Marsha Hunt, Century Call for an American Progressive and a Global Humanitarian

Cinema, Performing arts, Politics

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.

~ Søren Kierkegaard

On the 17th of this month US film actress with a social conscience Marsha Virginia Hunt turned 100, joining the illustrious company of Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas, forming a trio of Hollywood film centenarians all still alive! (Libby and Kirk both reached their triple figure milestones during 2016).

Adulation for Marsha’s momentous achievement haven’t quite attracted the stratospheric fanfare or media attention and hype that Kirk Douglas’ 100th bash did last December, or in past years as other Hollywood household names like Bob Hope’s did. Of course it would not be expected, Marsha has never achieved the limelight that those other centenarian luminaries demanded in their Hollywood careers. She was a serious actress but never got the star ‘creds’ that others in the business did…but the elusiveness of stardom for Marsha wasn’t down to a shortfall in her acting ability – rather the explanation for this lay in the intervention of external factors which were to impact on her career.

Marsha does Jane Austen
Ms Hunt’s film career from its start in the Thirties looked promising, but in the super-charged, competitive stakes for the glamour female roles she came close without ever quite clasping the big prize…especially in 1939 when she tested impressively for the much sort-after part of Melanie in Gone With The Wind but narrowly lost out to (fellow centenarian) Olivia de Havilland. The following year Hunt did score a supporting role in the prestigious period movie Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier.

After World War II the grubby, gutter politics of McCarthyism dealt a savage blow to Marsha Hunt’s career…as it did to numerous other Hollywood liberals during that time when it was the fashion de jour in America to go full-throttle after citizens who were merely alleged or implied to be communists (truly a “Dark Age of guilty until proven innocent” witch-hunts!) For a fuller account of Hunt’s story see my earlier blog on this site (June 2014) Marsha Hunt, Lifelong Social Activist: Not your Average Hollywood Role Model .

With her reputation unfairly besmirched (tantamount to no more than implicit guilt by association!), Hunt was punished by being inexorably squeezed out of the Hollywood film mainstream. Potential parts in A-movies disappeared and the public saw her relegated to B-pictures and eventually to television and theatre (few good roles in theatrical movies came her way after 1947, the 1948 film noir Raw Deal and the much later Johnny Got His Gun (1971) were rare exceptions for the Chicago-born actress).

Marsha Hunt today
After being blacklisted by HUAC in 1950 after having made around 50 films since 1935, Hunt only featured in three films during the next eight years [‘Marsha Hunt (actress, born 1917)’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org]. By the Fifties and Sixties Hunt was finding work only easy to find in television – in a minor-note series Peck’s Bad Girl and in numerous guest roles on Zane Grey Theater, The Twilight Zone and so on ad infinitum.

Marsha Hunt: Life lived forwards…
After her semi-retirement in 1960 Hunt stepped up her active involvement in progressive causes including support for same-sex marriage, ending global poverty, raising awareness of climate change and promoting peace in Third World countries [Memos, Roger C. (October 17, 2014). “Honoring Actress – Activist Marsha Hunt on her 97th Birthday!”. Sherman Oaks, California: Patch.com. Archived from the original on August 10, 2017. Retrieved May 14, 2016]

In a series of interviews last week in honour of her 100th birthday Miss Hunt reflected on her career and on the missed stardom, which seemed to have touched her but only lightly. Hunt merely remarked of her Hollywood years that she was grateful for being allowed to be an actress and show her versatility on the screen✳…or as she put it in her characteristically humble, unassuming way, she is “a grateful girl of 100!” [J Kinser, ‘Marsha Hunt at 100: The Actress Recalls the Blacklist, Film Noir and Being Cast in Gone With a The Wind‘, Movie Maker, 13-Oct-2017, www.moviemaker.com].

JE Smith seems to have summed up the essence of Marsha Hunt and the paradoxes in her movie persona and career fairly well in the title of his interview with the centenarian, “American girl, Un-American woman, upstanding centenarian” [JE Smith, ‘Marsha Hunt: American girl, Un-American woman, upstanding centenarian’, Sight & Sound, 17-Oct-2017, www.bfi.org.uk].

