At 100, Marsha Hunt Still Has Plenty of Surprises Up Her Impeccably Stylish Sleeve

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, actress and activist Marsha Hunt gave us the scoop of the century, a secret that’s waited since 1944 to come to light.

Nowadays we’re inundated with breaking news, exhausted by ubiquitous celebrities, and desensitized by the barrage of alerts that light up our phones.

But how about romantic Hollywood gossip that surfaces after more than 70 years?

There’s something almost enchanted about a revelation like that, paradoxically old and new, something that gains power through years of secrecy. Particularly when the news comes straight from the person who lived it.

In conversation with the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller, Hunt recalled the making of None Shall Escape, an ambitious B film that anticipated the post-war trials of Nazi war criminals. Towards the end of the interview, Muller asked about the film’s colorful, underrated director André de Toth. And, boy, did he get more than he bargained for.

“Bundy—as we called him, that was the nickname he chose—Bundy De Toth was irresistible… I tried and I couldn’t.” She finished the thought with a smile verging on naughtiness.

The crowd, as they say, went wild. You could feel it crackle through the air, that buzz of hundreds of people thinking, “Did she just say what I think she said?”

Even Eddie Muller, who has stared down the barrel of Ann Savage’s gun and dodged a punch or two from Lawrence Tierney, was left temporarily speechless. 100 years on planet earth have only intensified Hunt’s flair for a well-timed coup-de-théâtre.

Praising De Toth as “a damn good director,” she elaborated on his charms: “He was also more personable, more entrancing, more irresistible than almost anybody I had met up to that point.”

With the audience in the palm of her hand, Hunt wryly left the rest to our imaginations, “You take it from there…” Make no mistake: this wasn’t a slip of the tongue or an unguarded moment. Hunt clearly enjoyed tantalizing her adoring crowd with this deliberate news drop.

Indeed, Hunt is exquisitely in control, shining with the poise and wisdom she’s earned over the course of a long, well-spent life. She tends to speak about the past carefully, deliberately, as though weighing each reminiscence against an iron-clad personal standard of truth.

For example, Muller asked about Columbia’s notoriously vulgar mogul Harry Cohn, who greenlit None Shall Escape. Rather than yield to hearsay, Hunt gave a clear-eyed appraisal of the studio head’s vision: “I never met him. So far as I know, he was gentleness itself. Because I never saw him or heard to the contrary. Harry Cohn, whatever his social manners might have been, knew good films and he had a lot of courage, I think, about the films he chose to make, for which he deserves great credit. A Harry Cohn film, very often as not, stood for something, and not just a film. So here’s to Harry Cohn.”

Hunt is proud of her involvement in such a prophetic and historically significant film as None Shall Escape. “It was a great privilege that I felt so lucky to be given,” she says.

She remembers the surreal experience of making a movie about wartorn Poland… on studio sets out in Burbank: “It was on the way to the airport, and the cars whizzed by. And we were creating another day, another atmosphere, another continent, another everything. It was fascinating be in such a contrast all at once.”

Hunt spoke fondly of co-star Alexander Knox, who garnered an Oscar nomination for Wilson the same year he chillingly portrayed a Nazi officer in None Shall Escape. ”How’s that for broad talent? He was a lovely man. We became lifetime friends. When my husband and I went to England they took beautiful care of us, and we had a lovely reunion over there.”

After its world premiere restoration at TCMFF, hopefully None Shall Escape will find a larger audience. Its astute psychological inquiry into the origins of evil remains frighteningly, enduringly relevant. As Muller pointed out, “It was very common for American movies during the war to make jingoistic propaganda pictures to boost our morale and convince us we were going to win. This movie does something very different. It looks at this from the enemy’s side and it talks about… how you make a fascist. Here’s how you create a Nazi.” Hunt added, “Think how important those formulae are. How to make a villain… We need to pay very great attention to those how-tos.”

Hunt’s first-hand experience opposing fascism—the home-grown, all-American kind—got her blacklisted during the McCarthyite frenzy. As HUAC threatened Hollywood in 1947, Hunt and a group of other prominent industry figures, the Committee for the First Amendment, traveled to Washington D.C. to protest. Unfortunately, their brave efforts failed to stop the momentum of rabid red-baiters in Congress.

