Given the glossy perfection that old-school Hollywood strove for in its product – particularly in the late 1930s – it’s sometimes hard today to remember the movies of the time were often the result of decidedly unglamourous toil and sweat.
Legendary tales of the seamier side of the Dream Factory have persisted in the iconoclastic memoirs of insiders, however – and it’s on this kind of account that Ron Hutchinson based his play Moonlight and Magnolias, current offering of the White Rock Players Club, directed by Ryan Mooney (until April 19 at Coast Capital Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd).
It’s the playwrights’s witty imagining of the marathon rewriting session that produced the final shooting script of the 1939 classic Gone With The Wind.
Hutchinson is a movie insider himself – a veteran scriptwriter – and that lends added veracity to his portrait – part absurd farce, part dark meditation on the bizarre self-mythologizing nature of the movie business.
Celebrated as the acme of ante-bellum romance (as in the ‘moonlight and magnolias’ of the title) Gone With The Wind – as depicted by Hutchinson – was also a colossal gamble by mogul David O. Selznick; an attempt to outdo his peers by lensing Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel.
The hottest popular read of the late ’30s – Selznick was able to reap publicity gold for months from a search for the actress to play tempestuous heroine Scarlett O’Hara, before choosing Vivien Leigh – it’s also a tome of epic, virtually unfilmable, proportions.
Hutchinson’s pithy comedy of desperation opens just as the enterprise is turning into an elaborate train wreck.
Three weeks into production – with an expensive roster of stars including Clark Gable and Leslie Howard on payroll – Selznick (Fred Partridge) must face reality. The original script is unworkable and the director he hired – George Cukor – is not forceful enough to drag the production back on track.
The tough-minded director he needs for the project, Victor Fleming (Ryan Johnston), is still busy helming the Wizard of Oz for MGM, but the determined Selznick schemes him an early release from that assignment.
The best script doctor in Hollywood – the fiercely liberal Jewish activist Ben Hecht (Paul Ferancik) – is available, but can commit only five days to the project. Even worse, he hasn’t even read the book, and harbours deep suspicions about a project that seems devoted to celebrating a Southern ‘culture’ that sought to maintain slavery.
Undaunted, Selznick locks himself, Fleming and Hecht in his office for five days with his put-upon secretary Miss Poppenghul (Laine Henderson) as their only lifeline to the outside world – and only peanuts and bananas (Selznick considers them “brain food”) as sustenance.
Cajoling Fleming into joining him, he proceeds to act out the novel, scene by scene, for the bemused – and furiously typing – Hecht.
It’s all conjecture, but the name-dropping of Hutchinson’s conversational script lends a certain verisimilitude.
Everyone knows that the script was ultimately finished, but Moonlight and Magnolias is more about the journey than the result.
Gone With The Wind went on to become one of the most beloved films of all time, of course, and certainly a high-water mark for a type of Hollywood movie-making no longer seen.
Costume design for Moonlight and Magnolias is by Laura McKenzie, with set by Tim Driscoll and props by Naomi Mitchell and Rosemary Schuster.
Performances are at 8 p.m. with a 2:30 p.m. matinee Sunday, April 13.
For tickets ($18, $16 students, seniors and Coast Capital Savings members), call 604-536-7535, or visit www.whiterockplayers.ca