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After his return to Hollywood at the beginning of the 1970s, Lex Barker lived with his friends, husband and wife Robert Presnell Jr. and Marsha Hunt for a while. Robert was a famous script writer and Marsha an actress from the 'golden years' of Hollywood.
Born in 1917 as Marcia Virginia Hunt, the actress belonged to Barker's circle of friends in the film metropolis for many years. She is still a remarkable and engaging conversation partner on the subject of Hollywood movies of days-gone-by.
With her talent, her transformation capabilities and stylish deportment, Marsha Hunt, who was briefly a model after her school years, was a perfect choice for the Hollywood film studios. The glamorous beauty drew more attention with her attractive and intelligent appearance, rather than relying on sex appeal alone. She played lead roles in more than fifty movies during the 1930s and 1940s for Paramount Studios and MGM alongside stars like John Wayne, Robert Cummings, Van Heflin, Gilbert Roland, Mickey Rooney, Edward G. Robinson, Karl Malden and Gregory Peck.
The reason for Ms Hunt enjoying less stardom than other actresses of the same era, might be found in the fact that, during the infamous McCarthy era, she was black-listed in 1949 and didn't receive any offers for roles in Hollywood until 1957. Nevertheless, the very active and politically interested Marsha Hunt wouldn't let that silence her; she still stands for moral values with her courageous conduct.
Some of the Hollywood movies that count among Marsha Hunt's most famous are the Westerns The Arizona Raiders (1936, an adaptation of Zane Gray's novel Riders Of Spanish Peaks) and Born To The West (1937 with a young John Wayne); the Jane Austen screen adaptation Pride And Prejuduce (1940, the model for the 2005 remake); the social drama Blossoms In The Dust (1941); the Fred Zinneman classic Kid Glove Killer (1942); the stirring Polish war drama None Shall Escape (1944); the romance drama The Valley Of Decision (1945); the thriller Raw Deal (1948); the comedy The Happy Time (1952), and the air show Bombers B-52 (1957).
The following interview was conducted in 2008 and is published here for the first time.
Marsha, you played in a new Film Noir movie The Grand Inquisitor (2008). In the Internet there is a trailer, and it looks very good!
Really. My goodness. Well, it's a very different kind of role for me. And it's very noir. (laugh)
You starred in classic Film Noir productions during the 1940s as well, didn't you?
Well, I guess that's what they call Raw Deal with Dennis O'Keefe and Claire Trevor. Of course, they didn't even call it Noir then. A very favorite Noir film for fans.
Was The Grand Inquisitor a small comeback to that sort of movie for you?
Apparently. Yes. I'm delighted to do it. It's just with two characters — a young woman and an old woman. And it's very tense, full of suspense. But it's short. It's very short. People don't move short film into movie theatres. I think it's easier with film festivals or maybe on cable television.
You have experienced different eras in Hollywood, especially the studio system as an actress under contract to Paramount and MGM. It was around the time Lex came to Hollywood, when the movie business began to change, is that correct?
No, I would say maybe in the fifties. In the forties it was still securely run by the major studio system. Well, you know, there was that period in Hollywood with the blacklist and all the hysteria about communism. The whole industry was shaken up by it and people took sides. During the fifties, television began to take hold and appeared in more and more private homes. The motion picture industry panicked a little. 'Oh, people won't go to the movies the way they did,' they said and started making 3-D films and anything else that would create attention. They began making major spectacle movies, because they knew that television was produced with thousands of actors. They tried all kinds of ways to keep the audience. There were changes like that going on.
I think the major studio system lasted pretty well into the fifties. There were several independent films before it really changed, when stars earned astronomical salaries. A thousand dollars a week was considered a very good salary. One thousand five hundred or even two thousand, well now we're really getting up there. There was no talk of million-dollar fees for a very long time. That's when everything went crazy.
Stars like Kirk Douglas or John Wayne established their own movie companies in the 1950s, is that correct?
Yes, Burt Lancaster started producing his own films. That's how it began. I wasn't in on it, because something was going to change my life.
Yes, your problems with the Hollywood blacklist. It changed many people in your country.
