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From Hollywood Star to Social Activist – Meet Marsha Hunt

Marsha Hunt – social activist and humanitarian for more than 50 years.

Meet Marsha Hunt, a true “old school” movie star and survivor of the infamous “blacklist.” She is 98 years young and still looking as glamorous as ever.

In May, 1935, while visiting her uncle in Los Angeles, 17 year old model and aspiring actress Marsha Hunt was “discovered” in Hollywood. She signed with Paramount and went on to a flourishing career at MGM during the Golden Age of Hollywood.. She made 54 films in 17 years before a series of unfortunate events led to her being unfairly blacklisted. After the blacklist, she championed humanitarian causes, forging a new career as one of Hollywood’s first celebrity activists. At age 98, Marsha is still fighting for causes she believes in.

“I met Marsha Hunt in the mid 80s when I helped her to coordinate a clothing drive for 200 families living in homeless shelters in the San Fernando Valley,” said Nancy Bianconi, www.nohoartsdistrict.com publisher. “I knew Marsha was a Hollywood film legend and was in “awe” of her but when I met her, what shined the brightest was her deep desire to help erase homelessness and hunger. With everyone she spoke with, no matter what their station in life, she made them feel like the star. Through the years, I watched her continue to fight against injustice and poverty. She never tired of the battle because she once told me” “This is my mission in life.” Out of all the women I have admired in my life time…I truly feel she is my greatest role model.”

Hats off to Roger C. Memos who has worked tirelessly for nearly a decade to create the Marsha Hunt documentary “Sweet Adversity.” You can catch the film at the Studio City International Film Festival.

WHAT: Studio City International Film Festival
WHEN: Sunday, Nov. 15th – 5pm to 7pm
WHERE: 13752 Ventura Blvd.

The same weekend, Marsha Hunt will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Ojail Film Festival on Saturday, November 14.

As “Sweet Adversity” creator and director Roger has has become the champion of Marsha Hunt’s story. Below he explains more about the documentary and what it was like to work with Marsha Hunt and create her story.

Marsha Hunt Sweet Adversity documentary www.nohoartsdistrict.com

Had you heard of Marsha Hunt before working on the documentary on blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman?

You know, growing up in New Hampshire, I read every book I could get my hands on about MGM. Marsha Hunt was not a name that was mentioned in any of these books or at least not that I can remember. In 2008 while cleaning out my mother’s house, I came across a list of MGM stars that my mother had written to or planned to write to. Marsha Hunt was on this list which was probably from about 1945. I was so pleased to know that my mother was a fan of Marsha’s back when she was a teenager.

How did you first meet her? Approach her for the documentary and her reaction to your making the documentary?

I first met Marsha while working on a PBS documentary on Screenwriter-Producer Carl Foreman and his personal journey through the blacklist. She was interviewed for the documentary because the last film she did before becoming blacklisted was for Stanley Kramer who was one of Carl’s business partners in a production company. The film was called “The Happy Time” She told a horrible story about being pressured by the film’s publicist George Glass to take out an ad in the trades and apologize for once being a Communists. He told her if she didn’t do this, the American Legion may picket the film and she might not be in the picture. I was outraged that she was being treated this way when there was never any proof that she had ever been to a political party meeting of any affiliation. She was just not a political person and here she was being wrongfully accused.

When I first met Marsha, I was impressed by her career in radio, early television and of course her movie career during the Golden Age of Films. In 1993, she wrote this fascinating account of her life during this heyday. “The Way We Wore: Styles of the 30’s and 40’s “ is the name of her book. At that time in my career, I was very active in working on celebrity biographies for television. At the time, the Lifetime series “Intimate Portraits” was popular and I thought for sure Marsha’s story would resonate with Lifetime audiences.

It was a harder pitch than I thought. Many thought that Marsha was past her prime and they didn’t want to do stories on actors who were not in the public eye. Well she had been blacklisted, very quietly..or graylisted..she eventually started working in television in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s – and no one knew this. I eventually came to the realization that in order to do her story justice, I need to tell the WHOLE story. I wasn’t sure if people would care about her long history as a celebrity activist but it was important for me to tell this part of the story as this shows her true strength of character. When the blacklist robbed her of the one thing she loved to do, she rose above adversity and found a new career as one of Hollywood’s first celebrity activists.