The Committee for the First Amendment in Washington. Marsha Hunt is on the left edge of the frame wearing that super-cool double-breasted ensemble.

In a longer conversation at the Larry Edmunds Bookshop during the TCMFF weekend, Hunt candidly spoke about the Red Scare in Hollywood. “It was a very ugly, ugly time,” she said, shaking her head at the damage done to so many lives, including her close friend Adrian Scott.

“I didn’t know or understand communism or care anything about it, except that I gathered that a lot of people who had joined that party were idealists, and that couldn’t be so bad,” Hunt explained. “So I didn’t make any so-called communists my enemies. And that probably won me some enemies.”

Marsha doing her part for WWII morale, just a few years before she’d be blacklisted for leftist connections.

During the 1940s, Hunt’s home was a gathering place for the likes of Leonard Bernstein and other renowned artists of the day. Even in that haven of creatives, political tensions bubbled up to the surface. Hunt recalled how some guests would storm out of the house rather than share the room with somebody on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

This behavior puzzles Hunt, who believes in frank exchanges of ideas. “I think it’s rather lovely for people who disagree to have some chats and conversations,” she says. “Once we’ve taken our own side and are pretty sure of it, then go with it and enjoy the journey.”

An independent thinker, Hunt fiercely objected to the idea that someone could be persecuted on the basis of their politics. “I was lumped with the far left because I spoke freely about whatever I cared about. And those were dangerous days.”

Refusing to name names or disavow her beliefs, Hunt was blacklisted at the peak of her career. The integrity that made her a target then makes her a hero today.

In style as well as politics, Hunt has a boldly independent streak. According to Eddie Muller, right before their TCMFF interview, “The make-up woman went to do her lipstick, and Marsha just took it from her and did it herself.”

As Hunt casually explains, “I haven’t been made up within memory. I’ve always done my own make-up.”

Hunt earned her expertise in cosmetics during the rigorous apprenticeship that she set out for herself in hopes of a film career. When Hunt was growing up in the 1920s and early 1930s, “There was no training for movies. You learned how to make movies then by making movies, but you could train for the theaters.”

“I always, my whole life, meant to be an actress. Oddly enough I was never stagestruck. It had to be movies. And I knew that was going to take some managing. But, in the meantime, I thought, ‘Well, what can I do to help prepare for that? Let’s see… I ought to learn to dress, and make up, and be groomed.’ All of the visuals.”

After graduating high school, Hunt attended dramatic school and found work with the elite Powers Modeling Agency. “I’m long waisted, and it’s a small waist, and I guess that qualifies me as a model.”

That preparation enabled Hunt to take an active role in shaping what she wore on and off the screen. “I loved to design,” she told us. When asked to talk about style, however, Hunt peered into the audience of TCMFF-ers, many decked to the nines in vintage glad rags, and modestly exclaimed, “They can tell me!”

Though schooled in glamour, Hunt knew that she craved something more from film acting. She sought out challenging character parts and often played women considerably older than she was, as in None Shall Escape.

“I wanted to be a different kind of actress,” Hunt recalls. “I wanted to play people who had nothing to do me, with my look, with my age—particularly age—or type, or any of that. I wanted a total disguise in every role. There are actresses and actors who love to play themselves. Well, God bless them! I thought it was fun to pretend. So that’s what I went after.”

Unbroken by one of the darkest chapters in 20th century American history, Hunt is a courageous and compassionate survivor.

Despite the stolen years of the blacklist, her body of work on film is a gallery of diverse, memorable, utterly credible characterizations. She has created an equally impressive legacy of humanitarianism, using her fame, financial resources, and industry connections to advocate for refugees, establish homeless shelters, and fight world hunger.

So… what is her secret? How did she forge such a meaningful century from adversity?

Hunt mainly credits her parents and upbringing. She believes that her sunny outlook also has something to do with it: “I’m a born optimist. I guess the bright side always appealed to me to look at rather than the dark. I’ve been blessed. I never figured out why. But I sure have and I want the fates to know, I’m grateful!”

