As Marsha Hunt’s 100th birthday approaches (she hits the century mark October 17), it’s time to celebrate an actress who, while not a household name, probably should be.
Discovered and signed to a contract by Paramount Studios at the tender age of 17, Hunt went on to appear in several classic films (such as Pride and Prejudice and Raw Deal), came very close to playing Melanie Wilkes in Gone With The Wind, worked alongside an array of legendary co-stars (including Laurence Olivier and John Wayne), yet today is probably best known as a victim of the notorious Hollywood blacklist. In the years immediately following World War II, Hunt and then-husband Robert Presnell, Jr. became members of the Committee for the First Amendment after being troubled by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Inaccurately labeled Communists, Hunt and Presnell refused to denounce their activities and both their careers went into decline. Hunt’s efforts turned to notable humanitarian work (a list of her civic achievements and honors is seven pages long). It’s a compelling story that’s told with authority in Roger C. Memos’ documentary Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity, which will screen in Palm Springs, California on October 14.
Hunt spoke with MovieMaker about some of her career highlights, the famous films she nearly made, and her renowned humanitarian work.
Jeremy Kinser, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity, a documentary about your life and career, will be shown this weekend to commemorate your 100th birthday next week. What do you hope people learn from your film?
Marsha Hunt (MH): Oh my goodness, I never thought that through. They just wanted to do one and I thought it might be a good idea. I never really had a purpose or result in mind. I think it’s been a very full life, heaven knows, and a blessed one. I’ve had more good luck than anyone else I’ve ever known. I’ve just been blessed by the good fairies or whoever is change, starting with parents. I was dropped down the best chimney if that’s where we all come from. [Laughs] I had two marvelous people as my parents so I got a head start from them. They were educated and motivated. You can’t ask for much more than that.
MM: What inspired you to become an actor?
MH: I think the first thing I was ever taken to see had to have been a Mary Pickford silent movie. There was magic up there and people moving around, things happening to them, and I thought that was so exciting. It was my first exposure to any form of drama and I said, “That’s what I’m going to do.” I must have been five or six, maybe less, but I doubt it. But that was where I was heading and there was never any doubt about it.
MM: You are one of the last people alive to have been a part in the development of Gone with the Wind. You screen tested to play Melanie in the film.
MH: That is true. How unusual that you should know that.
MM: There’s a lot of mythology surrounding the making of that film. Can you share your experience filming that screen test?
MH: It was the fulfillment of a dream to have a crack at the chance to be in that film. I read the book as everyone did. The idea of being a part of the film was almost beyond my wildest dreams. I auditioned with Paulette Goddard. Then of course, if I recall and this was a while ago, I was told the role was mine. I called my mother and told her the news and swore her to secrecy. [Producer David O.] Selznick told me not to announce it because he wanted to make an announcement in his own time and way that I was cast as Melanie. Then apparently Warner Brothers had Olivia [de Havilland] under contract so Selznick couldn’t have her in Gone with the Wind. Then they made an exchange where Selznick could cast Olivia. An exchange between studios of their contract players was finally agreed too and he must have simply forgotten that he committed the role to me. I never received any contact or apology. I think I went out of his mind once he got the actress he originally wanted. I saw him years later in Paris and we talked about it then, how the role of Melanie was mine and the only people who knew were him, me and my mother.
MM: What did he say to you in Paris?
MH: You know, I can’t remember how he put it. Seeing me again in another country, another hemisphere, but he never apologized. He was so cordial with my husband and me but never mentioned Melanie. He was either too guilty to speak of it or forgot about it. But he was so happy to see me and Robert [Presnall, Jr., her husband at the time] there and asked what we were doing.
MM: I’ve seen the screen test and think you would have been a wonderful Melanie.
MH: Thank you. I loved the role. I understood her and I think I would have been pretty good at it. I sure had my heart on it. That was the day I grew up and understood show business. I vowed to never have my heart broken again and I haven’t. When you are given the role of your dreams and sworn to secrecy to only have your mother call you with the news in The Hollywood Reporter that Olivia is going to play your role. That’s the day you grow up.
MM: You still managed to make many other classic films, such as 1940’s Pride and Prejudice.
MH: Oh, bless your heart. I had the time of my life playing that role. She was fun to do. As the daughter of music parents learning to sing off key was not easy. I had to sing flat. It was a thrill to be a part of that film.
MM: What do you remember about working with Laurence Olivier?
MH: Well, the first time I ever saw him was a year or two before Pride and Prejudice and discovered him all by myself. I remember when I first saw him I had gone to a matinee and saw a movie with him in it and I just fell in love. I had to learn everything about him. None of this I told him when we worked on Pride and Prejudice, of course. We didn’t share any scenes, but we were in the same film which is pretty wonderful. I did meet him of course and tried to act normal in the presence of my hero. I saw him in London in whatever play he was in at the time and he was very cordial.
MM: Another film you made that is still revered today is Raw Deal.
MH: I’m on the brink of 100 and Raw Deal is a familiar title but you have to tell me which film that is. Who else was in the film because the name doesn’t associate the role?
MM: It was a film noir released in 1948. The director was Anthony Mann and co-starred Dennis O’Keefe and Claire Trevor.
MH: Oh yes, I was the other woman.
MM: You played a social worker named Ann.
MH: That’s right, thank you. I enjoyed that picture. I found that a special one I enjoyed doing it and think it is a really good film.
MM: It holds up really well and gets a lot of attention at film noir festivals and retrospective screenings.
MH: That’s nice to know. Thank you for telling me.