Frankly Giving a Damn

Searching for a deeper understanding of who David O. Selznick was, and what happened during the frantic week in 1939 depicted in Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight and Magnolias, I shot an e-mail across town to Selznick’s youngest son, Daniel Selznick, who co-produced a 1989 documentary (The Making of a Legend) about Gone With the Wind with his brother, L. Jeffrey Selznick. Daniel Selznick wrote back, saying he knew Hutchinson’s play well, that he had flown to Chicago in 2004 for its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre. Following the show, Selznick contacted Hutchinson, who later flew to New York and spoke with Selznick for several hours in a meeting that, according to Selznick, redressed factual inaccuracies in the script before the play’s New York premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club in March 2005.

“I was appreciative of the work he did,” Selznick said in a telephone conversation. “He’s an exceptionally gifted playwright.”

That said, Selznick was still so distressed by the arbitrariness of Act 2 when he saw a production at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre last year that he contacted Hutchinson once again.

Selznick is quick to admit that Hutchinson is under no obligation to address any of his concerns about the portrayal of public figures such as his father, or his grandfather (Louis B. Mayer), or the facts of what happened one week in 1939. That’s what artistic license gives to a playwright. But Selznick raises a larger philosophical question that’s too potent to be ignored: How funny is the truth?

“When I saw the Old Globe show,” Selznick remarks, “[Tony Award–winning director John] Rando said, ‘Let’s cut this and let’s punch that up and bring on more bananas.’ Moral: Forget about accuracy, sell the comic moments.”

In February 1939, the newly hired director, Victor Fleming, read the latest version of Gone With the Wind and told David O. Selznick that it was “a piece of shit,” says Daniel Selznick. Fleming asked to see the very first version, written by Sidney Howard, and was awestruck by its beauty and craft.

“My father said, ‘Yes, but it’s seven hours long.’

“They weren’t rewriting the movie from the novel [as is depicted in Moonlight and Magnolias],” Selznick explains. “It was true Hecht was brought in, but it was to cut down Howard’s script.”

Contrary to Hutchinson’s play, Daniel Selznick says that Fleming believed in the project. Had Hutchinson’s Fleming conveyed that confidence to Selznick, the producer’s motive for pushing ahead might have seemed more grounded and less lunatic. But Hutchinson was driving for a Three Stooges screwball quality to the trio, which flew in the face of historical veracity.

Daniel Selznick says that after the Old Globe production, he begged Hutchinson to drop a running gag of having David O. Selznick putting his father-in-law’s phone calls on hold (“My father would never have done that to Louis B. Mayer”) and replace the gag with calls from Daniel’s mother, Irene Mayer. “If [David O. Selznick] was [at his office] all night, she certainly would have called. You have to understand how intimately involved she was in his life. She would have understood being put on hold, it could have been the running gag. But not a single call from his wife? For some reason, [Hutchinson] resisted it. Things like that were just bewildering to me.”

(Hutchinson told me that he simply had “too many balls in the air” to add another character — “the woman who financed the plays of Tennessee Williams, no less — and dismiss her with a line or two.”)

While Gone With the Wind was in development, David O. Selznick kept postponing production so that a distribution deal with United Artists would expire, so his father-in-law’s MGM Studios could release it. But the stalling drove up costs: location scouts canvassing the Deep South plus an unprecedented $200,000 fee (far exceeding the normal rate) for the fired director George Cukor. The estimated cost of filming Hecht’s rewrite came in at $4 million (up from $2.6 million for the original version). Says Daniel Selznick, “My father went to Louis B. Mayer and asked for the budget increase, but my grandfather said, ‘If the picture’s going to cost more, that is your problem.’

“What an ending to the play that would make, even as a coda, frighteningly close, devastatingly painful,” Daniel Selznick adds. “After all that, my father had to open a line of credit at [Bank of America] so the film could be made.”?

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