It did. It affected every aspect of life that influences people's opinions. It started with the movies, because they made the biggest headlines. Of course, the broadcast went wide after Hollywood, to radio and television. Then, it went to the press, the magazines, the editorials. From the press it went to education. From education even into religion. And these are the aspects that shape the way people think, how they vote, and the way they behave. It was all of those, one by one, as if it was a system that was master-planned somewhere.
Same as today when they write about war. It's the same system...
Back to your movies. Raw Deal, produced by independent Edward Small.
I don't think I have met Edward Small. But he was an independent producer. There were a number of them, just a handful, not nearly as many as came into being later. The film was made immediately after the famous '10' flew to Washington. That's when a group of Hollywood writers and directors became the "Hollywood 10". They were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to give testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The Supreme Court upheld the charge, and then the "10" went to federal prison for a year, for defending their constitutional rights. But it was called "contempt of Congress".
That was at the end of October, and I made Raw Deal in November. It was immediately after those events, during filming, when I received the script for the play Joy To The World, which took me to Broadway for my first professional play anywhere. And it was to start on Broadway. That's no way to try to brake into live stage acting, with all the spotlights that are on a Broadway play. But I read that play when we were shooting Raw Deal. I remember one day when all cast members were together for lunch, I told them that I had just read a very funny play about Hollywood, and that I was being offered the lead in it.
I co-starred opposite Alfred Drake who had the lead in Oklahoma. I'd seen the magnificent production and was very tempted to work with that kind of talent. But what a way to learn stage acting! I wasn't sure the audience would be able to hear me. I wasn't sure whether or not I could remember three acts. In movies you only learn dialogue a day in advance. All of those things went through my mind, and then I put it to the other members of the cast: 'This is very tempting, but it's scary. Should I try this?' And they said: 'You like the play? It's a good role. Go for it.' That kind of confidence changed my life. And I think the reason I can't tell you much about the movie business in the fifties is that I did plays because I was being punished for making a stand and protesting against what was happening in Washington as well as in the movie industry. I was travelling all over the country doing stock plays. And doing more plays on Broadway. That's what I was doing, instead of movies. Stage plays weren't attracting attention as most of the attention was on the state of the movie industry.
The Happy Time was also a Broadway play...
I was offered a role in the play. I had such success in my first play Joy To The World, the next season I was sent the scripts for eighteen plays. It was very flattering. Among them was The Happy Time. I loved it! I loved every word of it. And I just knew it would be a hit. And it was going to be produced by Rodgers & Hammerstein. Even though it wasn't a musical, they were producing it. I was in love with every thing they did. But I turned it down, and I explained to them the reason was, that the role I was offered was the wrong thing for me to be doing. I had received so much attention with my first play and such great reviews, I knew people would be thinking: 'What will she do the second time? How does she live up to that first role, which was so fortunate for her?' But the new role was the steady character in the plot. The only one that wasn't getting the laughs. The play was about a French-Canadian family where everyone was charming and colourful and over-sexed. Just a wonderful French-Canadian play. And "Mama", as they called her, was a Scottish-Presbyterian-Canadian who wasn't French — she was the character who was just trying to steady the other family members. I called it "an animated apron", the woman in the kitchen who just keeps track of things. It wasn't colourful and I said: 'That role is the wrong one for me to do in my second play on Broadway. I love it, I wish it success, but I'm not going to do it.'
Instead, I did things like, for example, a George Bernard Shaw play, The Devil's Disciple, a great success, which put me on the cover of Life Magazine in 1950. That was a lucky choice and a wise one. But I had a feeling that The Happy Time was going to be a hit — and it did. I knew the people in the cast. I stayed close to the show, even though I had turned it down. Then, they offered me the same role in the film version. Of course, I accepted it, because I loved the script. It gave me the chance to play opposite Charles Boyer, whom I adored as an actor. I thought he was such a fine talent. All of them were. The whole cast: Louis Jordan, Bobby Driscoll. Every one in it was wonderful.
...and Linda Christian!
Marsha Hunt, Charles Boyer, Linda Christian,
Bobby Driscoll in "The Happy Time"
Well, I had very few scenes with Linda. Most of her scenes were with the men. We just met a few times. I remember one scene where we were together. It was very pleasant. I remember when Linda had the whole cast over for dinner, and we all met Tyrone Power. She was married to him at the time. I saw her recently, about a year ago in Palm Springs. She is doing painting and helping to bring up her grandchildren.