You can see that “bright side” in her impish sense of humor. As Eddie Muller and Alan Rode passed a microphone back and forth, she quipped, “Who’s on first?” And, when Muller proudly mentioned that he directed Hunt’s last film, The Grand Inquisitor (2008), she joked, “And she never worked again!” After the crew at Larry Edmunds sang “Happy Birthday” (an honorary birthday, since every day over 100 deserves celebration), she cooed, “I could marry all of you!”

I had the honor of briefly meeting Marsha, and it will rank among the great thrills of my life. You feel infinitely humbled to be in the presence of someone who has done so much good for so long. As I stammeringly told her that I admired her performances in 2 movies I love, Kid Glove Killer and Raw Deal, she smiled and thanked me.

I also asked her about one of my favorite behind-the-scenes photos. Was she really a knitter? Or was it staged? (Look, it might seem like a silly question, but you have to admit it was original.)

Hunt looked at the picture and, with that sharp, deliberate memory of hers, she confirmed that she was indeed an on-the-set knitter. “It helped me keep busy during the long camera set-ups.” And, what’s more, she remembers that she knit argyle socks! Imagine keeping track of those patterns amidst all the distractions of a movie set.

As a knitter myself, I choose to believe that needlework is the secret ingredient to Marsha’s longevity. Because it’s far easier to practice than optimism (though she has inspired me to work harder at that).

Eddie Muller describes Hunt as “the most exemplary human being I have ever met in my life.” After spending just a short amount of time basking in her radiant cheer and kindness, I’m inclined to agree. Long may she grace this world with her presence.

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John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 22

The Asphalt Jungle throbs with adrenaline, yes, but with something else, too: regret. I’m thinking specifically of the bouncy yet melancholy scene in which Doc takes a fatal break from his getaway and sits among teenagers, watching a sweater-clad nymphet shimmy and shake to jukebox tunes played on his nickel.

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The jubilant jazz and the ignorant bliss of the youngsters accentuate Doc’s old age and his sense of loss—from the years spent in prison, yes, but mostly just from the implacable passage of time.

Doc insists to his driver, “We have time,” although the sad gleam in his eyes tells us he knows that’s a lie. He’s referring to a specific schedule, but the comment could apply more broadly to the inevitability of death and decline that hangs over the film—never more wistfully than in the jukebox scene. Indeed, Huston visually makes the connection between the girl and Doc’s doom: after she gyrates away from a window, the audience can see the police peering through the Venetian blinds, waiting for their quarry.

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In another poignant (if creepy) shot, the bobby-soxer dream girl dances right past the camera, revealing Doc’s spellbound, pathetic face as her swinging hips move out of the frame. Next, waving her dance partner away, she wiggles from across the room right into the camera; her undulating torso nearly fills the frame. The dynamism of that girl’s body—the optimism it implies and the hopelessness of Doc ever engaging with it as only a young man could—slaps the audience with agonizing obviousness.

But just as age craves youth, youth craves wealth. We get to listen to the jukebox nymphet precociously nag her boyfriends about their lack of means: “Nickels he’s complaining about. What a spender! Sure he wants a date. He always wants a date. And where do we go? A third-run movie!” As she chides the boys, Doc listens in close-up, wearing the hint of a knowing smile. Then we see the girl among her companions, continuing her complaint.

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Here Huston frames her from an awkward, slightly high angle, not really Doc’s point-of-view. The angle—working in conjunction with the low-key lighting, oddly moody for the portrayal of bright-eyed teenager—is just off-kilter enough to give us a sense of comic distance. The downward gaze enhances the bitter irony of the girl’s cajoling: the same desire for things, for little pleasures, drove Doc and his compadres to crime.

Who knows? Maybe this nice girl’s nice longings will tempt her and her nice boyfriends to not-so-nice deeds in order to obtain the money for the nice things they want. Or maybe they’ll just settle down and spend the rest of their lives consumed by the honest wants and needs that become the substance of most people’s pallid lives.

