On Theater: Going behind closed doors

It's heralded in some critical quarters as the greatest movie of all time, so how did the final script for "Gone With the Wind" really get written?

According to playwright Ron Hutchinson, in his comedy "Moonlight & Magnolias," producer David O. Selznick halted production on the flick, fired the director and brought Victor Fleming in from his duties helming the "other great movie" of 1939, "The Wizard of Oz," then summoned writer Ben Hecht to help guide Margaret Mitchell's historical novel into a screenplay.

The Huntington Beach Playhouse is about to let its audiences in on what went on behind closed doors in Selznick's private office to hammer out the bare bones of a movie that would win 10 Oscars and be nominated for five others when "Moonlight & Magnolias" opens this weekend.

Director Gigi Fusco Meese recalled that she "laughed out loud when I first read a manuscript" for the play. "I fought to get the rights to produce it when I ran the Long Beach Playhouse.

"The audiences in Long Beach loved it, and soon after many other theaters fell in love with the piece too," she said.

In Hutchinson's take on "Gone With the Wind," Selznick has suspended shooting and the entire cast and crew are being paid $50,000 a day while he figures out what to do next. Early on a Monday morning in February 1939, Selznick meets with the screenwriter Hecht to offer him $15,000 for a complete rewrite of Sidney Howard's screenplay.

The main problem is, Hecht hasn't read the novel, isn't impressed with Selznick's synopsis of it and thinks the picture's bound to be a turkey. Selznick pulls Fleming off the soon-to-wrap "Wizard of Oz" and sequesters the director and writer with himself in his office, with a diet consisting of bananas and peanuts, to knock out a workable screenplay by the end of the week.

"The whole idea that David O. Selznick would stop production of the biggest movie of all time to then write the screenplay was just fascinating to me," Meese said. "To be a fly on the wall while Selznick, Victor Fleming and Ben Hecht hunkered down and wrote the screenplay for 'Gone With the Wind' ... well, sign me up. Very entertaining."

The Huntington Beach production will feature Cort Huckabone as Hecht, Michael Turner as Fleming, Bob Fetes as Selznick and Norma Jean as Selznick's secretary, Miss Poppenghul.

While intended primarily for laughs, "Moonlight & Magnolias" has its semi-serious side as well, according to Meese.

"The show is very funny, but also deals with the politics of the day (1939) with the war in Europe looming and the prejudices at home, especially in the golden age of Hollywood," she noted.

"The audience will get a glimpse into the business of show and a little Hollywood history."

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Independent.

If You Go

What: "Moonlight & Magnolias"

Where: Huntington Beach Playhouse, Library Theater, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays until Sept. 5

Cost: $18 to $20 (students $5)

Info: (714) 375-0696

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