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.
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.
If there's one thing that's right and true about the play, however, it is that it shows how difficult it was (and still is) to translate a complicated story from the page to the screen. Creative personalities clash. Producers are control freaks. Directors argue that they do more work than writers. Writers don't get the credit they deserve.
All of that was true with GWTW, which was written, rewritten, cast, filmed and released in theaters in just less than a year, close to impossible for such a big picture in today's Hollywood. The movie won eight Academy Awards, including Selznick's first for Best Picture, Fleming's for Best Director and one for Best Screenplay, accepted by Sidney Howard, who'd quit the movie before Hecht was hired. What about Hecht? He got a flat fee and no screen credit for writing what is still regarded as the most successful film, artistically and financially, ever made.
"The honors Hollywood has for the writer are as dubious as tissue-paper cuff links," Hecht once said. Fiddle-dee-dee, Ben, fiddle-dee-dee.
Movies also emerge as a central theme in Lynn Nottage's Crumbs From the Table of Joy, getting a pleasant if overly sentimental staging by director Sharon Benge at Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre. Set in 1950, the play chronicles the problems a motherless black family from Florida has assimilating into life in a mostly Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn at the beginning of the end of the Jim Crow era.
Teenage sisters Ernestine and Ermina Crump (Kia Dawn Fulton, Charlet Dupar) reluctantly move north with their father Godfrey (Wilbur Penn), a hardworking cookie baker and devotee of radio evangelist Father Divine. Feeling isolated by race and religion, Ernestine escapes to the movies, where she idolizes Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. She dreams of her own life in the spotlight and rewrites happier outcomes to situations in her household—scenes she reveals in speeches directly to the audience.
The Crumps' tiny basement apartment gets more cramped with the arrival of slutty Aunt Lily (Stormi Demerson), who runs with Communists and Harlem agitators. When Godfrey abruptly disappears, then returns, married to a plump white German woman (Desiree Fultz) he met on the subway, the girls find themselves in their own little Peyton Place.
Nottage, who grew up in Brooklyn, hit it big in 2004 with Intimate Apparel, a critically praised drama about women workers in the garment industry in 1905. Crumbs From the Table of Joy was her first produced full-length play in 1996, and it shows all the marks of a playwright just starting out. Commissioned as a children's play, it falls into choppy storytelling marked with bursts of melodrama, though there are hints of originality in lines such as Ernestine's lament that her mother's death "made us nauseous with regret."
Jubilee's production, a little on the plodding side, benefits from strong casting. Fulton has played leads in musicals at Uptown Players and Lyric Stage, but in a non-singing role as the talkative Ernestine, she proves to be a sprightly comedic actor with an infectious twinkle. Dupar equals her energy and spunk as the younger sis. Something about Demerson just doesn't click as the oversexed aunt, however, like she's three beats behind everyone else onstage. And as Gerte, the German interloper, Fultz is all blond hair and heaving bosoms.
Crumbs isn't bad. It's just an early play by a writer who got better later on.
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