The Happy Time is one of the best comedies of that time in my eyes...
I agree. I think it is brilliant writing. I was so pleased to be in a Stanley Kramer film — in one of his productions. I never met Stanley Kramer but the film had a splendid cast.
Bombers-B-52 (1957) was another film for you in the fifties...
A bigger budget film. That was Warner Bros., the only studio where I had never worked before. I had done films in every major studio by then, except Warner. I don't know how I happened to be asked to do that film. It was lovely to work with that cast. I played Karl Malden's wife, and we were Natalie Wood's parents. And I think it was the first romantic lead in a film for Efrem Zimbalist Jr. We became good friends. My husband, Robert, and Efrem played tennis together.
Jeff Chandler, The Plunderers (1960). He died during shooting...
It was mismanagement at his hospital, a doctor's mistake that killed him. Jeff was a lovely man. Just so dear and so lovely to work with. I had worked with him before The Plunderers, years before that, a dramatisation about the Lincoln-Douglas debate. It was when Abraham Lincoln was running for president. Norman Corman, the great radio writer, had made a play of the dramatisation. We did a reading of it. I played Ms. Douglas, Jeff played Abraham Lincoln. We had a simply moving experience, playing those roles when we were just reading the script. That's really my main memory of Jeff. I didn't know him socially at all. I knew him from our work together. It was a big shock when he died. It was hard to believe. A big, strong man was gone.
You played with John Wayne in Born To The West / Hell Town (1937). But there is another Wayne movie, Legend Of The Lost (1957), with your name in the credits.
No, Legend Of The Lost is Robert Presnell Jr.'s script. I think they had some re-writes because John Wayne wanted his lines to sound more like John Wayne — simple language. My Robert wrote a really beautiful script. I was nowhere around that film but it was written by my husband.
What do you remember about Born To The West / Hell Town?
Hell Town is a ridiculous name. Somebody thought it was a better title than Born To The West, which was its title when they were shooting the film.
You told me before that John Wayne was a larger-than-life hero in real life as well...
A big nice guy who had played Football at USC, became an actor and did a lot of Westerns. Then, John Ford saw the movie I had made with John Wayne, just before he produced Stagecoach, which became the film that made Wayne a major star. From then on, Wayne was somebody. He was a major presence on the screen. His co-star, Claire Trevor, played very different roles from the ones I had been given in those days. In my Westerns at Paramount, I was playing nothing but romantic leads. They were all very nice women and not particularly interesting to play as an actress, there was no challenge. And when I went to MGM there were colourful, difficult, challenging and wonderful roles from the very beginning. My first MGM movie was also my first suicide. It was good business for Mayer. [Laughs] I think I had two suicides before I was twenty-four or twenty-five years old. I also played my first old lady, an aging role right after Pride And Prejudice, which was my first comedy. MGM let me have a wonderful time. Paramount made me a leading lady, but there was no great challenge.
I deduce that MGM was bigger — with more stars than a night sky...
Marsha Hunt, Portrait during her time with MGM
Well, it had the lion share, it really did. MGM was the king of the jungle. But Paramount had a list of stars just as wonderful as theirs when I was there. They would never again be as great and wonderful as they once were, but they had Bing Crosby. Every movie he made topped the ranks. And Bob Hope arrived during the years I worked at the Paramount studios. And there were stars such as Jack Benny, Mae West, Carole Lombard and Marlene Dietrich. One big star after another; Gary Cooper as well as Fred MacMurray. Paramount was virtually as great as MGM in terms of star power in the years I was there.
For MGM you played character parts...
But I had a lot of romantic leads as well. I was doing one, and then the other. They were all wonderful. I was very happy at MGM.
You starred in the original Pride & Prejudice based on Jane Austen's novel...
We realized, when we were filming it, that we were making a classic. We knew it was a marvellous script, a great adaptation of the Jane Austen novel. And the cast of actors — everyone of them was just superb, in every small role, every major role. It was simply a privilege to be part of that. And to have that lovely character role of the near-sighted plain sister, one with the four beautiful sisters; and to sing a little bit flat, off-key. [Laughs] It was all wonderful.