Once vilified by HUAC as “Un-American”, Hunt’s longevity and achievements are testimony to all that is good about American society – an authentic patriot but also a defender of freedoms for all citizens – whilst repudiating all that is bad about American society. At the same time we have Hunt’s unceasing activism as a humanitarian concerned for the world as a whole and its future well-being, a tireless advocate for peace and progress, and for a more fair distribution of resources and safeguards for the environment.

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✳ the unstated inference is clear…rather than being factory-made into (an overhyped) star!

Cursed Movies I: Health Hazards of Oz

Cinema, Popular Culture

The 1939 cinema classic The Wizard of Oz, the movie that launched teenage singer/actress Judy Garland into stardom, has long had a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most ‘cursed’ films.

Many, many things did go wrong on the set…the MGM musical/ fantasy came in over budget at a cost of $2.8 million. This in part reflects The Wizard of Oz’s disjointed trajectory – going through five directors including King Vidor, George Cukor and Richard Thorpe and 14 screenwriters in the course of the production. The movie’s ultimate director Victor Fleming (who also directed the other great Hollywood film of 1939 Gone With The Wind) was widely suspected of Nazi sympathies.

Judy as Dot in Oz
The staggeringly appalling treatment of 17-year-old Judy Garland (Dorothy) would today be seen as out-and-out child abuse, irrespective of whether it was within or without the celebrity world. The film-makers half-starved Judy, limiting her to only one square meal per day, fed her on barbiturates and got her fixed on an 80-a-day cigarette habit. Garland eventually spiralled into a tragic pattern of drug dependency and suicide attempts. [E Power, ‘The Wizard of Oz – Dark side of the rainbow’, Irish Examiner, 15-Sept-2014, www.irishexaminer.com].

Equally alarmingly was the casual disregard of the health and well-being of other cast members as well. Buddy Ebsen (later famous as Jed Clampett in TV’s Beverly Hillbillies), to achieve the silver make-up of his character “The Tinman” was coated in aluminium powder which gave him an allergy and got into his lungs, after two weeks he became seriously unwell and was hospitalised and out of the film✳. His replacement Jack Haley was less exposed to deadly toxins but still contracted a troublesome eye-infection.

Fitting out supporting actress Margaret Hamilton for the role as the “The Wicked Witch of the West” meant painting her skin with green copper, exposing her to a clear carcinogenic risk. Even more perilous, in one hazardous scene Hamilton was nearly burned to death when a pyrotechnics feature went horribly wrong…requiring the actress to be hospitalised for a couple of weeks.

The film’s jinx extended to minor players like the munchkins (small colourfully-garmented characters portrayed predominantly by people with the condition dwarfism). The vertically challenged actors were grossly underpaid (‘Toto’, Dorothy’s dog in the movie was paid more than them!) and consequently they got drunk every night and reportedly ran riot on the set. Even Toto didn’t escape a mishap – one of the supporting actors accidentally stepped on him in a scene breaking the mutt’s paw and necessitating a canine replacement.

In the celebrated poppy field scene Dorothy and other characters get saturated in snow flakes, the only problem was the substitute snow comprised sheets of lethal asbestos![Power] Hollywood regularly used 100 percent industrial-grade chrysotile (white asbestos) in films, in White Christmas (1954) Bing Crosby got it poured all over him! Ray Bolger’s “Scarecrow” straw-filled costume was also lined in asbestos in order to be flame-proof [S Kazan, ‘The Wizard of Oz or The Wizard of Lethal Asbestos Exposure?’, (Kazan, McLaine, Satterley &’Greenwood], www.kazanlaw.com].

The curse for a time seemed to continue post-release. Although The Wizard of Oz is universally celebrated today as a classic of the cinema, it did not meet with immediate acclaim from either the public or critics. These reservations did not start to turn around until the CBS television network reintroduced the movie to the wider public in 1956. In 1989 the US Library of Congress nominated The Wizard of Oz as “the most-viewed motion picture on television syndication” [‘The Wizard of Oz (1939 film)’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org]. Countless scores of viewers of the joyous spectacle of ‘Oz’ over the years would have been blissfully unaware of the unhappy, off-screen events that relentlessly dogged the production.

PostScript: Judy a victim of MGM’s mogul monster
MGM’s systematic abuse and exploitation of Judy Garland emanated from the very top of the studio – MGM head Louis B Mayer. To get the absolute most out of the studio’s new star Garland, Mayer maintained tyrannical control over all aspects of the Wizard of Oz star’s life.

