Southern exposure

Moonlight and Magnolias tack­les Gone With the Wind

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Gone With the Wind.”

Moonlight and Magnolias, a play by Ron Hutchin­son, is the fic­tion­al­ized ac­count of the time that leg­endary Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer David O. Selznick trapped movie di­rec­tor Vic­tor Flem­ing and screen­writer Ben Hecht in his of­fice while they rewrote the screen­play for Gone With the Wind. In the play, Selznick (Colin Bor­den), des­per­ate for a box-of­fice hit, has fired the orig­i­nal di­rec­tor, Ge­orge Cukor. He yanks Flem­ing (Hamil­ton Turner) off the set of The Wizard of Oz; re­as­signs him to the ex­pen­sive, flail­ing Civil War epic; and puts Hecht (Jor­dan Leigh), a for­mer jour­nal­ist from Chicago known for his abil­ity to write en­tire screen­plays in a mat­ter of weeks, on con­tract. Selznick is sure he is the man for the umpteenth ef­fort at adapt­ing Gone With the Wind for the screen, but Hecht has never even read Margaret Mitchell’s best­selling novel, and he is un­com­fort­able about work­ing on a movie that paints the slave-own­ing days of the Amer­i­can South as glo­ri­ous. Nev­er­the­less, Hecht signs on. Soon af­ter, Selznick has locked the of­fice door, and for five days he al­lows Hecht and Flem­ing no sleep and noth­ing but ba­nanas and peanuts to eat — as Selznick and the di­rec­tor act out the novel for Hecht while he bangs away on a type­writer.

It is 1939, and Jews are flee­ing Hitler’s Europe in the face of in­creas­ing phys­i­cal vi­o­lence and op­pres­sion, a back­drop that pro­vides some meta­com­men­tary on the novel’s themes of slav­ery and what el­e­ments are ap­pro­pri­ate to put in a mod­ern movie. In Hutchin­son’s imag­i­na­tion, the neu­rotic Selznick is some­thing of a self-hat­ing Jew, and Hecht — who was a Zion­ist in real life — is de­ter­mined to make him see how marginal­ized he is in Hol­ly­wood. If these ideas seem heavy for a play that is billed as an old-fash­ioned Hol­ly­wood farce, they are more than coun­ter­bal­anced by the slap­stick hi­jinks of the three men, as the days pass and they get in­creas­ingly punch-drunk, ar­gu­men­ta­tive, and — in the case of the two act­ing out the novel — hammy and campy.

The film ver­sion of Gone With the Wind takes up Mitchell’s love-tri­an­gle story set in Ge­or­gia just be­fore, dur­ing, and af­ter the Civil War. The pro­tag­o­nist is Scar­lett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh), daugh­ter of a wealthy plan­ta­tion owner. She is in love with Ash­ley, but he is en­gaged to marry his cousin, Me­lanie — one of the most self­less char­ac­ters in film his­tory. Rhett But­ler, as played by Clark Gable, is a dash­ing scoundrel who knows that Scar­lett openly pines for Ash­ley, even as she mar­ries an­other man and lives with Me­lanie in her house while Ash­ley is off fight­ing in the war. Scar­lett and Rhett even­tu­ally get mar­ried, but their re­la­tion­ship is as stormy af­ter­ward as it was be­fore they headed to the al­tar. Two of the main sup­port­ing char­ac­ters are Mammy and Prissy, slaves so loyal that they stay with Scar­lett af­ter eman­ci­pa­tion — a con­cept greeted by an an­gry guf­faw from Hecht. (Hat­tie McDaniel won an Os­car for her per­for­mance as Mammy; the sub­tly sub­ver­sive and oft-quoted Prissy was played by But­ter­fly McQueen.) The war dev­as­tates the South and the O’Haras’ plan­ta­tion, so the char­ac­ters fre­quently move from one safe place to an­other, pur­sued by Union sol­diers and in search of food. The run­ning-time of Gone With the Wind is nearly four hours. Au­di­ences turned out not to mind, but in the play, Hecht finds that prospect un­ac­cept­able.

