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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Moonlight and Magnolias: Hollywood Farce

Also see Bob's review of Breakfast with Mugabe

Moonlight and Magnolias
Jarel Davidow and
Duncan M. Rogers

As movies no longer have the dominant place in America's consciousness that they once did, it is likely that 1939's Gone with the Wind will forever remain the most anticipated and legendary movie in Hollywood history. For months, the hottest topic of everyday conversation was who should be cast in the movie version of the enormously popular potboiler novel of romantic melodrama set in pre and post bellum "Old South." There was widespread agreement that heartthrob Clark Gable "must" play Rhett Butler. A nationwide search was undertaken to find an unknown to play the fiery Scarlett O'Hara and several major American movie stars screen tested for the role. When the English Vivian Leigh was cast as Scarlett, shock waves went through the American public. Although playwright Sidney Howard is the only writer officially credited for Gone With the Wind, the notoriously obsessive independent producer David O. Selznick employed in the neighborhood of a dozen screenwriters to write screenplays for it. Three weeks into filming, Selznick fired director George Cukor, suspended the shoot, and replaced Cukor with Victor Fleming. The latter was pulled from the in-production The Wizard of Oz in order to assume the director's chair on Gone With the Wind. At this point, Selznick hired wisecracking, acerbic Ben Hecht to revise the screenplay in less than five days. Playwright, novelist, memoirist, raconteur, and dean of Hollywood screenwriters, Hecht thereafter always claimed that it was his screenplay that Fleming filmed.

In Moonlight and Magnolias author Ron Hutchinson turns Hecht's brief sojourn at Selznick-International into breakneck, knockabout farce. Expertly directed at an appropriately frantic fever pitch by Barbara Krajkowski and performed by a willing and able quartet of lithe comic actors, Moonlight and Magnolias is hard to resist comic entertainment.

The conceit of Magnolias is that Selznick locks Fleming and Selznick in his office, along with himself (providing them with only bananas and peanuts for nourishment), in order to get Hecht to complete his screenplay of a novel which he hasn't even read. There are bases for this even if some of them are in mischievous accounts provided by Hecht. The "writing" largely consists of Selznick and Fleming acting out the dialogue from the novel while Hecht transcribes it on his typewriter. Fleming minces about the stage portraying Scarlett and Prissy, among others. It is unlikely that the manly and athletic Fleming ever so acted, that Selznick's obsessive and domineering behavior could make things entertaining for his artistic collaborators, or that Hecht was so benignly misinformed. There are some serious moments involving Selznick and Hecht, but they are barely ripples in the tide of laughter.

For flavor, Hutchinson tosses into his mix much in the way of Hollywood factoids and gossip surrounding the making of Gone With the Wind. Selznick's insecurity arising from the financial fall of his father, Cukor's homosexuality, and conflict between Gable and Cukor are just a few of the many tidbits alluded to.

Despite this, Hutchinson's Selznick, Fleming and Hecht have precious little of the flavor of the strong, brilliant, and demanding real life trio. More likely, their antics will remind you of the three Marx Brothers with a talking Harpo.

While such characterizations are not what I would have hoped for, they are what Hutchinson has provided. By wisely and energetically embracing his vision, director Barbara Krajkowski has realized Magnolias' full comic potential.

Jarel Davidow (Victor Fleming), Duncan M. Rogers (Ben Hecht) and Garry Littman (David O. Selznick) perform an extravagant series of slapstick routines so smoothly and hilariously that it appears that they have been honing them for years. Michele Danna is fully in tune with the three top bananas as Selznick's put-upon secretary, Miss Poppenghul.

Moonlight and Magnolias continues performances (Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday & Saturday 8 pm/ Sunday 2 pm) through December 5, 2010, at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, New Jersey 07960, Box Office: 973-971-3706; online: www.bickfordtheatre.org.

Moonlight and Magnolias by Ron Hutchinson; directed by Barbara Krajkowski

Cast
Ben Hecht....................Duncan M. Rodgers
Victor Fleming......................Jarel Davidow
David O. Selznick...................Gary Littman
Miss Poppenghul.................Michele Danna


Photo: Warren Westura


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- Bob Rendell



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