Mayer hooked Garland on a cocktail of drugs, having her fed alternating courses of amphetamines, adrenaline shots and downers like Seconal. And Mayer, to ensure that Judy, away from the studio, kept to the strict diet of coffee, chicken soup and cigs, had a battery of spies reporting back to him on the beleaguered actress’s behaviour [Neil Norman, ‘Dark side of Oz: The exploitation of Judy Garland’, Express, 05-Apr-2010, www.express.co.uk]]

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✳ Ebsen as a result of exposure to the deleterious materials was required to use a respirator for the remainder of his life (he lived to 95)
a mistreatment aided and abetted by Judy’s own mother Ethel who mercilessly drove the early show business career of Garland and her sisters, thinking nothing of feeding the three sisters pep pills to cope with the brutal workload she had burdened them with! [Norman]

Glebe’s History of Maritime Industry and Heritage of Terrace Rows and Italianate Villas

Built Environment, Heritage & Conservation, Local history

Glebe Point Road is the heart of the inner west suburb that bears its name…a leisurely stroll from the Broadway end of the road reveals the variable character of Glebe itself. Close to the Broadway Centre are numerous eateries and coffee shops frequented by Gen X’s, Millennials and the occasional Zennial, three-quarters of which are university students from just across Parramatta Road at USYD. As we get closer to the other end (Glebe Point) there is a mix of elegant old houses, isolated groups of shops and a liberal sprinkling of backpacker lodges. This built-up urbanisation a stark contrast to the era before white settlement in the 18th century when the Glebe area was a Turpentine Ironbark forest inhabited by the indigenous Wangal and Cadigal clans.

‘Florence Villa’ 1883
The word itself, glebe (from glaeba (L), clod of earth), refers to an area of land devoted to the maintenance of an incumbent of the church. The colony of Port Jackson’s first governor, Arthur Phillip, set aside the land here for church purposes in 1789[1].

Sydney’s Broadway and Parramatta Road marks the eastern boundary of Glebe and the suburb extends west to Rozelle Bay, a body of water flowing into Johnstons Bay and eventually into Sydney Harbour. Rozelle Bay houses a bustling marina sitting on a strip of land incongruously known as “Glebe Island” (not an island!) which accommodates the old bridge that once linked Pyrmont to Glebe Island and Rozelle, which was replaced in the mid 1990s by the modernist looking cable-stayed new Glebe Island Bridge (name later changed to Anzac Bridge).

Although Glebe was subjected to waves of greed-fuelled demolition during the 20th century, heritage architecture still characterises a significant chunk of the suburb’s residential complexion. A representative sample of 19th century houses have been preserved despite the best efforts of developers and development-sympathetic state governments to jettison the old to make way for new dwellings and a network of freeways crisscrossing Glebe (see PostScript on Lyndhurst below)[2].

Early trends toward gentrification
The Church’s 1856 sell-off of some of its land in Glebe was the spark that started the suburb’s long spiral into an inexorable gentrification. A two strata society developed with Glebe Point (the bay end) becoming the location for many new homes of the urban gentry, these better-off citizens were clearly separated off from ‘The Glebe’ where the more numerous working class resided[3].

Terraced Glebe
By 1870 the terrace had become the dominant build form in Glebe. By WWI there was several distinct types of terrace – colonial Georgian, Regency, Victorian Gothic, Italianate and Federal style – standing side by side. Terraces were the optimal solution to accommodate Glebe’s rapidly growing population, having the virtue of economical outlays on land and building materials[4].

‘Bellevue’ (detail)
Italianate villas and cottages figure prominently among the residences of Glebe that have survived to this day, eg, Bellevue c1896 (Italianate Victorian home reprieved from the demolishers’ wrecking ball, today a cafe for walkers (with or without dogs) and cyclists on the foreshore)❈; other Victorian Italianate buildings including the Glebe Court House, the Town Hall and Kerribree. Many of Glebe’s finer buildings were the work of the leading architects of colonial New South Wales (such as Barnet, Blackett and Verge). For a time Glebe was known as the architect’s suburb.

