REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Moonlight and Magnolias is playwright Ron Hutchinson’s dramatic conjecture about what might have happened behind closed doors during the creation of the most talked about motion picture of all time, Gone With the Wind, 1939’s sprawling epic about passion, duty, and struggle during the Civil War. Produced by David O. Selznick, the film’s long road to production was almost as dramatic as the movie itself, with a parade of scripts and rumors about the casting going on for years before the film was finally made. The play is being presented through February 22 at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse.
The story takes place in Selznick’s office, when the producer summons noted “script doctor” Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming, who is replacing the recently fired George Cukor, to help write the screenplay in a mere five days’ time. The three sequester themselves therein, with sustenance limited to bananas and peanuts (Selznick’s idea of “brain food”) until they produce a usable script. The problem, as is hilariously posed at the outset of the story, is that Hecht is “probably the only man in America” who hasn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s original novel.
Producer Kaelia Franklin and director Eric R. Umali, both working on their first show in their respective roles, have done a marvelous job bringing Hutchinson’s play to life. With these three disparate and desperate personalities locked in the same room, the play’s subtitle could have been “The Odd Triple.” As time goes on, discarded script pages, banana peels, and peanut shells are strewn around the office so that it resembles Oscar Madison’s bedroom.
At the outset, Selznick attempts to indoctrinate Hecht on the basics of the story, which gives Hutchinson a chance to insert some uproarious exchanges: Selznick: “Ashley’s going to marry his cousin.” Hecht: “Is that legal?” Selznick: “Well, it’s the South.” At another point, a frustrated Hecht whines, “Does this movie have to be set in the Civil War?”
The play is successful because of the interaction among the three players and Selznick’s harried but dutiful secretary, Miss Poppenghul. There’s no drama going on here because everyone knows that the movie eventually got made, but in getting there, there is plenty of conflict. As we learn, the writing process 75 years ago was a lot messier than it is now. Imagine writing a script with no computers, using only an Underwood manual typewriter. Even Wite-Out wouldn’t be invented until 1966.
Selznick is driven to complete the film for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being he wants to avoid humiliating himself to his father-in-law, M-G-M chief L. B. Mayer. What’s most fascinating is Selznick’s insatiable drive and idealism in making not just an accurate representation of Mitchell’s work, but being as faithful to it as possible. In Act II, the three take a break from writing while Selznick leads a philosophical discussion on why he makes movies. His devotion to filmmaking is poetic. “The movies are a place where the dead can live forever,” he says.
In the final scene, the three are arguing about the final lines in the movie, and come up with Rhett Butler’s immortal kiss-off to Scarlett O’Hara: “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” (The “frankly” gets added as an afterthought.)
Robert Reeves is memorable as Selznick, and with his rimless spectacles, a dead-ringer for the famed producer and extremely likable in the role. Reeves plays Selznick not as a wild-eyed megalomaniac, as many have viewed Selznick, but as a thoughtful producer, devoted to making a picture that will last for all time and become the most renowned movie ever made. Selznick was haunted by the specter of Irving Thalberg, the late “Boy Wonder” head of production at M-G-M, who died suddenly of pneumonia in 1936 at the age of 37 . Selznick, who was also 37 when Moonlight and Magnolias takes place, felt the presence of Thalberg’s ghost and reacted defensively whenever his predecessor’s name was brought up.
John Comstock plays Ben Hecht, gangly but efficient, with a sense of irony that is typical of the cadre of “writers-for-hire” who were brought in to tighten, clean up, or, on occasion, rewrite scripts. (According to the play, Hecht was working on two other films at the time he was writing Gone With the Wind.) David O. Selznick’s wife once said of Hecht: “They all aspired to be Ben. The resourcefulness of his mind, his vitality were so enormous. His knowledge. His talent and ambition. He could tear through things, and he tore through life.”
As Victor Fleming, Todd Tickner is the proverbial bull in a china shop. Coaxed by Selznick to act out scenes in order to inspire Hecht’s writing, Tickner prances about the stage as Prissy and lies prone on the floor as a pregnant, dying Melanie, anything to keep from being sent back to the set of The Wizard of Oz and face those incorrigible Munchkins. Fleming, a noted “man’s man” whose best friend was Clark Gable, sees Gone With the Wind in grandiose terms and will do anything to see the writing process to its conclusion, but by Act II, he is literally tearing his hair out.
The excellent Kimberly Demmary rounds out the cast as the perpetually flustered Miss Poppenghul, frantically taking notes on Selznick’s directives and adding “Yes, Mr. Selznick” to every response to her boss.
Bob Decker and Eric Umali have done a great job creating Selznick’s office, with replicas of vintage movie posters on the walls, books that became film properties on the bookcases, and period furniture relevant to the era. Appropriate dance band music from the ‘thirties sets the atmosphere before the show and at intermission.
Moonlight and Magnolias is a believable, often hilarious behind-the-scenes look at the making of the grandest, most celebrated and talked about movie of all time. Frankly, my dears, you should give a damn and go see this show.
Moonlight and Magnolias plays through February 22 at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse. For dates and show times, visit the VC On Stage Calendar of Events.