By George Basler
There’s no denying that, since its premiere in 1939, Gone with the Wind has found its niche in American popular culture.
Even people who have never seen the film, or read the Margaret Mitchell novel upon which it’s based, have at least a passing knowledge of the adventures of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, and the romanticized portrait of the Old South featuring cotton fields, cavaliers and contented slaves.
But in some ways, the frenetic action that took place behind the scenes was as dramatic as what ended up on the screen. The production was so troubled that it’s a miracle that the movie ever made it into theaters.
This off-stage, or more precisely off-screen, drama is the focus of Ron Hutchinson’s hit farce Moonlight and Magnolias, which will open Friday (April 14) for a two weekend run at the Cider Mill Stage in Endicott.
Produced by BLAST (Bold Local Artists of the Southern Tier) and directed by Mike Arcesi, the play features rapid-fire dialogue and boisterous physical comedy as four actors portray people intimately involved in the torturous GWTW production.
How torturous? At least 12 writers (estimates vary) worked to beat Sidney Howard’s original screenplay into workable shape. The final director, Victor Fleming, almost had a nervous breakdown and threatened to drive his car off a cliff. The producer, the legendary David O. Selznick, presided over the goings on with an obsession, bordering on mania, fueled by a steady diet of Benzedrine to get him through 18-hour days.
In the play, which is based on an actual event, Selznick has dragooned celebrated screenwriter Ben Hecht (another real person) and Fleming into helping him salvage a screenplay that had become a muddled mess because of numerous rewrites.
Selznick locks the three of them in a room for five days, aided by his loyal assistant, Miss Poppenghul, for a non-stop writing session that will either produce the greatest film ever made or drive all three completely cuckoo.
A main problem is that cynical Hecht hasn’t read Mitchell’s book beyond page one and has complete disdain for it. This forces Selznick and Fleming to act out the book while Hecht takes notes. “The way they do it is hysterical,” Arcesi said.
The play is “definitely written to be a comedy, and we’re mining all the comic bits as best we can,” added Isaac Weber, who is playing Fleming.
At the same time, Moonlight and Magnolias has some serious undertones. As they work on the screenplay, the characters discuss racial stereotyping in Hollywood films and the status of Jews in Hollywood and American society in the late 1930s. Hecht and Selznick, both Jewish, knew of this through first-hand experience.
“One challenge (of the play) is allowing the discussions to be funny,” Arcesi said, noting that he and the cast have worked hard to maintain a sense of raucous fun.
Jan DeAngelo is playing Selznick, Chris Nickerson is Hecht and Hillori Schenker is Miss Poppenghul. Like Weber, they have worked previously at the Cider Mill.
“The characters are a lot of fun. Each is quirky in their own way,” Schenker said.
The play depends on physical comedy, which he loves playing, DeAngelo added. He described Moonlight and Magnolias as “three guys locked in a room for five days as tension builds … but it’s all in fun.”
Nickerson said Hecht has been a fascinating character to act. The playwright, screenwriter and journalist worked on some 200 screenplays during his long Hollywood career but never liked the place. He provides some of the more pointed comments in Moonlight and Magnolias.
The Cider Mill cast is developing a good chemistry together, Arcesi said, emphasizing this is essential for a good farce.
“The guy who wrote Moonlight and Magnolias did a really nice job. He took all the elements of the time and wrapped them into a story that’s a story about a story,”Arcesi said. “It’s a very funny play.”
IF YOU GO: BLAST will present Moonlight and Magnolias April 14-16 and April 21-23 at the Cider Mill Stage, 2 Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday performances are at 2:30 p.m. Tickets at $25 can be purchased online at cidermillstage.com or by calling the box office at 607-321-9630.