As the early land use of Glebe was taking shape the foreshore was not considered suitable for residential development, opening the way for exclusive use for marine industry – and for sporting activity. Glebe Rowing Club has long had its position on Blackwattle Bay and Jubilee Oval, near the old tramsheds, was the home ground of Glebe Cricket Club in the Sydney Grade Cricket competition[5].

Industrial remnant: Crane on walkway
Timberyards in the foreshore dress circle
A walk along the foreshore from Blackwattle Bay reveals precise little of the suburb’s concentrated industrial past. Modern apartments sit hunched together close to the waterfront where once timberyards and sawmillers dominated the landscape❈. On the foreshore path a monument to those activities is a rusty old crane and winch…Sylvester Stride’s Ship-breaking Yard and Crane business used these devices to break up steamers to recycle metals. Most of the industry – which also included noxious industries like boiling down works and slaughterhouses as well as a distillery – were gone from the Bay by 1975. Hardy’s Timber Mill, an extended complex of building structures, was for a time converted into artists’ studios[6].

Remarkably, the small grassy stretch of foreshore known as Pope Paul VI Reserve was until the early eighties the only public access point on all of Blackwattle and Rozelle Bays. The papal appellation bestowed on the reserve derives from the lobbying efforts of right-wing Labor Catholic politicians in Leichhardt Council to commemorate the spot where Paul VI landed by launch during his 1970 papal visit of Australia[7].

Griffin incinerator
One item remaining on Blackwattle is Walter Burley Griffin’s Glebe incinerator dating from the early 1930s. An elegant building in the Art Deco style, in 2006 it was restored as an interpretative work with its once impressive chimney stack in skeletal form. The incinerator was one of a number in Sydney (and elsewhere) constructed by the famous Canberra Capital designer as a response to council’s need to find a more effective way to dispose of increasing amounts of consumer garbage۞.

PostScript: Georgian mansion with a varied past
A survey of Glebe’s history and heritage is not complete without noting one of its grandest, earliest and still extant old homes. Lyndhurst is a mansion with an exceptionally colourful history. The once impressive scale of the estate has been plundered by successive subdivisions over the years…if you visit it today by locating its street address (57-65 Darghan St) the big surprise is finding that the building’s back affronts the street! Lyndhurst was built in 1833 by colonial architect John Verge as a marine villa for surgeon and pastoralist Dr James Bowman, the son-in-law of wool pioneers John and Elizabeth Macarthur. In the last 100 years the Lyndhurst estate has served many purposes – from theological college to pickle factory to hospital to broom factory and in the 1960s and ’70s as the headquarters of the Australian Nazi Party (Australian National Socialist Party). Lyndhurst was one of the many great Glebe residences slated for demolition in the early seventies by Askin’s government, a fate it and many others fortunately avoided![8].

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❈ the campaign to save Glebe’s heritage homes from corporate culling was spearheaded by the Glebe Society, formed by concerned local residents in 1969
today there is one remaining timber yard along the shoreline of Rozelle Bay, Crescent Timber, being actually in Annandale, adjacent to Federal Park
۞ hitherto the preferred methods of disposal were either piling garbage on to tips, burying it or carting garbage six miles out to sea on barges and jettisoning it overboard (only for the tide to return it to shore!), had met with growing public disapproval

[1] B & B Kennedy, Sydney and Suburbs: A History and Descriptions, (1982)
[2] eg, the vision of long-term Liberal premier of NSW Robin (Robert) Askin, born and bred in Glebe, was to turn the suburb into a network of freeways – fortunately for Glebe’s heritage integrity this was never implemented, ‘Sir Robert Askin’ https://www.glebesociety.org.au/?person=sir-robert-askin
[3] ‘History and Heritage’, The Glebe Society Inc, www.glebesociety.org.au
[4] Solling, Max, Glebe, Dictionary of Sydney, 2011, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/glebe, 03 Oct 2017
[5] ‘History of Glebe Foreshore parks’, (City of Sydney), www.cityofsydney.gov.au
[6] ‘Timber Industry’, (Glebe Walks), www.glebewalks.com.au
[7] ‘Pope Paul VI Reserve (interpretative sign)’, (Glebe Walks), www.glebewalks.com.au
[8] ‘Historic Glebe Mansion Lyndhurst, Once Australia’s Nazi Party Headquarters, on Market for $7.5M’, (B Wong), 07-May 2016, www.dsilytelegraph.com.au