Moonlight and Magnolias tackles 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