You had singing roles in some of the movies...
Oh yes, I was a nightclub singer in two movies. All together, I think I sang in six movies. Two of them with Paramount, and four with MGM. In Unholy Partners (1941), Lost Angel (1943) or Music For Millions (1944) for example.
Did you have special singing lessons?
No. I just learnt the arrangement with the musician, who had also written the score. I had no instructions but I loved to sing and, I guess, I sang pretty well. If I hadn't become an actress, I might have tried to be a singer. I'm very musical and my mother was a professional musician. I grew up with opera being rehearsed in the living room. My mother was a voice coach and accompanist, but her music was classical and mine has always been the popular ballads.
Who discovered you for the movies?
Publicity shot for Paramount Studios.
Marsha Hunt: "During one filming session, they photographed me with a number of different dogs as part of a 'style galery'. This dog, however, isn't Lassie, she was under contract with MGM."
A couple of photographers. I did some modelling during my first year out of high school. Instead of college, I went to drama school. While I was living in New York, I became a fashion model for John Powers, though only part time. I was a full-time drama student but in between studies, I got jobs to pose or do fashion shows. I was comfortable modelling clothes and I think that's how it happened. At Paramount, I posed for many fashion photo shoots to help publicize my movies. I did six pictures a year at Paramount, and they had to be publicized. Every time I had a day off, I would do a series of fashion photographs. I got to wear some beautiful clothes in movies. That's how I would be depicted in the fan magazines and newspapers — wearing something beautiful. And a caption would say: 'Paramount actress starring next in...' ...with the title of the relevant movie.
You also published a book about that era The Way We Wore — Styles Of The 1930s And '40s...
Those photo shoots and at MGM too gave me the material for my book. I included hundreds of pictures — five hundred and forteen in total. And those are only the ones I selected. Amazingly, they stayed fresh and in good condition.
In These Glamour Girls (1939) you co-starred with Lana Turner.
It was Lana's very first lead, opposite Lew Ayres. And it was about a weekend house party at Princeton, but we called it Kingston College. I played the character who was considered to be an old maid at twenty-three, the role of the one who was desperate to find the right marriage — and a little too loud. Then, my character committed suicide... Lana was lovely. She was hard-working and sincere. It was by far the biggest thing she'd been given to do. And she was so gorgeous. But there was no gossip about her. She was just a very nice girl, working hard to make good on her big break.
Did you stay in contact with Lana after she and Lex Barker were married?
No, I never saw Lana after I left MGM except at a major event. We had an exchange of affection. Other than that, we lost contact.
Have you ever met Arlene Dahl?
I have yet to meet Arlene Dahl; I heard she is a lovely person. But I've never met her. I think she came to MGM right after I left.
Flight Command (1940) with Robert Taylor...
Oh, I have no memory of filming that one. I think I had a very small role in it and only a short scene. I got to know him when he, Jean Harlow and I, just the three of us, went back to Washington D.C. for President Roosevelt's birthday ball. But I also did one of Robert Taylor's television shows. Were Lex and Robert friends?
Yes, they were. Both very handsome actors...
Some of your movies are featured on German television every now and then; for example Blossoms In The Dust (1941)...
That was my second suicide.
...and Unholy Partners with Edward G. Robinson...
That's the one where I was a nightclub singer.
...and Kid Glove Killer.
Marsha Hunt and Van Heflin in Kid Glove Killer
A film I liked very much — with a lovely script. And it was Fred Zinnemann's first feature film as a director. Before that, he only directed short projects. I had worked with Van Heflin earlier on a couple of occasions. Lee Bowman was another leading man. It was a lively movie and I played the romantic lead. I'm working in the crime laboratory of the police department; Van Heflin plays the police chemist; I'm his assistant, and I'm in love with Lee Bowman.
The Affairs Of Martha (1942)...
It's the first movie I did with director Jules Dassin. He also brought me to Broadway. I knew I was in good hands with him. We were good friends until he died in 2008. We corresponded and met when he came back to Hollywood. I visited him in New York; I knew his wife. We gave the Dassin children a dog — we were really good friends. In fact, he was one of the few directors who actually provided directing. The others staged each scene, assembled the film and let the performers do the acting. I had very little directing in all the films I did. Directing in those days was only done on stage. In the movies they told you where to stand, when to leave, what was to be handled but your performance was your own work. You prepared your performance at home. You had your performance ready when you came to work. I saw very little performance direction.
