Program Notes: Great Expectations (1946)

There’s a lot of good acting to be found in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), but if you remember nothing else about the movie you’ll remember Martita Hunt.

Hunt (1900-1969) plays Miss Havisham, driven over the edge when she was jilted at the altar.

Now, years later, she moves through her ramshackle mansion in her ancient wedding dress of rotting lace. Her wedding cake sits molding, a house for mice. All the cobwebbed clocks have been stopped at the moment she learned of her fiance’s betrayal.

And most disturbing of all, Miss Havisham is raising her beautiful ward Estella to be her revenge on men. No man can resist Estella and, thanks to Miss Havisham’s warped parenting skills, no man can ever have her.

Hunt is brilliant as Miss Havisham – macabre and weird and scary ... almost funny but with a touch of tragedy.

Film Screening:
Great Expectations (1946)
Monday, Feb. 27 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

And the more you know about the actress, the more intriguing it all becomes. Because the real-life Martita Hunt was pretty weird, too.

Born to British parents in Argentina, she first came to the motherland for college. As a young stage actress she performed Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen and Somerset Maugham.

Wrote one biographer: “With an arresting appearance and a dominant stage presence, she proved most effective as strong, tragic characters, her Gertrude in Hamlet being accounted by some critics the finest they had seen.”

There was often an air of imperiousness wafting around Hunt. She’s been described as “A grand dame who played grand dames from the age of 30.”

Her private life rivaled Miss Havisham’s for eccentricity.

The walls of Hunt’s apartment were silk-lined like some Victorian bordello. She drank huge tumblers of whisky and was addicted to pedicures and colonic irrigation. She was so sold on the health benefits of the latter that she argued with friends that enemas should be made compulsory.

She lived a life of oddball gaiety. Even during World War II Hunt seemed to have had an inexhaustible supply of champagne and smoked salmon.

Actor Alec Guinness – who was drawn to eccentric, bigger-than-life individuals and who was coached by Hunt early in his career – remained a lifelong friend.

Hunt never married. Guinness recalled that her love life was centered on cab drivers, several of whom she might juggle at any one time. He enjoyed lounging in her bizarrely-appointed apartment just to see the steady stream of working-class men who would drop by unannounced.

Shortly before the war Guinness directed a stage version of Great Expectations in which Hunt played Miss Havisham (she was 44 at the time, playing a character 20 years older, a situation she would often find herself in).

David Lean saw that production and left the theater convinced that, firstly, he must direct a film of Great Expectations and that, secondly, Martita Hunt must reprise her performance as Miss Havisham.

Six years later, that’s exactly what happened.

But Lean later said that Hunt remained a mystery to him.

“It’s strange about Miss Havisham,” he recalled. “Martita Hunt built up a kind of unapproachable privacy.... It sounds absurd, but because of this invasion of privacy she somehow created, she became very remote. I never spoke to her about it. And I’ve no idea what she was like. I never worked with her again.”

Hunt was never a film star, but for many years she was a reliable character actor.

She had a major success in 1949 when she appeared in the title role of The Madwoman of Chaillot on Broadway and left with a Tony Award.

She continued to appear on stage and in films (The Admirable Crichton, The Brides of Dracula, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, Becket, The Unsinkable Molly Brown), but the roles got smaller and smaller, as did her apartments. When she died her estate was valued at less than 6,000 pounds.

One of her last roles was in the 1961 comedy Mr. Topaze, directed by the comic genius Peter Sellers.

By this time her reliance on colonic irrigation had so loosened her lower parts that she was apt to break wind in the middle of scenes.

Sellers became “helpless with mirth,” according to his biographer, Roger Lewis.

“During one particular reverse angle shot, with the cameras focused on her aviary of a hat, she let riff a bottom-speak which Sellers described later as being ‘like Louis Armstrong sustaining a top C.’ He had to leave the studio, he laughed so much.”

“Martita refuses to acknowledge she’s done anything,” Sellers gasped, “and this makes it funnier.”

Lewis concludes the passage by noting that Sellers would imitate Hunt’s tooting to the end of his days.

Other films in the series “Not Just for Christmas: Charles Dickens at 200”

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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