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'Moonlight and Magnolias' recounts a film spawned in a whirlwind
The American Stage play focuses on the frenetic week that turned Gone With the Wind into an icon of the silver screen.
By John Fleming, Times Performing Arts Critic
Published January 17, 2008
Moonlight and Magnolias
The play by Ron Hutchinson opens Friday and runs through Feb. 10 at American Stage in St. Petersburg. $22-$35. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Student rush tickets are $10, 30 minutes before curtain. Pay what you can nights are Monday and Jan. 29. There is a preview tonight. (727) 823-7529; www.americanstage.org.
Moonlight and Magnolias, the new show at American Stage, tells the back story of one of the great myths of Hollywood's golden age. In February 1939, producer David O. Selznick halted production on Gone With the Wind, replaced director George Cukor with Victor Fleming and brought in playwright Ben Hecht to rewrite the screenplay. For the better part of a week, working day and night in Selznick's office, the three men existed on peanuts and bananas to grind out a new script.
The inspiration for author Ron Hutchinson was that Hecht hadn't read Margaret Mitchell's Civil War saga, so Selznick and Fleming acted out scenes of the novel for him. The Hollywood mogul specialized "in the parts of Scarlett and her drunken father," while the director played Rhett Butler and "a curious fellow I could never understand called Ashley," Hecht wrote in his memoir, A Child of the Century. "He was always forgiving his beloved Scarlett for betraying him with another of his rivals."
Hecht, a former Chicago newspaper reporter who, with Charles MacArthur, wrote The Front Page, was unconvinced of the book's virtues. "I had seldom heard a more involved plot," he wrote. "My verdict was that nobody could make a remotely sensible movie out of it."
So much for a writer's instincts. Gone With the Wind, released in 1939 and reissued at least four more times, is the top grossing film ever, at $3.8-billion adjusted for inflation, easily topping Titanic's $1.8-billion. Sidney Howard won the screenplay Oscar, though his version was rewritten by Hecht and others.
Drew Fracher is directing Hutchinson's comedy for the second time, having previously done it in Cincinnati. He sees it primarily as an homage to Selznick (played by Bryan Barter), who took a huge risk to get the biggest movie of all time done right.
"I think it's Selznick's play," said Fracher, who directed Othello at American Stage last year. "He has the lion's share of the lines. He's the one that's got everything on the line. The other guys are in the mix, but he has to drive the bus." Christopher Swan plays Fleming, and Matthew McGee, Hecht.
Playing off the popularity of Gone With the Wind, Moonlight and Magnolias is this season's fourth most-produced play by members of the Theatre Communications Group, an organization of U.S. nonprofit theaters (No. 1 is Doubt). It was performed in 2006 at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota.
Hutchinson knows what he writes about in the play. A native of Northern Ireland, he has some 30 film and TV credits (his script for The Island of Dr. Moreau was nominated for a Razzie Award as the worst screenplay of 1996). He is also a well-traveled script doctor.
"In 25 years as a rewrite man," Hutchinson wrote in a program note for a San Diego production of Moonlight and Magnolias, "I've been parachuted into movie locations in places such as Morocco, Mexico, Australia, Hungary, South Africa and really bizarre, exotic places such as Burbank, to work very much as Hecht does in the play. That's to put in 20-hour days to fix what needs fixing - story structure, character, dialogue - with the director tearing his hair out waiting for the pages and the producer employing charm, flattery, threat, moral blackmail and every other means of persuasion short of physical violence to keep me punching out the words."
Gone With the Wind came out in Hollywood's most amazing year, along with The Wizard of Oz (which Fleming also directed), Wuthering Heights, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Stagecoach, Ninotchka and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. "The pits of the Depression were over in 1939, but there were still plenty of people who were hungry and didn't have jobs," Fracher said. "But I think Hollywood was kind of enjoying the fact that it had done so well during the Depression, when people went to the movies to get away from their daily lives. Hollywood was pretty flush compared to a lot of other industries."
For his week's work on Gone With the Wind, Hecht was paid the then-princely sum of $15,000.
Fleming made a famous financial miscalculation. When Selznick offered him a percentage of the profits instead of a salary, he declined.
"Don't be a damn fool, David," he told the producer. "This picture is going to be one of the biggest white elephants of all time."