“Moonlight and Magnolias” – a little background


"Moonlight and Magnolias"

Cast (missing Cindy Hartog), Director and Stage Manager – "Moonlight and Magnolias"

Just in case you missed the excellent article in “The Prompter” – a little background information for “Moonlight and Magnolias”:

From its inception, the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s epic Civil War novel, “Gone With The Wind,” was a monumental undertaking – the biggest, most expensive production Hollywood had ever seen. But filming had hardly begun in the winter of 1939 when producer David O. Selznick suddenly fired the director, George Cukor, and shut production down. It seemed that Selznick was appalled at the initial scenes Cukor had shot. Those closest to the production blamed not the director but the script he was working with, which had been largely crafted (and repeatedly recrafted) by Selznick himself. A hyper-driven, insufferable micro-manager, Selznick meddled in every aspect of production, from the details of the costumes to the art direction and especially the screenplay, firing numerous screenwriters who could not come up with an adapation to his satisfaction, and often rewriting their work himself. (One of the writers he fired was F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose fragile confidence was so damaged by working with Selznick that he afterward entered a downward spiral of drinking and depression.)

Selznick replaced Cukor with Victor Fleming, who was in the middle of directing “The Wizard of Oz”; it was Fleming who had the nerve to tell Selznick that his script was no good (nobody had ever said that to the Boss before), which so surprised and rattled the producer that he called in his old friend Ben Hecht to do an emergency rewrite. Known sardonically as the “Shakespeare of Hollywood,” ex-newspaperman / prolific screenwriter Hecht (“The Front Page”) was working on a Marx Brothers film when he was suddenly called away: At dawn on Sunday, February 20, 1939, David Selznick and director Victor Fleming woke up Hecht to inform him he was on loan from MGM and they spirited him away to the studio to work on Gone with the Wind. It was costing Selznick $50,000 each day the film was on hold waiting for a final screenplay rewrite, and there was no time to waste. The episode that ensued behind closed doors is the basis for Ron Hutchinson’s uproarious comedy “Moonlight and Magnolias,” which opens WCT’s new season in September.

An engaging anecdotal account is described in an article in Atlantic Monthly, “The Making of Gone With The Wind,” by Gavin Lambert (March 1973)*, and by the writer himself in “Ben Hecht: A Biography,” quoted here: “[Hecht] said he hadn’t read the novel but Selznick and director Fleming could not wait for him to read it. They would act out scenes based on Sidney Howard’s original script which needed to be rewritten in a hurry. Hecht wrote, ‘After each scene had been performed and discussed, I sat down at the typewriter and wrote it out. Selznick and Fleming, eager to continue with their acting, kept hurrying me. We worked in this fashion for seven days, putting in eighteen to twenty hours a day. Selznick refused to let us eat lunch, arguing that food would slow us up. He provided bananas and salted peanuts….’” For Irish playwright Hutchinson (who is himself a successful Hollywood screenwriter) the comic potential in such an arrangement was too much to pass up, as he said in an interview (Ron Hutchinson, A Celebration by David G. Anderson): “…it struck me, wow—this is classical farce. Can you imagine? All the elements are there. Three high-powered individuals lock themselves in a room existing on peanuts and bananas, and they are ever mindful that the clock is ticking, in a total pressure cooker situation.”

Selznick’s obsession with minute production details also resonated with Hutchinson’s experience: “The people in the industry are way too worried about the costuming, scenery, casting, and staging. They will have all this in place and then realize, hey—we have to do something with the script. This mess is total garbage. Unfortunately, the script has become a complete after-thought, and there are millions of dollars at stake.” Nevertheless, “Moonlight and Magnolias,” he admits, “was really more of a celebration to correct the image of film’s golden age writers, directors, and producers than an indictment of Hollywood…. Selznick had everything on the line: his fortune, reputation, and his marriage.” At the end of that week in 1939, Hecht emerged from the pressure cooker, took his hefty writing fee, gathered what strength he had and ran for a train to take him home to Chicago. He refused to take credit for the massive fourhour screenplay; credit eventually went to Sidney Howard, along with an Academy Award. The episode seemed to be something he wanted to forget. But what happened in Selznick’s office is, in Hutchinson’s imagination, an hilarious, thought-provoking Hollywood tale of men fighting themselves (and each other) not just for survival but for a chance at immortality. As the playwright says: “Is there an abundance of crazy, driven, slightly off kilter people out here? Yes, and they all want to leave their indelible imprint on the precious celluloid.”

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