I gave audiences what they wanted; a chance to dream, to live vicariously, to see beautiful women, jewels, gorgeous clothes, melodrama. - Ross Hunter
He'd been born Martin Fuss, and went to Hollywood to make it as an actor. His stage name, "Ross Hunter," undoubtedly would have looked better up in lights, but he had neither the looks nor the talent to really make it as a movie star. So, after eight years of bit parts in B films, Hunter switched to producer mode. Cutting his teeth on such programmers as Flame of Araby (1951) and Son of Ali Baba (1952), Hunter came into his own with 1954's massive hit remake of the old Irene Dunne melodrama, Magnificent Obsession (1954). It set the tone for nearly all of Hunter's subsequent work: glamorous stars and a sudsy plot which, in all frankness, played second fiddle to the eye-popping costumes and set design. That not only did the costume designer, but also the jeweler and furrier, get credit on a Hunter production is an insight into his sensibilities.
Critics sneered, women swooned, and Hunter laughed all the way to the bank. Just reading a list of his biggest hits conjures up delirious images of gauzy lighting, sumptuous gowns, fabulous furs, sparkling jewels, square-jawed leading men, and glamorously aging leading ladies: All That Heaven Allows (1955), reuniting Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson from Magnificent Obsession; Pillow Talk (1959), which launched the Doris Day/Rock Hudson franchise; Imitation of Life (1959), which resurrected Lana Turner's career; his remake of Back Street (1961), a drag queen fantasy with Susan Hayward and Vera Miles duking it out over John Gavin; and Madame X (1966), which pitted Turner against 1930's legend Constance Bennett. Even Hunter's lesser films (I'd Rather Be Rich, 1964, with Sandra Dee, Robert Goulet and Andy Williams, anyone?) benefitted from his trademark gloss and polish.
Giving his public what they want: a typical Hunter promotional gimmick, for Midnight Lace (1960) starring DORIS DAY.
HUNTER with SANDRA DEE and CONSTANCE BENNETT, celebrating Bennett's return to the screen in Madame X (1966).
SUSAN HAYWARD in a promotional photo for Back Street (1961).
Not surprisingly, by the late 1960's, Hunter's aesthetics were drastically out of sync with the times; Madame X was a hit, but Rosie! (1967), starring Rosalind Russell, was a misfire; and while the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) with Julie Andrews fared reasonably well, critics blasted it as an anachronism, and audiences didn't embrace it as much as they had Andrews's previous musical blockbusters, Mary Poppins (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965). Suddenly, "furs by Alexandre, jewels by David Webb" was passé in an era of free love, psychedelia and Vietnam. Hunter had life left in him, though; the all-star Airport (1970) was not only a surprise massive hit, but also launched the "disaster" flick craze which would last an entire decade, and also was, more surprisingly, a critical success: Helen Hayes won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in it, and Hunter earned his one and only nomination for Best Picture.
It was, as it turned out, Hunter's last hurrah. His next venture, an all-star musical version of Lost Horizon (1973) was such a bomb that it effectively ended Hunter's film career, as well as fracturing the longtime partnership of composers Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Hunter turned to producing television movies, until his retirement in 1979. His life partner of over 40 years was set decorator Jacques Mapes, who had worked on The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and Singin' in the Rain (1952), among other projects; after his relationship with Hunter, Mapes more or less retired from decorating, and co-produced several of Hunter's projects.
JACQUES MAPES and JANE POWELL, early 1950's.
Ross Hunter passed away on March 10, 1996. He left behind his partner, Mapes, who survived him by seven years; and an astonishing legacy of escapism and glamour which, for all its artifice, continues to entertain, enthrall, and, yes, inspire, half a century later.
"The way life looks in my pictures is the way I want life to be. I don't to hold a mirror up to life as it is. I just want to show the part which is attractive."
May 6, 1920 - March 10, 1996