"Hold! I am Eleanor, by the wrath of God, Queen of England. Down on your knees, you traitorous dogs!”
With these haughty lines, Martitia Hunt as Eleanor of Aquitaine, attempts to stop an attack, by the Sheriff’s soldiers, on the royal entourage in Walt Disney’s Story of Robin Hood. A regal role she played with her usual scene stealing ability.
In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Donald Roy describes Martitia thus:
"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."
Martitia was born on a ranch in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Alfred and Marta Hunt on 30th January 1900. When she was ten, the family returned to England, where Martitia attended Queenwood boarding-school in Eastbourne. She trained as an actress under Dame Genevieve Ward and Lady Benson. And by 1920 she had appeared in her first movie, an obscure 2 reel, silent film, produced by Walter West called The Rank Outsider.
After joining the Liverpool Repertory Theatre, Martitia moved, in September 1929, to London and later, on John Gielgud’s insistence, she joined Harcourt Williams’s Old Vic Company for a season. It was there that she established herself as a stage actress and went on to make notable performances, particularly in Shakespearian plays, such as, Gertrude in Hamlet, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, the Queen in Richard II and Rosalind in As You Like It, alongside Gielgud.
Like many actors and actresses of her time, Martitia divided her career between stage and film production. In 1932 she made her first ‘talking’ picture debut as Aline, in Alexander Korda’s Service For Ladies. Many supporting, or cameo roles followed, including Aunt Esther in When Knights Were Bold (1936), Lady Francis Brandon Grey in Tudor Rose (1936) (alongside Cedric Hardwick and John Mills) and Lady Bogshott in Good Morning Boys (1937).
With middle age, Martitia finally achieved her greatest success. Firstly with her role as cousin Agatha in the 17th century costume drama, The Wicked Lady (1945) alongside Margaret Lockwood and James Mason. Then with a reprisal of a character she had performed in 1939.
David Lean had seen Martitia as Miss Havesham, along with Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket, in a stage production of Dickens’s novel, after being taken to the Rudolf Steiner Hall by his wife Kay Walsh. This inspired him to film his later award winning classic, Great Expectations (1946) in which both Martitia and Alec Guinness recreated their roles. This masterpiece proved to be a benchmark in movie production and went on to win two Oscars. One for its art direction and also for Guy Green’s (later director of photography on Disney’s Robin Hood (1952)) black and white cinematography.
Martitia’s brilliant, unforgettable performance, as the mad recluse, Miss Havesham, in the atmospheric setting of ‘Statis House,’ brought her world wide recognition. Three years later she made her Broadway debut in The Madwoman of Chaillot and won a Tony Award for Best Actress (Dramatic) for her 'Countess Aurelia'.
But her success, firmly began to typecast her in roles, as an ‘eccentric grand dame’ or ‘evil aristocrat.’ Gradually she reduced her stage work and in May 1956, played in her last theatre production, as Angelique Boniface in Feydeau’s farce, Hotel Paradiso. This was at the Winter Gardens, with Irene Worth and Alec Guinness, whom she had given voice lessons, at the beginning of his acting career.
More regal roles followed in her film career, including Princess Betty Tversky in Anna Karenina (1948) and the Duchess of Berwick in The Fan (1949).
The tall, stately, velvet voiced, Martitia Hunt, was of course, the perfect choice to play the part of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in Walt Disney’s Story of Robin Hood (1952). As the mother of the crusading King Richard I and his scheming brother Prince John, she found herself the linchpin of a divided kingdom, a part, the elegant Martitia, was made for.
Her later, notable films, included Anastasia (1956) as Baroness Elena von Livenbaum with Ingrid Bergman, The Admirable Crichton (1957) as Lady Brocklehurst and as Anna Richter, the story teller, in The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962).
In the final years of her career, Martitia once again found herself with regal roles like the Empress Matilda in Beckett(1964) and the Grand Duchess Lupavinova in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, (1964). Her last two films were the mystery thriller, Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) in which she played the part of Ada Ford and the sex comedy, The Best House in London (1969) as the headmistress.
Martitia Hunt died of bronchial asthma at 7 Primrose Hill Studios, Fitzroy Road, Hampstead, London, on 13th June 1969. She was 69.