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The mildly kinky voyeuristic vibe of the scene also illustrates how adroitly noir connected sex and crime—even in a seemingly innocuous exchange. Raymond Borde and Edmond Chaumeton’s Panorama of American Film Noir:

“In its way of playing with official censorship, this eroticism [in noir] recalls the elaboration of the dream, according to Freud: instead of showing forbidden realities, one introduces seemingly neutral elements that will evoke them through association or symbolism. Thus dance is immemorial transposition of the sex act itself. But then the thriller has occasionally succeeded in employing such trite analogy with finesse. There are the ‘poses’ struck by Gilda or the frenzied whirling of the bobby-soxer in The Asphalt Jungle.”

Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 20

I like to think of The Night of the Hunter as what would have happened if D.W. Griffith’s soul had been called back across the Stygian waters of the underworld to direct a film noir. It’s that unreal, that beautiful.

If you’ve seen it, I hope you love it as much as I do. And if you haven’t seen it, what the hell are you doing reading this? Go watch the movie already.

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Here’s what François Truffaut had to say about the film in 1956 (three years before he made his own very different masterpiece about a kid on the run):

“Such a screenplay is not of the sort that launches the career of a Hollywood director, and it’s a safe bet that this film, which scorns the most basic commercial norms, will be Charles Laughton’s only experiment as a director, which is a shame. A shame, yes, because in spite of its conflicts of style, The Night of the Hunter is a film of rich inventiveness that seems like a lurid news story as told by children…. Charles Laughton doesn’t hesitate to run some red lights and knock over a few policemen in this unique film that makes us love experimental cinema when it experiments and cinema of discovery when it discovers.”

(Quote from Les Films de ma vie.)

Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia (1953): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 17

In 1961, Fritz Lang told an interviewer, “Through the detective film, I was looking for a form of social criticism.” Indeed, though less of a who-dun-it than a did-she-do-it, The Blue Gardenia rankles with injustice. Its commentary on Mad Men-era victim-blaming remains startlingly relevant today. (Seriously, consider how many people in positions of power right now equate drunkenness with consent or relativize a woman’s right to control her body. Then try to sleep at night.)

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When Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter), still reeling from a devastating long-distance breakup, goes on a date with predatory Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr), she ends up passed out on his sofa… exactly as Harry had intended. The brute tries to force himself on her, but, fortunately, Norah recovers herself enough to grab a poker from his fireplace and give him a well-deserved whack on the head.

Lang filmed this sequence in the best tradition of noir (and expressionist) subjectivity. The mirror Norah breaks with the swing of her arm seems to stand in for her fragmented memory, giving the key plot point all the jagged, rapid-fire ambiguity of a real-life crisis. As she collapses, a superimposed whirlpool appears to pull her into its depths.

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After she wakes up and flees the scene of the crime, however, Norah becomes the object of a merciless (wo)manhunt, led by a reckless journalist as much as by the cops.

But did Norah actually kill Harry? Because The Blue Gardenia was made under the reign of the Production Code, you can probably guess that our smoky-voiced, platinum-haired heroine did not in fact commit the crime. As it turns out, another of Harry’s discarded victims—whose eyes well up with the same glittering sadness as Baxter’s—cracked him over the head because he refused to take responsibility for the child she’s carrying.

Classic Hollywood won’t let anything this bad happen to our protagonist; yet, it’s not difficult to recognize the maddened, sympathetic murderess as a holograph of what might have happened to her—basically an alternate-universe Norah. Just as Norah splits herself into two to evade detection (claiming her friend is “The Blue Gardenia”), the story subdivides her yet again, delivering a happy ending while refusing to absolve society of its wretched misogyny. To my mind, it’s an absolution that has yet to come (or be earned).

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Cary Leaves His Mark: 31 Days of Cary Grant, Day 23

Cary Grant adds his handprints, footprints, and signature to a slab of wet concrete at the Schaefer Center at the New York World’s Fair in August, 1939.

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Scanned from Cary Grant: A Biography by Marc Eliot (Harmony Books, 2004). Most of the images I’m scanning for this series are publicity photos, intended by the studios that created them to be reproduced and shared. However, since this one comes from a more exclusive publishing context, I have watermarked it with the copyright.