Frankly, my dear, for over 70 years millions of people have given a damn. Atlanta Journal columnist Margaret Mitchell published her Civil War romance Gone With the Wind in 1936, watched it win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937 and the Academy Award for best picture of 1939 (along with 12 other nominations and seven other wins plus a couple of honorary awards in technical fields). Then she saw her main characters Scarlett and Rhett become so famous no other names are needed to identify them for those enthralled millions.
Playwright Ron Hutchinson wrote Moonlight and Magnolias, a comedic retelling of how the final film script came into being. It had its world premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2004 andÂ went on to a healthy New York run at the Manhattan Theatre Club a year later. An LA premiere at the Odyssey in 2006 was followed byÂ productions at bothÂ Laguna Playhouse andÂ La Mirada TheatreÂ in 2009, under the direction of Andrew Barnicle. Now the Colony Theatre hosts Barnicle’s third helming of the play in its Burbank premiere opening Feb. 5.
With a cast of only four, the play tells the story of how producer David O. Selznick holes up in his office with script doctor Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming over five frenzied days to hammer out that final shooting script while Selznick’s secretary, the fictional Miss Poppenghul, runs interference to prevent any interruptions.
Returning to the Colony after his appearance inÂ 2 Pianos 4 Hands in 2009,Â Roy Abramsohn tackles the role of Selznick and admits, “It’s daunting. It’s not just how much of a legend the man became, but thatÂ I’m not like him nor is any actor like most producers. We wait for someone to come along and hire us and make something happen for our careers. Producers launch those careers, especially somebody like Selznick who was a speed freak. He was on Benzedrine nearly all the time. He could bark orders like a combat general and never feel guilty about shouting at people. He was like that character in The Bridge on the River Kwai who’s gonna get the job done no matter what. He was the Donald Trump, the Spielberg, the Obama of his day. When he walked into a room, he had such unquestioning confidence in his power, the thought of somebody not doing what he said never even came up. I’m not that person. I hope when I put on the suit it’ll help.”
The playwright did his homework. Woven into the play are those tidbits of facts which became part of the cinematic folklore associated with the legendary film: Margaret Mitchell’s casting suggestion (one hopes with her tongue firmly in her cheek) of Groucho Marx in the role of Rhett Butler; the statement attributed to Irving Thalberg, “No Civil War movie ever made a dime or ever will;” the evaluation by Hecht of Sidney Howard’s screenplay adaptation, “It seemed to be what we used to call in Chicago as long as a whore’s dream””and as pointless;” Selznick’s declaration, “Whatever it is, it’s a melodrama. Remember that.” All those lines and more are incorporated into the story by Hutchinson.
Abramsohn insists, “Selznick was such a micromanager it became a sickness. The book was one of the greatest successes in publishing history up to that time, and he wanted the movie to be every bit as good as the book. Also he felt enormous pressure to somehow rival or equal Thalberg who was known as the boy genius of MGM and so was sort of his nemesis for the professional respect of his father-in-law Louis B. Mayer. After he married Irene Mayer and moved to establish Selznick International Pictures on his own, there was a wisecrack floating around town as he began releasing his own pictures, “˜The son-in-law also rises.’ He hated that.
“So it really irked him when expenditures on the picture grew so high he had to go to Mayer for additional financing, which Mayer only agreed to in exchange for MGM distributing the movie and sharing in its profits. I sort of like how Selznick had such a feeling he was so right about his instincts, he couldn’t be dissuaded from any of his decisions. There was a point when he was studying ice cubes in a glass and wondering what they would have had in those days, deciding it was probably crushed ice, certainly not cubes. Fleming said, “˜What difference does it make? It doesn’t matter.’ Selznick said, “˜Yes, it does. Everything matters.’ He was an amazing person in the security of his own belief that he could bring this story successfully to the screen.”
To help Selznick complete the transformation from printed page to rolling camera he first hired Sidney Howard to write the screenplay but quickly grew displeased at the sprawling, unfocused nature of the script Howard handed in. That’s when he hired Ben Hecht to do a rewrite. The first problem was Hecht had never read the novel. The second was production had already started and was costing him $65,000 a day in overhead, so he did not have the luxury of leisure to lighten his load.Â Whatever he did it had to be done fast.
Matt Gottlieb who portrays Hecht says, “Here was a complex, passionate man. He was a jerk but a compelling one. He came out of the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago journalism during the Capone gangster era where he and Charles MacArthur teamed up as journalists and later collaborated as playwrights. Hecht didn’t have the greatest academic background you could want, but he was a voracious reader. He achieved a lot of his education by his own doing. As a result I guess you could say he was a little rough around the edges. That’d be a good way of putting it.Â When I read the play, I thought it was a good role. I thought I could bring something to it.”
One of the things he brings to all his roles is a director’s eye, having guided local productions at Pacific Resident Theatre and Pinter’s The Caretaker at the Zephyr Theatre where he picked up both LA Weekly and Ovation Award nominations. He relates, “I’ve been acting for 35 years so I think I can spot certain flaws in a script, but I pride myself that I can struggle to make it work. Of course I don’t always want to. If it’s a decent role in a bad play, I’ll try to pass on it. Sometimes economic considerations won’t allow me to do that.”
None of those restrictions apply to the present project where he says, “I try to get out of the way of any preconceived notions I may have formed reading it and let the director and the play itself take me where I need to go. This guy is more of a clown in this play because the author deliberately upped the ante. Historically they worked long, hard, exhausting hours revising the Gone With the Wind screenplay but these three didn’t literally lock themselves in a room together for five days.
