“Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity” director Roger C. Memos on the inspiring actress and activist – Part 1

I met Roger C. Memos, the director of the documentary, Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity, at The Hollywood Show in Los Angeles. I found Roger genuinely passionate about his admiration for Marsha so I had to spread the word by interviewing him. He’s spent nearly a decade making his documentary to share her impressive and fascinating life. I urge you to watch the documentary as it hits film festivals and theatres. It will be playing at the Burbank International Film Festival on Sunday September 13th.

This is part 1 of a two-part interview.

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When and what was the first Marsha Hunt movie you’d seen? 

I’m sure that I’ve seen her in movies over the years but it wasn’t until I was working on the documentary that I made it a point to watch her films. One of the first films of hers I saw was A Letter for Evie where she played opposite Hume Cronyn. She was so charming in that picture.

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

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 Communist. 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 1930’s and 40’s and Our World Since Then 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.

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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 in 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.

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.

What special quality does she have that drove you to make a documentary?

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.

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How is your perception of Martha now than when you first 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 a half years 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 didn’t know what to expect from Marsha when we 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 a masterful job of capturing these vulnerable and poignant moments.

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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 can’t 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 do you think the audience will react to her story after screening the documentary? 

It is my hope that audiences will be mesmerized by her career as a model and an actress on the stage, screen, radio and television, that they will be outraged by her treatment during the blacklist years and that they will be inspired by her work as an activist and will want to carry on her legacy by getting involved with causes that are near to their hearts. Test audiences have shown this to be true. Most people use the word “inspiring” when they talk about what they took away from after seeing the documentary.

Why 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.

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How did she react after viewing the documentary? 

Marsha was very proactive during the making of the documentary. She had very strong opinions about what she felt should be included in the film. We as producers had a great relationship with her. Her demands were never too unrealistic. She saw every cut of the film and gave notes. At some point last year, I think the enormity of her life sort of overwhelmed her and she came to realize how hard it must have been for us to “pick and choose” what to include and not include in the final cut of her life story.

This past February, Paramount was kind enough to give us a screening room on the lot that held 81 seats. Marsha filled the room with close friends and family. We showed a rough cut of the film and Marsha was overwhelmed. I think she now understands that the truth will finally be revealed. She will be vindicated.

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