For seven days in February 1939, film producer David O. Selznick shut down production of Gone With the Wind,leaving Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh twiddling their thumbs at extraordinary studio expense.
Playwright Ron Hutchinson spins his snappy, sloppy comedy, Moonlight and Magnolias (now at the Odyssey Theatre), from that week’s marathon rewriting session of the GWTW screenplay. Hutchinson has Selznick (Rob Nagle) locking himself in his office with newly hired director Victor Fleming (Greg Mullavey), who’s been pulled from the set of The Wizard of Oz to salvage the film. To the pressure cooker of Selznick’s tempestuous ambitions, Hutchinson adds the lord of script doctors, Ben Hecht (Kip Gilman), who had not even read Margaret Mitchell’s novel.
In love with the situation’s absurdity and too eagerly flashing his artistic license, Hutchinson incarcerates Selznick, Fleming and Hecht in the office of Selznick, who puts the trio on a creativity-inducing diet of bananas and peanuts. As was recorded in Hecht’s reminiscences, Selznick and Fleming act out sections of the novel while Hecht watches and types. Hutchinson also has Hecht make skeptical remarks about Mitchell’s offensive racial attitudes. This is all part of the pretense that Moonlight and Magnolias contains some significant ideas about the intersection of art, commerce and social principles, but it’s all just so much banter by people primarily motivated by their paychecks. There are, however, some funny jokes and a pleasing cameo by the spritelike Lynda Lenet as Selznick’s secretary, Miss Poppenghul, who finds at least a dozen variations on her oft-repeated line, “Yes, Mr. Selznick.”
Director Scott Cummins wisely keeps the play’s intrinsic Three Stoogesfarce as muted as he can, while Nagle’s awkward, impassioned Selznick and Gilman’s droll, sarcastic Hecht fill the satire with enough layers of humanity and credence for us to take it seriously, even as the play’s resolution falls away from the taped-and-glued moorings of the comedy’s contrivances. (A stack of the screenplay’s former versions sits on Selznick’s desk, one of which was, in fact, the source material for the rewrite. But here, for comic efficiency, the characters mostly ignore it, writing a new screenplay directly from the novel.) Meanwhile, Mullavey’s Fleming shrugs and speaks in strikingly Semitic cadences and gestures, for what’s supposed to be the one gentile participant in the room.
Despite Nagle’s sensitive performance, I couldn’t fathom from this play how Selznick, even as a clown, could have sustained confidence in the rewriting process with such skeptical partners, especially with Selznick’s family relations and millions of dollars hanging in the balance. Selznick says in the play that he wants to make one great movie before Hollywood’s Golden Age eclipses, and that he wishes to prove himself to his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, the MGM studio head. These are specious arguments, in light of Hecht’s shrugging apathy and repeated claim, “No Civil War movie ever made a dime.” The goofy enactments of this Gone With the Wind bear no resemblance to the fomenting blockbuster that would carry Selznick to glory. Even as a valentine to Selznick, to Hecht, to Hollywood, or as a joke on the industry, Moonlight and Magnolias relies too heavily on the retrospective glow of the film’s success, rather than on qualities of character, motive and situation actually depicted in the play.?
MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS | By RON HUTCHINSON | Presented by the ODYSSEY THEATRE ENSEMBLE, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A., (310) 477-2055 | Through Nov. 5