“Big book, big brain, big guy, big shot!” Those are the four components that make up the machinery of Ron Hutchinson’s Golden-Age-of-Hollywood farce Moonlight and Magnolias, now playing at the beautifully restored Garden Theatre in downtown Winter Garden.
The “big book” is Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone With the Wind, the best seller that recounted the final days of the Old South before, during and after the American Civil War. An instant classic when it first appeared, the rights to the story were snapped up by the “big shot” – maverick movie mogul David O. Selznick, who was determined to turn the tome into the greatest motion picture ever to emerge from Hollywood’s dream factory.
But producer Selznick had two very big problems, both in real life and in Hutchinson’s play. The first was an unworkable script that had gone through dozens of revisions by all the major screenwriters in Tinseltown. The second was a director, George Cukor, whom Selznick determined was the wrong choice for transforming the sweeping novel to the big screen.
Shutting down production, Selznick pressured the “big brain” – writer and script doctor Ben Hecht – to take on the burden of crafting yet another treatment of the story, while simultaneously firing filmmaker and “big guy” Victor Fleming from the set of The Wizard of Oz and hiring him to replace Cukor as the new director for his great Civil War epic.
MOONLIGHTS AND MAGNOLIAS
Through May 25
Jester Theater Company
at Garden Theater, Winter Garden
In Hutchinson’s comedy, Hecht confesses he has never read Mitchell’s book, nor does he believe that a movie about slavery and war is going to appeal to the American public. Fleming also thinks that the movie will turn out to be a stinker, but is determined to follow Selznick’s lead, as long as he gets paid and will be allowed to remain on the set from start to finish.
Locking his hirelings in his office for five feverish days and feeding them only bananas and peanuts, Selznick, with Fleming’s assistance, begins to act out all the characters from the novel, while Hecht bangs out the new manuscript on a portable typewriter. Mayhem ensues as the big brain, the big guy and the big shot attempt to wrestle the big book into shape.
Under the fast-paced and skillful direction of Jay Hopkins, the cast of John Pelkey as Selznick, Mark Ferrera as Hecht and Riley Clermont as Fleming keep the laughs coming and the physical comedy abundant. And while Hutchinson’s script sometimes veers off into political commentary, as well as a sober examination of the history of Jews in Hollywood, the play’s main emphasis is comic.
There is one cavil: If you haven’t seen the actual 1939 film, you might miss many of the play’s best lines. But really, is there anyone out there who hasn’t watched Gone With the Wind at least firstname.lastname@example.org