s house escaped bombing but she had guards in front of her house for 10 days afterward.
Her work earned her many accolades, including from Senator George McGovern. “Marsha Hunt was always at the vanguard of any effort that had to do with world hunger or hunger in this country. […] You can’t get a really strong citizen’s movement against hunger or any other problem without informed people. And what Marsha tried to do was enlarge what the government was doing by talking about the problems of hunger. She tried to build a fire under Congress to do something about hunger.” Hunt’s humanitarian work was also done close to home. As the honorary mayor of Sherman Oaks, she used that title to create The Valley Mayor’s Fund for the Homeless, which lasted for 19 years. In 1986, they opened a homeless shelter in the old Fiesta Motel, which is now run by the L.A. Family Housing.
Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity screened at several film festivals, including The New Hampshire Film Festival and the Burbank International Film Festival, where it premiered in September 2015, with Hunt in attendance. Speaking to the audience after the screening, she said, “If I can remove my identity from it, it’s a remarkable film. […] I hope it will be seen, not because of me but because of the memories it would stir and maybe the instruction of warnings for the future to the young who have not experienced these times that it has spoken about.”
Marsha Hunt made one of her final films in 2008, the noir short “The Grand Inquisitor,” written and directed by TCM host Eddie Muller. In October 2020, she celebrated her 103rd birthday, making her one of the last remaining stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
by Lorraine LoBianco