TACK­LES GONE WITH THE WIND

For fans of Gone With the Wind, the fun to be had with Moonlight and Magnolias is in piec­ing to­gether the fi­nal di­a­logue as the char­ac­ters act out the story. What did they keep from the book, and what did they elim­i­nate?

“She goes to At­lanta, she leaves At­lanta, she goes back to At­lanta, she wants what­shis­name, then she wants Rhett But­ler, he leaves, he comes back, what­shis­name leaves, he comes back, he wants her, he doesn’t want her, she leaves At­lanta, she goes back to At­lanta, they’re win­ning the war, they’re los­ing the war, Rhett But­ler’s back, no — he’s gone again, she’s back in At­lanta, no, they’re burn­ing At­lanta, she leaves At­lanta,” Hecht com­plains to Selznick and Flem­ing. “How in God’s name is any sane per­son sup­posed to make sense of it?” For fans of Gone With the Wind, the fun to be had with Moonlight and

Magnolias is in piec­ing to­gether the fi­nal di­a­logue as the char­ac­ters act out the story. What did they keep from the book, and what did they elim­i­nate? For in­stance, they turned Scar­lett O’Hara’s three chil­dren into one, the male char­ac­ters’ mem­ber­ship in the Ku Klux Klan gets glossed over, and Scar­lett was more prone to hit­ting slaves on pa­per than on film. Hecht has deep reser­va­tions about in­clud­ing the scene in which Scar­lett slaps Prissy when she finds out that Prissy has lied about know­ing how to de­liver ba­bies. He wants to cut the slap out or give Prissy a speech to com­bat the in­jus­tice. Though over the decades many view­ers of Gone With the

Wind may have come to ac­cept the movie’s in­her­ent racism as his­tor­i­cal con­text, given the cur­rent na­tional con­ver­sa­tions about race, class, and power, these themes are bound to re­ver­ber­ate anew with au­di­ences.

Moonlight and Magnolias opens at the Adobe Rose Theatre on Thurs­day, March 16, in a pro­duc­tion helmed by Staci Rob­bins, who pre­vi­ously di­rected Lobby Hero at the the­ater. Though Moonlight and Magnolias isa com­edy, there is a dark and se­ri­ous strain to it that a cur­rent pro­duc­tion could really dig into if the di­rec­tor were so in­clined. The rich source ma­te­rial’s built-in con­tem­po­rary themes in­clude the ways African-Amer­i­can char­ac­ters are de­picted on screen, and whose sto­ries are be­ing told re­gard­ing slav­ery — the op­pres­sors’ or the op­pressed? And then there is the en­dur­ing topic of just what kind of woman Scar­lett is — lovelorn and self-in­volved, ma­nip­u­la­tive and nar­cis­sist, or an­ti­heroic and fem­i­nist? In one of the movie’s most mem­o­rable scenes, Scar­lett has vowed never to have sex with Rhett again — be­cause she fears preg­nancy and wants to re­tain her fig­ure — and in the midst of an ar­gu­ment, he sweeps her up­stairs, os­ten­si­bly to the bed­room, in what many view­ers and crit­ics in­ter­pret as an off-screen act of mar­i­tal rape. As when Scar­lett slaps Prissy, it is dif­fi­cult to know whether the film­mak­ers in­tended us to em­pathize with the char­ac­ters or hate them. That con­fu­sion might have its roots in Selznick’s of­fice, where Hecht, starv­ing and sleep-de­prived, never be­lieves he could have a hit on his hands.

As they work on the fi­nal scene, he is in­cred­u­lous. “Af­ter all that Rhett walks out? With noth­ing de­cided? We don’t know whether she gets him back, whether he changes his mind —? Whether he gets run over by the fire wagon the mo­ment he steps off the side­walk —? You can’t end a movie like that.”

“It’s how the book ends, and a mil­lion and a half peo­ple bought the book,” Selznick tells him. “We can’t re­write the end­ing. It wouldn’t be

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