Behind every great work of fiction, there’s usually another great story about how hard it was to make it great in the first place. For instance, the classic movie Gone With the Wind was at first expected to be a huge Hollywood flop.
During the first three weeks of shooting, the film’s producer, David O. Selznick, made a risky decision: He fired the film’s director and decided that he needed a completely new screenplay. In a race against the clock, Selznick enlisted the talents of two Hollywood bigwigs, Victor Fleming (the director of The Wizard of Oz) and “script doctor” Ben Hecht, to help him get this movie off the ground.
This is the story of the North Carolina Stage Company’s Moonlight and Magnolias, a comedy that focuses on the high tension and last-minute changes behind this memorable, wildly successful film about love and heartbreak in the Civil War South.
Set in Selznick’s Los Angeles office, the play follows the harried work of Selznick, Fleming and Hecht as they try to make cinematic gold out of a film that Hollywood has given up on.
“Selznick is determined to do the impossible,” says Ron Bashford, the director of Moonlight and Magnolias. “Many arguments and character-based conflicts arise. Hecht, hired to rewrite the script, has never read the novel and thinks that making a movie about the Civil War is a terrible idea. But Selznick gets him to do it anyway.”
But ambivalence about the subject matter is just the start. Selznick, dedicated to the idea of making the film come together, ultimately locks Fleming and Hecht in his office for days, with nothing but “brain food” of bananas and peanuts to fuel them. And where there’s tension, laughs are soon to follow.
“You’ve got three guys locked in a room, and they’re each incredibly different,” Bashford says.
In order to finish the script as quickly as possible, the three men take turns acting out scenes from the novel, deciding as they go which scenes should be kept and which should be cut. In one notable scene, Fleming (played by Charlie Flynn-McIver) is momentarily cast as Melanie giving birth to her baby.
And, amid the laughs, there’s also a little film history. The play is set during a time of heavy censorship in Hollywood, and anything that broke the mold, even in the slightest way, was often meet with hostility.
In 1938, “there were certain rules in Hollywood that nobody ever broke,” says actor Willie Repoley, who plays Hecht. “In a book, all sorts of things could happen,” but in films of the time “you knew exactly who the villain was, and you knew exactly who the hero was.”
But Scarlett O’Hara didn’t exactly fit the model of Hollywood heroine, Rhett Butler isn’t exactly a model of the devoted husband, and the story’s moral direction—not to mention its ending—is morally ambiguous. Releasing such a work was risky for a studio, both financially and artistically.
Though Moonlight and Magnolias is first and foremost a comedy, the characters ultimately learn many of the novel’s lessons. As they rewrite the screenplay, each character comes to gain a meaningful understanding of the Southern experience in the Civil War.
“The movie, like the book, is about a feature of the American character which is optimistic perseverance in the worst circumstances,” says Bashford. “Scarlett grows up and loses her illusions about where she came from. She thinks she’s in love with Ashley Wilkes, who represents the Old South, and finally realizes that it’s a dream. She has moments where she’s very upset—and she slaps people a lot—but she never loses faith in herself or in her ability to survive.”
And how does that translate into a deeper message for Moonlight and Magnolias? “In the same way that Selznick never gives up on the movie,” says Bashford. “It’s a story about perseverance against all odds.”
who: Moonlight and Magnolias
what: A play about how Gone With the Wind nearly didn’t happen
where: North Carolina Stage
when: Wednesday, Feb. 20, through Sunday, March 9 ($15-$25. www.ncstage.org or 350-9090)