I asked Marsha I late January, 2006 if I could do a documentary on her life and achievements. She was hesitant at first but finally agreed to let us make the film, as long as we didn’t just focus on the blacklist.

What special quality does she have that drove you to make a documentary and share her story?

Marsha always looks at the bright side of life. She’s very forgiving and that’s a rare quality for someone who has had so much pain in her life. At the time she was blacklisted, she was in demand on radio and in the new medium of television. By 1950, she had been in two Broadway shows before her career came to a quiet halt. As for her film career, we’ll never know what would have happened with that as she only made 8 films from 1952 to the present. I believe in divine justice. This is one of the reasons I wanted to make the film. The blacklist has been Marsha’s “ball and chain” for the last 68 years. Whenever Marsha speaks at a function, the first question for her is always about the blacklist. This is NOT her favorite topic but she discusses it because she wants young people to know that the blacklist actually DID exist and that it destroyed lives.

When I say divine justice I mean, that after seeing this film, people will come to realize that Marsha was unfairly treated and that our film will vindicate her. For the first time, people will get to know the “real” Marsha. There’s a lot that people DON’T know about Marsha. As an activist, she has inspired many people and after seeing this film, I feel many more people will be inspired to carry on her life work as an activist.

Marsha Hunt Sweet Adversity www.nohoartsdistrict.com

Now that the film is complete, how is your perception of Martha now than when you started? How has her story affected you as a person and also a filmmaker?

We REALLY put Marsha through the wringer emotionally. We’ve been working on the film for 9 and 7 months now. We interviewed her extensively, first just sitting around the table and asking her questions. We did this for a whole summer before we filmed any interviews. I think at times Marsha wished that she hadn’t shared some things that she did with myself and my two co-producers Richard Adkins and Joan Cohen but she came to learn that we were not interested in showing anything salacious or too personal. She came to trust us and after that, she opened up her heart and soul to us. Marsha has told me that this process has forced her to really think about her life. The really cool thing is that she has come to realize that she accomplished SO much in 97 years both as an actress and an activist. Her story could unfold into TWO films. She has an endless amount of interesting stories. It was VERY hard to pick and choose which stories to put in the film. I tell Marsha all the time that we will share the many stories that didn t make the film when we release the documentary on DVD release. They will be “DVD extra” stories.

I dint know what to expect from Marsha when we first started filming. I knew that she was the master of the soundbite. She has a great gift of knowing how to tell a story and pull the audience in. I wanted more than this from Marsha. I wanted to capture her “vulnerable” side. As Marsha is a very private person and keeps her emotions in check, I had to work harder to get this balance in her story. This is where great editing comes into place. Our editor Katina Zinner did an masterful job of capturing these vulnerable and poignant moments.

I hope this film comes across as a historical document. We tried as filmmakers to just turn on the camera and just let Marsha tell it like it was. Her story for me is very personal. I was hoping that after all these years of talking about her career and her activism that she could release much of the pain caused by the blacklist but I realize that the blacklist was a BIG part of her life and that you cant just pretend it never happened. What can happen is that people will now put it into perspective and will come to realize that she is MORE than just a blacklisted actress. She was a pioneer in the field of celebrity activism. She was a working actress during the most exciting time in Hollywood’s history. I call her the “Teri Garr’ of her generation. She was all about the work. She LOVED acting . She made 54 films in 17 years before her career was destroyed by her name appearing in “Red Channels.”

How did you decide on the title “Sweet Adversity?”

Producer Richard Adkins found a mention of “sweet adversity” in the transcripts of one of Marsha’s interviews. I believe she was speaking about adversity in terms of something that had to do with the blacklist Sweet Adversity” in our film title comes from the Shakespeare play “As You Like It” Here is the quote uttered by Duke Senior: (As You Like It Act 2, scene 1, 12–17)

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

Sweet Adversity to me means that Marsha rose above adversity and found new meaning in her life and this, to me is very sweet and comforting.

Who are some of the co-workers you interviewed? Did you also interview family, friends and fans? Did they easily open up?

