The story behind an American movie classic


Herald Times Review | By Connie Shakalis
Friday, September 8, 2017

It took David O. Selznick two years, scouring the world, to find his perfect Scarlett O’Hara in Vivien Leigh. Turns out she couldn’t stand kissing Clark Gable and his dentures.

I am a sucker for scripts based on historical fact, “The Sound of Music,” the British series “Foyle’s War,” ” Amadeus” — and now “Moonlight & Magnolias,” the story of how film producer Selznick turned Margaret Mitchell’s novel “Gone with the Wind” into one of America’s greatest movies.

“Moonlight & Magnolias,” by Ron Hutchinson, is onstage at the Brown County Playhouse through September 23. A lovely playhouse it is. The staff are not just welcoming, but immediately point out the restrooms, bar and concessions. The well padded seats are comfortable and roomy, and the stairs leading to them are maybe the best-lit I have ever seen. No problem finding one’s way here.

I liked director and set designer Gerard Pauwels’ introduction, including an invitation for the audience to feel free to laugh during the show. This is a friendly and relaxed — and appealing — theatre.

Now for the history. No one, it seems, wanted to make this movie. Mitchell herself thought her novel could never become a movie and in fact was apathetic to the film industry. At first, Selznick rejected the idea, too. War movies had never done well, and WW II was brewing in Europe. Who wanted to think about fighting?

But the more he read the novel, the more his mega-movie vision materialized. This was not the delicate, girlie-girl “moonlight and magnolias” love story it appeared. It had substance. Poverty, devastation, prejudice, race conflicts. He would finally prove himself to his condescending — and competing — father-in-law, the mogul Louis B. Mayer, of MGM studios.

One problem — Selznick’s screenwriter, Ben Hecht, hadn’t read the 1,037-page novel, which he now must convert to a 130-page script. With the whole project on the brink of failure due to various firings, resignations and casting catastrophes, the three-man team of producer, writer and director now has FIVE DAYS to create the screenplay. With Fleming’s ignorance of the novel, the other two proceed to act it out for him.

“I need a whole new scenario,” Selznick, who has been working on the film for three years, screams.

Enter: three egos vying for script control. Darrin Murrell is a frantic, zealous and lovable Selznick. I heard an audience member say, “Selznick is fabulous.” We feel his adoration for movies; it’s not just about profits for him, and we glean that. He knows “Gone with the Wind” ‘s Scarlett and Rhett and Ashley and Prissy. They are alive inside him, and Murrell portrays this well.

He also contributes to the play’s exposure of 1930s anti-semitism, particularly in Hollywood. Both he and his writer, Ben Hecht, are Jewish and have suffered discrimination. Hecht refers to “all the Jews that run the studios” as he continually attempts to inject his anti-prejudice ideas into the script. “A handful of Jews gave the world movies,” he reminds the team.

Jack O’Hara — any relation to Scarlett? — is lithe and convincing as the frustrated screenwriter.

As Selznick’s director, Chris J. Handley’s Victor Fleming goes from smug know-it-all to overworked, half crazed desperado, willing to do anything to escape the locked office. The team has been subsisting on peanuts and bananas, and Handley’s fruit-guzzling scenes had the audience in peals of laughter.

Bloomington’s Gail Bray is Selznick’s loyal, long-suffering secretary, Miss Poppenghul. Her character develops nicely, from calm and steady to disheveled and hair-frazzled, and Bray pulls this off with humor.

Combat director Whitney Emerson must have been busy during rehearsals. If “keep the scene active” is a director’s mantra, Emerson deserves a prize. We are treated to slapping contests, near-somersaults and man-size pirouettes as the team approaches a finished script.

Becky Underwood’s costuming looks appropriately 1930s in browns and tans. Her, yes, scarlet, dress for Miss Poppenghul is striking against Sam Bowman’s pale green set walls.

Mike Price’s sound design also keeps the audience in the 1930s, as we hear Fleming’s typewriter and Selznick’s telephone throughout the show.

But light designer Levi Voils gets the final bow. As the play ends and a weary but ecstatic Selznick sits at his desk, a red — Atlanta is burning — glow radiates from his window, illuminating him. He has won. And he won’t even know it till the movie comes out.

If you go

WHAT: ‘Moonlight & Magnolias

WHEN: Sept. 14-16 and Sept. 21-23

WHERE: Brown County Playhouse, 70 S. Van Buren St. in Nashville

TICKETS: $19.50 – $20.50. 812-988-6555, www.browncountyplayhouse.org.