Gone with the Wind is an iconic American story with the novel by Margaret Mitchell earning a Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and selling more than 30 million copies worldwide. The movie adaptation in 1939 was also a great success, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and breaking the record for the highest earning film ever when it was released. But it nearly didn’t make it to the screen.
Based on the true story, Ron Hutchison’s Moonlight and Magnolias takes place in the offices of Hollywood film producer David O Selznick (Murray Fane), the man who bought the film rights to the adaptation of Gone with the Wind which he predicts will make him a huge success. Only, he’s just had to call off production and is now facing down what might be his career’s biggest flop. He’s fired the director and the screenwriter and has wrangled in two of the town’s big names, writer Ben Hecht (Des Harris) and director Victor Flemming (Clive Hobson). In a conspiracy with his long-suffering secretary Miss Poppenghul (Sarah Dolan), Selznick locks himself in his office with Hecht and Flemming to spend the next five days saving his production of Gone with the Wind. Subsisting on bananas and peanuts, the three work tirelessly to condense the 1000-page novel into a nearly 4-hour-long screenplay in the hopes of pulling off a miracle and producing a hit.
Director Joy Sweeney saw the humour in Hutchison’s imagination of what truly went on behind those office doors and made ample use of slapstick comedy and wordplay in homage to the theatrical tastes of the golden age of Hollywood. Littering the stage floor with peanut shells and banana peels literally recalled a circus tent while the dishevelled mania of Selznick, Hecht, and Flemming multiple days into their hibernation was simply funny. The set design by Sweeney and Ian Ackland recreated a stylish, Art Deco office with a black and silver colour palette, geometric accents and angles, and a large lighted window that glowed with Geoff Jones’s lighting design in particularly cinematic moments.
Amongst a production design with a faithful attention to 1930s details, the characterisations of the big-talking Hollywood men were typically masculine and peacock-y. Fane’s Selznick was a bit of an underdog doing his best to make a name for himself and pulling all the strings he could, but he seemed diminutive at best next to Hobson’s hulking, prideful Flemming. What was particularly effective for Sweeney’s comedy was the physical dynamic between Hobson and Harris with a Tom and Jerry-type relationship in their sniping, jibing, and mutual intimidation. Dolan as the nasally but terribly reliable secretary figure was a crowd favourite for her dry delivery and sharp comic timing. Additionally, the frantic energy of Fane and Harris was effective for conveying the intense pressure the film production was under as well as other external pressures of 1930s America.
Written in 2004, Hutchison’s script did incorporate some political attitudes into the characters in their discussion of the looming war in Europe and especially Hecht’s opinion on the representation of slavery and African American characters in Gone with the Wind. This consideration of representation and racial power dynamics felt markedly contemporary as an extrapolation of Hecht’s real-world campaigning for Jewish aid under the rise of Nazism. It was a curious choice by Hutchison to include such socially progressive views while maintaining other elements of blatant misogyny and violence against women in the film industry and when so much of what takes place in Moonlight and Magnolias seems largely unchanged in the modern entertainment world.
The nearly failed production of the iconic Gone with the Wind film is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Can you imagine a world without Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara and Clark Gable telling her, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”? In Moonlight and Magnolias the romance and nostalgia of that era is brought to the stage with faithful aesthetic detail, slapstick humour, and a dash of the dastardly.
Moonlight and Magnolias is running at the Pymble Players’ theatre from June 8th – July 3rd
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