By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
If a word of Moonlight and Magnolias, the comedy now on the big stage at Dallas Theater Center, is true, then the movie version of Gone With the Wind could have ended up as The Da Vinci Code of 1939. Ron Hutchinson's play suggests—no, it insists—that early in production, producer David O. Selznick was still one rewrite away from turning the best-selling novel of the 1930s into the greatest film in Hollywood history. Only Selznick believed he had a hit. Almost everyone else in Hollywood, including stars Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable and Leslie Howard, thought the maverick producer was a kook cooking up an epic turkey.
The play, a whimsical blend of movie trivia, slapstick and preachy social commentary, purports to show how, during one frantic five-day stretch in Selznick's office, Margaret Mitchell's 1,000-page Civil War potboiler gets boiled down to a workable screenplay. It's a "what if?" more than a "what really happened." Some of the material sounds like Selznick's famously lengthy memos dictating orders about details as minute as the shape of ice cubes in party scenes. But most of what happens onstage is as outrageously over-the-top as Carol Burnett's classic GWTW take-off. That's the one that had her as Scarlett draping fringed curtains and rod over her shoulders and telling Harvey Korman's Rhett that she "saw it in the window and just couldn't resist."
Moonlight and Magnolias depends a lot on the audience's appreciation of Burnett-style physical shtick and on our collective memory of the major plot points of Gone With the Wind. It also assumes that we don't know all that much about the making of the film, so it takes plenty of creative license.
Crumbs From the Table of Joy continues through February 25 at Jubilee Theatre, Fort Worth, 817-338-4411.
In the opening scenes of the play, Selznick, played at DTC by out-of-town import Matt Gaydos, has fired GWTW's gay director George Cukor and replaced him with hard-charging Victor Fleming (Richard Ziman), who's one week short of wrapping The Wizard of Oz and thrilled to be out of the clutches of drunken Munchkins. Oscar-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht (Brad Bellamy) gets talked by Selznick into working for a fat check as a last-minute script doctor on GWTW, even though he's never read the book. Hecht deems it "a plot that makes Finnegan's Wake a model of lucidity."
But Selznick, head of his own studio at 36, is a man possessed. "Scarlett O'Hara grabbed me by the nuts and didn't let go," he says in this play. He's positive that the public, already in love with the Pulitzer-winning 1937 novel, will stampede to the box office to see it in Technicolor. Eager to start filming, Selznick has OK'd the burning of Atlanta (actually his old back-lot sets for King Kong) before getting around to casting Leigh as Scarlett. After three weeks of production, with no workable script in hand, he's forced to shut everything down to regroup.
To wrestle the story into movie scenes, something F. Scott Fitzgerald and a dozen other top writers tried and failed at, Selznick, Fleming and Hecht, according to the play, camp out in Selznick's office (a gorgeous Art Deco wonder designed for DTC by John Coyne). There they enact the entire saga themselves. At first, this is reasonably funny—grown men in suspenders swanning about like Scarlett, Melanie and the noble Ashley Wilkes. Then, about the third or fourth time Selznick's Scarlett slaps Hecht's Prissy because she don't know nuthin' 'bout birthin' babies, it gets repetitious. By the fifth or sixth replay of that scene, it's downright annoying.
Maybe the actors just aren't selling it. Gaydos, young, thin and bearing only a slight resemblance to the real Selznick, bellows like an angry sea lion to punch the big moments. And as Fleming and Hecht, Ziman and Bellamy look so physically similar, it's hard to keep up with who's who. Both are pudgy, bald white guys cut from the same character-actor cloth as Fred Clark, who played Sheldrake, the dyspeptic producer in Sunset Boulevard. But neither can deliver a line with the dry sarcasm Clark had and that Moonlight needs more of. The production's only local cast member, Jessica D. Turner, has precious little to do as Selznick's secretary, Miss Poppenghul, but her entrances and exits have a likable giddiness about them.
Jumbled into the broad retelling of Gone With the Wind is playwright Hutchinson's relentless sermonizing about racism and anti-Semitism, as expressed by Hecht's character, who wants to write defiantly abolitionist speeches for Prissy the slave to deliver to Scarlett. "Does the movie have to be set in the Civil War?" Hecht whines.
By the second act, the men grow punchy from lack of sleep as they plow through Reconstruction and the death of Bonnie Blue Butler. All they've eaten are peanuts and bananas, Selznick's prescription for "brain food." Here, Moonlight and Magnolias really starts to sag under director David Kennedy's overcomplicated sight gags. The actors slip and slide on banana peels (that's a new one!) and claw at the door, begging for release. They fall over the furniture and bonk each other on the head. The script stumbles badly too. When the Fleming character says, "This is what the Lindbergh kid musta gone through," the audience groans. Whether it's 1939 or 2007, that joke still seems wrong.