Sunday, September 19, 2010

War on Tara at Redwood Curtain

The following is a slightly extended version of my Journal review of Moonlight and Magnolias, which runs one more weekend at Redwood Curtain. The additions are mostly a little more Gone with the Wind lore. The published version contains one slight error: while U.S. standard spelling--and spell-checks--decree that "traveler" has but one "l," the title of the show based on H.G. Wells followed the 1890s British spelling, so it is indeed The Time Traveller.

Moonlight and Magnolias, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, is a play about a movie. In playwright Ron Hutchinson’s fanciful retelling, the epic 1939 film Gone With the Wind emerged from a marathon five day session of invention, fueled only by bananas and peanuts, with producer David O. Selznick acting out scenes with his new director, Victor Fleming, while his new screenwriter, Ben Hecht typed away, between complaints, fights and paeans to the wonder of the movies.

You remember the movie—Rhett Butler, Scarlet O’Hara, the plantation of Tara, Civil War, tomorrow is another day, frankly my dear... An almost accidental Hollywood classic as fabled for its tortured history as for the way it tortured history.

As the play begins, the movie is in crisis. Obsessed with the epic he’d pinned his future on, Selznick had just fired his first director (George Cukor, of The Philadephia Story, The Women, Adam’s Rib, etc.) and had a pile of scripts that weren’t working. He pulled action director Victor Fleming off the picture he was completing (a little film called The Wizard of Oz) and hired former newspaperman Ben Hecht, a versatile screenwriter (Scarface, The Front Page, Wuthering Heights) valued for speed as well as quality.

Their manic writing session in paradigmatic Hollywood practically breeds comedy, from one-liners to falling-down farce. Hecht hadn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s huge best-selling novel, but that was no barrier. “You’re butchering the script!” director Fleming cries. “I’m here to butcher the book,” Hecht retorts. “I’ll leave it to you to butcher the script.”

Hutchinson glues the bits with social significance: Hecht worries about the portrayal of blacks, and chides Selznick for not seeing the parallels with the treatment of Jews in Germany just before World War II as well as in the U.S. Beverley Hills, Hecht points out, was developed as a place where rich Jews could live because they were kept out of L.A.’s choice neighborhoods. Besides the gently cynical Hollywood humor, there are soliloquies on the movies, trembling—like Hollywood movies themselves—between the insightful and the sentimental.

The three main actors at Redwood Curtain are terrific. As Fleming, Ron Halverson is funny to watch, and as Hecht, Jerry Nusbaum is funny to listen to. As Selznick, James Floss looks and carries himself like a 1930s man, which produces all the period credibility the play needs. Floss, who as an actor isn’t seen enough here, gets a line about the movies being the one real time machine, a fortuitous reminder of his signature H.G. Wells portrayal in his one-person show, The Time Traveller. Halverson, also long absent, is another actor to see more often.

An actor I’ve admired in musicals, Andrea Zvaleko plays the smaller role of Selznick’s secretary, and while she performs ably, the character’s part in all this remains puzzling. At the first preview, the production directed by James Read was still finding its timing, but even then, the start of the second act suggested it could get funnier with each performance.

The production is enlivened by Daniel Nyri’s sets, Catherine Brown’s costumes, Michael Burkhart’s lighting and Jon Turney’s sound design.

Now you’ve seen the play—what was the reality? Hutchinson’s general history is pretty good, but like a Hollywood movie, he fudges for effect. In the play, the trio debate how to handle the scene in which a main (white) women character gives birth and the slave girl midwife is slapped. In fact, George Cukor had already shot this scene as it appears in the movie. The playwright squeezes some laughs out of the three stumbling towards the movie’s most famous line, but “My dear, I don’t give a damn” was already in the Margaret Mitchell novel. It’s possible if unlikely that Selznick was the one who added the “Frankly.”

Also like a Hollywood movie, the play and this production give us basically likeable characters, though their models maybe weren’t. While there were all-night sessions over two weeks (not five days), the diet of bananas and peanuts Selznick enforces in the play lacks his key ingredient: Dexadrine. Apart from reputedly being an overbearing egomaniac, Selznick was a speed freak seen licking bits of crushed Benzedrine from his own hand. Hecht feared for his sanity and fled.

The play has Fleming saying he needs this success so he doesn’t have to go back to being a limo driver. The real Fleming was a former race-car driver and veteran cameraman as well as director, also known as virulently anti-Jewish.

Hecht was a prolific and valued screenwriter, but his basic contribution to Gone With the Wind seems to have been the same as another of its contributors, Scott Fitzgerald: both told Selznick to go back to Sidney Howard’s original script, which had ballooned to 800 pages basically because Selznick insisted on adding scenes. Whatever his views on this movie, Hecht did become one of the strongest voices in America warning of the Holocaust, and a Civil Rights activist.

Fleming was also openly homophobic, as was the movie's male star, Clark Gable, though there was some rumored homosexual activity in his past. But it was Gable's rebellion against director George Cukor--essentially because he was gay--that got Cukor fired. None of this is mentioned in this play. Nor is the reputed racism (Fleming again), though it was Clark Gable who insisted that the African American cast members were treated as equals on the set. He was good friends with Hattie McDaniel, who became the first black recipient of an acting Oscar; their scene together is generally lauded as one of the best in the movie.

Among the sources for this background are Frankly, My Dear by Molly Haskell, and George Cukor: A Double Life by Patrick McGilligan. But as these books contradict each other on some points, let's just say it's Hollywood lore.

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