Moonlight and Magnolias

Santafe.com - December 1, 2011

"'Give us a week and a bowl of peanuts and we’ll give you one of the greatest movies of all time”

The year is 1939. Louis B. Mayer is still the King of Hollywood. The cinematic rein of The Marx Brother nears its end as "At the Circus" begins to wrap production. Talkies have gone from experimental gimmick to Technicolor blockbusters. Yet the eyes of the world are not on the flickering lights of the cinema but set wearily on the shifting plains of Europe. The Nazi party consolidates power in Germany and readies itself for an inevitable strike. It is a world in flux. It is a moment of catalytic change.

Meanwhile, a producer, a writer and a director walk into a bar and say, “Give us a week and a bowl of peanuts and we’ll give you one of the greatest movies of all time.” Such is the premise of Ron Hutchinson’s 2004 play "Moonlight and Magnolias". Set in 1939, it tells the stranger than fiction tale of David O. Selznick’s rewrite of "Gone with the Wind." Creating a film from Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was considered by most in Hollywood to be untenable. Everyone from MGM to RKO passed on the offer to buy the rights and those who were interested didn’t have the capital to put the mammoth story into production.

It was, by popular regard, a fool’s errand. Yet, in 1936 Selznick opted to be that fool and payed a record $50,000 for the rights. It took Selznick the better part of three years to raise the funds and cast the film, and in January of 1939 he finally readied the cameras to capture the impossible film. Then three weeks later, Selznick shut down those cameras because he realized the script was six hours long. Disliking the direction the film was taking, Selznick also let go of director George Cukor.

So here was David O. Selznick, three weeks in, production halted, no director, no script, over three million dollars on the line, and all of Hollywood waiting for the film to flop. It was at this moment that David O. Selznick did what anyone would do. He locked himself in his office. Having only a week to rewrite the script, Selznick hired Victor Fleming, who at the time was directing "The Wizard of Oz" for MGM, and writer Ben Hecht. The only problem; Hecht had never read the book. So Selznick locked the two in his office with him, Selznick and Fleming acting the book out for Hecht, with nothing to eat but bananas and peanuts.

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Which is where our play picks up. While all of this is recorded history, the exact details of what transpired in that office are distorted at best. The play shows a side of Selznick that is rarely seen and the pressures he was under to create an unfeasible film. It is an intimate examination of a legend creating his masterpiece, as his world seems to crumble around him.

Through the film’s one-room isolationism, it explores the film industry and those behind it. Does a story belong to the writer? Who crafts the tale? The producer who collects the talent and fosters the vision? Or the director who cradles the production and steers it into product? This is a question that has been asked before, but the way it’s presented has a "No Exit" quality, forcing the characters to press their artistic frustration upon each other.

The isolation of the play eloquently plays into the time period as well; a nation marching toward war, the industry of film changing every day and the whole of the world like a madhouse in motion. All of this as perceived by three eccentrics locked in the opulent extravagance of a Hollywood producer’s office. Selznick with everything on the line, Hecht with his mind on Europe and Fleming just trying not to rock the boat. It gives the audience an insightful, and often funny, look into the world of film at its most idolized turning point.

"Moonlight and Magnolias" reminds us of the blood, sweat and tears that go into creating masterpieces like "Gone with the Wind." Are liberties taken with the historic content? Yes, without a doubt. But as I said in my last column, details tempered for the sake of empathy are fine when in the context of fiction. The changes in the historical characters’ portrayal are so we might better understand their misfortune. Moreover, that we might understand the misfortunes of the world they live in. Through such misfortune, we might gain perspective, and apply it to the misfortunes of our world as well. "Moonlight and Magnolias" is a perfect play to see no matter your motivation. Go for the comedy, go for the commentary, go for a good way to spend your time while the snow falls outside.

"Moonlight and Magnolias" runs from December 2-18 at The Santa Fe Playhouse. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday shows begin at 8 p.m., and Sunday shows begin at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for seniors, students, educators and military, and $10 on Thursdays. For reservations, call the box office at 988-4262 or visit online at www.santafeplayhouse.org

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