“One bit of pressure I do feel about playing Ben Hecht is there exists a slight chance somebody might come to the show who actually knew him. [It would be very slight since Hecht died in 1964.]Â That chance might be higher if we were playing in Chicago. Still if some past acquaintance shows up and finds me not fully authentic in my portrayal, I hope he’ll forgive me a few liberties.”
The third member of this trio, Victor Fleming, was in the process of directing The Wizard of Oz when Selznick again implored his father-in-law to let him have Fleming for his project. Mayer, now with a vested financial interest in the outcome, agreed and assigned King Vidor to finish the last few days filming The Wizard of Oz. Brendan Ford, who plays Fleming for the third time under Barnicle’s direction, believes Fleming brought to Gone With the Wind its defining stamp of adventurous ardor and explains why.
“Fleming was this hard-drinking womanizer, a real tough character who fumbled his way into a Hollywood career without planning it. He was into racing cars, which led to some stunt work in movies, which led to a job as an on-location driver. He was driving somebody to the set one day when a camera broke, which threatened to shut down production for a few hours. He stopped, looked it over and ended up fixing the problem. Next thing you know he was running the camera. This led to his directing career. He was always this take-charge guy looking for solutions. He invented the dolly as a way to maintain fluidity in an action scene. By the time Mayer and Selznick conspired to bring him aboard, he had this reputation as a man’s man who got things done.”
His reputation proved both pleasing and off-putting in equal measure. Ford says, “Selznick had hired George Cukor to direct the picture. Cukor was known as a woman’s director with that fine sensibility actresses responded well to. Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland loved him as a director. Clark Gable not so much. Gable felt nervous about taking on the role of Rhett Butler, because he would have to go to emotional places he’d never explored before. When Selznick replaced Cukor with Fleming, it caused quite a stir. It made Gable very happy. Here was another man on set who’d see to it his masculinity didn’t get compromised. Leigh and de Havilland, though. pleaded with Selznick to reconsider and put Cukor back in charge.
“In spite of how they felt, I think Fleming, who cared less about the feminine side, helped bring out a certain toughness in Leigh. We think today of Scarlett’s drive to get what she wants and her determination of “˜I’ll never go hungry again’ and so on. I think his macho quality helped balance Leigh’s characterization from the soft girlish silliness of the young Scarlett to the stronger maturity of the older Scarlett where she exhibited an almost masculine appeal. Margaret Mitchell had originally named her heroine Pansy. We have a line in the play referring to Cukor’s direction: “˜Gorgeous George has tried to Pansyfy our movie.’ Fleming took it in a different direction.”
In an attempt to maximize their mission in a minimal amount of time, Selznick and Fleming act out the entire book to bring Hecht up-to-speed. Ford relishes the risk to replicate these roles. “I took to this character right away, this self-made man who came out of nowhere with guts, determination and will to make it in Hollywood. He had to have those qualities or he’d get no place. Here he gets to display his silly side. When Selznick first says they’ll play all the characters in the book for Hecht, Fleming says, “˜I’m not an actor.’ But then he starts to get into it. It’s great fun to take this hard-edged tough guy into so many different areas of gender and vulnerability. It’s a journey any actor can clamp his teeth into.”
The lone female as well as fictional character in the play is acted by Emily Eiden who, like Ford, is a veteran of both the Laguna and La Mirada productions. She says, “This production is strange because it’s so different even while it’s so much the same. It’s a different space which means a different configuration for all our blocking to be practical. When Andrew hired me again, he asked me to rethink what I’d done before. I thought I’d done a pretty good job last time. I thought I knew all I needed to know then but as I started thinking it through, I realized I can go much deeper which is exciting for me.”
One suspects the playwright named this fabricated character Miss Poppenghul because she keeps popping in and out of Selznick’s office to deliver incoming production memos or pick up outgoing instructions throughout the course of the narrative. Eiden offers some insight, “I met Ron Hutchinson when he came to see one of our performances and asked how he came up with her. He told me he had talked with Mr. Selznick’s long-time secretary but had combined several secretaries into one. He didn’t say how he had come up with her name.”
In doing her own research, Eiden uncovered one valuable clue to aid in her development. She recalls, “When we did it the first time, someone brought in this huge book on Selznick’s career full of photos, production drawings and costume sketches. There was one picture in this whole big book with Selznick sitting on a couch with his secretary Betty, who held in her hand five or six or seven sharpened pencils ready to make notes on whatever he said. [The book entitled David O. Selznick’s Hollywood, by Ronald Haver and designed by Thomas Ingalls, shows on page 247 executive secretary Betty Baldwin and her pencils on the couch next to Selznick, production manager Raymond Klune and attorney Daniel T. O’Shea as they were going over one of the many drafts of Gone With the Wind.] This gave me the idea of wearing a memo book on a cord around my neck with a pencil attached, so I could be ready at any moment to carry out Mr. Selznick’s wishes.”
So there you have it: one screenplay to be hammered out at a breakneck pace while escalating costs keep rising at a commensurate speed; Â two doors””one to the bathroom, one only to the outside world; one secretary stationed at the latter door to prevent unwanted visitors from invading and invalidating the sanctity of creativity; three Hollywood legends locked inside an office to wrestle a noteworthy novel into a sumptuous screenplay; five hectic days to hatch it or hack it. Ah, what madness, with many mirthful moments of making movie magic from Margaret Mitchell’s masterpiece. Moonlight and Magnolias indeed.
Moonlight and Magnolias, presented by the Colony Theatre Company, opens Feb. 5; plays Thur.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 3 and 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through March 6. Tickets: $20-$42. Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank (free parking in the adjacent Burbank Town Center); 818.558.7000, ext. 15 or colonytheatre.org.