None Shall Escape (1944)...
It was a very strong role for me. And it was an anti-fascist role. My part in the story was that of a young Polish teacher named Marja Pacierkowski, aged around thirty years. It's not my favourite film — I don't have any — but it's one I'm proud to have made. We shot it in 1943, in the middle of World War Two. And at that time, it wasn't sure who'd win the war. I think it was the first movie to show actual atrocities committed against the Jewish people and to also correctly foresee the trial of Nazi war criminals. It was an extraordinary story by Lester Cole, who became a member of the "Hollywood Ten" a few years later — that group who defied the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the investigations into their political beliefs. But he was also one of the founders of the Screen Writers Guild. Cole's family were Polish immigrants. None Shall Escape was a marvellous film. It was so complicated. They built a complete village along the streets towards Burbank airport, the Hollywood Way, on the Columbia Ranch. I had to ride a bicycle for my role. And I had never been on a bicycle in my life. Well, I grew up in New York City. But I got it in one take. Later I was given a birthday party on the set, and was given a trophy for bicycle riding. I still have it.
What was more difficult — learning to ride a bicycle or a horse?
Well, I remember when I was riding my first horse. I don't think, I had any problems with it. But my first bicycle trip was pure terror.
The Valley Of Decision (1945)...
A great cast of actors! The story was based on a novel by Marcia Davenport, and it's about the family of a Pittsburgh steel magnate. A magnificent film.
One of your co-stars was the young Gregory Peck.
We all enjoyed working with him. He characterized his role very well.
There was an unforgettable actor who played a bit part in one of your movies — Gary Cooper!
I wish I had a scene with him.
The movie was Hollywood Boulevard (1936)...
He did that. [Laughs] But it was no part, he was standing in the background. I remember that there were a number of major silent movie stars in similar bits. I was the leading lady opposite Robert Cummings. For Paramount I played the romantic leads right from the start. Robert was my partner four times.
Johnny Got His Gun (1971) is a powerful anti-war movie where you played the mother of the soldier...
You know, Dalton Trumbo who wrote and directed it, had never directed before. He made the movie so long, he had to cut three hours out of it. And he called me and apologized, while he was editing, and said: "I should have given more control to my editor at the time because I shot so much more film than I needed to or should have." And he said, "I had to cut three hours out of it — much of it your role — to try to make sense of it and just fix the main story. Many of Johnny's memories of his childhood, with you as his mother, had to be taken out. I do apologize."
I saw it only recently. I could hardly find myself in it. It's really just down to a bit role — when you see it. Don't you agree that it's hardly a picture worth mentioning? There is so little left of me. It's an important film. But it's not very good. It's a wonderful anti-war statement. I hate war more than anything else on the planet. The only real hatred I have is for war. And I'm so glad he made it, that he wrote it, I'm so glad to have been a part of it. But I'm hardly in it. However, I understand. I don't blame him.
Back to another sort of movie. What memories do you have of your partner Buster Crabbe? He was also a Tarzan actor.
We did two western movies together. He was very nice — friendly, hard working. It was fun to play a western heroine in the Zane Grey movies. We filmed in places such as Big Bear.
German Kurt Kreuger also played in None Shall Escape; he was godfather to Lex Barker's son Zan...
Yes, he was a handsome man. We met each other, but we simply never got a chance to socialize, not even have meals together during the filming.
Looking back at Lex Barker...
He told me I was like a sister to him. He was comfortable to be with and very simpatico. A wonderful athlete. That was Lex.
Lex often spent time in your house with your husband?
It was in the study, the big room with the deer head over the fireplace and the great big couches. That's where we spent most of our time with Lex. And the conversations would go on into the small hours of the morning, because they'd get interested in a topic and just sit up and talk through the night. I remember his agent came over and played backgammon with him. Lex was a devoted backgammon player. Not with Robert, who was working on his scripts by day. He didn't have much free time. But there are heartwarming memories with Lex.
Reiner Boller (2008 and 2009)
Assistance: Marlies Bugmann (2009)