October 15, 2007

Actress Marsha Hunt Still Spry at 90

LOS ANGELES - Marsha Hunt turns 90 on Oct. 17, but you'd hardly know it. Her lovely face remains almost wrinkle-free, she is slim and vigorous, and she has total recall of her life in Hollywood, including the infamous studio blacklist that almost killed her career.

Her 89th year has been a busy one. She was a guest of honor at the Noir Film Festival in San Francisco, where one of her films, "Raw Deal," was shown. And she later acted in a short noir drama filmed nearby. "I got it in one take," she says proudly.

Last spring, she recited a traditional poem at the Hollywood Bowl's annual Easter sunrise service. She was supposed to read the selection, but because of an eye ailment she memorized all 96 lines, getting through it "without a net to catch me."

She recently produced an album of pop songs by young Tony London, accompanied by the Page Cavanagh Trio. And she's the subject of three paper-doll collectables dressed in the high-fashion designs she wore on the screen, as well as a coffee-table book, "The Way We Wore," a gallery of her studio fashion photos.

Then there's the fan mail, which pours in because of screenings of her movies on TCM, AMC and European TV.

Hunt talked volubly during a recent interview at the sprawling San Fernando Valley ranch house where she's lived for more than six decades.

The blacklist is not among Hunt's favorite topics of conversation, but she agreed to discuss that dark period in Hollywood history, when congressmen hauled actors, writers and directors into hearings to test whether they were communists. Scores of careers were ruined.

At the time, Hunt was doing a lot of work in this new medium called television.

"I was hot," she recalled. "I did the first Shakespeare that was coast to coast on TV. I was on the cover of Life magazine. I did a lot of talk shows, and three networks offered me my own talk show."

She took time out of her busy schedule for her first visit to Paris, and when she returned, the offers for her own show were rescinded. She soon found the reason: she had been accused of leftist leanings by Red Channels, a publication that targeted supposed communists.

"I had one phony excuse after another, and I realized that I was now a leper," she said. She figures she was targeted because she had spoken out at gatherings that opposed the red hunts "but none of them had any whiff of communism." She had to wait seven years before the offers started again.

"It was never really over," she commented. "They never really acknowledged it because this was strictly illegal. It was restraint of trade, against the law in this country."

Born Marcia Virginia Hunt in Chicago and reared in New York City, her father was an insurance executive and her mother was a vocal coach and opera singer. She skipped college to attend drama school, modeling with the John Powers agency as a sideline.

When she was 17 in 1935, she paid her first visit to Hollywood, telling interviewers that she wasn't interested in movies even though she had "dreamed my whole life about being in films." The headline read, "Model Spurns Films." The result: four offers from studios. She chose Paramount.

After 12 films in two years and another year idle, she was dropped and spent a year and a half freelancing. She made three films at MGM as a per diem player

"MGM was sheer magic," she remarked. "When I arrived at the studio for a one-day role, they parked my car. I went on the set and found a director's chair with a sign on it, 'Miss Hunt.' Another sign was on my dressing room. I said to myself, 'Any studio that treats a one-day player that way, really knows how to make pictures.' They won my loyalty."

She signed a term contract with the studio and made three B films, each taking a week to make — Monday through Saturday. Soon she was elevated to A films.

Even though MGM boasted "more stars than there are in heaven," Hunt found there was no caste system — "though you didn't invade (the stars') privacy."

She recalled being in Hong Kong after making a film in the Philippines. She was in a shop at the Peninsula Hotel, where she had ordered a dress made for her. It wasn't ready and she was leaving for the U.S. She looked up and saw Clark Gable beside her. She had never met him, but he knew who she was.

"I can pick up your dress and deliver it when I get home," he said. Two weeks later, Gable rang the bell at her house and delivered the dress to her astonished husband.

Hunt made three films with Greer Garson_ "Pride and Prejudice," "Blossoms in the Dust" and "Valley of Decision," and had one encounter with Greta Garbo.

Garbo thought of cutting the long hair she had worn in every movie. One day Hunt, who wore a short feather cut, got a call to report to the Garbo set where the star inspected her hair and nodded. Garbo wore Hunt's cut in "Two-faced Woman," which happened to be her last movie.

How does Marsha Hunt feel about reaching 90?

"I'm so delighted about all of it," she said with enthusiasm. "I've had the fullest 90 years imaginable. I can't think of a year that was wasted. They were so crammed with variety and privilege and opportunity.

"I can't wait for the next 10. Then I'll look and see if it's worth hanging around."

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