Diehard Gone With The Wind fans may well have seen the 1939 classic 1939 times, but few may be aware of the five days movie mogul David O. Selznick shut himself, director Victor Fleming, and script doctor Ben Hecht inside his office, the three men subsisting entirely on a diet of bananas and peanuts, as Hecht rewrote the entire script of Gone With The Wind, a book he’d never read. Or at least that’s how Hollywood scuttlebutt would have it.

Playwright Ron Hutchinson imagines what might have transpired behind those closed doors in his hit comedy Moonlight And Magnolias, now making its Hermosa Beach Playhouse debut in a delightfully fresh new production. Once again HBP Artistic Director Stephanie A. Coltrin proves herself one of the most reliable directors in town, eliciting splendid performances from Patrick Vest (Selznick), Cylan Brown (Fleming), Joel Bryant (Hecht), and Nicole Wessel (Selznick’s harried secretary Miss Poppenghul). Moonlight And Magnolias is a show which will entertain and elucidate anyone who’s ever seen GWTW, and that’s just about everyone on the planet, right?

At lights up, Selznick has just shut down production on the movie, Sidney Howard’s script having proved unfilmable, and called in Hecht, screenwriter of Wuthering Heights, Nothing Sacred, Design For Living, and uncredited scribe of countless more movies in need of doctoring. The head of Selznick International Pictures has also fired director George Cukor and summoned Fleming to take over filming, despite the fact that Fleming still has two more weeks left on The Wizard Of Oz. Fleming, under contract to GWTW distributor MGM, has no choice but to acquiesce. Hecht, on the other hand, takes quite a bit more persuading—and $15,000 (about $225,000 today!) for his five days of work.

Since Hecht hardly has time to read the novel’s more than 1000 pages, Selznick has Fleming help him reenact the book’s key scenes, with the very macho Fleming portraying both Melanie and Prissy, and Hecht typing like a demon. As the hours and days pass, the men become more and more harried, the office gets messier and messier, and Miss Poppinghul’s hair takes on a life of its own. The result is some of the most hysterical physical comedy of the season, and a priceless lesson in Hollywood history.

In the 1930s it was common practice for screenwriters to change whatever they saw fit when adapting novels for the screen, and Hecht wants to change both the book’s setting and its time period (no Civil War movie ever having made money). Selznick, however, is adamant—Gone With The Wind will stick to Mitchell’s plot (and dialog), even if it means having an immoral hero and heroine and no romantic fadeout for Scarlett and Rhett. Then there’s the matter of the slap Scarlett gives to Prissy when the slave girl returns without a doctor in tow to the room where Melanie is about to give birth. Hecht imagines the slave girl giving an impassioned anti-slavery speech, and you can imagine how that would go off in 1930s America, especially in the still segregated South.

Besides the sheer entertainment value of Hutchinson’s script and the fly-on-the-wall sensation of being witness to Hollywood history, Moonlight And Magnolias also provides a glimpse of a time not quite so “golden” as social conservatives would have us believe. Not only “Negroes” are second-class citizens in 1930s Hollywood. Even Tinseltown’s uber-powerful studio heads find themselves unable to buy homes in upscale Hancock Park, nor can their bank accounts buy them memberships in the “best” country clubs, as Selznick finds out when Hecht telephones WASP producer Nunnally Johnson with a simple question, “David O. Selznick…American or Jew?” Guess what Johnson replies, as do the two other All-American power players Hecht phones?

Still, politics aside, Moonlight And Magnolias is mostly just great, entertaining fun, and some of the best acted fun you’ll see this or any month.

Bryant does vivid, memorable work as Hecht, sparring hilariously with his political opposite Selznick and revealing the real-life Oscar-winning screenwriter’s passionate desire to make Americans think rather than just sit back and be entertained. Vest’s Selznick is such a dead-ringer for the legendary Hollywood producer that it’s easy to forget it’s an actor up there, and a darned talented one at that. (His breakdown “freeze” is an outrageously funny comic turn.) Brown too seems to disappear into the skin of man’s man director Fleming, completing the trio of leads with considerable flair. Wessel plays Miss Poppenguhl so efficiently straight in early scenes that the frazzled mess she becomes after five days in a Selznick-ordered lockup is all the more hilarious.

Christopher Beyries’ set design fills the Hermosa Beach Playhouse stage with a impressively realistic, finely detailed reproduction of a 1930s Hollywood studio office, with mostly spot-on period props by properties master Wessel. (Only the spiral phone cords make for a quarter-century-too-soon anachronism.) Ric Zimmerman’s vibrant lighting design makes Selznick’s office seem entirely lit by table lamps, with some great picture window effects thrown it. Christa Armendariz has designed the fine period costumes. Kevin Goold’s excellent sound design brings back Gone With The Wind memories from the film soundtrack. Stacy Davies is production stage manager.

As Executive Producer James A. Blackman, III notes in his preshow announcements, the Hermosa Beach Playhouse is but a hop, skip, and a jump from Selznick’s Culver City studios where most of Gone With The Wind was filmed, making the Playhouse’s current attraction a perfect choice to begin its 2011 season. An all-around winner, Moonlight And Magnolias is a show that anyone who’s ever seen and loved Gone With The Wind will not want to miss.

Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 170 Pier Avenue, Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach.
–Steven Stanley
November 2, 2010
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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