We interviewed friends, fans, family and coworkers for the documentary. We were honored to have two of her MGM co stars Margaret O’Brien and Norman Lloyd. They gushed about Marsha. I’m most proud of the humanitarians and activists we interviewed who worked side by side with Marsha over the years. We were blessed to have Valarie Harper, Harry Belafonte and George McGovern share personal stories and observations. We tried to interview people who were there first hand with her, to corroborate her stories. Producer /Writer Norman Corwin (at age 100) shares his memories of Marsha and the blacklist years. Once again, hopefully this story will feel like history unfolding before your eyes. Norman was there on the front line with Marsha during the blacklist years. Marsha’s nephew Allan speaks so eloquently about his aunt. He’s a wonderful addition to the film. Again, we interviewed SO many people (fans included) So many interviews didn’t make the film but will hopefully be great DVD extra.

Did you have any difficulties finding footage? Conflicts with copyright?

Footage was not a problem to find. Marsha is a pack rat. She has VHS and DVD copies of most of her films. She has kept production stills and publicity stills. Her archives are most impressive. The only footage I’m sorry that I couldn’t find is newsreel footage. Marsha is just NOT in any newsreel stories back in the 1930’s 40’s or 50’s that I could find. We were lucky enough to find a news interview with Marsha in 1966 where she talks about the power of “celebrity” to support causes that need assistance. This footage SHOWS her as an activist and I am grateful to the stock footage house Hollywood Newsreel for having this in their archives. It is one of the most important pieces of footage in the documentary.

Her career spans over seven decades? Are there challenges working with film, video and digital formats for one picture?

It was a struggle working with all the different formats but I feel audiences are more forgiving with documentaries, especially historical documentaries like this. I think it is ok for a photo or newspaper article to have that “archival look”. A lot of Marsha’s Paramount films are NOT available on DVD. We had to use a VHS copy as a master in some places but again, I think audiences are forgiving as they know that many film titles from the Golden Age are not out yet on DVD.

Marsha Hunt Sweet Adversity documentary www.nohoartsdistrict.com

Does Martha continue traveling for film events and her causes? What are some causes she is currently working on?

Marsha still gets asked to attend United Nations Association functions and luncheons. She recently gave a talk about her long history and association with the United Nations Association. She doesn’t travel as much as she‘d like to because her eyesight and hearing often give her difficulty. She still donates to causes and continues to follow their progress.

In the mid 1980’s while driving home from a United Nations Association function, Marsha, an avid songwriter with over 50 songs under her belt, came up with a melody to a song. When she got home, she played it for her husband Robert Presnell Jr and her friend McDonald Carey who happened to be visiting. They both agreed it was a beautiful melody. For over thirty years, that melody played in her head before Marsha finally put WORDS to the melody!

In 2012, at age 95, Marsha completed the song she called “Here’s To All Who Love”. She was frustrated by the fact that two of her gay friends couldn’t get married so she wrote a song about it. Since then, people around the world who have heard the song have written to her and requested sheet music so they could play the song at their weddings! The song has become an “anthem” for marriage equality. But Marsha is quick to point out that the song is NOT just about marriage equality. The song is also about “loving love” and “hating hate”. It is also about ACCEPTANCE of not just LGBT lifestyles, but anyone and everyone’s lifestyles. I call this song Marsha’s version of “Free To Be You And Me”!! The song is timely because the United Nations has just announced that LGBT rights are the latest hot button human rights issue in the world. I’m happy to say that I believe the UN will interview her about her song in the near future and that hopefully this will help the song to get out to the masses. I feel so strongly about the song that I hope to give out the sheet music to her song at the end of every festival we attend. I’m also hoping that PFLAG, a wonderful LGBT organization will endorse the film and will help with the distribution of the sheet music and that people will make donations to this organization so they can continue to do their activism work.

We end our film by presenting Marsha’s song performed by someone very special (that I won’t tell you). This is so important because it shows that Marsha is STILL an activist at age 97. She is NOT resting on her laurels but is out there trying to change the world- just like she was doing back when she started her activist career back in the early 1940’s as a volunteer at the Hollywood Canteen. 73 years later, she’s STILL a “planet patriot.”


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Lisa Bianconi

Author: Lisa Bianconi

Editor of www.nohoartsdistrict.com

Lisa Bianconi
Editor of www.nohoartsdistrict.com